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Parallels Discovered in Performance Artists, curator Paulina Kolczynska

A highlight of the Tina B. Prague Contemporary Art Festival (October 8 – 25, 2009) was international curator Paulina Kolczynska’s exhibition and round table  which revealed her discovery that three artists in the 1970s and 1980s used similar approaches in their work in the field of performance art, although based in three different countries and cultural circumstances. The program was entitled “A Tale from the World of Parallel Thinking: Introduction to a Comparative Study of the Performance Practices of Jiri Kovanda (Czech Republic), Hassan Sharif (UAE) and Zbigniew Libera (Poland) from the 1970s and 1980s.”  Participating in the round table discussion were Kovanda, Libera, and brother of Sharif, Abdul-Raheen Sharif.


Curated by Paulina Kolczynska

This exhibition is the very first comprehensive overview outside of the UAE of the series of performances executed by Hassan Sharif in Dubai in 1983.  It consists of photographic and drawing documentation of over twelve performances, which are the sole examples of performance art in this region in the 1980‘s.  This overview aims to identify, classify and contextualize this material and to discuss the theoretical background of Sharif’s performance art.

The exhibition examines the unique link between the “Semi-System” mathematical drawings created by the artist according to the “chance and order” British constructivist theory and his performance art.  Thus, it traces a constructivist framework outside of the media of painting and sculpture and explores the rare union of constructivist and experimental theory with Middle-Eastern spirituality and sensibility.

The detailed documentation also captures the important historical moment in which the desert of Hatta became the setting for performance art.  It captures the moment of the performance as a medium acquired the new element of the desert landscape as part of its backdrop.  In a number of his performances, Hassan Sharif not only acquires familiar elements of the everyday life for the purpose of his performance but also reconfigures them by giving them new attributes.  The sequence of performances shown in the exhibition can be categorized as minimalist and, to some degree, “action” based performances.

This exhibition also seeks to compare the unique character of practice and circumstance within Sharif’s performances with Polish and Czech performance art during the same years.  The performance practice of Zbigniew Libera, a renowned Polish conceptualist, specifically serves as a wide platform for comparative discussions about production and documentation and the dynamic role of the viewer, seen in his 1981-1982 work “Domestic Performance.”  The subtle style of the minimalist performance art by Jiri Kovanda, an important representative of Czech “actionism” of the late 1970’s, is discussed in depth as part of the comparative aspects of the practice and performance strategy.

The exhibition prompts a unique and timely dialogue between the three artists, revealing nuances in their approaches to performance art, their individual points of interest as well as the influence of their geo-political contexts.   Most importantly, this exhibition allows us to see striking parallels in their artistic practices, aspects of which open up a new perspective on the historical development of performance art.  By establishing these links, this exhibition pays tribute to their artistic commitment and to the ongoing creation of contemporary thought.


BORN 1951, Dubai

"Body and Squares", 1983 - Dubai

This photographic documentation depicts preparation sketches and the completed performance.  Sketch and writing (top left corner) refer to the general plan of the performance as well as to the way it was documented.  The drawing of the grid with filled in squares (top right corner) refers to the outcome of the calculations based on “chance and order theory.”  The result of these calculations identified the particular squares that artist’s  body  should  touch on the  grid during the performance  (series of photographs below).  The size of the outlined 25 squares is 165cm by 165cm, which is also the artist’s   height.  The performance aimed to find a way to cover as much area with artist’s body in multiple combinations by utilizing the calculation of the “chance and order” theory.  This performance is an example of the unique phenomenon of applying constructivist theory to performance practice.  It is also an example of one of the first performances executed in the Gulf region.  A series of these performances was carried out without an audience and resulted in color and black and white photographs taken by small group of assistants (and close friends).


BORN 1959, Poland

"Domestic Performance" 1981-1982

The presented series of photographs depict both fully executed performance as well as the stages of documentation made during its production.  Conceived during Martial Law in Poland, the planning documentation shows the artist and his assistant(s), Libera’s own mother in their home environment. The only environment suitable and safe to execute artistic action and experimentation at that time was the artist’s apartment, as all public institutions were closed.  “Private-art” or “chip-in culture,“ as it was described among wider artistic circles in Poland, became the only means of expression and the only way of connecting with the viewer.  Because these performances occurred in a small and naturally intimate home environment, the space changed the role of the viewer.  The viewer became the participant and emotionally involved helper in the process of staging the performance itself.  Shown here, “Domestic Performance” reveals a new dimension of the complete performance, which in this case includes not only the artist but also peripheral aspects of the setting.  The viewer also takes on a new role, as both actor and assistant to the action.


