Returning the gaze
“Returning the Gaze. Between Cultural Performance and Performance Art” from:
Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Shadow and the Gaze of Theatre: A European Perspective. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997, pp. 218-232
summary by Nina
Erika Fischer-Lichte points to the importance of performance in the constitution of contemporary Western society, that she calls a ‘culture of theatricalizations’ (218). By theatricalization is meant the staging of reality by individuals and different social groups as well as the staging of themselves. Fischer-Lichte develops in this article her definition of ‘performance art’ to describe our experience of our reality. She does so in relation to the term ‘cultural performance’, coined by the anthropologist Singer in 1959. The emphasis on cultural performance is the consequence of a shift away from texts and monuments in the experience of a culture.
This experience of reality as a performance, has increased through the use of new media. New media introduces worlds of simulacra/ simulation/ appearance into our experience and blurs our perception of reality as authentic/ true/ real. Therefore, these binaries cease to exist.
Also in the realm of art, the performative mode has been privileged over the last decades. This has resulted in the fine arts in a new art form: Performance Art. Fischer-Lichte considers theatre as the performative genre par excellence, which distinguishes her from many of her colleagues, who see performance as something opposing theatre. She goes further by suggesting that all arts have merged into performance art. In contrast to her colleagues who seek to singularize performance art, Fischer-Lichte foregrounds an interdisciplinary approach between art and culture. She formulates the following questions to discover the role of her broad definition of performance art:
1. How is performance art related to other genres of cultural performance?
She states that performance art transforms a certain genre of cultural performance that they proceed from or allude to. The terms that anthropologist Singer uses to feature a cultural performance; a time span, a beginning and an end, an organized program of activity, a set of performers, an behaviour of the audience, and a place and occasion of performance, are converted or affected by the artistic performance. ‘The particular self-image the culture has encapsulated in the specific performance genre’ can be made explicit by performance art. By quoting a genre of cultural performance, performance art ‘acts as a kind of cultural memory’ (232)
2. What explanation can be found for the prevalence of performance art in postmodern, postindustrial western culture? What function? What meaning?
Contemporary art functions in this performative mode to emphasize the importance of performance in the constitution of a culture. Also: [important!] performance art evokes direct and free communication. This means that also the act of reception is performed in the middle of an audience, which is received by other audience-members. ‘ The spectator of the moment will be a performer in the next. The gaze directed at the Other is returned by the Other’ (231)
Both issues: – the transformation of the cultural performance and the result of direct communication come back her case study on the reception of the performance by the artists Fusco and Gomez Pena: performance art can serve as a critical discourse on the culturally conditioned gaze. It lays bare, returns the gaze to you.
– Could you remember and describe a performance in which you actually experienced your gaze being returned?
– What do you think of the following statement: ‘Performance art, […] seems to create and reactivate some of the last residues in contemporary culture that make it possible to communicate directly in public and to act as a member of a community’
– If boundaries between art forms blur and we could as well classify everything as performance art, we are not concerning the art-product/ or object as the most important aspect of art anymore, but rather the effect it has on its audience. How would you describe the role of the object in ‘performance art’?