Reliqvarivm: a selection of performance art relics

Curated By Daniela Beltrani

31 July - 5 August 2012


By Daniela Beltrani

The Reliqvarivm exhibition, part of Future Of Imagination 8 programme, opened on 31 July and runs for the duration of the event, until Sunday 5 August, at Chan Hampe Galleries, Raffles Hotel Arcade.

The exhibition presents a selection of 13 performance art relics from performances, which have all taken place in Singapore over a period of time.


The curator has approached a number of artists known to be collecting relics, in Singapore, and asked them to offer up to three of them.

Out of a list of just over twenty relics, the curator has chosen 13.

In making the selection the curator has considered and tried to negotiate amongst several aspects: first and foremost, the aesthetics of the object; then the time span of the performances where they came from; the artists approached who produced them and/or collected them; and finally the different events during which they came into life.

Having made the selection, the curator proceeded to interview the collectors about the reason why they had collected the relics and what they remembered about the particular performance the objects came from.

The ensuing selection spans from 1987 to 2012; it includes artists highly representative of performance art from Singapore such as Tang Da Wu, Lee Wen, Amanda Heng and Jason Lim, together with foreign talents and emerging ones; it comprises mostly stand alone events, such as The Space at old Hong Bee Warehouse, Journey of a Yellow Man Nr. 3 and Kết Nối, and some recurrent ones, such as Future Of Imagination and Fetterfield, yet sadly, not R.I.T.E.S.

The range of relics presented is by no means exhaustive of the aesthetics possibilities of performance art in Singapore, neither they are presented, more importantly, at the service of performance art, as mere documentation.

The aim is not the reconstruction of the most objective documentation of a performance, but the discussion of the relation between the performer, the collector and the object through the performance, with all its human intensity and all its human flaws, and how this relation transforms the object.

The intention therefore is to attempt to give the relics an artistic independence beyond the connection with their originating time, place and situation.

The main objectives of the exhibition are to propose a consideration over these particular objects, which are collected by some members of the audience and/or the artists themselves after a performance, and to spur a discussion over them, during the occasion of Singapore’s most established performance art event, Future Of Imagination, in its 8th edition.


Within the performance art context, relic is the term commonly used for those objects, which are the result of a process of transformation from the state of mere material, used by the artist during the performance. Other nouns are also used, such as ephemera  (David Leiber) or residual objects (Claes Oldenburg), but relic seems to convey the character of sacredness with which most collectors consider these objects.

Typically in fact, the term relic is used to indicate mortal left-overs of saints and/or any object associated with them, and more particularly the late Latin term reliquarium, where the exhibition takes its title from, indicates the special container, often made or decorated with precious stones and materials, where the relics were kept.

Traditionally, the ephemeral quality, which has characterised performance art since its very beginnings, offers resistance to any type of commodification of that exceptional meeting between artist and audience during the performance.

“Performance implicates the real through the presence of living bodies. In performance art spectatorship there is an element of consumption: there are no left-overs, the gazing spectator must try to take everything in. Without a copy, live performances plunge into visibility  - in a maniacally charged present – and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control.”

Naturally, one can deduce that since performance art’s “only life is in the present,”  it cannot be “saved, recorded, documented,”  because “once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.”

Yet, we are humans who cannot solely rely on our own memory. And de facto during performances photographs and videos try to capture, whether from the mere documenting viewpoint or a more refined fine art one, the unfolding of that meeting.

Such “by-products” can be, in theory, and in practice they often do, reproduced multiple times and exchanged for money, particularly after the performance has gained a recognition.

Another less noticeable behaviour, after the end of the performance, is the appropriation (or retention) of objects, which have been used during the performance, by members of the audience (or by the artist him/herself) for reasons, which span from the pure aesthetic to the human eternal fight of the curse of time to the more imperturbable need for documentation.

Such people assign an almost sacred quality to these objects, which after the performance they are no longer mere materials but become known as relics. They are treated with reverence and respect. They don’t necessarily acquire an economic value at this stage, though they might later, but they attain an intrinsic value due to the relation of the audience/artist with the performance and how this has affected them.

