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” … I Fail To See How This Can Be Art”

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Question:

“My friend sent me a Youtube video of a woman in a tight black dress dancing on slabs of butter and slipping and falling about. She said it’s performance art and that the woman is a famous artist. I’m sorry to say I burst out laughing! I fail to see how this can be art.”

Answer:

The artist in question is Melati Suryodarmo. The performance is called Exergie – Butter Dance and it was first presented in 2000 at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin. You can read more about her in a recent article up on the site, as well as this ArtAsiaPacific article from a few years back. Also, check out her website. A Youtube video clip of the performance can be found here:

I’ve seen clips of Butter Dance before, as well as a few other instances of Melati Suryodarmo’s work. Although sorry to say, I’m not all that familiar with her practice. Given my limitations, I’m therefore not the best person to explain why she’s considered an important, if not famous, artist. But from the little that I already know, I would certainly take her seriously – even if that means chuckling as I watch that panicked expression on her face, while she slips and falls, attempting to dance on slabs of butter.

So, no, dear reader, you shouldn’t apologise for laughing.

Contemporary art as a whole continues to gets criticised as ridiculous and pretentious. But rather than attempt a defence of the artist, of this particular performance, or performance art more generally, what I’d like to do here, as a way of responding to today’s question is to target that last remark: “I fail to see how this can be art.”

Why can’t Butter Dance be art? Is it ridiculous? Yeah, sure – but isn’t that the point?

Pretentious?

Well, no.

I would think that beyond saying something about women and society, it’s also a humorous critique that skewers contemporary art’s sense of self-importance and its occasional pretentiousness. In this case, however, we’re not even close to debating interpretations or arguing whether it’s a good performance or not. Because the claim is, in the first place, that it’s not even art at all.

Or rather, the problem is a failure to see it as art. Interestingly, today’s question does not end with the query of how this can be considered as “art.”

Instead, it points back to the question asker’s own “I fail to see”. I know the phrase is just a manner of speaking, usually meant to dismiss something. Yet, ironically, it also comes back to undermine the speaker himself – revealing a failure to be open to art.

One underlying assumption behind today’s question is the notion that art must be serious. Let’s quickly put that to rest. Art can actually be quite funny. Exhibit A: Butter Dance. Or, satirical or ironic or playful, and so on. Exhibits B and C: Duchamp’s Fountain, and Yoko Ono’s Ceiling Painting. Perhaps art isn’t humorous often enough, and that’s a serious problem with contemporary culture and society.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 1887-1968, by Marcel Duchamp

Close behind is another assumption that art must be recognisable as art. But isn’t that also the point of today’s art? That it should surprise us, in a world where there are arguably few surprises left? A good part of what contemporary art tries to do is help us to become more open to seeing something different and weird, or strange and new as art – as worthy of our careful consideration.

It’s a well-known story that Impressionist painting was poorly received when it first emerged. Back then, a number of established artists, as well as the public at large, scoffed at its crudeness – “this can’t be art,” they said.

The history of modern art has been punctuated by rejections that eventually turned into celebrations. Every now and then, you’ll still hear a person complain about an abstract painting, saying things like, “my child can do that.”

But generally, the status of painting is quite secure. Because you can buy it, and, notably, people sometimes pay lots of money for it. I guess that’s what gets you respect.

I wonder, though, if perhaps certain examples of contemporary art will, for a long time to come, have a hard time becoming widely accepted … such as a performance by a woman dancing on butter and falling down.



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Weng Choy

Weng Choy

Everyone’s a critic, or so they say. But some actually take it up as a profession, and not just in London or New York, but even in this part of the world. Lee Weng Choy is the president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics. He’s been writing art criticism for a quarter of a century. He’s also taught as a visiting lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the School of the Art Institute Chicago; he has worked as the Artistic Co-Director of The Substation arts centre, and done consultation work for National Gallery Singapore, NTU CCA Singapore, ILHAM Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, and A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur. In this “advice column” for Plural, Weng Choy answers your questions about art, culture and life, with a lot of sincerity and just the right amount of sarcasm. (Profile pic by Len Finocchio)

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