Questioning Ephemerality: Collecting Performance Art

3 May

By Louisa Elderton

How can the moment that live art occupies be captured? What challenges arise for institutions or private collectors who wish to acquire performance art? How is the documentation of performance art at odds with live art’s intrinsic ephemerality and its unique relationship with time and space?

These questions, along with notions of knowledge, temporality and ownership were the subjects of discussion at Jerwood Visual Arts’ talk between writer and critic Sally O’Reilly, Tate curator of contemporary art and performance Catherine Wood, artist Bedwyr Williams, and artist/founder of Collecting Live Art Laura Eldret. [1]

Since the Enlightenment, there has been a desire within society to secure what we can see, touch and experience within a static image, in an attempt to capture passing moments. But can these moments really ever be faithfully represented? It could be suggested that they can only ever be interpreted through another medium and thus they immediately become one removed from their initial state. Time dictates that we can never go back to understand an event as it actually was; there is no way of regressing to experience time past.

Sally O’Reilly discussed how, for her, ‘Jerwood Encounters: SHOW’ enabled static documentation to ‘pop into 3D again’, [2] as performance relics from Edwina Ashton and Bedwyr Williams’ works continued to occupy space, signifying their past performances.  Considering the exhibition through the lens of empiricism, she pondered how the memory of a moment, knowledge about the past, can result from a more holistic sensory perception that derives from the objects themselves. Further questions that arose from her talk included: how does memory function when thinking about moments past and when attempting to re-live a piece of performance art? How might we understand a performance if we were not there (or alive) at the moment of creation?

Often it is relics, films, photographs, texts or aural accounts that must vouch for the live moment, to stimulate the imagination or memory of the viewer. But how can you remember something you haven’t seen before? In this instance, objects are forced into a position where they become doubles; they represent both something real—that actually happened—and something imagined—that can only be experienced in the mind.

The document, in whatever form that may take, might be at odds with the intended ephemerality or time relativity of a performance artwork. It is ever possible to capture a performance artwork’s intrinsic relationship with time and waiting (the viewer’s waiting, that is)—even through film? Philosopher Henri Bergson explored issues of time, specifically considering the tensions between watching and waiting, arguing that ‘there is no perception which is not full of memories. With the immediate and present data of our senses we mingle a thousand details out of our past experiences.’ [3] He used the example of sugar granules dissolving in a glass of water to consider the anxiety that is induced for the observer in the process of waiting, underlining that anxiety and personal consciousness are imperative in actually making us stand our ground to wait for a resolution: ‘the glass of water, the sugar, and the process of the sugar’s melting in the water are abstractions … in the manner of a consciousness’. [4] So the viewer’s own memories and their will to wait feed into their experience of time and their subjective understanding of any moment. Therefore, when a document of a performance is shown in a gallery or museum you are depriving the viewer of the original experience of the work, where waiting, memory and consciousness become interwoven. Is some experience of a work better than no experience at all? Should these works be left to die, or conserved by the museum or gallery to be (mis)understood within a different context?

Catherine Wood discussed the ways in which objects function in the museum and considered how performance props might trigger memory and imagination. Tate Modern’s old oil tanks are currently being transformed into dedicated performance art spaces, for which Wood will be conducting the programming. The curator mused on how performance within the museum might be defined, conserved, interpreted, and stored in order to build a history of performance.  For example, she questioned how it might be best to collect Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s works which can be purely ephemeral, existing as a set of instructions and therefore actively questioning the importance of the artist’s presence in event-based art.

Tino Sehgal’s works have been collected by Tate through an aural transaction; the museum essentially memorises the artist’s script and then re-enacts the work as a form of aural history. But what if the artist himself is integral to the meaning of the work; how can you capture this or recreated it after their death? For example, how strongly can we really understand the work of Joseph Beuys without his aura actively being here?

Within a museum context, it is often necessary to prevent works from being interacted with so as to preserve them, but this might directly impinge upon the intended performativity of certain objects. Robert Morris’ mirrored cubes are a key example.

In describing his reasons for creating the book Bedwyr, I Think I Missed Your Performance—an intrinsic element of his ‘Jerwood Encounters: SHOW’ piece—Bedwyr Williams stated that ‘if this exhibition is a bomb, the book is the screws to lodge in peoples’ brains, permanently’. [5] Interestingly the artist concluded that ‘it’s not my business’ [6] to document performances; rather that this is the remit of the institution or curator.

But surely it is the business of every artist to engage directly with questions of documentation, as it is only then that curators and institutions can know whether documentation undermines the intentions of the artist in any way, and therefore whether it interferes with the integrity of the artwork. Indeed, artists must give the all-clear for the work to be experienced through another medium, as it will always remove the artwork from its unique relationship with time, space, waiting, the moment and memory.


[1] This talk took place on 4th April 2011, 6.30 pm.

[2] Sally O’Reilly quote recorded at the Jerwood Visual Arts talk between Sally O’Reilly, Catherine Wood, Bedwyr Williams and Laura Eldret on 4th April 2011.

[3] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (New York: Zone, 1970), p.24. Quoted in Elizabeth Buhe, The Art of Waiting: Time Seen and Spent in the Museum, (London: The Courtauld Institute of Art, unpublished Master’s thesis from MA Curating the Art Museum) p. 30.

[4] Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, Random House, Inc., 1944, pp. 12-13. Quoted in Marianne Mulvey At Least, There Are Still Performances, an essay produced in response to Sarah Williams’ and Laura Eldert’s exhibition The Multiplicity of a Moment, 2010: http://sarahwilliams.co/artwork/

[5] Bedwyr Williams’ quote recorded at the Jerwood Visual Arts talk between Sally O’Reilly, Catherine Wood, Bedwyr Williams and Laura Eldret on 4th April 2011.

[6] Ibid.

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