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A woman dressed in a cream-coloured, shapeless garment holds four long-stemmed white flowers in her hands. She is captured in the middle of blowing a mouthful of white petals from the flowers into the air in front of her. She is standing in a park during sunset.

A Brief Introduction to Performance Art and Its History in Asia

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What is performance art?

Performance art, or live art, is, in essence, a form of visual art that uses the body as primary material in a time-based practice.

This means that the artist is using actions of either their own body or other bodies to express a feeling or idea, unfolding in a particular location over a certain period of time. Although performance art can sometimes look very similar to other types of performances, like stage theatre or dance, its main difference is the intention of the artist.

A woman wearing a dress walks across four simple plastic chairs standing in a row against a wall in a dark room. The wall behind the chairs is covered by a projection showing an image of a river under a grey sky with fences, houses, and a sparse, dirt-filled landscape next to it. The woman’s silhouette covers the projection as she walks in front of it.

Combined lecture and performance piece by artist Patty Chang, commissioned by M+ for Mobile M+: Live Art in 2015. Patty Chang, Configurations, 10 December 2015. Photo courtesy of M+, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.

Apart from this very straightforward definition, performance art is a wonderfully open-ended and varied genre of art. It can last just a few minutes or a year or even longer; it can involve audience participation or just the artist themselves; it can be scripted or random and spontaneous. It can be documented through photos, or videos, or text, or it can simply exist as an idea or memory and nothing else.

Two people stand on a stage in front of a watching crowd. The person on the left is wearing a long robe and is talking or singing into a microphone. The person on the right is wearing a silver jumpsuit and is gesturing towards the person on the left. A cutout of a blue planet hangs behind them. Text is shown on a screen behind them in both English and Chinese: ‘I am an outsider, stranded in this savage world. It torments me when they call me a “visitor”’.

Performance piece by artist Ming Wong, commissioned by M+ for Mobile M+: Live Art in 2015. Ming Wong, Looking at the Stars, 12–13 December 2015. Photo courtesy of M+. All rights reserved.

The history of performance art in its contemporary form starts in the early twentieth century. It can be traced to the avant-garde movements of Futurism and Dada in Europe, when artists embraced performance as a means to experiment with new ideas and processes.

This is the canonised history of performance art in the West, but what about elsewhere in the world? Let’s shift to an equally exciting history that deserves more attention: the history of performance art in Hong Kong and surrounding regions in Asia.

Performance art in Hong Kong and Asia

Ink painting on paper of a shape created with very thick black brushstrokes against a cream-coloured background. The shape resembles a frog head with a wide black mouth and large triangular eyes that sit on top. A small red stamp of a wide smiling mouth below two triangular eyes sits close to the bottom right corner, next to the words ‘Kwok 92 NYC’ in pencil.

One of Frog King Kwok’s non-performance art pieces in the M+ Collections. Kwok Mang-ho (a.k.a. Frog King) (Hong Kong, born China, 1947), Wind Frog Flower, 1992, ink on paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Kwok Mang-ho / Frog King, 2015. © Frog King Kwok

Let’s start with the 1970s, when, far away from Europe, Hong Kong’s own history of performance art began, with the actions and installations of the eccentric artist Frog King Kwok (Kwok Mang Ho). Pioneering the practice in this city, he coined the term ‘Happening’ in Cantonese as hark bun lum (meaning ‘guests arrive’), and has created performances for over four decades, continuing to this day with just as much energy and creativity. He is also considered by some to be the first ever performance artist working in China.

A crowd of onlookers in a courtyard look at rows of tied plastic bags attached to strings that go across the entire courtyard. Rows of engraved tiles are laid out on the ground beneath the plastic bags.

A performance by Frog King Kwok at Hong Kong Polytechnic (now known as Hong Kong Polytechnic University) in 1979. Courtesy of Frog King KWOK Mangho and Asia Art Archive

It was slightly earlier, however, in the 1950s and 1960s, that the collective ‘action events’ of the Japanese Gutai group of artists started to gain worldwide fame. These ‘action events’ were performance art pieces that involved energetic bodily engagement with different types of materials—for example, paint, mud, or paper.

