PRINT March 1999


The scene: The “Sensation” show, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, December 1998. To the right, some students and their tutor are scrutinizing a grotesque, omnigendered humanoid millipede crafted by the Chapman brothers. To the left, propped against the wall, a man and woman are lost in a long, voluptuous kiss. The sculpture’s polymorphous perversities apparently fit comfortably into the students’ syllabus; but the couple’s lack of inhibition is causing red faces and mental lapses. The tutor briskly ushers the group away from this genuinely disconcerting display (perhaps toward a nice reassuring pickled cow).

What the group either failed or refused to notice was that the kissing woman was also struggling to make notes on a pad stuck to the wall, and that the floor was strewn with sheets of scribblings. No ordinary kisser, this, but British performance artist Hayley Newman; her kissee, a gallant Berliner who’d volunteered just the night before. The notes, insofar as Newman was able to keep a grip on the (analytical) job, describe in banal and excruciatingly frank detail the beating heart, hot flushes, sore lips, and other sensations experienced during the one-hour piece, Kußprüfung (Kiss examination). Newman’s conspicuous public kiss rendered her paradoxically unwatchable. But her vanishing acts have sometimes been even more thoroughgoing: In Invisible Crowds, 1996, she dispersed her fifty-person “audience” by bus to mystery locations all over the Canadian city of Vancouver and left them to find their own way home.

In contrast, the spectacular sound and light performances Newman has been working on since 1995 thrust the performer’s body into the limelight. Based on very limited ranges of movement and employing, in most cases, a single electrical device, these pieces are like bizarre, irrationally productive encounters between early Bruce Nauman or Chris Burden works and glam rock: concentratedly minimal and raunchily excessive in one go. In Microphone Skirt, 1995, Newman’s go-go dancing coaxes or bullies a variety of rhythms and sound textures from a hysterically phallic hula skirt made of dangling, heavily amplified microphones. In Shot in the Dark, 1996, she wears a dress coated with luminous emulsion, then activates a handheld flashgun or banks of blinding flashlights around the stage via a cable release in her mouth. Her body is repeatedly patterned with light and shadow, while the amplified whoosh of the flashes provides an improvisatory rhythm.

The performance Hook and Eye, 1998, looks so hazardous that some viewers at an ICA London performance briefly thought Newman had electrocuted herself. Here, the basic gear is a Velcro-covered jumpsuit with sewn-in microphones and a single, sound-activated lightbulb. When Newman lifts her arms from her sides or crouches and jumps, thunderclaps of sound and violent flashes of light ensue. The more elbow grease she expends, the longer the light stays lit. (The audience was probably right to worry: The high-tech gloss of many of Newman’s performances is quite deceptive, the outcome of exploiting cheap or obsolete technologies taken “straight from the pages of Scientific Hobbyist,” she says.)

Originally a music scholar, Newman’s training took her from London’s Guildhall School of Music, via the Slade, to Hamburg, where a 1995 scholarship from the German government enabled her to study with Marina Abramović—escaping the UK’s theater-dominated tradition to immerse herself in the context of European avant-garde performance. With a fan’s passion and a satirist’s blatant disrespect, Newman recycles elements from performance art’s history in her works. Kußprüfung, for example, evokes Abramović and Ulay’s 1977 piece Breathing inBreathing out; but Newman’s version no longer features two suffocating titans wresting the life force from each other—just an “ordinary” couple necking in public.

Likewise, her photographic project, “Connotations—performance images 1994–98,” “documents” twenty entirely fictional works, many of which reflect on key moments in the history of performance, and explicitly addresses aspects of authenticity and forgery. In Meditation on Gender Difference, 1996, for example, Newman purports to have sunbathed in an “inverted bikini” (covering all parts of the body except those usually covered by her suit). Photos show the resultant “sunburn”—a pink makeup job that emphasizes Newman’s physical gender and delivers an equivocal feminist salute to the macho masochism of Dennis Oppenheim’s 1970 Reading Position for Second Degree Burn. Other pilfered sources include Chris Burden’s Deadman, 1972; George Maciunas’s Solo for a Sick Man, 1962; and Adrian Piper’s Catalysis IV, 1970, from which Newman hijacks one of Piper’s fellow bus travelers and places her center stage.

A promiscuous collaborator with many other performers, Newman recently released a CD, Rude Mechanic, with David Crawforth and Finnish sound artists Pan Sonic. Working with Berlin performer Nina Koenemann, Newman has courted all manner of risks—such as donning cotton pajamas and “sleepwalking” together, zombielike, down the length of the Reeperbahn (the main artery of Hamburg’s red-light district) under a full moon.

Superficially, Newman’s works seem bewilderingly varied, but she always makes use of some element of deliberate inconsistency or contradiction. Spontaneous actions are performed, but simultaneously reflected upon; they are never used as ends in themselves. Improvisation and preplanning are combined, but neither is privileged as the “propern or ”authentic" performance strategy. Seemingly arduous, painful, or dangerous durational pieces prove to be out-and-out fakes, while apparently effortless, frivolous performances (such as the unapologetically campy Suicide Cat, 1995, in which the artist impersonates a leopard-skin rug with a rotating mechanical tail) require tough physical work, and sometimes incur injury. Transcendent msments are generated while being unmasked as showbiz hocus-pocus, just as the performer’s charisma is shamelessly exploited even as its fetishistic, sham nature is laid bare. Brandishing her popgun, Newman delivers performance art a hearty shot in the arm.