Artist Dun Graham said, “all artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.” Familiar with artists who engage public in their creative process? I luckily had a chance to participate in several art-makings back in college. Among all, I vividly remember the time I washed my hands with a beautiful Venus sculpture made of soap at the museum bathroom. The vanishing soap reflects the passage of time and in order to do so, it requires audience’s participation.
This form of art has many different names: social practice, social art, community-based art, participatory art, etc. It is time-sensitive, site-specific, post-studio, ephemeral and interactive. In other words, it only exists for a fleeting moment and has a distinctive performative aspect. Without participation, it is never complete. As Clair Bishop claimed, I would like to choose the term participatory art for it basically sums up what this branch of art usually shares in common.
Who are the Artists that Make Participatory Art?
You may have heard the name Marina Abramovic. She is a contemporary artist who has fully explored how far the boundaries of performance art can be pushed, and made it widely known to the world. At the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, she showcased a performance art which invites viewers to come sit opposite her. They would make an eye contact, but no talk, just silence. The most interesting episode from this installation was when her former romantic partner, Ulay came in as a surprise and they sat down together. They haven’t seen each other since their epic break-up at the Great Wall of China. Or at the Museum of Modern Art in 2012, Rirkrit Tiravanija served cooked rice and curry for free to all the audiences.
Many questions could arise form such performance pieces. Is staring at the artist art? Can you call eating with a bunch of strangers art? Marina Abramovic says, "I could make art with everything…and the most important [thing] is the concept,” she relates. “This was the beginning of my performance art. And the first time I put my body in front of [an] audience, I understood: this is my media” (MoMA Learning)
It All Comes Down to Life!
Although their art does not harbor a physical form, they force viewers to think critically and challenge them on an intellectual level more than any type of artwork. One would must wrap their head around to comprehend what this is really about. In a larger context, we can say these artists broke down the seemingly boundaries between art and life. Mundane, everyday activities are turned into ‘artwork’ in the name of artist. Whether it is about politics, social phenomenon, or gender and identity, the fundamental of art is LIFE. To make that point, maybe those artists chose such the most accessible and engaging approach; there is no difference between art and life.
Furthermore, it scrapes off the material quality and erases monetizable value of art. It cannot be marketed nor sold for it being an experience that no one can ever buy! Or at least a participatory art is only partially finished until viewers are present in the scene. Audiences are no longer just there to appreciate, but they rise to the status of co-creators. Meanwhile, one must be forced to accept their insecurity and vulnerability.