When I woke up on Thurs. morning, it didn’t occur to me that five hours later I would end up sitting in a red armchair holding hands with a stranger as he sang “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” to me.
But I should have—particularly after having coffee with Yale School of Art Director of Graduate Studies in Sculpture Martin Kersels. Kersels dresses his large, unwieldy body in dark tops with open vests and jeans. A pair of purple glasses in a geometric version of a cat-eye shape frames his face. I admitted to Kersels upon meeting him that I don’t have much of a background in performance art; I learned from our conversation that the only way to define performance art is to not define it at all. Kersels likes to think of “performance as sculpture in time.”
This definition makes particular sense coming from Kersels, who currently teaches a class at the School of Art titled “Performance as Object.” With it, he strives to create an environment free of dogma, stressing that he “doesn’t want to back [his students] into a corner in terms of what they think of as performance.” It’s a necessary move, he argues, because standards shift so radically depending on the performance. Even responding to the same prompt, artists will carry out the results in completely different directions. Rules become irrelevant.
It sounds like a lofty ideal to speak so abstractly about an art grounded in something so primitive and physical as the body. After all, in performance art, “The body becomes both the subject and the object,” Kersels told me. Henry Wolf, TC ’16, an undergraduate in Kersels’ class, views it as an extension of more precedented forms of art. “I think that artists realized that they could be a part of their sculpture,” Wolf said, “and that they could put their body into their work and activate it that way.” Samantha Vernon, ART ’15, explained that performance art has allowed her to understand the agency of the body with greater specificity, while adding texture to her work. Wolf described this additional layer, the body in time, as a “fourth dimension” present in performance.
IT WAS WITH THIS MYTHIC FOURTH DIMENSION in mind that I set out for 36 Edgewood, the School of Art’s sculpture building, for Kersels’ Thurs. “Performance as Object” class. This week, five students simultaneously performed individual two-hour pieces in spaces spread throughout the building.
As I stepped into the elevator, large, blank sheets of paper taped to fishing wire obscured my view of the artist, Shahrzad Changalvaee, ART ‘15. She was leaning forward, facing the wall, her lips pressed against a sheet of paper, speaking. Occasionally lapsing into a mutter, she said, “What man has made man has always able to make again.” Later, she told me that she was recording her conversations, but removing the forms of words in the process.
By the time I found Constanza Alarcon, ART ’15, she had worked her way up to the top floor, moving up the stairs in a low crouch as she scraped white dust into jagged cracks in the concrete floors. Alarcon wanted to call attention to the double standard represented by these cracks. “This super strong, fancy building is breaking apart,” she noted. “I wanted to highlight this tension.” She also acknowledged the second level of interpretation inherent in her work. A janitor had already washed off the dust on the third floor landing. In this world of performance art, the two-hour framework is fleeting—everything, including our bodies and the spaces we work in, is moving towards dissolution. Kersels explores similar themes in his work, focusing on the scientific fact of entropy taking over our bodies and our environments.
In the discussion and critique that followed, Kersels summed up my feelings well: “In hindsight, all the pieces left a lingering discomfort.” I felt uncomfortable watching Changalvaee’s body contorting to speak into the paper; having a stranger serenade me to a power ballad; hearing one artist tell off-color jokes while targeting the online presence of people sitting in the room; watching as another artist aimed his camera at me through a glass window, inviting my participation in a selfie. Still, over the course of the two hours I also felt confused, I laughed, I despaired. I thought about what it means to expose one’s self to potential scrutiny, judgment, and wonder—and use the body to do so.
I had entered the Sculpture Building that afternoon with my head up and my eyes open, ready to stumble from one performance to the next. At the end of the afternoon, I walked out with my eyes fixed to the floor, tracing the cracks that ran under my feet.