BORN. 1953, Czech Republic

"Wenceslas Square Prague" November 1976

This photograph documents one of the pioneering performances carried out in Prague in late 1970’s.  The artist walks with open arms, catching the attention of anonymous passersby. Kovanda’s  "actions" were simple and very subtle, executed in busy places, like this one in the center of Venceslas Square, with the general public, his “audience,“ completely unaware of the action.  During the Soviet military’s forced “normalization” in the 1970’s, it was illegal to execute independent productions of any sort in public places.  For this reason, the poetic aspect of this minimalist intervention confronts the viewer with an uncertain message and uncertain reactions to the witnessed gesture.  The displaced gesture becomes an important means of connection between the artist and potential viewer.  This seemingly out of context interaction, in some magical way, teleports the artist and the viewer into a different dimension, allowing the performance to resonate and dissipate in a matter of moments.  Unaware, the viewer is pulled into the performance for a very restricted time period and allowed to interact with the artist one-on-one, even if he or she is surrounded by a crowd.  The only remnants of such contact were the photographs taken by the artist’s friends during the performance.

Liberation Strategies

Introduction to Comparative Study of the Performance Practices of

Jiri Kovanda, Hassan Sharif and Zbigniew Libera from the 1970’s and 1980’s

This exhibition brings together a very specific group of works by three artists who, in their native countries, carried out series of art performances in the years between 1976 and 1983.

Independently from each other, Jiri Kovanda (in Prague, between 1976-1978), Hassan Sharif (in Dubai, between 1982-1983) and Zbigniew Libera (in Warsaw, between 1981- 82) experimented, explored and ultimately widened the scope of performance art through their neo-avant-garde strategies.  This period brought a number of significant innovations to performance art practices and this exhibition seeks to identify and examine them.  We will have the opportunity to trace the evolution of these performance practices by identifying crucial nuances and parallels in artistic approaches, and by acknowledging the influence of the geo-political contexts that shaped them.   We will also discuss the unique idea of restriction and adaptation as the main impetusesfor the development of new directions and new ways of staging performances.  Finally, the main framework and main aim of this presentation is to acknowledge the contribution of these artists to the progress of the artistic development of the contemporary thought.

Jiri Kovanda (b. 1953) began staging his performances in the 1970’s during a time of political strife in Czechoslovakia.  He faced a twofold challenge.  He was forced to face a wider audience that was largely unprepared for such avant-garde work while also seeking a way “to be able to operate within the parameters that existed” at that time. Although the 1970’s saw the rise of the dissident movement, the country continued to suffer from the absence of liberal democracy.  During these complex times, Kovanda devised his minimalist action-interventions, guided by a simple, humanistic, desire to “seek out normal interpersonal relationships, normal ways of dealing with people”, (…) and to “transform (himself).”   What followed as a result of this outline can be described as a series of subtle “actions,” which were often executed in busy places without the conscious engagement of the viewer.  His audience was usually unaware of the performance occurring before their eyes.  The 1977 performance “Escalator” typifies this kind of subtle approach.  During this performance, the artist turned back while riding an escalator, attempting to gaze into the eyes of the person standing behind him.  In another performance, called “Contact, Sept. 3, 1977,” the artist attempted to bump into an oblivious passerby.  The most well known of his performances was executed in the Venceslas Square in Pargue in 1976 (see image and text on page).  Here, Kovanda acted a series of gestures without meaningful content.

The significance of all these acts is profound.  By being surrounded by crowds, the artist found himself paradoxically without an audience. The performances resonated with similarities with Fluxus. It dissipated in a matter of moments but remained “unread” by those witnessing them.   Yet, it is this meaningless and displaced gesture that became the connection between the artist and the viewer on a basic human level.   Kovanda usually chose highly public places for his performances even though it was illegal to stage independent productions of any size at that time.  It is admirable that he succeeded in carrying out his purely artistic and humanistic deeds despite these political limitations.

