From Victory Over the Sun to Solar Anus: The Russian Avant-Garde and Contemporary Performance Art

Peter G. DeMartino, University of Chicago

In creating a history of performance art in the twentieth-century scholars either overlook the significance of the Russian Avant-garde or misrepresent it (Marvin Carlson. Performance: A Critical Introduction, Roselee Ginsburg. The History of Performance from Futurism to the Present). The most recent work on avant-garde theater in Slavic studies (edited by G. F. Kovalenko. Russkij avangard 1910-x - 1920-x godov i teatr) does little to breach the gap between the field of performance studies and Russian literature. From my analysis of the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun and the performance piece Solar Anus (1999) by Ron Athey, I examine the relationship inherent between Russian Avant-garde performances and American performance art. I center my comparison on the artistic device of "violence" in order to expose the correlation between the Russian Avant-garde and American performance art while simultaneously contributing to the discourse of performance studies.

Norman Bluhm and Frank O'Hara in Performance: Texts and Contexts offer a list of eight characteristics that are common to most performance art pieces. In their formulation these eight characteristics appear in any combination but not all are necessary to identify a work as performance art. These criteria highlight the context of most performance art and do little to illuminate the artistic qualities of what differentiates performance art form more traditional theatrical works. My conception of "violence" as an artistic device helps to index performance art in more concrete terms. Both in Victory over the Sun and in Solar Anus, "violence" functions on three levels: the "diegetic" or narrative violence; the "mimetic" which functions on the textual level; and the "metatextual" which presents between the text and the recipient. The analysis that is offered in this paper creates new tools for bridging the gap between performance studies and more traditional approaches to Russian avant-garde performance.