A guide to participatory art shows

Kathleen Bondar 24 August 2021

Participatory art radically immerses the audience in the creation of art, rendering them no longer passive observers but key creators 

Participatory art has led to some highly celebrated as well as passionately lampooned exhibitions in the contemporary art scene. Artists such as Yoko Ono, Antony Gormley, Marina Abramovic and Spencer Tunick have all actively engaged the viewer in some form of participation beyond passively looking at art.

Rather than enabling a community art project, it is an experience under the curatorial direction of the artist. The idea is to encourage or manipulate participation as a tool for raising consciousness and immersing the audience in the experience of creating art. The process and the result become the artist’s exhibition, and many have hit the headlines worldwide.

Now, at the grand age of 88, the avant-garde artist and peace activist, Yoko Ono is back with an exhibition entitled Mend Piece at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London (25 August 2021 – 2 January 2022) which involves visitors repairing smashed pottery in the Japanese tradition of kintsugi as part of the display.

For Ono, participatory art has been a vehicle for the public to collaborate in promoting peace and this latest interactive installation seems to play on the pun (piece/peace). Everything is white - the colour associated with peace in war. Tables and chairs are white; the smashed pottery is white; string and scissors are white. Yoko Ono advises the visitor: “Mend carefully. Think of mending the world at the same time.”

"Interestingly, Mend Piece revisits Ono’s 1966 exhibition Mending Piece I held at the famous, counterculture Indica Gallery in London where she met Lennon, as if her work has come full circle"

Despite being a visionary artist in her own right, Ono is most popularly known in association with John Lennon, her third husband, with whom she spent a honeymoon in Amsterdam in 1969 protesting against the Vietnam war with a week-long Bed-in for Peace. During this time, they received many celebrity visitors and a great deal of press attention.  Ono’s reputation preceeded her marriage to Lennon, with Cut Piece, first exhibited in Kyoto, Japan in 1964 and then in New York and London.

As the title infers, members of the public cut away small pieces of Ono’s clothes until she was completely naked to demonstrate reciprocity and trust between artist and viewer. Interestingly, Mend Piece revisits Ono’s 1966 exhibition Mending Piece I held at the famous, counterculture Indica Gallery in London where she met Lennon, as if her work has come full circle.

Yoko Ono in 2011

Other contemporary artists in the canon of participatory art have used various techniques to achieve their goals. In 2009 the English sculptor Antony Gormley was commissioned to work on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth in London which hosts sculptures by award winning artists on a yearly commission since 2001.

Gormley took the idea of sharing the plinth to whole new level and engaged thousands of people to express themselves creatively by occupying the platform for an hour each. As a result, during the year the plinth became a space to promote the personal, political and artistic (with a heavy dose of humour and some showing-off thrown in), all under the curatorial eye of Gormley.

The first participant—or living statue—was usurped by a saboteur waving an anti-smoking placard. The interloper scaled the monument much to the bemusement of the curator and the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

After this, the exhibition proceeded as anticipated with housewife Rachel Wardell, holding a circular placard on a pole, rather like a lollipop lady on a zebra crossing, advertising Childline’s freephone number. Numerous living statues then took the stand, including an IT consultant who spent an hour releasing green balloons, whilst a man held a banner professing that he was “not a pigeon”.

The fourth plinth

The empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London

Audience involvement can be risky. Most shockingly in Naples, Italy in 1974 at Studio Morra the Serbian artist Marina Abramovic instructed participants to “use on me as desired” a range of objects from petals and feathers to razors and a loaded gun during her exhibition Rhythm 0. Abramovic wanted to find out “how far the public would go” with her body and the results, reflecting misogynistic tolerance at that time, placed her in an abusive situation.  

"Abramovic wanted to find out “how far the public would go” with her body and the results, reflecting misogynistic tolerance at that time, placed her in an abusive situation"

Abramovic has continued to explore the relationship between artist and audience in relation to her body throughout her career. Perhaps in a more considered manner, at least for her physical wellbeing, she performed The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. Sitting still and silent for three months, eight hours a day, she gazed through the public who filed in to sit opposite her, some to stare back, others to profess their feelings.

Marina Abramovic

Marina in 2010 performing The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

A retrospective of Abramovic now in her mid-seventies, including her performance and participatory art, at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly London, has been postponed until 2023. A work hoped to be revisited in the showcase—social distancing forgiving—is Imponderabilia (1977) conceived to test the audience’s relationship with art by inviting them to walk between a nude man and woman standing close together.

Nudity has been a chosen subject of the American artist and photographer Spencer Tunick in his participatory ventures. Last year he brought together over two hundred people for a collective photo shoot at Alexandra Palace, North London—with a difference.

Everyone wore a mask in keeping with social distancing during lockdown, apart from which they were naked. Tunick has staged over 75 largescale, nude shoots—to explore our understanding of identity and privacy, he explains.

Tunick has used urban and rural landscapes as his canvas whilst curating volunteers in various poses as shapes. This latest participatory experience entitled Everyone Together 2020 to launch Sky Arts, proved a poignant sentiment during the pandemic.

Read more: Jessamyn Stanley: If I Ruled The World

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