imagination, written instructions and (performance) art

Figure 1

Yoko Ono’s Snow Piece (1963) (figure 1) is one of my favourite works of art. It’s fairly unremarkable in its presentation (especially as seen on a computer screen) and relies heavily on the reader’s imagination. Despite it being one of the first few works of Conceptual Art, it is also a piece of democratic performance art anyone should be able to perform. Personally, I always forget to mention it as my favourite piece of art – maybe because I rarely hear about it or see her discussed as a performance artist outside of my lectures? Yet, every single time I see Snow Piece I feel like a small kid again, looking at a cartoon where there’s a scene with snow and imagining how soft and beautiful the flakes falling from the sky are. The piece fills me with incredible joy for millions of reasons. Surprisingly, I have never tried to perform the task (unless I’ve been in a lecture and I’ve tried to visualise how the snow would fall and engulf my lecturer or seminar tutor) which Ono describes in the card: “Think that snow is falling. / Think that snow is falling everywhere all the time. / When you talk with a person, think that snow is falling between you and on the person. / Stop conversing when you think the person is covered by snow.”

Of course, we could even imagine that instead of snow it’d be rustling leaves falling on the person, creating a big pile of leaves which would act as your cue to leave. I don’t think it really matters if it’s snow you’re imagining falling or something else, what matters is that you’re creating a small fantasy land in your mind. What Ono describes would not be able to happen in real life, or maybe it could, but it needs to be performed inside of the audience’s mind. The words in Ono’s piece are what make up the artwork and cue the action required for the audience member to take in order to perform it.

Before taking up a module on performance art, my idea of the genre did not include written, worded or outlined instructions of the performance. Although, unsurprisingly still, performances require written instructions. Not saying that all of them do, but some of the ones we’ve looked at in the lectures have some sort of instructions to them (see: Allan Kaprow’s or Chris Burden’s performances or even, everyone’s favourite, John Cage’s 4’33 [figure 2]). So, even in a genre of art that is still somewhat believed to transcend the material world – there are material traces of it which are not just video or photograph. A written document is still a kind of a proof that a performance has happened. We can even believe that if it is written down it gives us, the readers or viewers, a clearer idea of what happened at the event.

Figure 2

Instead, it only gives us an idea of what has happened, much like Ono’s piece gives us an idea that we can act upon and make it into our reality inside our heads. With the written instructions (excluding Cage’s 4’33 score and Burden’s works as they are accompanied by a photograph) we are able to imagine what has happened. Reading a script or a score or a poster for a performance, our imagination runs wild and tries to create mental images as realistic representations of the event in our minds while we read words on a paper. Similarly, one can illustrate an effect of same nature while looking at performance photographs. We can only gather bits and pieces of what has happened, while either photographic or written documentation colours our imagination. Not all of this applies, though, as we can see with Ono’s Snow Piece. The difference is that her work is meant to live in the audience’s/enactor’s mind rather than existing in reality (although it does in the form of writing on paper which then exists as a multitude of pixels on my screen).

The written word is, therefore (and in my opinion), quite important in delivering what a performance is meant to be like in the moment and what it could have been like to the people in the future. Much like photography, though, it does not give out the full effect of the performance – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like in Snow Piece, I think that there is a certain kind of beauty and fun in imagining what could have happened and how. Studying art history has made me more aware of how important historical accuracies are but for me, personally, art and my love for art always boils down to how fun it can be – something that I’m sure scholars and my fellow students can relate to. Written scores/instructions and/or photography are important in giving us a glimpse into what has happened or what could happen, potentially then arousing the viewer’s interest in the piece. Snow Piece will forever fascinate, interest and tickle me every time I come across it in its simultaneous simplicity paired with a difficult task of not getting lost in one’s own imagination mid-conversation.


Written by Katja Vääränen

Featured image – Yoko Ono, Map Piece

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