“Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?”

    Zhuang Zi

The theme of this 4th edition of Guangzhou Live departs from the notion of Actions of Meaning.  A term which we have coined to define the actions used in action art. If action art is primarily based on actions, then these are realized to convey a meaning. When a painter paints a picture, her or his immediate action is not one of meaning, although the final painting is. When a writer writes a book the meaning are not inherent in his action but in its result, the text. The same can be said about most other art forms. However, in action art, what is realized are actions of meaning. Since each one of them is intended to convey a signification. Which is not only expressed through the actions but also the artists attributes, clothes, used objects, movements or non-movements, etc. They are all invested by a meaning. Actions of meaning is a notion which in a quite simple yet clear way distinguishes performance art, not only from actions in our daily life but from most other art forms. 

Yes, one could say that meaning is what action art is all about. A very common question when people encounters a work of an action artist is : what is he or she doing ? What is going on here ? This question is a basic starting point and characterizes action art more than any other art form whether we speak about painting, sculpture, installation, video or photography. It is a question which for several reasons is strongly linked to action art, because it is an art form where we see the artist do an action of meaning.  

One of the reasons are linked to our possibility to identify with another human being and his/her action. Something which we, for instance, can not do with an object. Another reason is that most people have a functional relationship to actions. We do something because of a need or to achieve an expected result. We drink because we are thirsty, we work because we get a salary, we sleep because we are tired, we eat because we are hungry. And we put a nail in the wall because we want to hang a painting on it. Our actions are usually conditioned by a function. But in action art the actions have as its purpose and intention to convey a meaning. 

When a person is realizing actions to convey meanings, instead of a function, something different happens. Something that goes beyond the usual, the ordinary. Suddenly, we have to start to reflect over our own and others actions and their deeper meaning. This reflective quality is intrinsically a part of  action art. Stimulating everyone to reflect, not only about their own actions but about how we view other peoples behaviour in daily life. It is a strong tool for the understanding of differences and individuality. Furthermore, it makes us think and feel with our body and mind.

Action art raises questions, mainly because the action is not that of doing something with a purpose other than to convey meanings. People are used that actions should have a function and a logic. To build a wall and then destroy it, to burn money, or to give away art works are senseless from a functional and ”logic” point of view. But not if its purpose is to talk with us about something. If these actions would be played, i.e. being fictional as in a piece of theatre, then nobody would ask the questions. But here the spectator or viewer is dealing with real human beings, which they can see and feel are not acting, not playing roles, but doing their actions for real. It is an identification which accentuates our wish to find a meaning in the actions we experience. And we will find it, if we feel and reflect, if we ask questions to ourselves of what we see.

Another usual reaction to a work of action art is : what is the message, what does the artist want to say ?   Why is she doing that, why is she washing money, why does she cut them in pieces, and why does she sew different national curriences together ? Or Why is he drinking water so slowly ? Why is he walking so slowly for 24 hours holding a candle in one hand and an umbrella in the other ? Why does he give away his paintings, why doesn’t he sell them ? The questions are manifold when we encounter action art, and this is probably one of its most crucial qualities. 

In action art all actions of the artist, as well as attributes, clothes, objects, movements or non-movements, etc. are invested with a meaning. Since all the actions and the images that the artist produces, intended or accidentally, are there to give a meaning. When an ordinary daily action is presented in a work of art, we tend to look for its meaning and less to its function. When a totally unusual or new action is realized we are also searching for its meaning. This meaning does not necessarily have to be clear, does not have to be conform to a message or even resemble or enact any kind of logic. But its conscious or unconscious intention is always to make us think and feel, so that we can give our own meaning to the action. 

Another distinguishing difference is that in action art the actions are intended to be seen and experienced by others.  Although most actions have an intention of function, these are either objective or subjective. Writing a book, painting a painting, building a wall, hit a nail in the wall, washing the floor, making food, etc, could be called an action of objective function. These are realized to achieve an objective result. On the other hand, actions like eating, drinking, sleeping, urinating, showering, walking, sitting, reading a book, watching a movie, etc. have a more subjective function Although, these actions have different intentions in relation to the subject and/or the object, they are all functional and not intended to convey a meaning.  They are to a higher or lesser degree intended towards an object or the subject. However, when an action artist is doing actions, whether alone or with people around, the intention is to express meanings, and usually to convey it to others. 

Actions of meaning have forgotten the function. Instead they are here to talk to us.  It is true that they need someone who receives. They need other people, since their purpose is to give new meanings to others, and not only to the self. To stimulate our imagination, our emotions, to make us think anew and differently. Action art is in this sense an inclusive art form. It is an art expression that we are in great need of in a time where reality shows, TV commercials and publicity with their brainless and single minded messages drowns us in a swamp of non-reflection and non-meaning. Action art and its actions of meaning is its contrary. It is a medicine, because it has forgotten the function, it has forgotten the logic, it has forgotten hierarchies and even more so, it has forgotten the money. It has forgotten all those formal barriers that stands between art and the human.  It has forgotten them so that it can speak to us. Which is why action art before anything else, is an action of human meaning. Talking to us about what is essential, talking to us about the true meaning of community, fraternity, dialogue, sharing, understanding and intellectual and emotional reflection. It is an art that wants to give, not take, it is an art where you can find a man who you can talk with.

Jonas STAMPE, curator Guangzhou Live