Archiving Performance Art: A Presentation by Asia Art Archive’s John Tain

Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Asia Art Archive in America
Transcribed by Mo Zhang and edited by Jane DeBevoise and John Tain

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you all for coming. My name is Jane DeBevoise. Most of you know who I am and I think I know who most of you are. I really thank you for coming. I want to say that this is our small space here in New York. And John, who I am absolutely delighted to introduce tonight is our Hong Kong-based Head of Research, John Tain will discuss one of our content priorities: performance art. John has recently returned from India, where he and colleagues and other members of the art community there curated a show in Goa at the Serendipity Arts Festival. Thank you John for being here to talk to us tonight.

John Tain (JT): I am delighted to be here. Thank you so much, Jane. As Jane said, this is kind of coming out of work I have been doing at Asia Art Archive for just about a year now. I started at Asia Art Archive in October 2017 and one of the first things I did was travel to Goa for a festival hosted by the Serendipity Arts Foundation to which Asia Art Archive had been invited to contribute an exhibition. That was the first round of two exhibitions; the second round took place this past December. I co-organized the 2018 exhibition with an independent curator based in India called Meenakshi Thirukode. What I am mostly going to talk about tonight is that festival, but before I start I want to say a little bit about where this project is coming from.

As Jane mentioned, our participation at the Serendipity Arts Festival is part of a larger initiative on performance art that stems from the Asia Art Archive collection and reflects our content priorities within the organization. Content priorities are a series of thematics, such as exhibition history, art writing, and pedagogy – areas that AAA is interested in and which are well-reflected in the collection. They also include themes like gender which is an ongoing focus, although last year we highlighted this effort with a series of focused programs. Another thematic that we have been developing is performance, and it is performance that we will be highlighting this year with another series of focused programming.

What you see here is a photograph from the exhibition ‘The Ground Beneath My Feet’ that we organized at Serendipity Arts Festival in 2017.



This exhibition took place on a barge that is normally used to transport raw material. This barge became the venue for various performances, some of which took place in the hull and others of which took place elsewhere in the boat.

This first exhibition was co-organized by AAA’s Sabih Ahmed with Nikhil Chopra and his associates at HH Art Spaces. After this successful first collaboration, the Serendipity Arts Festival again invited AAA to contribute a program, this time a more traditional exhibition that would take place within this building which is the first maternity hospital in all of Asia, built a few centuries ago.1

This was the site of the project, the focus of which was on performance. As I mentioned before, performance is one of the content priorities at Asia Art Archive, which is why we chose to highlight it. But also, in the last year, we have been working on two collections that we really wanted to showcase. One of them was the archive of the artist Lee Wen, who was a foundational artist for the genre of performance in Singapore and across much of Southeast and East Asia. What you see here is a still image from Lee Wen’s performance video called Strange Fruit from 1999.

Lee Wen, Strange Fruit, 2003.

Other photographs from the exhibition included images from a performance in 1992 in London called Journey of a Yellow Man. This performance came from Lee’s having been a student in London and constantly being misidentified as Chinese when he was actually from Singapore. In response, he decided to play off his yellowness, as it were, and make a performance out of it. He went on to do several iterations of Journey of a Yellow Man. Much of Lee Wen’s archive has been digitized and is now available on Asia Art Archive’s website, making the trajectory of the artist’s career available for study and research.

The second collection that we were interested in highlighting relates to the Autonomous Women’s Movement, a second wave feminist movement, that, as its name indicates, sprouted up autonomously across India in response to the widespread violence against women and misogyny in that country.

What you see here is a photograph of a performance called Om Swaha that took place in the late 1970s. There were actually multiple iterations of this performance in the 1970s and 1980s. The Autonomous Women’s Movement was not a formal art group; it was more of a loose association of people. And their activities were not necessarily considered performances at the time they were done; rather they were considered more of a kind of street protest or street theatre. But working in conjunction with researchers based in Delhi, it has become clear that this was an important impetus in India for the development of performance as a genre, which in some ways was indigenous to the culture. The exhibition highlights this movement with photographs of Om Swaha as well as these posters that came out of the movement protesting various things such as ‘dowry death’ and other political issues.

