Performance Art

3.7 Instruments

Nam June Paik’s collaboration with the cellist Charlotte Moorman provides the most vivid example of this exploration of musical objects. As Michael Nyman has written, Moorman’s cello has surpassed any other instrument, in any era, in the number of uses it has been put to.[14] For example, it was frozen in a block of ice and then brought back to life by Moorman’s bowing the ice, wearing the ice away through friction, until she finally reached the strings. The physical action eventually achieved sound. Together they also explored the issue of sex and music. As Paik has said, sex is underdeveloped as an element of musical discourse, in contrast to literature or the visual arts. This interest manifested itself most notably in his Opera Sextronique (1967), which Moorman performed topless. This critique of clothing as a style of visual presentation in relation to performance (why dress in black?) resulted in Paik’s and Moorman’s arrest and their detention for a night, on the grounds that the piece was an act which openly outrage[d] public decency.[15]

Such approaches to musical instruments also question the romantic notion of the virtuoso and become even more obvious in Paik’s destructive pieces for violin. Violin with String (Violin to be dragged on the street) (1961–1975) can be seen as a poetic, if violent, representation of Paul Klee’s famous reference to drawing as taking a line for a walk. Here, however, the line is attached to a violin, which is taken for a walk by being dragged behind the performer on the street—the violin reflecting Klee’s interest in music as a structuring device for visual composition, the line adding a fifth string to the normal four of the violin. Paik’s One for Violin Solo (1961) embraces this violent impulse more laconically. The violin, held by the neck, is to be raised very slowly above the head of the performer. When the top of the arc is reached it is to be brought down with full force onto a hard object. This might again bring to mind Jimi Hendrix’s and Pete Townshend’s destruction of their guitars as the high point of their theatrical stage acts, conflating destruction and creation, as well as answering Tristan Tzara’s call in the dadaist text Unpretentious Proclamations (1919): Musicians smash your blind instruments on the stage, an entreaty that demonstrates frustration with visual absence.[16] It is an attack on the music of the past in a futurist vein (We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, wrote the futurists in their first manifesto), and has a modernist ring about it in its forward-looking optimism.[17]

A more explicit connection with the cultic environment of rock music may be found in Robin Page’s 1962 Fluxus work Block Guitar Piece, which required the performer to use the feet rather than the hands to produce sound. The performer is to kick the instrument offstage, out of the concert hall, around the block (hence the title), back into the hall, and back onto the stage, having taken it for a walk. This work recalls Paik, and a similar fate of another guitar in Luis Buñuel’s film L’age d’or (1930). Such approaches make instruments more than mere transmitters of music; through these works, the instruments become sculptural objects, points of fixation and fetish.

Judge Milton Shalleck quoted in Russel Baker, “From Jail to Jungle: The Work of Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik,” in The Art of Performance: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock and Robert Nickas (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984), 278–288. An interesting variation on this theme was their performance of Cage’s work 26.1.1499 for a String Player in the Cafe Au Go-Go in New York in 1965. This performance involved Paik, naked from the waist up, being played between Moorman’s legs as a human cello (holding the string taut over his back). This work neatly inverts the art-historical tradition of stringed instruments’ iconic reference to women’s bodies—the classic modern example being Man Ray’s Le violon d’Ingres (1924)—and brings home the corporeal nature of all tactile engagement in musical performance and of its grounding in the body; the musical object becomes a subject.  
But as Douglas Kahn has pointed out, the recuperative power of high capitalism in an age of postmodernist ideology restored one of Hendrix’s smashed guitars, from 1967, from broken junk back to the status of prized possession; the guitar was sold in 1991 at Sotheby’s in New York for an amazing $45,600. See Kahn, “The Latest: Fluxus and Music.”