A Conversation, a Manifesto, an Experience

I Scream durational performance by Marilyn Arsem at ‘Live Action Goteborg’ Goteborg, Sweden May 2011 Photo by He Chengyao

I Scream, durational performance by Marilyn Arsem at ‘Live Action Goteborg’ Goteborg, Sweden, May 2011, Photo by He Chengyao

Marilyn Arsem once stood in the rain holding 40 liters of peppermint ice cream for eight hours. Another time, she spent a day rolling in long strands of seaweed until her body was covered and entangled. Arsem is an American pioneer in performance art who has been teaching performance art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for over 20 years. Her work has taken her all over the world, with recent performances in Indonesia, Chile, Uruguay, and Taiwan. This month Utah has the rare opportunity to experience Arsem’s work. She will be speaking at the University of Utah as well as creating a durational performance at Nox Contemporary.

Arsem has an openness and curiosity in her demeanor, and as we speak I get the sense that she is taking me in, and is perhaps learning as much about me from my questions as I am her from her answers. She spoke with me from her office in Boston about her work, the nature of performance art, and what the audience might expect from her upcoming performance. I’ve excerpted her piece Manifesto: THIS is Performance Art throughout the article.

Performance art is now
When I ask Marilyn Arsem if she can give us an idea of what to expect for her performance at Nox she laughs and says, “Ah… nope.” And then explains, “I tend to wait until I arrive at a location before I decide what I’m going to do. In some cases I’ve done some research on the politics or history of the location, but I’m much more interested in trying to respond to what I find there at the point at which I arrive.”

Performance art’s manifestation and outcome cannot be known in advance
“What the work ends up being,” she says, “is more of a process of engagement. It’s not about making statements, it’s more about asking questions, or discovering something, or really examining a particular topic or concern.”

Performance art is real
Through our interview, Arsem describes several different performances. She paints the scene, describing colors, textures, the weather that day. She tells the story from the perspective of herself as the performer, as well as the perspective of the viewer. She switches nimbly from subject to object, describing herself as a work of art, and then describing what the experience was like for her, and then telling about reactions from the audience. As she talks I start to see her reluctance to explain her work to me, instead she tries to make it as real for me as possible so I can begin to understand it for myself. The performances she describes are widely varied and contrasting experiences which, instead of giving me a sense of what to expect from her upcoming performance, leave me with no idea of what to expect at all. But they leave me very curious.

Performance art requires risk
“Risk comes in a lot of ways,” Marilyn Arsem says.

The artists take physical risks using their bodies
“I did a performance in Scotland where I lay under three tons of earth for eight hours. All three tons weren’t directly on my body, but I was buried alive. You walked into the greenhouse, all you saw was this big pile of dirt. And you would hear my voice… but if you got closer, you could actually see the ground rising and falling from my breathing.”

The artists take psychic risks as they confront their limits
“I had my voice amplified. I had a microphone. I didn’t talk as much as I expected. I was really afraid that I would have a panic attack. Right at the very end of the eight hours I started listing everything that I was afraid of. One of the last ones was ‘I’m afraid of being buried alive.’”

Performance art is not an investment object
Fortunately for Utah, the purpose of Nox Contemporary is not to make money. Owner/Director John Sproul said that when he started the gallery, it was because the community needed such a venue– a place to show artists that were really great, but not necessarily commercially viable. A great lover of performance art, Sproul jumped at the opportunity to host Marilyn Arsem.

Performance art is experience – shared time and space and actions between people
The performance involving ice cream was in the courtyard of a museum in Sweden. As is her method, Arsem didn’t plan the performance ahead of time. When she got to the site, she let the situation determine her work. “We walked in the yard and looked up,” she says, “and this Atmosfear (f-e-a-r) freefall ride–the tallest one in Europe–was looming over the courtyard of the museum, and every five minutes you would just hear screaming.” It wasn’t an attraction that the museum advertised on its website.”So I said: ok, I want to be holding an armload of ice cream, and I’m going to stand out here for the entire evening of the festival… and every time the ride falls I’m going to scream with it.”

The record of performance art resides in the bodies of the artist and the witnesses
She got 40 liters of pink peppermint ice cream. “It was a nice rainy, misty night, so everything was melting down my front, which is what I had hoped, and I just stood there and screamed.” The audience, she tells me, would go into the museum, look at the collection, then come back out to see how Arsem was doing. Some people even screamed with her.The story had come from a question I asked about the performances involving risk for the audience as well.

“Well,” Arsem continues, “finally someone in the audience sort of crept forward and said [whispering], ‘can we have some ice cream? Can we taste it?’

And I said, Sure!

So people started licking it.”

Performance art is ephemeral
Aesthetics run like nerves through this woman who has spent her career using her body as an instrument of art. In the end, in a sudden intuitive tangent, she paints for me an image of a performance that beautifully concludes our conversation.

Performance art reminds us that life is fleeting
“I did a piece last year in Germany,” she tells me, “where I walked backward until I disappeared.”

“I brought the audience out” she continues, “I greeted them and said, ‘I’m going to have to leave now, and, I’m sorry, but you can’t follow me.’ And I started walking backward. I was planting a line of red poppy seeds– so next year, hopefully, they’ll grow, and you’ll see a line across this landscape, of red flowers. The audience would go and see [other] performance[s] in the building, and then they’d come back out again to the same spot, and I’d be further away.”

We are only here now.
“I was wearing a red dress against this lush green field. And I just kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Until I disappeared.”

You can see Marilyn Arsem’s Lecture on the Nature of Durational Performance Art, Friday, November 9, 2012 at 5:00 PM, Room 158 at the University of Utah’s Art Department.

Her performance, Marking Time, will be Saturday, November 10, 2012 at NOX Contemporary (444 S. 400 W.) from 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM. Please feel free to come all day, or drop in as many times as you like over the course of the day to see the progression of the work. Witnesses are privy to a unique experience that will never happen again.

The full version of Manifesto: THIS is Performance Art can be found at: http://www.infractionvenice.org/this-is-performance-art.html

This article was first published in Catalyst Magazine in November 2012. Read it in Catalyst, here. While you’re there, scroll down for my full interview with Marilyn Arsem.

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