What I want to show you here is a video. The performer in this video is Maya Rao, who is actually the woman from the black and white photograph I showed previously. In addition to the collection items that were on display in the exhibition space of the building, we also invited a select number of artists to contribute new work, to present live work, and she was one of them. This photo documents the moment Maya arrived at the exhibition space while we were still installing. On seeing this photograph, she began speaking about the decades-earlier performances. Maya recounted how after one of the performances she met the mother of the girl who was burned to death, and how that was a really intense moment. This wasn’t something that we were expecting to hear Maya to talk about, but it came out when she saw the old photograph. So while one goal of the exhibition was to showcase the collection, the exhibition itself put us in dialogue with current practitioners. Also, this exhibition offered the opportunity to present different instances of performance across Asia in conversation. Our first exhibition with Serendipity focused on South Asia, whereas this one looked across Asia through our collections, from Singapore, to India, to China.

These are the photographs taken from the ‘Keepers of The Waters’ archive at AAA. Betsy Damon, who is the origin of this archive, is sitting in the second row tonight, and I’m sure she has much to say about these photographs that document the festival Betsy organized in 1995 and 1996 in Chengdu, China and Tibet respectively. This festival focused on raising awareness about water pollution and protection, and it hosted performances by a number of artists, including Song Dong’s iconic work Stamping The Water, which is usually seen from the front. The reason we wanted to show this particular photograph was because it foregrounds the setting, which is different from how people might imagine it. This performance took place in Lhasa, Tibet. Normally people think of this as an iconic work of Chinese performance art, but it actually takes place in what people might not think of as China. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. (Laughter from the audience)

If the first section of the exhibition focused on the artist’s body, then what happened in the second section was a focus on the networks and communities in which performances develop and are sustained. These networks often develop thanks to the hard work of specific artists and their personal relationships with other artists. What you see here are performances that took place as a part of a festival in Myanmar at Blue Space that was sponsored by one of the members of NIPAF2 (the Nippon International Performance Art Festival), a Japanese performance art festival. And next is a video from the collection of Ray Langenbach, who was an important artist and documenter of performance across Southeast Asia. This photograph shows work from Chiang Mai Social Installation from the 1990s, and this is a video of Lee Wen.

The third room in the exhibition looked at Frog King, an early performance artist who worked not only in Hong Kong but also in the East Village in New York in the 1980s and early 1990s. Here you can see how he comes out of the tradition of ‘happenings.’

And then on the other wall is Yoko Ono. Both of them were thinking about performance in relationship to Fluxus, and also about the relationship between performance and audience. In other words, if performance was normally thought of as being done by an artist, as in the cliché ‘the artist is present,’ their work turned that preconception on its head. Frog King created environments where other people were performing, and, with her scores, Yoko Ono produced performances that were waiting to be realized and were not, in fact, actions that were done by the artist.

And finally, as a part of the exhibition, there was this video installation, Uncertain Pleasures by Zhang Peili, normally thought to be the father of video art in China but whose early video pieces actually came out of performance. This installation was a way of highlighting that dialogue, or that relationship between the body, performance, media, and video.

Performance is often thought of as unmediated, but in fact there are multiple layers and levels of mediation that inform the experience of performance. Most of the performances that we know are not ones that we have seen live, but ones that we have come across in reproductions. These video screens present various body parts that are being scratched, which is a clever way of taking something that is a banal gesture – something that is not particularly meaningful – and by multiplying it and putting it on the screen, allowing it to acquire its own presence.

In addition to the archival documents that were in the show, we also included work by new artists, by live artists. This is River Lin, an artist from Taiwan who is based in Paris. He proposed a piece called Sleeping in between Tehching Hsieh and On Kawara. In this work, he was thinking about the use of time in both of these artists’ practices that for him are both important precursors to and landmarks in performance in Asia and Conceptual Art. So for this work, River installed about twenty alarm clocks that were set so that the alarms went off every five minutes. His job was to sleep and wake up and put the clock on snooze. His performance was the only one that happened almost every single day during the festival and the festival ran for over a week. Watching him do this performance was like a daily ritual, a ritual that many of us know well, i.e. waking up with the alarm clock and maybe if you are tired and you went to bed late, hitting the snooze button. In his case, he developed a fairly clever way of doing it and that was also part of the performance. While the performance was apparently straight-forward –he hit the snooze button and the alarm clock went off – over the course of the week, he figured out how to have the clocks go off so that eventually they all went off simultaneously. He was also very good at looking sleepy. Situating River Lin’s performance within the space of the exhibition allowed the viewer to think about his body and the body of Lee Wen, and about those two artists in conjunction with each other and the dialogue between them.

