Opie Boero Imwinkelried, Oscar Mac-Fall and Agnes Nedregard recently performed as Dimanche Rouge as part of Frasq performance art festival, Paris. Showcased in Le Générateur, on the cusp of Le Périphérique, their performance questioned language, purpose and, most significantly, the art world they have encountered.
Three artists sit motionless at a table, sheets of paper in each of their hands as they stare blankly above the heads of the audience. At first, the nature of our relationship – artist and audience – is unclear. Is their uniform stillness, satisfyingly simple and symmetric, a position of defence or one of authority? Nedregard begins to read from the paper, the two men retain their ambiguous expressions.
‘Art is competitive
Art is elitist’
The text that follows is read first by Nedregard, then again by Imwinkelried, finally to be repeated a third time by Mac-Fall. It begins as a criticism of the consumerist nature of and corruption within the popular art-world today. Throughout the performance we are asked (indirectly) to question the assumed meaning of words or concepts. The artists themselves don’t use this term, popular, yet it seems appropriate here, and consequentially appropriate to rethink its connotations. Popular music, popular art, even a popular YouTube video. Popular does not equate to favourite, but denotes something measured by its sales, strengthened by tactful marketing and keen opportunism. Having introduced its criticism, the text explores the place of performance art, which ‘claims to be against competition, elitism, solidified structures, property, marketing’, within a world where such features are the tools of success.
‘Is this art worth producing and presenting?’
Dimanche Rouge asks the audience. On the surface they question the purpose of their actions, but beneath this they seek an honest definition of worth Van Gogh’s Still Life, Vase with Daisies and Poppies (1890) recently sold for $61.8m. In one sense, it is undeniably worth this amount. Yet during the artist’s lifetime he sold only one painting. Did the worth of his paintings only accumulate in the years after his death? Before they were given monetary value, could they not be appreciated, could they not have expressive and artistic worth that existed prior to their success and popularity?
With each repetition, the text reveals itself more prominently as a manifesto; a call for artists to keep their integrity intact by remembering the initial worth and purpose of their practice. It resembles the politics of a group disgruntled with the loss of a purer perspective, a group dissatisfied with the influence that has trickled down from fame-guzzling curators and now manifests in the minds of artists old and new, rotting the art world from the core. Dimanche Rouge’s manifesto asks us to cleanse our minds of such corruption via an awareness of its influence.
The repetition allows the audience to absorb various sections of the text upon each reading, piecing together pieces of the jigsaw. Accompanying this is a sense of systematicity, perhaps unavoidable through repetition. Yet rather than distancing the audience through potential coolness, the fluidity instead heightens the efficiency of their almost mechanical operation – as though their plight is strengthened by their unity. It soon becomes apparent why they have chosen to perform as Dimanche Rouge, a collective, rather than three individual artists.
These key elements in the performance – unity and systematicity – evoke imagery from early Soviet governments in the 1920s. The difference is, whilst the Soviet government’s ties to genuine socialism are tenuous, more of which I will discuss later, actual links to Marxist philosophy can be made to Dimanche Rouge’s performance. Before moving towards a discussion of communism as an inevitability in certain economic climates (Das Kapital, 1867), Marx acknowledged the contradictory relationship between capitalism and human nature. We identify ourselves as individuals, but individuals whose potential can be maximised via labour. If the purpose of labour is skewed, if we work purely for the sake of monetary gain as the capitalist desires, we no longer work for our own development or that of our fellow labourers, and the unity of a working cooperative disintegrates. This same philosophy was embodied by Dimanche Rouge’s performance: if we skew our conception of art’s purpose and blind ourselves with greed, our potential as artists or audience cannot be reached.
In practice on such a vast scale, Soviet Communism – that professed to have stemmed from Marx’s later works – suffered under the selfish thirst for power of potential leaders. Most famously, the Stalin-Trotsky battle following Lenin’s death in 1924. Where once two men had played key roles in the running of the same political engine, suddenly each resorted to aggression in order to assert their individual power. All too quickly, the power struggle spiralled out of control, in retrospect also revealing the dubious nature of their initial ‘comradery’. Noam Chomsky suggests that there was never even a remotely socialist element to Russia’s revolutionary project (The Soviet Union vs Socialism, 1986). Any association we make is attributable to the success of the two largest propaganda systems at the time. Russia clutched at the positive connotations of socialism to gain popularity from a society impoverished by Tsarist elitism. Meanwhile, the USA blamed such poverty on socialism, making an example of Russia’s turmoil to demonise communism and construct the Red-monster image that would haunt international relations until the end of the century, if not the present day.
