A Performance Artist Sees His Work on Display

Two weekends ago, the Kitao student gallery hosted an in-person gallery event with art and boba for the Swarthmore campus community. Students lined up for the chance to go through the studio and look at the paintings, installations, and photos. The theme of the event was Hygge, which is a Danish word that expresses a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that makes people feel at home and at peace. For me personally, this event meant a lot, as it was the first time I was able to put physical art on display in the form of a pair of socks, a scarf, and a blanket, all of which I had knitted.

I am a lifelong performance artist with years of theater experience and some work in dance which has continued into my time at Swarthmore. I take great pride in these performances, and I’ve enjoyed the process and the excitement that comes from taking to the stage live and with an audience. While I can doodle like a pro, I never took to drawing and painting, and thus the last time I saw my art ‘on display’ was probably an elementary school fair.

Over the pandemic, with a lack of activities to pass the time, I took up knitting, which I had dabbled in before, as a means of spending time and expressing artistic intent. I also wanted to say here that I do see knitting as a kind of art. It might not be as visible as more traditional fine arts like painting and sculpture, but I’ve tried to match the knitting patterns, yarn, and sizing of my projects to make them experiences as well as comfortable to wear. 

I was lucky enough growing up to get to visit many museums and galleries with my family and to observe art in what I considered to be its natural habitat. There is something about wandering around those maze-like rooms and seeing sculptures and paintings with their names and descriptions displayed that feels as if one is seeing something of magnitude hanging off each wall. The artists in a sense become immortal through those small descriptions and their shadows of self on canvas.

That being said, when I waited in line, walked through the doors, and saw my knitting sitting there with its own little inscription, I was at a loss for words. I’ve taken some time ruminating on this and wanted to share some of my experience of my art being translated across forms.

First off, seeing my art placed like pieces I’ve seen in museums was a personal rush. Looking at the product of my labour on display was a bit alienating but exhilarating in a way different from performance. Instead of the thrill of being personally seen, it was the thrill of seeing my efforts manifested and recognized in isolation. In other words, performances are about the conclusion of hours of practice for a piece, while an installation is more about the accumulation of effort in a piece. And the accumulation can stand on its own.

It was also a cumulation of my knitting time and experience from the pandemic. I put up the projects I was most proud of and it was validating to not only hear responses from people but also simply to be accepted into the gallery. Kitao is relatively open on these things, but I’m used to auditions and selections being based on expectations of what I’ll be able to do, which adds pressure over the course of the creative process. Here, it was more about whether the work I’d already done was up to snuff without me having to stress out over the whole process. This was very cool, and I was much more relaxed about the whole thing, which was a welcome change of pace.

More generally however, outside of my specific experience, this sent me down a path to contemplate art in its different forms. I’ll be referring to form as the type of art (sculpture, theater, dance, painting, etc.) and substance as the emotional or ideological content.

There is no doubt in my mind that theater and dance are art forms comparable to the fine arts. What dawned on me specifically, however, is that the act of performance cannot be separated from the performer, but a painting can be separate from the painter for instances such as anonymity or artistic reasons. While this may be challenged nowadays due to recordings of performance pieces, this distinction has had a profound effect on the consumption of art. Historically, there has been a distinction between physical and performance art with an assumed superiority?of physical art due to its immortality and its ability to live past its creator. 

It’s true that the immediacy of performance is a limitation, but watching a person move, act, or play is on its surface far more enthralling in many ways than a square on a wall, no matter how intricate. So does the immortality of physical art balance out the vivacity of performance, or is there a balance in distinguishing impact?

In my opinion, a dance and a painting could make someone feel the same way. So is the painting a translation of the dance or vice versa? If not, how could we hope to compare the substance of two pieces of art if we have to account for the form of the art as well? 

This is all pretty high-minded, and greater minds than mine have puzzled over it, but I like to think I learned something from this experience. When I saw that scarf I’d stitched together patiently and those socks I’d laboured over for weeks, I realized that I’m not just a performance artist; I’m AN artist. I’m certainly going to keep performing, and while I don’t expect any performances to be framed in the halls of a whitewashed building, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to call upon the humanistic immortality that in reality, belongs to all art, not just art on display.

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