Collecting Performance Art

The process of purchasing a piece of performance art that you have actually witnessed is a profound experience.

by Tanya Singh

Performance art, by nature, is an ephemeral medium of creating art. It is not just about the actions performed by the artist, but also about the experience delivered by those actions in that particular moment. However, although its transient and fleeting character is the reason for its growing popularity, collecting performance art proves to be an obstacle for collectors.

collecting performance art
Four movements to the Music of Steve Reich 1982, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker | Source: Tate Modern

According to the art historian and critic, Jean Wainwright, “preserving performance and staged art is like trying to keep smoke in your pocket.” Sounds about right, doesn’t it? How can an impactful, personal experience be captured, let alone purchased or auctioned? This is usually where technology comes in and the line between performance art and video art starts to get blurred. However, even with a reasonably simple situation, this issue seems to be unresolved because that intimate connection one would make at a live performance is impossible to capture in a video or a photograph. And then there is always the demand for authenticity, which is most definitely lost as soon as we start attempting to record or document a live performance.

So, how can you really collect performance art and is what you are collecting ‘authentic’? Let us explain!

What Is Performance Art?

Performance art is defined as the act of performing a scripted or unscripted act in front of an audience within the context of fine art. In simpler words, it is a set of actions an artist carries out in front of the viewers to provoke thought and contemplation.

Useful Article: The History Of Performance Art

There are four main elements that every performance encapsulates – time, space, body (of the artist), and the relationship between the artist and the viewer. The Artist Is Present, perhaps one of the most famous works of performance art by Marina Abramovic can be used to illustrate this. Abramovic’s performance involved her, the artist, sitting absolutely still in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, New York for a period of 736 hours and 30 minutes. There was an empty chair and a table placed in front of her meant for visitors to sit opposite her and experience her gaze or vice versa. Similarly, almost every work of art can be broken down into these four intangible elements, which differentiate a performance as this from a dance show or a concert, correctly referred to as performing arts.

Performance is an extremely fluid medium, much like art itself. It could be political, or simply aesthetic, or even a testament of the artist’s will power. It can even involve a number of elements borrowed from other languages of art like painting, music, or literature. Performance art is a truly unique and an equally exciting medium of creating art. To quote Jack Bowman, “Performance art is the ultimate in creativity. Since it has so many possibilities at creativity, it’s essence tends to become creativity.”

Why Should You Be Collecting Performance Art?

Now that you know what performance art really is, you are probably wondering – if it is all about the experience, why should performance art be collected at all? Well, for one thing, performance artists need to eat as well so that they can create more art for you to experience!

Jokes aside, performance art has, for quite a while, become an extremely popular medium in the art world, which means that its demand has risen and will continue to do so. There are two reasons for this – the fluidity that the medium offers to the artists and the impact that it makes on the audience. Naturally, more and more artists are experimenting with performance art, and more and more collectors are falling in love with it. And we all know what happens when collectors fall in love with something.

But, the question still remains..

Can Performance Art Be Collected?

The answer is a bit more complicated than a yes or a no. Essentially, collecting performance art is about preserving a memory of the experience. This could be done in the form of videos, still photographs, or even documentation provided by the artist.

Marina Abramovic, for instance, for the above-mentioned work produced a number of still photographs that could be purchased by visitors and collectors alike. A movie, also titled The Artist Is Present, was released for purchase and documented the entire performance as well as interviews with visitors and the artist herself. Another example would be Vito Acconci, one of the pioneering performance artists who, unfortunately, passed away last month. The artist would meticulously document all his initial research, sketches, photographs and plans for each performance that could then be purchased by collectors.


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Sometimes, collecting performance art also entails unconventional and more creative ways of buying art. For example, Tino Sehgal, a British-German artist, produced a performance titled Kiss that explored notions of intimacy in the artworks of Constantin Brancusi, Gustav Klimt, Jeff Koons, Edvard Munch, and Auguste Rodin. The profound work of art was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 2008. However, the acquisition did not involve any documents or artwork deliveries. Instead, the artist made an oral contract with the museum whereby the instructions for his performance choreography were shared. Now, every time the artwork goes on display at MoMA, performers trained by Sehgal re-enact the work. The piece, now a property of MoMA, actually has four editions (sets of trained performers) that can all be bought, sold, and borrowed.

Therefore, although there are a number of ways of collecting performance art, it really depends on how you, as the collector, view or envision it.

collecting performance art
The Performance, Ricardo Vivanco

How To Collect Performance Art?

Now that we have established that collecting performance art is definitely possible, here are some guidelines to help you understand the process better.

  • Experience It Before You Buy It. The first and foremost thing is to actually experience the performance first hand. If you don’t experience it, how can you preserve a memory of that experience?
    Of course, this cannot be possible in a lot of cases, especially for artists who have passed away or do not perform anymore. We would still recommend at least attending a re-enactment of the performance so that when you view the actual performance you can remotely connect to the experience the audience present there would have felt.
  • Be Ready To Get Creative. As mentioned above, the process of collecting performance art is almost as creative as actually viewing or performing it. If there is a work that you have witnessed and cannot stop thinking about, by all means, go and purchase it to make it your own. But, you will need to keep an open mind and try to understand the artist’s perspective. Performance art usually is a very personal and intimate gesture on the artist’s part, and there may be a strong chance that they are unwilling to sell or suggest an extremely elaborate and unconventional method of purchase. You may have to prove your own passion to the artist before you can acquire his treasured work of art.
  • Performance Art May Not Necessarily Have A Resale Value. If you are a collector who is also mindful of the investment value of art, you should carefully consider the performance work that you are purchasing. Most collectors that purchase such works do it because they feel strongly about the content of the performance. It is a possibility that if you try to re-sell the work in the future, you might not find any takers, especially if the content becomes outdated or is too specific.
  • There Could Be Equipment Involved. Since one of the more popular ways of documenting art is through the medium of video, you need to make sure that you have the proper equipment required. Consult the artist or a gallery professional before making any decisions. If the work is very old, make sure that the equipment needed to view it is not too obsolete and can actually be bought.

Related Articles: Art Prices – What Collectors Need To Know and The Art Market – Selling Original Art

Collecting performance art is almost like a collaboration between you and the artist – the artist delivers an experience to you that you attempt to preserve in your memory. It is a very complicated process, especially if the artist does not want to sell his work in the form of physical documentation but as a sort of a “service”.

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Nonetheless, if you do it right, the process of purchasing a piece of performance art that you have actually witnessed is a profound experience in itself. Like Marni Kotak, a performance artist said, “By collecting or re-producing performance art we are trying to make its ephemerality immortal and timeless in a sense — we are fighting against the very nature of what it is. But to try to do this is utterly human, and driven by the nostalgic need to hold onto the wondrously fleeting moments of life.”

Next article in our Collecting Art series: Buying And Collecting Digital Art

Tanya Singh is a budding art historian and writer. She is currently pursuing her postgraduate studies at the LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. With a versatile portfolio, she has over three years of experience in writing as well as editing.


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