Ritual, reality and representation: From ancient theatre to postmodern performance | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU

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The 20th century marked a dramatic change in the way performance was perceived and carried out; from a text-based representative act, it turned into an a self-sufficient reality, where emotions and ideas were transmitted through metatextual elements, like voice, body movements and breath. This change, that allowed the evolution of performance as a form of visual art, independent of its theatrical progenitors, has its roots in the nostalgia for the origins of theatre and the interest in ancient and primitive rituals.

The interest for the ritual is a romantic idea that started to become popular in the 19th century, evolving into an in depth research and an attempt to introduce some of its elements in contemporary artistic practices, during the 20th century.

Theatre emerged in different societies worldwide from myth and ritual, storytelling, imitation and fantasy.[1]  In the West, the origins of theatre are usually located in the rituals and myths of Ancient Greece.

According to Aristotle’s Poetics theatre is rooted in the pagan rituals to honor god Dionysus in Greece. In these rituals there was no form of representation, apart from the chorus, that was dressed as satyrs,[2] that is, half men half goats. In one of these festivities, the leading man of the chorus –the korifeos- got out of the circle of the chorus and started a spontaneous dialogue with the satyrs. They replied by singing and that was the birth of the theatre; little by little, adding up plot, stage set, costumes, characters, it evolved into its classical form.

Although the classical plays had very little in common with the original rituals, they were still performed during religious festivities; even today, the word tragedy (literally, in Greek: the song of the goats) stays as a remainder of the original chorus of satyrs.

This narration is largely a myth; even so, it reflects the idea that the non-textual elements, that constitute theatricality and performativity, preceded the evolution of theatrical text.

The nostalgia for the ancient rituals that lead to the genesis of theatre starts to emerge in the late 19th century, notably in Nietzsche’s essay “The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music”.[3] In this essay, Nietzsche states that the theatre should regain some of its Dionysian force that was lost throughout the centuries, tamed by the Apollonian spirit. According to him, the Dionysian stands for the primal force of creation, still formless and chaotic, until the Apollonian measure and harmony give shape to it, transforming it into a work of art.[4] For Nietzsche the original dramatic phenomenon of the chorus transforms the actor and the surrounding crowd.

These ideas have a profound impact on Artaud’s theories about the renewal of theatre, as we shall see later on in this chapter. On the other hand, the quest for primitivism and ritualism lies at the roots of performance art. Following Nietzsche’s line, Artaud believes that the theatre should be rescued from its “servitude to psychology and human interest”,[5] shifting the focus from the objective and descriptive external world to the internal world, the metaphysical aspect of man.[6] His vision for the theatre includes a resurrection of its mystical quality and a creation of a theatrical language that is not virtual but real, where “man must reassume his place between dream and events”.[7]

The quest for primitivism and ritualism lies at the roots of performance art.

Performance art started in the early 20th century, in pre-war Italy and Russia. The Italian Futurists sought new ways to propagate their ideas and their aesthetic, which praised the machines and provokingly supported war as a generative force, whereas they condemned ancient culture and the love of the past. During their futurist evenings they searched for new ways of interacting with the public, often turning to scandalous acts that outraged the spectators. Thus, the audience never remained neutral; it got involved in an event organized and controlled by the artist.[8]

Similarly, the Russian Futurists resorted to scandals in order to get the public’s attention, however, in contrast to Marinetti, who asked for the demolition of the Acropolis, they projected their influence from Russian icons, primitive painting, the lubok –illustrated traditional stories- and folklore poetry.[9]

Without any direct reference to the past or futures, but driven by complete nihilism, the Dadaists organized their own performances in Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub based in Zurich, the only “island” of peace in World War II Europe. The Dadaists praised the absurd and abandoned any ‘traditional’ means of expression in art, music and poetry. Their poems consisted of babbling syllables with a meaningless succession; their music was improvised noise; their shows combined elements from cabaret shows, the burlesque and primitive rituals.

During the 1960s and 1970s, performance art became widely known, through Allan Kaprow’s happenings, performances by Carolee Schneemann, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, VALIE EXPORT and Marina Abramović. These artists experimented with their own bodies and the interaction with the audience. In their actions, the limits between the private and the public, the personal and the collective, art and life, were often blurred. These performances helped the public shape a new way of perceiving art, through personal action and personal experience. This personal experience influences the way the performer and the public feel their bodies.

Surpassing theatrical tradition and word, postmodern performance has broken the bonds with reality and representation; performance artists use their bodies as a vehicle to explore consciousness and to have a direct impact on the public with very little or no reference to text or action.