The strategy of staging performances without an audience reached new depths in a series carried out in 1982-1983 by Hassan Sharif (b. 1951) in Hatta, a desert area near Dubai.   It is important to mention that these works were the very first examples of performance art in the Gulf region.    Near the completion of The Byam Shaw School of Art in London in 1983-1984, the artist experimented relentlessly and, with the great enthusiasm of a contemporary thinker and educator, aimed to introduce this exciting medium to the wider society of his native country. However, the restrictions of objective nature were too great and his attempts were unsupported and misunderstood at the time.

Despite this, he remained the most active representative of contemporary art in the region.  True to himself and to his artistic interests, he continued to experiment with his art.  In 1983, he staged a series of important performances, which reveal two different art philosophical influences.  Documented by assistants and close friends, his work can be divided into two coherent groups.   The first, which includes such performances as “Body and Squares” (1983), “Body in the Shop” (1983), and “Store No. III” (1983), uniquely links to Sharif’s own ‘Semi-System’ mathematical drawings created according to the “chance and order” British constructivist theory.  It reveals the constructivist framework utilized in performance art.  Here, each stage of the performance becomes the result of mathematical calculations.  Although this phenomenon can be described as “in keeping” with the Fluxus fusion of the avant-garde movements, the constructivist influence appears to be stronger.  The second group of performances bears distinctive similarities with Fluxus in favoring artist-centered creative practices characterized by a “do it yourself” aesthetic and preference for simplicity over complexity.  In fact, just like Kovanda,   Sharif picks everyday, meaningless actions as the vehicle of his art.   The need to explore different layers of expression led to such performances as “Digging and Standing” (1983) and “Jumping in the Desert” (1983), in which he explored the poetic dimensions of meaninglessness.

“When I have nothing to do, I walk.” This is the commentary Sharif used for his performance “Walking” (1983), in which a series of photographs depicted him in a straightforward stroll in the desert.  At this historic moment, the desert became a stage for his performance art.   In a number of his performances, such as “Swing” (1983) and “Throwing Stones” (1983), Sharif not only utilized familiar elements of the everyday life, but, significantly, also managed to reconfigure them by giving them new attributes.  Ultimately, the center of the action, deprived of an audience, became the artist himself with the desert as his backdrop.  As Sharif put it, the desert is his home and therefore, unsurprisingly, it became a natural environment to carry out his series of performances.

As for Zbigniew Libera (b. 1959), the only possible environment to stage any kind of action or performance during Martial Law in Poland (1981-1982) was his home.  In his case, it was an apartment in the building block where he lived with his Mother.  It is important to note that public spaces as we understand them were non-existent in Poland at that time and all cultural institutions, including theatres and cinemas, were officially closed by the state.  What took place during these years can be described as the creation of the so-called “Private–art” centered round domestic environment. “Private-art” functioned alongside the so-called “Chip-in Culture,” where the audience circle was limited to the independent artistic community.  These neo-avant-garde strategies aimed to protect the artists’ right to experiment and to carry out actions necessary to explore the creative “unknown.”   This is the “Private-art” that inspired Libera’s series of photographs from this period.  The artist, in a very striking way, used these performances to examine the relationship between himself and his mother and grandmother.

The role of the domestic environment had an even farther-reaching influence.

It is the intimacy of the domestic sphere that prompted the dynamic between the artist and the audience to completely change in performance art.  This process is specifically visible in the “Domestic Performance” (1981-81) carried out by Libera with the assistance of his mother, who is seen holding a camera in one photograph.  She was his assistant during the performance and was the person who documented the preparation and planning process along with the final outcome.  Libera knew from the start that only he and his assistant would experience the performance.  Interestingly, he later observed that his assistant became emotionally involved in what was happening, which swayed the documentation process.  The documentation reveals equal attention to the artist (and his performance) as well as to the detailed elements of the setting, as though preparing viewers for the surprising appearance of a  “supporting actor” - the assistant - who played the role of the missing audience…  Or is it the other way round?

The force of creativity allowed artists to overcome external social and political restrictions.  Just like Kovanda and Sharif, Libera  in a clever way adapted to political and social realities he was powerless to change.  Adaptation is not analogous to confinement; each artist remained true to his pursuits and despite of all odds, managed to open new doors to vibrant and original ideas.


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