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  • The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics
  • Lisa Merrill
Erika Fischer-Lichte . The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Trans. Saskya Iris Jain. London: Routledge, 2008. Pp. 240. $36.95 (Pb).

A live performance event is co-constructed by the bodily presence of both actors and spectators. In Erika Fischer-Lichte's The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, she breaks down this phenomenon into its component parts so as to explore how performance events – particularly those performance art and experimental theatre events staged since the "performative turn" of the 1960s – can be appreciated as transformative.

Much of what Fischer-Lichte achieves in this book is to explode false binaries, particularly that of actor and spectator, which, in the past, have limited theories of aesthetic performance. Live performance is always shaped by the interaction between actors and spectators, where anything can happen. Spectators may interrupt a performance, comment upon it, deride it, celebrate it; and actors respond to those responses. Drawing upon principles like that of communication theorist Paul Watzlawick, who contends that "one cannot not react to the other" (qtd. in Fischer-Lichte 43), Fischer-Lichte demonstrates ways in which the bodily co-presence of actors and spectators in a physical space stimulates interactions which are themselves constitutive of performance. Therefore, spectators experience the materiality of a live performance as an ephemeral event, rather than interpreting it as a static or mediated work of art created by an autonomous artist or artists.

Fischer-Lichte is at her strongest when she relates her theoretical insights to specific performance events. For example, Fischer-Lichte describes Lips of Thomas, a performance art event in 1975 by Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramović in which audience members witnessed Abramović cutting a five-pointed star into her skin. As Fischer-Lichte explains, Abramović's self-inflicted injuries created a situation where spectators were "suspended between the norms and rules of art and everyday life, between aesthetic and ethical imperatives" [End Page 495] (12). The spectators interrupted and ended the performance out of concern for the performer and thus were transformed into actors themselves. Similarly, Fischer-Lichte explores the political, social, and aesthetic issues at play in actor–spectator role reversals in her discussion of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña's Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit. In this performance, the performers, "exhibiting" themselves in cages, provoked the audience into engaging in actions that embodied the colonizing gaze to which performers of colour are often subjected. Rather than considering spectators as passive receivers of artworks, Fusco and Gómez-Peña's performance demonstrated "the transformative power of the gaze directed at another, either recognizing them as co-subjects or degrading them to objects" (59). In her analysis, Fischer-Lichte illustrates how "the act of perceiving the other is always a political act that involves projections of self and other mingled with a variety of disciplining mechanisms"(46).

Traditional discussions of theatrical performances and aesthetic theories derived from them as well as from static works of art make much of a distinction between "art" and "life," and "presence" and "representation." As Fischer-Lichte demonstrates, the "meanings" or "states of consciousness" aroused by a performance event need not be discussed in terms of the "representational aesthetics of the nineteenth-century realistic–psychological theatre" (151). In live performance, actors' bodies are present. Fischer-Lichte explores how meanings emerge for spectators while, as perceiving subjects, they shift their focus between the live actor's phenomenal, material body, and their perception of the character being embodied. Therefore, the meaning and value of a performance are derived not only from the representation of a dramatic text or a fictive character created in another genre, prior to the event. Shifting one's perception to focus on actors' actual bodies has been even more prevalent a feature in performance art since the 1960s, according to Fischer-Lichte, since the specific corporeality of actors' (often naked) bodies could be seen as the "locus and epitome of their 'presence'" (147). Furthermore, spectators witnessing a performer's live presence and ability to generate heightened energy are simultaneously literally taking in and being affected by the sight, sounds, smells, and spatial...


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