Sunday, December 7, 2003
Shocking people is easy.
Getting them to stop, watch what might seem like an outlandish spectacle and then walk away thinking about what it means is not.
But that's precisely the task facing 15 students in Kansas University professor Roger Shimomura's performance art class as they prepare for the 18th annual Evening of Performance Art.
The hour-long "exhibit" is always nontraditional, to say the least. A look back at a recent in-class performance begins to illustrate the inventive ways students might communicate their ideas during the show.
KU senior Sara Schirmer, decked in a blue dress and white apron a la Alice in Wonderland, scrawled lists of words onto paper hanging from the walls while bathed in the light of a projector playing fantastic scenes from the "Alice in Wonderland" movie. She then squatted over a tea kettle, simulated peeing in it and poured its contents into tea cups at a nearby table. She drank the "urine" moments later.
The piece toyed with ideas of regeneration and nothingness, she explained later.
"When you think of drinking, the logical flow is you drink and you go pee," said Schirmer, a painting major. "It appears that I started with nothing and then I birthed nothing. I'm going to recycle so I have more of nothing."
So maybe the intentions aren't obvious at first. But Schirmer's just asking viewers to open their minds.
"We're not just a bunch of art freaks," she says.
"Everything has a purpose, so I hope people just look past the initial what it appears to be and try and contemplate the message behind all of it."
Blue and confused
Shimomura's been teaching the performance art class once a year since 1985. At the end of the semester, students give a free, public performance centered on a theme.
This year's theme is color. The students decided they each would be assigned a different color and that all their props, equipment and costumes would reflect that color. The performances are supposed to be loosely autobiographical.
Schirmer's color is blue. Classmate David Bandy, a KU senior and painting major, drew pink. He hasn't finalized the details of his final piece, but he's certain it will deal with his mixed Vietnamese-American heritage, a theme he has explored in each of his works this semester. A continuous prop has been rice.
"I'm trying to find a way to use rice" in this piece, he said, "but it might be difficult because I'd have to dye it pink."
It's not unusual for up to 400 people to cycle through the Art & Design Gallery during the performances. Thursday's show will mark the first public performance for most of the students in the class.
"It's one thing to perform for the class, and it's another thing to perform for people who haven't been there to understand how your art has developed," Schirmer said. "I suppose it takes some of the pressure off because they're not going to be as critical; they're just going to be confused."
An elusive genre
This will be Shimomura's last performance art class at KU; he's retiring in the spring. He says the art department is searching for his replacement and that he hopes the performance course continues.
Shimomura, who teaches painting, drawing and performance, has won national acclaim for writing and directing his own performance art pieces. He got turned onto the art literally weeks before he taught his first performance class at KU.
He's never really been able to define the genre.
"It's extremely elusive," he said. "It's easier to speak about what it's not. It's not a skit. It's not sheer entertainment. It's meant to provoke, evoke, to stimulate, to challenge and to present an opportunity to be moved in a way that you're not accustomed to being moved."
The origins of performance art have been a matter of debate, Shimomura said. There are those who claim it has its roots in ritual, which extends back for centuries. Others, including Shimomura, believe it sprang from Futurism, an early 20th century arts movement that began in Italy and strove to break traditional molds for how art was produced and consumed.
The performance art course is part of an area of study at KU called expanded media, which also includes classes on installation art, mixed media and computer and book arts.
So what's the outlook for students who want to pursue performance art after college?
"Guaranteed poverty," Shimomura said, laughing.
Many of his former students now live in New York and stay involved in performance in one way or another, but they certainly don't make a living at it.
But then that's not really the biggest benefit Shimomura's students say they derive from the class.
"It's been the most interesting experience," Bandy said. "It's no boundaries, no box. ... It's gotten me thinking in ways I've never thought of before."