When performance art is bad, it’s really bad, Assistant Professor in Art Amelia Winger-Bearskin says by way of explaining why people seem to hate her chosen art form.
Because people know so little about performance art, they don’t feel comfortable deciding whether it’s good or bad, Winger-Bearskin reasons. This makes them unsure of how to react, especially when they disagree with what’s being said. That, she explains, provides a great place to make art.
The petite Winger-Bearskin uses her nonthreatening physical presence and gentle speaking voice to create a safe place for her audience. She employs characters who are vaguely familiar, evoking flight attendants or the staff of a doctor’s office, for example—people who are in charge, but who are also providing a service—to conduct audience members through situations designed to foster questioning of the status quo. In this way she addresses racism, history and women’s issues, and even the nature of performance, in a nonconfrontational way.
“I take you through a script; this is fine, this is normal, this is what you’re used to,” she explains. By the time people realize the program has deviated from that familiar script, they’re usually too involved in the project to simply walk away.
Although Winger-Bearskin uses several forms of media in her work, especially video and sound, she considers herself first and foremost a performance artist. Performance art allows her to combine art and activism in a way she had experienced while leading a theatrical troupe of native Costa Ricans in Central America.
She founded the troupe, which began as a dance troupe, at the tender age of 17 after arriving in Costa Rica on a dance scholarship only to find the school was a hoax.
Five years later she was back in the States looking for a way to combine her singing background (she’d trained at the Eastman Conservatory in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y.) and her love of movement.
Drawn to the form precisely because it is so hard to define, she is loathe to offer any sort of definition for performance art. Instead, she revels in its “hybrid no-space.”
“I’m really interested in that space that isn’t defined,” she says. “A lot of my work is about people who are in between, spaces that are in between, because that is a space where you can begin to have conversations with people from a different angle.”
Find out more: www.studioamelia.com
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“Épouvantée de l’héritage” (“Appalled at the Consequences of War”) by Honoré Daumier is on display through May 13 at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery. More than 50 works of art are featured in the Reflections of War exhibition, presented in recognition of America’s longest war, as the country enters its 10th year of fighting in Afghanistan.