Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

What's Welsh for Performance? - 40 years of 'Time-

A research project devoted to uncovering and archiving the history of Performance Art in Wales

The history of performance art in Wales has yet to be written. Over a period of nearly forty years artists have been creating performance, action or time-based art in this country, yet their work remains largely confined to oral history, to half-remembered anecdotes, rumours and hearsay. As early as 1968, Welsh painter Ivor Davies, protagonist of the Destruction in Art movement, staged happenings at Swansea University; the National Eisteddfod of 1977 in Wrexham became notorious for its international performance programme featuring Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis and Mario Merz and impromptu interventions by Welsh artist Paul Davies; in the 1990s, Cardiff Art in Time provided an important platform for international and local performance work… One often searches in vain for traces of these events in the official annals of Welsh art history. Surprising for an artistic genre so committed to documentation and theoretical reflection, there are no publicly accessible archives dedicated to performance art in Wales, no books, no journals. And yet, the contemporary performance art scene in this country is still one of the most vibrant anywhere in the UK.

The distinctiveness of performance art in Wales derives from a fusion of global artistic developments with local cultural and political desires. The earliest art actions that appeared in this country in the late 1960s and early 1970s were inspired in equal measure by the movement of the international avant-garde toward a dematerialization of art practice and by the local reaffirmation of a distinct cultural identity that manifests itself primarily as performance (above all as the celebration of the Welsh language). This was accompanied by a political activism that also gathered pace in the sixties through harnessing performance's radical potential for direct political action in the struggle for the survival of the language. Wales has often been called 'England's first colony' - a marginalized culture turned to a marginal art practice as a means for its cultural and political expression. As a consequence the division between different artistic disciplines has been of lesser importance than the question of where these disciplines situate themselves in the cultural and political landscape of Wales. In its quest to develop a distinctive form that could provide an alternative to the dominant English mainstream, for example, Welsh experimental theatre from its earliest manifestations embraced artistic strategies that we have come to know from performance art, such as site-specificity, duration and active audience involvement. As a result, the term 'performance' in Wales today describes a fluid field of innovative practices originating in a variety of disciplines, including performance art, sonic art, experimental theatre, movement work, and performance poetry.

author:Heike Roms

original source: Performance Wales
16 March 2006


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