Suffering as art:
In recent decades, performance artists have considered how intangible experiences such as fasting and other acts of endurance may be viewed as artworks. This seen for example in Joseph Beuys I like America and America likes me, 1974 in which he spent three days locked up alone with a coyote. Several works by leading performance artist Marina Abramović have seen her undergo painful endurance disciplines such as being cut, burned, drugged and even rendered unconscious. Far from trying to glorify suffering itself, these works are rather a submission to particular, site-specific, physical suffering for its symbolic (often political) significance.
Resonances to this are found in biblical history. The Israelite prophets engaged in highly symbolic, often inscrutable public acts. This is seen in Isaiah’s promenade around the city, naked, and in Ezekiel bearing the iniquity of Israel for 390 days lying on his left side, and for Judah for 40 days on his right side. Through their performed signs, the prophets made a physical response to the bleak circumstances around them whilst also, mysteriously, experiencing within their physical bodies, some fragment of the suffering of Israel. Similarly (though far less painfully) participants in the Aesthetic Fast share in some symbolic way in the suffering of others, and yet whilst wearing the ring, also demonstrate a radical, perhaps absurd hope for abolition within their lifetime- “whilst my finger lives!”
Relationship as art:
Another emerging interest within contemporary performance art is in works that explore relational interstices as form, or what art theorist, Nicolas Bourriaud termed 'relational aesthetics'. As part of their series called The Other, Marina Abramović and Frank Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay) performed Rest Energy (January/August 1980). In this exploration of “relations in space,” the couple stood facing each other and leaning outwards. They were kept steady by a bow and arrow through which they were joined. Abramović held the bow’s body as Ulay held the bowstring and arrow at the point of release, and directed at Abramović’s heart. Should either have let go, the arrow would have impaled Abramović, Ulay would have fallen back and their relational form would have been destroyed.
One of the characteristics of globalization is an increased sense of connection (or neighbourness) with people (and their suffering) who otherwise continue to remain physically separate to us. This heightened feeling of both connection and disconnection at the same time, calls for more ways in which this complex mode of modern humanity can be positively nurtured.
The Eucharist offers us both a model and inspiration for this. Through the Last Supper, Jesus continued the biblical tradition of performed signs but this time invited his disciples to participate in the sacrament whose ongoing performance would each time unify the church as a relational form. By uniting believers across borders of time and space, the Eucharist is a chief work of relational art and so becomes the Church's primary mode of performing the hope of the world. It is therefore always, crucially connected to its liberating work in all areas of social need.
Inspired by the Eucharist, Aesthetic Fast, is an exploration of relational art tended through symbol: across the performers of the fast themselves with each other (whom they may not know) and with those suffering under sexual slavery (whom they do not know). It is a proposition in theological aesthetics; considering how elements of our lives (commissive or ommissive acts; symbolic or effective acts, or things we do or allow to be done to us) may be understood in an aesthetic register, as the creation of new relational forms. It is therefore, neither fundraising nor social activism, nor does it simply play a supporting or illustrative role for social justice work. It is itself - as a symbolic act - part of social justice work broadly conceived.
Acconci, Vito and Gregory Volk, Diary of a Body: 1969-1973, New York: Charta, 2004.Bourriaud,
Nicholas, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Presses du Réel, 2002.
Hart, David Bentley, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2003.
Myers, Ched, Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2008.
Vanhoozer, Kevin, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
This idea of relational form builds on both insights from traditional Jewish and Christian rituals as well as current trends in contemporary performance art.