Although a drastic parallel to draw, the Soviet example serves to emphasise the ambiguous manner with which we assign definitions to words, as well as the fickle nature of the human condition as seen in the art world criticised by Dimanche Rouge. Specifically, the contradiction this draws against the idea that art is not a mere commodity. How is such a paradox possible? Dimanche Rouge criticise the notion that ‘Artwork is the property of its author’, something to be sold and profited from. On the contrary, their art has no ownership, no copyrights, no merchandise. Performance cannot be recreated and mass produced for the shelves; branded, packaged and sold by the thousand. Performance art is intrinsically distanced from ownership. On speaking with Imwinkelried afterwards he told me that although he wrote the script it is not his property. The purpose of their practice is simply to express, and for their expression to be experienced in its purest and most original form: in real-time.
Ultimately, the questions derived from Dimanche Rouge’s performance simmer down to questions of definition, of language. For the general public, what is valuable art? With which tools can we judge an artwork’s worth? For the artist, how should art be practiced? For the sake of self-expression, for the sake of others, for its consequences?
‘Artists or their agents use marketing strategies and build networks so that their work increases its value.’
Working towards a tainted definition of worth and value, this seems like good advice. Yet what does it become if we reassess their meaning – if the artist’s integrity and purpose are what measure such values? Subverting this purpose for monetary gain distorts the meaning associated with such words.
In a society focused on material success, integrity can be lost to greed. For Stalin’s Russia, corruption of the art world manifested as a form of manipulation and control. Take Kazimir Malevich, for example. The pioneer in Russian art at the beginning of the 20th century, he was a man with hopes for artistic expression that were more abstract and imaginative than had been seen before. His avant-garde Suprematism (most famously Black Square, pictured) pushed all artistic boundaries, expressed excitement for the future and an opposition to the rigid realism of the old fashioned. It should have illustrated the revolution, served as a signpost for future possibilities within a new society, but instead was associated by Stalin with the bourgeoisie and capitalism. In 1934 ‘Socialist Realism’ became state policy, with Stalin banning all other art styles. Art was now propaganda for the success of the Soviet system – the proletariat smiling as they work in the field or factory. Malevich, and countless others, were forced to suppress their own styles to create uniform paintings that expressed nothing but their own repression. If they refused, they faced imprisonment for ‘opposing’ Communist efforts. In his later paintings, the loss of Malevich’s artistic integrity is so apparent that it becomes distressingly uncomfortable to compare them to his Suprematist glory-days. The hypocrisy of Stalin’s actions was but one of many forms of manipulation essentially bred from a deeply ingrained paranoia – the fear of losing of control. Authoritarian control. Tsarist control; the very enemy of the ‘Communist’ revolution.
Of course it is difficult, but retaining the integrity of a work of art, and of its appreciation and presentation to the public, is vital. In extreme circumstances, such as Malevich’s, this is not possible. Yet for those lucky enough not to live in such extreme conditions, Dimanche Rouge’s manifesto asserts that the only barrier is our own greed. In an environment where capitalist consumerism is dominant, it is both refreshing and humbling to see this being questioned in the art world. Dimanche Rouge’s performance served as a counterexample to the institution criticised in the text. Language was the tool for criticism and action the example, or evidence, that it is possible to create a work of art without ‘pertaining to the art world’. In fact, with the escalation of internet file sharing and speed with which we can now access music, literature, film and art practically for free, an art world still stuck in the buy-sell-profit mindset is falling behind. Sadly the internet has severely damaged the commercial music industry and many of the artists within it, but there have been some positive consequences. Some artists release music online with no objective other than its appreciation. Via the internet artworks can be stripped of their financial value, and the opinions of all can have prominence, not simply those of its curators. To the benefit of performers such as Imwinkelried, Mac-Fall and Nedregard, the ‘art world’ is expanding.