Whether licking Louis Vuitton handbags or burying himself neck-high in a forest as people trample on his head, the works of fast-rising performance artist Ryan McNamara demand attention in a world whose powers of concentration are apparently in decline.
“Attention span is something that I’ve been thinking of a lot,” New York-based McNamara told reporters in an interview ahead of his first performance in Asia, coming in a week of frenzied gallery activity in Hong Kong as the city stages its second-ever Art Basel fair.
“There’s all this noise about how attention spans are being shot by the Internet, but it’s not a completely negative shift,” said McNamara, whose more recent work has explored how our online lives are changing our reality.
“It has made our attention more 360-degree — but people are still paying attention.”
He won the prestigious Performa 13 Malcolm McLaren award last year at New York’s performance art biennial with “Meem: A Story Ballet about the Internet”, which explored “our sense of what we do when we copy, steal, appropriate, create, repeat, plagiarize, mine, or Tweet”.
“I have a brother who is a teenager and our brains aren’t that different, even though he was able to turn on a computer before he could speak,” said McNamara, who was born in 1979.
“The things we’re doing now, the way we communicate – they were dreams of mine from when I was ten years old about what the future would be like. And then when they happened, they actually seemed so mundane, they integrated into our lives so quickly that we didn’t have that moment of amazement. I’m exploring it in my work because I never had that moment of pause.”
Many things tend to happen at once in McNamara’s works, which are influenced by the MTV he grew up watching and involve music, dance, theatre, video and a heavy dose of showmanship.
A commission by luxury goods maker LVMH in 2010 saw him licking the brand’s famous handbags at Louis Vuitton’s New York boutique. Another solo show forced every viewer to become part of the piece.
Or there was McNamara’s “II” in which he and a collaborator were buried up to their necks in a forest floor and sang songs to passers by.
“This guy came along and kicked the other guy’s head. He backed up to see what he had kicked and stepped on my head. This was 15 minutes into the three hours that we were going to do it,” recalled McNamara.
From sideshow to centre stage: He has been commissioned by Hong Kong philanthropists Stephen and Yana Peel to perform his latest piece, “Score” – described by McNamara as “20 performers, 20 performances in 20 minutes.”
The new performance will incorporate the various meanings of the word “Score” – including its use in music and also its connotations of a contest or game – in exploring how the art of paying attention is changing.
His rise has come at a time when audiences are increasingly seeking active instead of passive art experiences — to the extent that more museums are dedicating greater space to performance art, such as a controversial move to do so by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“Its a big topic right now, there’s definitely some people who are not so excited about this performative turn in museums,” said McNamara.
“A lot of museums are shifting their architecture to accommodate pieces that have a more interactive element. It’s coming to a head.”
For now, he is focused on whether or not he can grab a Hong Kong room’s attention for a few minutes with “Score”.
“I’m not a tech artist – everything I make is pretty much something you could have made 50 years ago. It’s important to take technology out of its context to examine it, because it has to work with the human body,” he said.
“But yes, I’m looking to create a complete shift in the room. If so I’ll be very happy.”
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