Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What's Welsh for Performance?

Is there a more ridiculed artistic practice than performance art? The emperor's new clothes are seldom more passionately invoked than when that reviled term is uttered. This is, of course, grossly unfair. To its credit performance (or time-based) art exists, largely, outside of the commercial art world. It can't be bought, hung on a wall, or exhibited in some snooty gallery in Bond St. It is comparatively egalitarian, transient, elusive.

This elusiveness is, I think, a crucial part of its mystique. Sometimes the only evidence that a performance ever happened is anecdotal. Audiences at such events become witnesses, their memories repositories of unique ephemeral experiences. Occasionally performances are photographed or filmed for posterity. Or perhaps a journalist is on hand to write up proceedings. If so, then these documentary artefacts take on a special significance - they become the performance art equivalent of the Zapruder film.

At What's Welsh for Performance? Heike Roms has been busy digging up and documenting Wales's forgotten performance art heritage. Archives have been ransacked; newspaper cuttings sifted through; participants and eye-witnesses tracked down. In the process she has discovered an avant-garde we never previously knew existed. Be sure to check out her brilliantly researched What's Welsh for Performance? archive. Beginning with happenings in the mid-Sixties, you'll also discover evidence of Kurt Kren's Eating, Drinking, Pissing, Shitting Film being shown in Swansea; Yoko Ono in Cardiff (sort of); Gustav Metzger; a Fluxus exhibition in Aberystwyth; George Brecht in Barry; Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti in Swansea; and much more. In short, all kinds of weird (and wonderful) shit.

But Wales has been more than just an arena for international stars of the avant-garde to do their thing. There has been plenty of indigenous Welsh performance art action, too. Ivor Davies, Paul Davies, Timothy Emlyn Jones, amongst others, turn out to be key players on the Welsh scene. Arguably the single most important Welsh performance art event took place at the Wrexham Eisteddfod in 1977. During a week of commissioned performances by the likes of Mario Merz and Jannis Kounellis, and even some Joseph Beuys-sanctioned work, local artist Paul Davies staged a dramatic and unofficial intervention. He appeared holding aloft a railway sleeper with the letters WN (for Welsh Not) burnt into the wood. For some this marks the inception of a self-conscious contemporary Welsh political art.

For me, it's the great Welsh art moment of the Twentieth century. This was no officially-sanctioned or subsidised performance, but an inspired off-the-cuff action as brilliantly conceived as anything done by those esteemed enfants terribles of the avant-garde, present that week in Wrexham. It truly was a milestone in Welsh art history. Thanks to Heike Roms, Wrexham 77, and other more obscure performance art events, are beginning to get the critical recognition they deserve.

*A book by Heike Roms entitled: What's Welsh for Performance? An Oral History of Performance Art in Wales (vol.1) is available through Amazon.