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The Tank’s in the Water

The Tanks in the Water is a Happening: Performance as Art

By Darrell Roberts

What is performance art and does it even matter?  If one were to sample ten random people, they would get ten different answers.  The positive responses may consider performance art as a necessary practice of expression and discovery.  As for the negative, the replies would likely focus on either disapproving experiences or a lack of appreciation for the arts.  Nevertheless, a reasonable conclusion would suggest that performance art is as old as humanity and its significance, just like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  Perhaps, the following examination of the modern origins, the bad, the good, and even transformative power of the medium will serve to cultivate an understanding of performance art.

Some version of performance virtuosity has been around since the dawn of humankind.  However, the modern version grew from “innovators” such as Allan Kaprow, “who, in the late 1950s, ‘invented’ what he called Happenings [defined as] assemblages of events performed [as] art but seems closer to life” (Sayre).   Furthermore, the book titled, “A World of Art,” describes performance art, from the 1960s onward, as having centered around “physical space” and the “activity” that occurs.  Hence, the focus of the artist’s expression is not confined to a stage, script, or canvas as the focus has shifted to the physical presence and the action.

Thus, a diverse and unique performance was created that can never be duplicated.  Also within this diversity, there are bad, good, and even altering works.

Whether based on myth or sparked by public outrage, the average person is probably most familiar with the “bad” instances of performance art.  Some of this art is centered on such actions as Marina Abramovic’s 2010 “The Artist is Present,” which saw Abramovic spending, “736 hours staring at Museum of Modern Art visitors across a table.” This exhibition received lots of attention with one assessment from Jerry Saltz, a writer for New York Magazine, labeling the performance as, “narcissistic, exhibitionistic work… [by both artist and crowds creating] a self-fulfilling feedback loop [but was] also very compelling” (Brooks).

A 2014 Huffington Post article titled “20 of the Most Confusing Performance Art Pieces of All Time (NSFW)” offers tales of acts by artists that include: surgical camera implant, sleeping inside a bear carcass, live childbirth, public orgies, and self-circumcision.  Of course, urban legends that may evolve from such acts are often misinterpreted or misunderstood.

Perhaps your less cultured uncle may have shared his outrage claiming, “I ‘heard’ some pervert hammered a nail through his scrotum as a protest of male-dominance.”   Ha-ha.  That was a false statement, but it does represent a composite of viewpoints that are personally familiar. Although many people may be most aware of the “bad” or perhaps misunderstood, there are works focused on making clear statements for positive change.

What is “good” performance art?  To answer that question, let’s examine the work of Chinese artist Zhang Huan.  In his 1997 work titled “To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond” Huan invited “about forty participants, recent migrants to the city who had come to work in Beijing from other parts of China. They were construction workers, fishermen, and laborers, all from the bottom of society” (PUT).  These migrants were known as “colloquially in Chinese as a ‘floating population’ because they exist outside of the official government work unit structure” (PUT).  Their shared goal was to join and raise the water level by one meter.  The intent was for these forgotten people to work together to “assert their presence [in hope to] raise the government’s consciousness of their needs as well.  As a political act, Huan acknowledged that raising the water [was] ‘an action to no avail’” (Sayre).

Perhaps Huan’s goal may have failed, but it remains an influential work and offers a positive example for present (and perhaps future) artists to strive to raise social consciousness.  Huan’s work is certainly admirable, but let’s move forward to a great work.


tank man
Tiananmen Square June 5, 1989


Just a personal view, but the featured photograph is what I consider to be one of the most iconic images from not only the 20th Century but of all time.  This “performance” occurred a day after the Chinese military crushed a protest primarily made up of students at Tiananmen Square.

On 5 June 1989, an unknown man, forever to be known as “Tank Man,” stood in front of a group of Chinese tanks.  The image is historic because it’s the only person photographed standing up to the tanks.  It also contains artistic value as the trees, streets, tanks, soldiers, and “Tank Man” establish a surreal and frightening context.  The first thing you notice is how small the man appears compared to the tanks rolling down an empty street.  Also, see the signs of destruction along the road and toward the back of the image soldiers command the area.  The bravery of “Tank Man” will never be forgotten and will always serve to motivate others to stand up and face their fears.

Furthermore, the man knew he had no chance to topple the massive military campaign.  However, he found it with himself to perform and he acted.  Whether the man knew if his action would be captured on film and spark emotions around the world is unknown and not relevant.  Additionally, the identity of “Tank Man” has never been publicly established and his fate remains unknown.  However, his performance and this picture of “Tank Man” did impact the modern world and ranks among the most significant works of performance art in human history.

What’s the moral of the story?  It’s simple; human expression continues to address the state of the world in which they live.  As the world evolves, so does the art of the times.  As such performance art may have existed since the dawn of humanity, it has modified and will continue to do.  Some of these works will be misunderstood, undervalued, or of poor quality.  However, the innovators will continue to strive to use their artistic creativity to create social awareness and perhaps even change.  In most instances, the artists may not achieve their established goal, but it only takes one success to make history and to change the world.





Works Cited

Brooks, Katherine. “20 of the Most Confusing Performance Art Pieces of All Time (NSFW).” The Huffington Post.  The, 24 June 2014.  Web.

Sayre, Henry M. A World of Art. Boston: Pearson, 2016. Print.

Veniceperformanceart. “Permanent Installation | Zhang Huan.” Venice International Performance Art Week. 23 Dec. 2014. Web. http://veniceperformanceart.

1 thought on “The Tank’s in the Water

  1. I’m intrigued. I shall read on…

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