Postmodern performance is characterized by an “aesthetic of impermanence”,[10] where the qualities of memory, inheritance and repeatability give way to immediacy and uniqueness. In performance art the artwork is not some text or image, but the happening or event and the way it is perceived by the audience.

What is interesting to see here is how visual arts had been fomented by rituals, not as a nostalgic tendency towards the origins of theatre, but in a much more substantial manner, with a different perception of reality and representation.

Imitatio dei has been used throughout history as a way to get closer to the divine; certain words or acts were considered as a representation of archetypical acts –the repetition of an original. Based on this notion, the platonic model of analysis considers everything as the repetition of an Idea. According to Plato, art is an imitation of the real world, which is mirroring the world of ideas; therefore, he rejects art as double representation. Aristotle does not reject representation, but still defines the theatre as mimesis, an imitation of a deed[11] -meaning that it represents the original deed and is not a real act. These views have shaped western thought, in a way that “it is very difficult to think outside the paradigm in which representation is conceived as a gap, an absence”.[12]

However, it is not uncommon in rituals preceding the genesis of theatre, that are still performed in certain cultures, that the performative act does not imitate reality, but produces reality: for example, it can bring about rain or earth fertility. Likewise, performance art, as we’ve stressed above, does not imitate reality but is a real act. Generally, in performance art there was no representation of a character or event; the artists sought to blur the limits between art and life, creating a single event that was not restaged, not rehearsed and not taped –any photos or videos of the events were simply for documentation purposes.

The artists who create time-based art often share an aversion or a disinterest for leaving behind an “art object” with an aesthetic and commercial value. Marina Abramović has expressed her admiration for the immateriality of the Aboriginal culture, where the sacred objects, elaborate and beautiful, are destroyed after the ritual.[13] In both cases, there is no interest in creating objects that will live on after the ritual or the performance.

Therefore, it is easy to see why theorists and artists that sought to bring about a change in theatre and a distancing from the idea of representation evoked images from primitive rituals. As the influence from primitive arts in the early 20th century liberated the canvas from the Renaissance perspective and the obligation to be a mirror of the seen world, the inspiration from rituals would help performative arts discover a different way of communication between the performers and the audience, which went beyond the narrative potential of the text.

In performance art, the artist somehow acts like a modern day shaman that introduces the viewers into a mind altering experience.


[1] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Daniel (2001), Approaches to Acting: Past and Present, New York: International Publishing Group. p.4.

[2] According to Aristotle’s Poetics theatre emerged from the festivities in honour of god Dionysus (the god of fertility), when Thespis stood in front of the chorus of satyrs (the companions of the god) and started a dialogue with them, thus adding narration to the singing and dancing. Although this is a legend, it has passed into the history of Western culture as a fact, hence, it was perceived by Artaud or Nietzsche as such. In any case, there seems to be a link between the theatre and ancient Greek mystical religious rituals. See ARISTOTLE, Poetics, 1447α. Original text. [online] <http://www.hs-augsburg.de/~harsch/graeca/Chronologia/S_ante04/Aristoteles/ari_poi0.html> (Accessed September 6, 2011).

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich (1872), The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, first ed.: Basel, 1872, Accessed: August 2011. http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/nietzsche/tragedy_all.htm

[4] Van den Braembussche, Antoon (2009), Thinking Art, Brussels: Springer, p. 89.

[5] Artaud, Antonin [1932] (1994), The Theater and Its Double, New York: Grove Press, p.89.

[6] Artaud 1994. p.91

[7] Artaud 1994, p.92.

[8] Bishop, Claire (2009) and Groys, Boris, “Bring the Noise”, Tate ETC., Issue 16 (Summer). Accessed: September 2011. http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue16/futurism1.htm

[9] Bishop 2009, Ibid.

[10] Connor, Steven (1989), Postmodernist Culture: an Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, p.143.

[11] Aristotle (Poetics, VI, 1449b) defines tragedy as follows: “Ἐστὶν οὖν τραγωδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας, μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ, χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδὼν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι′ ἀπαγγελίας, δι′ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν”. (A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an act that is significant and complete, of a certain magnitude, using a pleasing language with ornaments, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; using action and not a narrative form; managing through pity and fear to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions).

[12] Bolt, Barbara (2004), Art Beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image, New York: I.B. Tauris, p.171.

[13] Richards, Mary (2010), Marina Abramović, Routledge: New York, p.42.