Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK
Hayley Newman's first solo show at a major international venue worked as a reminder of the written word's immense influence on the reception and interpretation of works of art. The exhibition at first appeared to be the visual record of a large number of her own performance works. Presented as a display of neatly framed photographs complete with captions detailing titles, dates, venues and related information, 'Connotations - Performance Images 1994-98' (1998) and 'Connotations I' (2002), the latter constructed especially for the exhibition, allegedly documented some 40 live art actions carried out in diverse locations over a period of several years. A careful inspection of the earlier anthology revealed, however, that these 'captured actions' were all in fact staged during a single week in 1998, and recorded not by a range of on-location photographers but by a solo collaborator, Casey Orr.
Each photograph in Connotations - Performance Images 1994-98 represented a single work, with the adjacent caption succinctly describing what had supposedly taken place. We see what we are told is Newman dressed as a ghost in a Soho pub or wearing special 'crying glasses' while travelling on public transport, a crack in a wall caused by a PA system blaring out at high volume, thousands of small plastic bags filled with the artist's own breath, and a sponge jammed in the door of the artist's studio. These and other such 'works' point to the fact that the history of performance art is in large measure constructed through individual, iconic images of now classic actions or events, together with their reproduction in catalogues, magazines and books. In some cases Newman references performances by seminal figures such as Chris Burden or Robert Filliou, as though restaging them for an in-the-know audience of experts or critics. The prose employed similarly alludes to the deadpan, matter-of-fact writing style used by Burden when assembling his own archival material.
If photography is frequently considered to be the authentic trace of a contingent event, the textual accompaniment to an image may be presumed to seal the purported action further within a particular historical location, verifying as 'real' its point of origin. In faking this evidence, Newman, well aware that performance art involves an existential encounter between performer and audience, deliberately disrupts the established channels of mediation between the work's production and its historical reception. The immediate audience for a performed work is, as it were by definition, limited, occupying the same contextual framework as that of the artist. A later or secondary level of the work's reception is afforded through the combined media of photography and language, which together recall a lost (yet paradoxically preserved) auratic or authentic experience. Whether or not a specific performance really happened (or whether it even needed to in order eventually to 'exist') is not an easy question to answer. Newman, at the very least, asks it in an intelligent, playful and entertaining way.
Newman also poses far-reaching questions about the veracity and propriety of photography in relation to the commercial value of the corroborative object. The ground on which such 'authentic' relics rely for verification is substantially shaken by her manipulation of conventional hierarchies. If the captioned photograph has become the central, if problematic, route of return to the primal moment of a performance-in-action, it is surely time to reconsider how a work is in effect invented, positioned and reproduced through the careful manipulation of images and texts.
Newman's ludic chronology or spoof self-history resists over-simplistic claims to authenticity, turning the act of recording into a layered arrangement of performative gestures. In emphasizing artifice over spontaneity, the latter, so insidious a cliché of Modernist aesthetics, is rightly refused. In her actual performances too, Newman's seemingly immediate actions have often been rehearsed, slowly invented, freely yet finely tuned.
First published in Issue 71