For another performance we invited Priyanthi Anusha, an artist based in Sri Lanka who is part of the collective Theertha. She proposed two performances, one of which was Black Bindi, in which she put a black bindi on her forehead, and then transferred it to the space around her. As you can see here, over the course of the two performances she covered quite a bit of the wall. If people came near her, she transferred the bindi to them. This sometimes resulted in a kind of awkward ballet, where people walked in and were caught completely off-guard, as she walked up to them to transfer the bindi. Sometimes they ducked to avoid her because they didn’t want to run into her, or because they weren’t sure what was going on. Transferring the bindi from her forehead to someone else’s forehead was an intimate gesture, and sometimes the transfer didn’t quite hit its intended target; sometimes it was not quite on the forehead, but rather on the nose or different places.

There was this fantastic moment when a little girl came into the room with a friend. The friend was definitely freaked out and ran away, but the little girl stayed and got the black bindi and then she went and got her mother. So both of them, the mother and the daughter got a bindi, and as Priyanthi was walking out after the performance, she gave one to another woman, who happened to be the grandmother of the little girl. So there were three generations of the family, all of whom had received a bindi from Priyanthi. Priyanthi proposed this performance was because she is a new mother, and she wanted to call into question the superstitious ritual of having to protect her daughter with a bindi.

Additionally, we invited the Korean artist siren jung, who did a version of her work called Anomalous Fantasy. This image is from the rehearsal. Here you see siren working with the only LGBTQ choir in India called Rainbow Voices. You see them on the screen. She recorded interviews with all of them, and they also did a live performance as part of the piece. I don’t have much to show you because siren didn’t want much taped, but I can show you this concluding portion, which was completely new. This piece juxtaposes the experience of an actor who tries to be a part of an all-female theatrical tradition that peaked in Korea in the 1960s and is now maybe on its last leg. This actor is recounting her experience and the difficulty of being a female actor playing male roles, juxtaposing this with the experiences of the members of the LGBTQ choir. At this point she was walking around the staircase with members of the choir listening, as she sang this song.

In this exhibition we wanted to show a mixture of performances, ones that were more basic and simple, and ones that were in some way more mediated. So this piece was an example that mixed video footage with live performance.

Another example is the installation performance by the artist Sajan Mani, who is from Kerala, a southern Indian state close to Goa. Since he is from the region, he proposed to do something that looked at the history of agriculture of the area. His parents were both rubber-tappers in Kerala. So he did a piece that incorporated video footage of his father and the rubber plantation.

This image shows rubber being hung to dry.

Then at the same time he made these drawings. He was basically blind-folded the entire time in the space of the installation. On one wall, you see his father projected on the screen and on the other wall, the artist is making these scribbles. In the background you can hear River Lin’s alarm clocks going off in the other room.

That’s a press for the rubber and on the ground are cashews, which are another specialty of the region around Goa. The artist wanted to draw attention to the agricultural history of the region.

Now back to Maya Rao, whom you see here. This piece relates to her work called Loose Woman, which was in keeping with our interest in feminism and the situation of women. It was an intense performance, but it also used a new medium. There were moments where she was interacting with the electronic drawings and then also doing a performance for the camera. When the audience came to see this performance, they saw her performing but they also saw these images that were projected on the walls. This was something new for her and it called into question the primacy of the body as an instrument of performance.

We also invited a Korean-American artist, Young Joon Kwak and their partner Marvin Astorga. They contributed two parts; one was a performance by their band called Xina Xurner. This is a photograph from the performance. It’s amazing – electro drag, but goth.

The other part of their performance was called Mutant Salon, which was more participatory. In this space they created a salon where people could get their hair cut. Here you see Marvin cutting someone’s hair.

The blue brush has a contact mic attached to it, so as he is brushing the hair, the mic is emitting sounds and feedback. Various other items in the salon created noise and sound. So in that way, the performance was about media and mediation, and about the integration of electronics. But I think Young Joon’s portion of the performance also calls into question the place of mediation and even what the body is. Young Joon identifies as trans but is also very much about revealing the constructedness of gender.

There were these moments when Young Joon was dressed up in a very ‘feminine’ way, but then other moments when the performance became visible as a kind of an artifice.

This was taken during a moment at the start of Mutant Salon. All of sudden Young Joon burst in and pretended that they had forgotten their dress.

The last performance I am going to talk about was by Priyantha Anusha. She was the one who did the Black Bindi performance. She also contributed a second piece which she called Mother’s Painting. Here you see her making the ink for the painting with mother’s milk. This is her own breast milk that she’s pouring into this fish bowl and mixing with carbon and other substances to create a liquid that she would then paint with, using her hair.

