For me the answer is yes. And no. And sometimes something in between - as so many art works that can be classified as performance (in terms of ‘medium’) consist of many elements. The live part - where an action unfolds in real time in front of you - often involves objects, people, projections and all sorts of other things. So, as such, more often than not, a lot of this lives on as an artwork in its own right - enabling you to still experience the performance in other ways
Which raises various questions: Do the objects or props used then become relics of something that once was? Or are they now sculptures?
Alongside this there is the question of whether to document or not. If you do, is this document part of the ‘artwork’, or just a record? And then what happens if someone else makes a video and then posts it on youtube? Are you still experiencing the artwork?
There are many ways to answer these, so here are a few examples of artists in the Tate collection and Tate Modern Live programme that address this in different ways.
Tania Bruguera’s work Tatlin’s Whisper #5 2008 is a piece that originally took place in the Turbine Hall that Tate now owns (it can only be shown when there is some sort of demonstration or public unrest occurring, as a form of response). When it first took place, two riot police on horseback entered the hall and began to choreograph and control the crowd. However, rather than control images and the audience’s experience, Bruguera specifically wanted the work to be seen by a secondary audience, distributed through the viewers who took photographs and made their own videos.
Tino Sehgal (who is undertaking the 2012 Unilever Commission) makes works that are enacted by people in the gallery space; sometimes in the form of a conversation that takes place between a person and the viewer or in the form of a choreographed action. He refuses to document them and when a work is sold to a museum or gallery, the conservators must only remember the instructions and not record any details. Therefore the works are passed on by word of mouth, which he calls ‘body to body transmission’. So for Sehgal’s work you not only have to be there to experience it, but its ongoing existence relies upon human beings (although of course, there are unauthorised images the audience have taken on the internet).
Work by Joseph Beuys has been on display at Tate Modern since it opened in 2001, most of which would now be considered sculpture or installation by viewers to the gallery. But so much of this was made as the result of a performance by Beuys, a figure whose entire life as an artist could also be considered a performance, from the clothes he wore, to the actions he undertook, such as appearing in a Japanese Whisky advert. For example, Four Blackboards 1972:
Three of these were made during a performance at Tate, where Beuys lectured in the galleries on communication and democracy whilst making drawings on the black boards. Then these were stored in the archive until 1983, when they were transferred to the collection as artworks. Finally, Tate Modern recently staged a project with artist Kateřina Šedá. It was a day long collective action in which 80 people from the Czech village of Bedřichovice and 80 UK-based artists participated, in an attempt to transfer the village socially and conceptually to London. The one-day action was a real-time performance. Yet the process of meetings that led up to this and the materials created (from official ones, to unofficial images taken on peoples mobiles) will also form part of a work that is ongoing, to be experienced in other ways.
So, do you have to be there to experience a performance-based art work?