Audience as Performer: Expect the Unexpected

It is an argument often made, that art is an experience, not an object. M+ explores this idea with the launch of M+ Live Art, the museum’s new platform dedicated solely to performance art. The M+ Live Art series uncovers and examines how artists are setting new frameworks in contemporary art by using their bodies as the primary medium and gestures as meaningful communication in time-based practices. M+’s first series of exhibitions to focus on performance art was Mobile M+: Live Art, multi-site exhibitions and site-specific performances spread across Hong Kong, held in 2015. It was the starting point for the museum to address the historical context of this thriving art form and to contribute to its discourse in our region. In launching M+ Live Art before the opening of the M+ building, we begin shifting the discipline of performance art from the periphery into the mainstream and offer audiences further opportunities to learn about and experience contemporary practices. With the opening of the building, we will bring the series into the museum, where live performances will be integrated into the galleries and other spaces.

The M+ Live Art series is a semi-annual programme that features compelling works from a diverse range of artists from Hong Kong and around the globe and offers audiences direct access to the artists through their live, immediate, and ephemeral actions. By inviting the public to bear witness to artworks unfolding in real time, M+ Live Art helps destabilise expectations and presumptions about what a work of art looks like and helps differentiate this art form from traditional performing arts. And in creating this platform dedicated to performance art in Hong Kong, M+ not only contributes to the growing scholarship and critical thinking of this discipline in our region, but also acts as a catalyst to spark curiosity and encourage new ways for the public to engage with and consider the body as a mode of artistic expression.

The history of performance art can be traced to the avant-garde movements of Futurism and Dada in early-twentieth-century Europe, when artists embraced performance as a means to experiment with new ideas and processes. Performance became a vehicle for rebelling against more established forms of art making and enabled artists to present their creations directly to the public. Responding to the social and political conditions of the time, the very primacy of artists’ bodies heightened notions of the real and offered ways to bring art closer to everyday life. In the 1950s and 1960s, far away from Europe and closer to our region, the collective ‘action events’ of the Japanese Gutai group of artists involved energetic corporeal engagement with materials—artists often manoeuvered their bodies in extreme positions through paint, mud, or paper as forms of expression. The 1960s saw a rise of the Fluxus movement and Happenings in the United States, Europe, and Japan, often involving audience participation, introducing elements of chance, and creating unexpected situations. More conceptual approaches also emerged in the form of instruction pieces, in which viewers executed and completed the work through their actions.

Hong Kong’s own history of performance art began in the 1970s with the spirited actions and installations of the eccentric artist Frog King Kwok (Kwok Mang Ho). Pioneering the practice in this city, he coined the term Happenings in Cantonese as hark bun lum (客賓臨) and has created performances for over four decades—to this day, he continues to do so with just as much energy and creativity. Far more extreme expressions of the body took place in the early 1990s on the outskirts of Beijing in the derelict village of Danshanzhuang, which became the breeding ground for a small group of avant-garde artists responding to the tidal wave of cultural and economic changes in the period after 1989. Known as the Beijing East Village artists, the group—including Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan—experimented with raw, durational performances to express individual experiences as a way of challenging the idea of collective social identity. Whilst performed before only a handful of people, these ephemeral acts were captured by a series of now iconic photographs and videos, which significantly contributed to the rise of these media in Chinese contemporary art. Southeast Asian artists have instinctively turned to performance art as a 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, to elicit change. In the last few decades, another mode of performance art expanded and proliferated across the globe: relational art, or ‘relational aesthetics’, as defined by the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud. He observed and theorised that artists were no longer just using their bodies to complete their works, but that they were also creating social environments that allowed people to come together and create the works through shared activities, thereby building new human relationships. This form of performance art appropriated familiar social conditions as a means of bringing art closer to everyday life.

It is in this spirit that M+ Live Art: Audience as Performer kicks off the series with five artists, who hail from Asia and whose works directly engage with the viewer for collaborative artistic production. These artists incorporate the audience in their processes for unexpected, open-ended, and, possibly, surprising outcomes, thereby shifting the role of the audience from passive witness to active participant. By collapsing the distinctions between audience and performer, and reception and production, these participatory and experiential situations can encourage audiences to engage personally in artistic expression, and can also create new social realities by breaking down inhabitions and building communal bonds through collective meaning-making.

M+ Live Art: Audience as Performer features new commissions by two Hong Kong artists, wen yau and Isaac Chong Wai, whose works express the lived experiences of the city’s inhabitants facing shifting social realities. Actively involved with various creative and educational activities, wen yau has dedicated her career to casting a critical eye on the cogent cultural concerns of her hometown. Executing her performances as a means of social practice, she often places her body directly in public spaces to renegotiate the relationships between the roles of civic individuals and the structures of both hard and soft powers. Isaac Chong Wai interrogates the meanings of individual and collective identities in society. Often incorporating large groups of participants moving in choreographed sequences, Chong’s performances question the notion of the status quo and the subjectivity of societal norms. Both artists create new works for this exhibition, questioning the notions of value and social order. In A Drop and Two Dots: Everything Must Go! (Homage to All Peaceful Revolutionaries), wen yau focuses on a local context to examine the meaning of belonging to one’s land. In Rehearsal of the Futures: Police Training Exercises, Chong addresses the history of protests around the world, considering how acts of confrontation can also be viewed as beautiful and gentle gestures.

Equally dedicated to addressing societal concerns is the Indonesian artist Tisna Sanjaya. He firmly believes in connecting with his community through his art practice and has created many powerful, introspective performances to bring to light consequential issues such as religious injustice and environmental destruction. In his work 99 Sajadah Merah, Sanjaya invites Hong Kong audiences to join in his process, in an exploration of the sanctity of traditional rituals and the quest for social tolerance.

In a more intimate way, Taiwanese artist River Lin’s work is also concerned with the notions of ritual and the relationship between the body and time in site-specific social spaces. Through individual performances and collective interactions, Lin’s practice seeks to consider the idea of public and private encounters. His work Cleansing Service offers a one-on-one dialogue through a series of prescribed actions and personal exchanges.

Duan Yingmei continues the exploration of personal conversations and introspection through her unique artistic approach. Duan was part of the groundbreaking Beijing East Village group of artists and has since dedicated her practice to performance art. Fascinated by human behaviours and social conventions, Duan observes primal instincts such as desire, fear, and love through her individual and collective performances. Created as a situational experiment, her work My Hong Kong Friends involves leading the audience on a personal journey that offers intimate encounters, encouraging social connections and thoughtful perspectives.

M+ Live Art: Audience as Performer invites audiences to experience the works for themselves, to engage with different modes of artistic representation through the immediate and meaningful gestures of performance art, and, most importantly, to consider the role of the audience as agent and producer of artistic meaning for new and unexpected outcomes.


Alice Teng
Associate Curator, Visual Art, M+