A few decades later, in the early 1990s, even more extreme expressions of the body took place on the outskirts of Beijing, in the derelict village of Dashanzhuang. This became the breeding ground for a small group of avant-garde artists responding to the tidal wave of cultural and economic changes in China in the period after 1989. Known as the Beijing East Village artists, the group experimented with raw, durational performances. They wanted to express individual experiences to challenge the idea of collective social harmony. Although they were performed before only a handful of people, these ephemeral acts were captured by a series of now iconic photographs and videos, such as this photo capturing the performance 12M2 (1994) by Zhang Huan, in which he covered himself in honey and fish oil and sat in a public bathroom for forty minutes, allowing flies to crawl all over him.

Monochrome photograph of a shirtless man sitting in a darkened room with concrete walls. His skin is shining and covered in a glossy material and numerous flies sit on his arms, chest, and head.

Photograph of Zhang Huan’s performance 12M2 in 1994, taken by Rong Rong, one of the artists. Rong Rong (Chinese, born 1968), East Village, Beijing, 1994, No.20, 1994–1996, gelatin silver print. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Rong Rong

Southeast Asian artists have turned to performance art as means of responding to and highlighting urgent political, religious, and social issues in their specific contexts. One such pioneer is FX Harsono, who, in the 1990s, intervened in communal spaces to interrogate his concerns with the social and political situation in Indonesia and, more importantly, elicit change.

In the last few decades, another mode of performance art has also expanded and proliferated across the globe: relational art, or ‘relational aesthetics’, in which artists construct social environments that allow people to come together and create the works through shared activities, building new human relationships. Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is one of the most well known relational artists: his works, in which he cooks food for audience members within gallery and museum spaces, have been exhibited and performed worldwide since the 1990s.

Installation in which numerous large steel plates lie on the floor of a large room. On top of the steel plates are numerous small white bowls. A number of propane cookers, metal plates, wooden cutting boards, and cutlery are spread out amongst the bowls.

Rirkrit Tiravanija (Thai, born Argentina,1961), Untitled 2001 (the magnificent seven, spaghetti western), 2001, steel floor plates, propane cookers, cast steel pots, Arcopal bowls, metal forks, trays, wooden cutting boards, and 1 tom yam gai recipe. M+, Hong Kong. © 2014 Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Every place in Asia, of course, has its own history of performance art, and we can’t possibly capture them all here. Performance art in South Korea, for example, took on significance during the Yushin military regime (in which South Korean president Park Chung-hee ruled using the Yushin constitution) in the 1970s, and, as another example, much of contemporary Indian performance art has a complex and rich relationship to the country’s ritualistic traditions.

We hope, however, that this provides a brief overview of performance art in this part of the world, and one we will continuously work to provide access to through our programming and growing collection.

You can find part two of this post here: a look at performance art highlights in the M+ Collections.

A woman stands under a single spotlight on a very dark stage. She holds a book in front of her face and looks at it as if in the middle of reading from it. Behind her is a screen that shows a woman in a red dress lying down against a black background with her body pointing towards the bottom right of the screen.

Performance piece by artist Haegue Yang, commissioned by M+ for Mobile M+: Live Art in 2015. Haegue Yang, The Malady of Death: Écrice et Lire with Hon Lai-chu, 4 December 2015. Photo: CPAK Studio. All rights reserved.

From 1–3 June 2018, M+ presents M+ Live Art: Audience as Performer, the inaugural edition of a new exhibition series showcasing live art, also known as performance art. The first exhibition will focus on the theme of audience as performer, and will feature works by five performance artists: two new commissioned pieces by Hong Kong artists wen yau and Isaac Chong Wai, and works by Indonesian artist Tisna Sanjaya, Chinese artist Duan Yingmei, and Taiwanese artist River Lin. The series came out of the 2015 exhibition Mobile M+: Live Art , which featured many of the performances reproduced in photos on this post: by Eiko Otake, Patty Chang, Ming Wong, and Haegue Yang.

Image at top of post: Performance piece by artist Eiko Otake](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duX1jmB4uWg), commissioned by M+ for Mobile M+: Live Art in 2015. Eiko Otake, A Body in Hong Kong, 11 December 2015. Photo: CPAK Studio. All rights reserved.

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