TQW Magazin
Walter Seidl on Borderlines and Permanent Collection by Manuel Pelmuş

The body as a moment of memory


The body as a moment of memory

Manuel Pelmuş belongs to a generation of artists who bring performance and visual arts together in their work, exploring cross-genre possibilities of representation. The Romanian-born artist was originally trained as a dancer and choreographer. In recent years, however, he has focused his attention on the subject of performance in the context of contemporary art. His constant rethinking of performative strategies makes Pelmuş a representative of the ‘new performance turn’. While visual artists like Allan Kaprow, Robert Morris and Carolee Schneemann used their bodies in their performances at various places in the ‘geographic turn’ of the 1960s, the ‘new performance turn’ of the 1990s has shifted the focus on integrating moments of contemporary dance into the context of the museum. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Tanzquartier Wien, Pelmuş has developed two interventions, the performance lecture Borderlines and the enactment of Permanent Collection at Kunsthalle Wien. The body is at the heart of the discussion about memory and history, which the artist explores by using various models of perception.

In current exhibition practice the ‘white cube’ has been firmly established since the mid-20th century as the ideal form of presentation for contemporary art. However, this notion is increasingly being thwarted by artists and curators. Pelmuş’ performance lecture, for example, took place in complete darkness. Only at the beginning an empty lectern with a mini lamp was visible, then the light went out only to come back on again at the end. The artist entered the stage in the dark, took his place at the lectern and started to read; his steps could be heard when entering and leaving the stage. For three quarters of an hour he read passages from an autobiographical text about the limits of the body, both in the sense of physical limits as well as those concerned with moving across national borders. In the 1990s, the Romanian artist first had to reach the Schengen area, which initially took him to the Netherlands and then, due to several engagements, to Berlin, Paris, Düsseldorf and Vienna. Romania’s accession to the EU in 2007 meant that the visa requirement was lifted. This generated a new bodily sensation oscillating between emptiness and the dawn of something new, which Pelmuş took up as a subject for his work but also in relation to Romania’s past. A production by Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula, in which dancers from Africa perform in the dark, as well as Martin Creed’s Work No. 227, in which the lights in a gallery go on and off, and for which the artist was awarded the Turner Prize in 2001, served as inspiration for Borderlines. Over time, his Eastern European identity became less important to Pelmuş, and it was an encounter with a Swede of Iranian descent that made him think about the notion of physical experience and forms of ‘othering’. As an illegal immigrant in the 1980s, the latter had to wait for his residence permit to be granted, and he became the victim of a gun attack by a xenophobic serial killer. Thinking about the body, pain and forms of psychological perception is the key issue of Pelmuş’ ‘crossing of borders’.

At Kunsthalle Wien he examined works by international artists that could form part of a museum collection. In the foyer performers recreated more than 30 works of art by VALIE EXPORT, Carl Andre, Geta Brătescu and others, actuating them with their movements and poses. Pelmuş first experimented with this performative gesture at the 2013 Venice Biennale together with Alexandra Pirici: performers recreated over 100 works of art from the history of the Biennale in the otherwise empty Romanian pavilion. In doing so, they created a performative art history expanded by Pelmuş over the years and now brought back into play by linking the history of art with that of body discourses, examining their current validity.


Walter Seidl lives in Vienna and works as a curator, author and artist. He has curated various exhibition projects in Europe, the USA and Japan. He has written many essays for artist’s monographs and articles in international art magazines.