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Art and Theatre: A Hybrid Archipelago

By Paloma Blanchet-Hidalgo, contributing writer

Literary and art critic based in Paris, France, Paloma writes for several publications, including the literary supplement of Le Monde.

At the junction of performance and exhibition, contemporary art, through its intermediality, sheds new light on a number of aesthetic debates that have been ongoing for some sixty years. A new critical stance redefines the role of the public and art institutions.


An art on the verge of degenerating into theatre: such was the general view explicitly voiced, in 1967, by critic Michael Fried.[1] An art that is both theatrical and visual moves away from formalist theories Fried might promote, notably from the well-known distinction between temporal and spatial arts dating back to G.E. Lessing’s Laocoon (1766). It also thereby rejects an auto-referential, atemporal practice of art. Then a transgression, now an archetype — contemporary art is today impregnated with hybrid mediums and favors an apparatus which can combine role play and dramaturgy.

Theatre’s intrusion into art calls for a rereading of the avant-gardes. As early as the 1950s, the incorporation of theatrical tools perturbed the idées reçues of representation, especially in the domain of performance. Event without title (1952), animated by Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and John Cage at Black Mountain College, paved the way for Allan Kaprow’s Happenings in the following years. Allan Kaprow saw already in Cubism, in its desire to add heterogeneous elements to the painting, in its claim to the space beyond the canvas, a progenitor of Happening: Cubism announces collage, collage assemblage, the act of which prefigures performative stunts bordering onto role play, such as Gilbert & George’s The Singing Sculpture (1970).[2] In the 1970s, Carl Andre’s minimalist sculptures, placed on the ground, constrained the viewer to walk around them, stamp on them, experience their horizontality, provoking a direct confrontation between the artwork and the “regardeur” of Marcel Duchamp’s famous dictum.[3]

"43 Roaring forty" by Carl Andre, © Gerardus, Public domain

Carl Andre, 43 Roaring forty

The interactivity of today’s media facilitates a sensorial participation of the viewer and leads him to question the role he himself plays within the apparatus. Theatre and digital technologies come together and create a dramaturgy of space. In particular the video, hybrid medium and catalyst par excellence of anti-modernist tendencies since the sixties, has trespassed into the “white cube.” In 1963, pioneer of the Fluxus movement Wolf Vostell undid and removed the moving image from its frame with 6 TV Dé-coll/age, in a gesture criticizing the compartmentalization of disciplines and effectuating a spatiotemporal change to the creative and receptive process. Tony Oursler is another artist who relies heavily on the video. His staged installations — which bring together objects, performers, elements of the set, technologies and digital post-production— generate a hybrid theatre, a rich fount of unforeseeable and polysemic fiction. The physical or psychic integration of the viewer into the apparatus and the spatialization of aesthetic experiences are vital to this strand of art.

Wolf Vostell, Elektronischer dé-coll/age Happening Raum, 1968

Wolf Vostell, Elektronischer dé-coll/age Happening Raum, 1968

The integration of the viewer and the three-dimensionality of the apparatus belong, again according to Fried, to the realm of theatre. He argues that spatialized minimalism is an impure form, almost theatre not art, for it defies the frontiers between the artwork and the public, art and life; it is, for Fried, even “a negation of art.” However, couldn’t we also say that such an immersive spatiality is an extension of classical pictorial illusionism?

In fact, the illusionism within the picture frame gets reproduced on a larger scale by the set, which is itself interlocked with the surrounding architecture. In this manner, the fusion of stagecraft and plastic arts, along with the blending of symbolic and “real” spaces within the apparatus, amounts to what Michel Foucault calls “heterotopia” — the union “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.”[4]

Such a theatralization achieves more than just a transmutation of space; it enlarges the temporal perception of the viewer. Temporality penetrates spatiality, subverting Lessing’s theory and the modernist championing of instantaneity. Thus gets implanted a theatrical conception of time, thought of as “both passing and to come, simultaneously approaching and receding, as if apprehended in an infinite perspective,” and space perceived as the fourth dimension, disappearing and unraveling ad infinitum.


Galleries, art venues and festivals nowadays tend to communicate via performative archipelagos that build on hybridization and spatialization of aesthetic experiences. For art institutions dealing with works ranging from minimalism to new forms of theatre, it is less important to question the interfecundity or revitalization of the arts than to assume this very shift in trend and to induce, with increased mediation, active participation from the viewer. These appear to be the political, economical, as well as industrial stakes involved in the theatralization of art: to accommodate the public’s desire for an ever evolving, commutual relation with art.

– Translated from the French by Shijung Kim


[1] “The literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theatre; and theatre is now the negation of art.” Fried, Michael, “Art and Objecthood” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 125.

[2]  The Singing Sculpture, Gilbert & George, performed for the first time in 1970 at Nigel Greenwood Gallery.

[3] “C’est le regardeur qui fait l’oeuvre [It is the person looking at it who creates the work],” declared Marcel Duchamp.

[4] Foucault, Michel, ‘Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias’ in Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (Paris: Société des architectes diplômés par le gouvernement, 1984), 47.



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