What you see here is the start of the painting, as she dips her hair into the bowl and then tries to paint using her hair as a brush. This was met with mixed success because it’s a little hard to manipulate hair and make it move forward. But then she started using the canvas attached to the wall, and this succeeded a little better.

What you are seeing here are photos and videos that I took because my colleagues in Delhi were maintaining an Instagram account and kept asking for material that they could post. So I was playing around with my phone camera and started to experiment with different features like slow mode. That’s when I took this.

What happened in the process of looking at this footage is that Priyanthi’s performance started taking on an almost wrestling dimension. She looks like she is almost attacking the canvas. That aspect of it gets accentuated by the slow mode feature of the camera and the dramatic sound when her hair hits the canvas. In watching these, it occurred to me that there is a way in which the footage of this performance was changing the way I thought about the performance, because when I watched it, it was one thing; re-watching it on my phone and then later on the computer, different aspects came out. This kind of athletic, wrestling aspect of the performance became much more pronounced to me. If anything, it made me think of the way that Harold Rosenberg described action painting. There were two conceptions of Abstract Expressionism; one of them was Clement Greenberg’s that was much more formalistic and the other, by Harold Rosenberg, fell out of favor in some ways. But in the latter conception, Harold Rosenberg described the canvas as a kind of arena, on which what was being made was not a picture but a record of an event, an encounter between the artist and the material before him or her. I was thinking in some way that Priyanthi was commenting on this very macho aesthetic of action painting, that she was (maybe not entirely intentionally) parodying the athleticism of making these paintings, albeit very awkwardly in her case, with her hair. In particular, this image where she does this back flip was very apropos, I thought.

These photos raise the question of what it is that is being archived. Is the archive itself a kind of supplement to the performance or is it some way of defining what the performance is? It gets even more complicated once these kinds of experiences get distributed on Instagram. It is also interesting that my thoughts led to Harold Rosenberg, who was of course influential for Allan Kaprow, who himself was an important figure for performance as a genre, and who discovered Gutai through photographs. Here you see Shiraga doing a performance in the mud as a part of the first Gutai exhibition in 1955.


Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955.

But [Shiraga’s photo] was also conceived of as a record and distributed throughout the world as a way of telegramming Gutai’s actions. As we think about performance and about its place in the archive, we should also think about how it lives through mediation and through these documents, especially in this age of social media.

People coming to the exhibition were of course taking photos, including selfies, and distributing them. In the case of these school kids, they were enacting Yoko Ono’s scores, but they were also taking photos and sharing them with each other.

I don’t think this is only something that’s in the mind of viewers, but it’s also something that is in the mind of artists. In the case of Korakrit Arunanondchai, for instance, here are some stills from his Instagram feed. He is testing out this animal feature, by trying it out on himself.


Screenshot of Korakrit Arunanondchai’s Instagram.

He is doing a kind of Instagram performance of himself, but he is also testing out what this Instagram feature can and cannot recognize as a face. Instagram obviously sees his face so he gets the cat ears and the cat nose. Then he tries Pikachu, but Pikachu doesn’t register with the phone. It doesn’t do anything. Samuel L. Jackson’s face on the poster does get recognized.


Screenshot of Korakrit Arunanondchai’s Instagram.

I wanted to conclude with this as a way of thinking about this question of performance and archive. I’m showing this to tie back to the panel we had this morning [at the CAA conference] with Zanna (Gilbert) on art and Xerox, and to think about the place of the document and media in what are normally considered unmediated experiences.

Thank you again Jane, and thank you all for coming.

John Tain is Head of Research at Asia Art Archive, where he leads a team of researchers based in Hong Kong, Delhi, and Shanghai, with projects spanning all of Asia. Previously, he was a curator for modern and contemporary collections at the Getty Research Institute, where he developed collections related to artists such as Ed Ruscha, Allan Sekula, Faith Wilding, and Tetsumi Kudo. His writings on Rirkrit Tiravanija, Wu Tsang, Charles Gaines, and Kara Walker, among others, have appeared in Artforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Flash Art, Art Review Asia, and other publications, and he is an editor for Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series. His exhibition, ‘Someday, Chicago’, on the Japanese-American photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto, co-curated with Jasmine Alinder, was on view this past fall at the DePaul Art Museum as part of the Terra Foundation for American Art’s Art Design Chicago initiative.

Images courtesy of John Tain unless otherwise noted.


The building is the former Goa Institute of Management. It was referred to as the Royal Portuguese Hospital and later on used by the Goa Institute of Management.

2 See ‘Performance Art Festivals in Asia‘ on the website of Asia Art Archive.

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