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The long and short of durational performance

Breaking down the appeal of marathon art and theatre.

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Published: 21 Sep 2018


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It was my first time, getting a hotel room just to watch a performance. The sense of novelty was heightened by doubt—what have I done? is this right?—but there was no turning back.

I had said yes to the promise of a heady mix of theatre and visual art in the durational performance Give Me Your Blood and I Will Give You Freedom by Indian artist Nikhil Chopra. That the show was 50 hours long further appealed to the die-hard arts lover in me; I wasn’t about to back down from a dare to prove my commitment. But just in case things got too intense, the hotel room near the performance venue would offer respite.

Chopra’s work was commissioned for the 2014 Singapore International Festival of Arts. Its inspiration was the late Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, who had come to Singapore in the 1940s to recruit soldiers to fight for India’s independence from British colonial rule.

The one-man show in the white cube space at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road had pledged a democratic experience for the audience. One could come and go as one pleased, even though Chopra performed the whole time, with quotidian needs such as eating, washing and sleeping cleverly woven into the two-day, two-night performance.

The work was not my first encounter with endurance-based performance that stretches beyond the usual handful of hours. Earlier that year, I had caught A Dream Like A Dream by renowned Taiwanese playwright Stan Lai at Esplanade Theatre, part of Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts. But that production was eight hours long; or short, next to Chopra’s 50.

A Dream Like a Dream Huayi 2014 01

Stan Lai's A Dream Like A Dream, part of Huayi 2014 at Esplanade Theatre, which seated audiences on stage.

The liberty to enter and exit Chopra’s show at will was reassuring, although I soon found myself a willing captive of his lyrical and suspenseful performance. I zipped out only intermittently for food, drink, and 40 winks at the hotel. (A handful of hardier show-goers, who had no issues sharing the nights with strangers, brought their own sleeping bags and made do on the theatre floor.)

When the 50-hour feat of stamina finally ended, I had newfound appreciation for the genre.

Against the dominant narrative of vanitas and ephemerality in the arts, durational performance is a rebel song and an answer to the universal pursuit for significance. The work might ultimately be ephemeral, but its marathon-like quality pushes the artist and audience to transcend personal mortal limits, to resist transience, and to reclaim the worth of fleeting pleasure (and pain).

Time – the architect and disruptor

Durational performance does not answer to a pragmatic demanding an explanation for why it should be so long. Those who nonetheless seek confirmation of their bias would find it in a merciless editor, or the 140-character generation.

Nor does the popularity of non-durational work render durational performance frivolous or indulgent. The span of time that the latter demands provides the artistic practice with plan, purpose and a place in society.

Time is a key component of durational performance and its passage is deliberately accentuated to accommodate the creation of ambitious work. Chopra, explaining why his performance was 50 hours, said in an interview with The Straits Times that the duration, equivalent to “two days, two nights and two hours”, gave him enough time to inhabit the performance space and to explore the many ideas he had on blurring boundaries between forms of art.

Similarly, time is the invisible engineer of Lai’s epic drama, A Dream Like A Dream. In it, a doctor, two patients and other characters cross paths in dream and waking. Stories unfold within stories, and the audience is led on a journey through countries, cultures and continents. When it was staged at Esplanade, the production involved 27 actors playing nearly 100 roles and going through 400 costume changes.

By drawing attention to time, durational performance also disrupts usual patterns of behaviour and the interruption is used to radically transform the experience of art.

The audience – reflection and escape

One example is the eight-hour-long Memory II: Hunger, staged at the Singapore Arts Festival in 2011 by Beijing’s Living Dance Studio. The film and live performance told the stories of survivors of China's Great Famine (1959-1961), the outcome of both government mismanagement and natural disaster.

The audience was encouraged to fast the night before the show, and the delay of meals, coupled with the length of the production, dramatically heightened one’s sense of the performance. The audience was also invited to break their fast by sharing a meal with the actors at the end of the show.

The palpable presence of the audience in a durational performance is what sets it apart from work performed by artists over a period, but without an audience in attendance.

Examples of the latter include the largely static and plotless eight-hour, black-and-white silent film of the Empire State building by Andy Warhol in 1964, consumed by an audience after the film was made, and One Year Performance (1980-1981) by Tehching Hsieh, where for a year, he punched a time clock every hour on the hour and took a single picture of the moment, without an audience on the spot. Then there is Relation in Time (1977) by Marina Abramovic where she sat back-to-back with another artist, Ulay, for 16 hours in a studio in Italy, with their ponytails tied together, and visitors were allowed to witness them only in the 17th and final hour.

Durational performance, in fact, has roots in marathon cycles of dramatic work linked to ritual and communal expression, including the day-long performances of ancient Greek tragedy, Japanese kabuki, and the multi-day performance of ramlila, a dramatic folk re-enactment of the Hindu epic Ramayana. The durational quality of these performances was a response to the milieu in which they arose, and they offered an escape from the humdrum of the day-to-day.

Durational performance continues to occupy a place in society, and it is perhaps more urgent now than before, given the cult of speed that has taken hold of contemporary life. Such works invite reflection on how we spend the hours, days, and years of our lives, and equally, prompt meditation on living in the moment and seizing it.

Peony Pavilion Huayi 2003 01

A scene from The Peony Pavilion, staged at Esplanade, as part of Huayi 2003.

For example, the Kun Opera classic, The Peony Pavilion, was mounted in its 19-hour entirety for the first time in four centuries by China-born, US-based director Chen Shi-Zheng in a lavish production which toured internationally. It was staged at Esplanade in 2003, performed in six installments over four days.

It is with much excitement, therefore, that I count down to my next date with durational performance, xhe. The five-hour multidisciplinary work by artists Daniel Kok and Miho Shimizu will be staged at Esplanade Annexe Studio in October.

The performance, combining dance, visual installation and live electronic music, promises a meditative, playful, kaleidoscopic experience. I plan to bring an open mind, check my mental clutter at the door, and turn those moments of light, sound and action into enduring memories.

Xhe 02

Conceived by Daniel Kok and Miho Shimizu, xhe is a multidisciplinary performance combining dance, visual installation and live electronic music, which envelops the audience in search for an elusive figure that is not “he”, not “she”, nor “it”.

Hear from dancemaker Daniel Kok about xhe

Ready for your first durational performance?

Here are five quick tips that will come in super handy!


Contributed by:

Huang Lijie

Huang Lijie has written about the arts for Singapore’s English daily newspaper, The Straits Times.


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