Paul Couillard & Ed Johnson
March 31 to April 3, 2004
To Feel Seeing
Paul Couillardâ€™s and Ed Johnsonâ€™s â€œDuoramaâ€
by Kristine Stiles
The exquisite visual formal resolution of social and personal material in Paul Couillardâ€™s and Ed Johnsonâ€™s collaborative performance art requires careful attention. But while a formal approach to their â€œDuoramaâ€ performances may appear curious - given the otherwise notorious reception of performance art, which conventionally garners commentary on content alone - it is precisely their aesthetic execution that makes the substance of their art so compelling. Let us begin with their working process and one of their performances before considering its larger significance.
Couillard and Johnson have been a couple since 1991. They began collaborating in 2000. Their interpersonal relationship is based on psychological, corporeal, and intellectual experience of each other as lovers, friends, and partners in art and life. This holistic condition of knowledge informs their unrehearsed, exploratory â€œDuoramaâ€ performances, each of which responds to a particular site in a series of six different and isolated, but conceptually related, performance actions. Their work is durational, sharing the intimate relational aspects of their interpersonal intellectual, emotion, and physical attachment. In order to maximize the informational and associative substance of their art, they minimize the visual complexity of their work, appearing in similar clothing (such as matching pajamas -green for Paul, blue for Ed - black jockstraps, dark-patterned dress socks, black shoes, and safety harnesses) and working with simple, everyday, inexpensive materials (honey, sugar cubes, flowers, and rakes). Duorama #40 is emblematic of such elements and performances. On August 29th 2002, the couple built a small, thick wall of sugar cubes about five inches high and perhaps a foot long. They sat facing each other in contemplation on either side of the wall for several minutes. Next, they lay down in place facing in opposite directions and aligned their mouths across the divide of the wall. They then began to lick a hole through the sugar wall until their tongues touched. Licking the rough sugar caused their tongues to bleed, staining the sugar wall slightly red with blood and leaving a small pool of pinkish saliva.
Now let us turn to the artistsâ€™ form, what I identify as their aesthetic, which may be best grasped through an observation by philosopher John Dewey about the relation between form and substance: â€œBecause objects of art are expressive, they are a languageâ€¦.All language, whatever its medium, involves what is said and how it is said, or substance and form.â€ Dewey concluded that substance and form are inextricably interconnected and have been problematically separated in discourses on the visual arts because aesthetic experience itself has not been â€œtrusted to generate its own concepts for interpretationâ€ and â€œsystems of thought framed without reference to artâ€ have been â€œsuperimposedâ€ on art. What Dewey meant by this is that precisely because art is visual form, it has not been â€œtrustedâ€ with its own ideational content, and theoretical narratives have been imposed to remedy its boundless visual conditions. Performance art has exacerbated the imposition of ideas exterior to art because performance remains a radical and recent proposition within the forty millennia of visual production, and because its primary aesthetic material is the body, conventionally confined to theater, dance, and the oral traditions of poetry.
Couillardâ€™s and Johnsonâ€™s art summons such aesthetic deliberations for the ways in which they present bodily experience (substance) and expression (form) as visual feeling. Observing their work is to perceive the inextricable interweaving of a combination of broad cultural associations with their own entirely intimate and interpersonal psychophysical experiences. They organize this phenomenological complexity in simple corporeal actions, or kinesthetic form, which activates viewersâ€™ motor memories: seeing connects feeling; we feel seeing: two males lick a substance that, however universally desirable, leaves them bleeding at the same time as their act breaks through the artificial divide of a tiny wall to unite them physically. This is only a visual account of what takes place in the form of â€œDuorama #40.â€ I provide only a narrative of Couillardâ€™s and Johnsonâ€™s work, but that mere description is itself capable of conveying the poignant, tender, and equally violent weight of their act because of the clarity of their form. They communicate across that wall, which is any and all walls, even as it is also only their wall.
Couillardâ€™s and Johnsonâ€™s work avoids the hyperbole of spectacle too often associated with performance art, while literally inhabiting and, thereby, being an embodied index of socially and politically explosive substance. They organize form such that its own ideational content and theoretical narrative resides in description itself. This is a rare achievement and the operation of the best visual art in any medium.
Kristine Stiles is an artist and art historian at Duke University and co-author of "Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art."
Performance #40 belongs to the series of six performances ,
#37 â€“ 42, performed at the â€œSecond Shift, Urbani Festivalâ€ in Zagreb, Croatia, August 26 - 31, 2002.
John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958): 106.