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Installation view of “Institute of Asian Performance Art” at David Roberts Art Foundation, London, 2018. Photo Christa Holka. Courtesy David Roberts Art Foundation.

Institute of Asian Performance Art

David Roberts Art Foundation
Japan Korea, South United Kingdom

In the center of the second section of “Institute of Asian Performance Art” (IAPA) was a simple, unpolished wooden table strewn with undeterminable black lumps. These objects are remnants from a performance by pioneering Korean performance artist Kim Kulim’s Wiping Cloth (1974/2018), in which the artist uses a white cloth to clean the wooden table. In an almost magician-like fashion, the cloth slowly disintegrates and reveals more and more black lumps of dirt. Interrupting the flow of the otherwise pristine white gallery in which they were installed, these leftover objects represented the spirit of aesthetic disturbance that dominated Asian performance art from the 1960s to the ’90s. Curated by Victor Wang, “IAPA” was the most recent edition of the David Roberts Art Foundation’s “Curators’ Series,” and focused on East Asia for the first time in the program’s near decade-long history, offering a rare, multi-city transnational presentation of performance art in Japan and Korea, with satellite events featuring Tehching Hsieh and Yingmei Duan. 

Installation view of KIM KULIM’s The Meaning of 1/24 Second, 1969, single-channel video: 10 mins, at “Institute of Asian Performance Art,” David Roberts Art Foundation, London, 2018. Photo Christa Holka. Courtesy the artist. 

The exhibition was an ode to the explosive avant-gardism of that time, presenting radical performances in photographs as well as Kim’s canonical experimental film The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969). The inclusion of 
Wiping Cloth in the show was instrumental in reframing these documented performances in a contemporary context. The work was originally performed against the backdrop of increased protests against the authoritarian regime of prime minister Park Chung-hee in South Korea, due to the imprisonment of dissident students and political opponents. The censorship enforced by Park’s government is referenced in the work through Kim’s persistent cleansing and the accumulation of dirt on the cloth, while its disintegration by the end of 
the performance represents the inevitable dissolution of the unpopular government. In 2018, the work taps into similar global unrest. In this vein, 
one could consider the works in the show as being hyper-relevant to visitors of today.  

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Detail installation view of HI-RED CENTER (GENPEI AKASEGAWA, NATSUYUKI NAKANISHI and JIRO TAKAMATSU)’s Yamanote Line Festival, 1962, reprints of photographic documentation of performance, dimensions variable, at “Institute of Asian Performance Art,” David Roberts Art Foundation, London, 2018. Photos by Tokuji Murai. Courtesy the David Roberts Art Foundation.
Detail installation view of HI-RED CENTER (GENPEI AKASEGAWA, NATSUYUKI NAKANISHI and JIRO TAKAMATSU)’s Yamanote Line Festival, 1962, reprints of photographic documentation of performance, dimensions variable, at “Institute of Asian Performance Art,” David Roberts Art Foundation, London, 2018. Photos by Tokuji Murai. Courtesy the David Roberts Art Foundation.
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In the first section of the space was photo documentation of the avant-garde artist collective Hi-Red Center’s (1963–64) Yamanote Line Festival (1962) in which the members entered the metro line’s stations and train cars and conducted absurd interventions, such as hanging metal dishes from handholds and dragging around chains, all while made up in white face paint. These actions were designed to confuse and outrage public bystanders, highlighting the absurdity of existing social conventions as well as pushing back against the paradigm of restrictive, white-cube style galleries. 

Installation view of HIRATA MINORU’s 24 Photographs, 1963–71 (reprinted 2014–18), gelatin silver prints, 28 × 35 cm each, at “Institute of Asian Performance Art,” David Roberts Art Foundation, London, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Taka Ishii Gallery Photography / Film, Tokyo.

Themes of challenging the status quo continued in the 24 photographs by Hirata Minoru that tied together the second section of the gallery. Hirata was a journalist who documented the Japanese performance art movement and whose photographs are now considered art pieces in their own right. On one wall, Hirata’s photograph of Bathing Ritual (1964) by art collective Zero Dimension (1963–72), shows the artists dressed in full suits sitting in pails of water, covered in soap suds­—a critique of the constraints and expectations placed on the male office worker or “salaryman.” On the opposite wall was a photograph of neo-Dadaist artist Shinohara Ushio spraying a female model with paint using a fire extinguisher. Conflating cleanliness and mess in these works, the artists at the time were responding to a wider disillusionment with a government and society concerned with appearances at both the intrapersonal and national level; issues that are still prevalent today. 

The challenge of presenting an exhibition of performance art lies in the characterization and contextualization of pieces that are time and space-specific, for a contemporary audience. While the endeavor is ambitious, “IAPA” was self-aware of its own methodological challenges. Its success lay in the selection of photographs that walk the blurred line between art and documentation, and a space that, itself, trod the line between white-cube convention and disturbance. This represented the boundaries that the presented artists pursued between performance and reality. While the selected works have received plenty of exposure in recent years in exhibitions on the same subject, “Institute of Asian Performance Art” was an intriguing curatorial example of how an exhibition can reframe, or recontextualize, recognizable works.

Institute of Asian Performance Art” is presented by the David Roberts Art Foundation and on view at 111 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 6RY, until October 28, 2018. 

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