This is a truly special installment of 10 Questions featuring Stuart Brisley, one of the most important performance artists of the 20th century. For over five decades Brisley has challenged the standards of the art establishment by employing the abject, absurd and scatological in performances confronting political and social shifts since the start of the Cold War.
Brisley began his ”live action” performances in 1966 so as to create an art form where there would be “no intermediaries and no interpretations between the action (art) and the public.” In a recent example, Next Door (the missing subject) (2010), he dismantled a boarded up retail shop that held the remnants of several failed businesses – including a sign making company and book shop – for ten days at the height of the recent global economic recession. The shop, as the artist stated, exhibits “all the evidence of abandonment” as it had been closed for a number of years and owned by the local council. He piled up debris – tables, chairs, glass, old documents – in the middle of room and continually made adjustments as if carefully sculpting a mound of clay. Along a wall he hung a broken mirror and a painting he made of the Queen. His thoughts were posted for onlookers, namely musings on the absence of the monarch in the discussion on the economic crisis. The mirror and the royal portrait reflect the inability of the ancient regime to provide legitimate, substantial reform.
You have been called the grandfather of British performance art, how do you take to this paternal role?
Not so readily. It has been used a form of shorthand which conveniently masks an absence of engagement with the history of performance with few exceptions. Chrissie Iles at the Whitney is probably the most informed about this aspect of British art.
You were a solider based in Germany, lived briefly in America, are a native to England and spend time in Istanbul. Where do you feel most at home?
I feel at ease in all of these places, for different reasons. In Germany because I spent time as a soldier, a student and an artist in Germany, and have been involved with German art since I was a student in London in the late 1950s. Being in Germany is to continue with an engagement with German art from Grunewald and Durer to the present day. I am married to Maya who has both Turkish and British nationality. Istanbul has become a second home more personal less to do with art although there are spectacular cultural dimensions in Turkey. England is probably the most uncomfortable place because I live here most of the time. I am a part of it, and I suppose am aware of some of the contradictions inherent to the shrinking power of what was until quite recently a massive empire. We still colonize a part of Ireland, and subscribe to a non-elected head of state. As a subject of the crown and a republican there are many issues which engage me as an artist which are specifically related to the societies in these islands.
In an interview you suggested that you would one day want to get to the point of not making performances because it has its limitations – just as painting or sculpture does. Have you reached that point?
Yes I wrote that in the early eighties I think. I had concentrated on performance from the late sixties to the early eighties. By that time I was approaching early middle age. What I was doing was physically demanding and challenging to my whole self, psychology, psyche and so on. I needed to expand not just the means of production but re examine why I I felt the need to become more contemplative which led to making imaginary sound works installations and even a sociological project lasting eighteen moths in a mining community in the north east of England. Inadvertently it stepped beyond the parameters of perceived art practice at the time. Subsequently I made photographs written texts, paintings drawing etc and have continued to make performances. Now I make few performances the last one being in June 2010. I also have made films and videos derived for performance.
When did you realize you were an artist and there was no turning back?
I must have been 17 or 18 and stopped playing cricket and soccer because I needed to concentrate on painting. I did not have any other interest other than being an artist which to me at the time meant becoming a painter.
Do you ever think what you would have been if you weren’t an artist?
I have wondered on occasion, but I suspect it is based on wanting to escape from whatever complications I have, to live a more simple life. Curiously, long durational performances did simplify life for short periods of time and were satisfying in that way, but performance as life is not a possibility.
With all the attention being given to performance – it is now collected by institutions across the globe and the spectacle that was Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MoMA – do you think museums need performance art or does performance art need museums?
Performance has become a part of the language of the visual arts and as such has been logically appropriated by houses of the official collections of art in the form of visual evidence. I do not know what Abramovic was doing at MoMA either from her perspective of that of the institution. It may be that my definition does not provide an adequate categorisation, or that the museum has a broader understanding of what its role should be.
You have yet to be knighted, snub or a blessing? Or something else entirely?
It would be like handing a crock of shit to a republican. It has been known to work.
Where are you to be found when not working on a beautiful Sunday morning? Or are you always working?
Not really, the question opens up a can of worms. Saying one never takes time off suggests to me a kind of monument building of the ego. However there are so many ways of being involved as well as actual making or performing that I would not want to declare how it is. I just get on with it, some things require repetitive activity like building, others not at all, and all kinds of experiences can contribute to the on going process from day to day.
Are you social with other artists?
Yes every now and again but as time passes people drop out of the tree so we tend to call to each other from greater distances.
How would you describe yourself in one word?