Acquiring the relics is typically done by requesting permission directly to the artist at the end of the performance or by simply taking them when the artist has clearly relinquished them with an unambiguous intention of not keeping them. They are never sold or bought at this stage: the end of the performance can be a highly intense and emotional time. Most often the artists themselves will keep them as mementoes or as future material or with a view that one day they will be able to show them, perhaps as documentation of their performance.

Judging by some past exhibitions on performance art involving documentation, both in Singapore  and abroad , it seems as if these objects are regarded only as subservient to the main artistic experience, being the performance. It is almost as if the context of the exhibition - and therefore the performance presented - gives them their raison d’être.

Based on the research, which the limited time has allowed so far, relics appear not to be considered by museums as having an ontological independence, which on the contrary collectors can clearly see, despite considering them in relation to the their originating situation. Yet, they ARE something else, the “something other than performance” Peggy Phelan talked about above.

The attempt at considering relics as sculptural artworks in their own right created, or rather transformed, during the process of the performance may be aided by loose comparisons with the creative power of what Harold Rosenberg called action painting, where the emphasis falls onto the spontaneous, unpremeditated gesture of painting, which results in the residual, physical object of the painting.

Despite its residual nature, Claes Oldenburg was fully aware of this physicality, acknowledged it and warned us against light-heartedness at picking up just anything that is left over from a performance, because after all choice is a creative action. “Love objects. Respect objects.” he warns us.

“Residual objects are created in the course of making the performance and during the repeated performances. The performance is the main thing but when it’s over there are a number of subordinate pieces which may be isolated, souvenirs, or residual objects.

To pick up after a performance, to be very careful about what is to be discarded and what still survives by itself. Slow study & respect for small things. Ones own created “found objects.” The floor of the stage like the street. Picking up after is creative. Also their particular life must be respected.”

In a sense, we could hazard to say that the relic is an artistic collaboration between the artist who transforms the material during the performance and the member of the audience who makes a choice over which object from the performance to keep, whilst the others are discarded unceremoniously.


Recently, a Portuguese scholar based in London and researching on Contemporary European Philosophy and Performance Art, João Florêncio, has proposed recurring to a recent branch of Continental Philosophy to help redefine performance within the Performance Studies field, so as to include non-human performances.

More particularly, Florêncio refers to the anti-anthropocentric metaphysical movement called Object-oriented ontology,  which rejects the Copernican Revolution of Immanuel Kant and its advocacy for the supremacy of the human mind in constructing reality and knowledge.

Florêncio explains in an interview, earlier this year,  that “If we are really to support a flat and democratic object-oriented ontology, then we cannot divide the world into ‘normal objects’ and ‘art objects.’ Art objects don’t exist ontologically. What exist is a particular kind of relation between objects (including humans), the aesthetic relation.’

But he goes even further, admitting that as with the extraordinary example of the Duchampian ready-mades, it was the art exhibition context that gave the audience the opportunity to appreciate them in an aesthetic engagement; so in a world of not-discriminated objects where mankind is no longer at the centre of the universe, there is no ontological space for ‘art objects’ or even art: there is only aesthetic experience.

Florêncio goes on to explain how sitting in front of Marina Abramović at the M.o.M.A. in New York in May 2010 was never going to give the sitter full access to the totality of her being, because ‘all relations in the world involve something or someone performing and something or someone witnessing the performance.’

Therefore in the case of the relic, we can say that what is prominent is not the nature of the object being experienced but, conversely, the (aesthetic) nature of the experience between the collector and the object during the performance.

Whilst the proposition is being investigated more in detail, the impression is that with this theory we can ensure an innate independence of the object itself, despite the connection with, not sub-ordination to, the performance that generated the encounter between collector and object.

And thus prove philosophically correct Josef Albers’ affirmation that “art is not an object, but experience."


  • Amanda Heng
  • Daniela Beltrani
  • Ezzam Rahmen
  • Jason Lim
  • Josef Ng
  • Juliana Yasin & Colin G. Reaney
  • Koh Nguang How
  • Lee Wen
  • Tang Da Wu
  • VestAndPage
  • Vincent Leow
  • Zai Kuning

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