© MIkes Poppe - photo: Marcel Lennartz 2024

Mikes Poppe (°1983) is a performance artist and visual artist based in Antwerp, Belgium.

Desire / Persevering: On the Performative Work of Mikes Poppe
by Tamarah Beheydt

Performance is simultaneously an ancient and a nascent art medium. On one hand, the roots of what can be considered performative art date back to ancient times, from Greek tragedy to commedia dell’arte. On the other hand, ‘performance’ as a term found its place in the (visual, Western) arts only with the avant-garde of the sixties and seventies of the previous century. Is it acting or interpreting? Does it belong on a stage, in a video, in an exhibition space, or on the street? Who claims the right to ‘perform’, where, when, why, and for whom? What makes a gesture artistic and an action or movement a ‘performance’?

Inevitably and tirelessly, Mikes Poppe conducts research into the conditions of his medium. In his early studies and re-enactments of performances by major artists such as Vito Acconci, Marina Abramović, or Chris Burden, he openly places himself in the vulnerable status of a young artist exploring potential and meaning, possibly failing. It is not enough to read the impact of these canonical, iconic performances through the testimonies of others; he experiences for himself the violence of the ephemeral, the assault on his body, the unpredictability of the audience. The scars form his experience, his portfolio. They legitimize his consecutive actions and his positioning as an artist.

Every contemporary artist carries some baggage of art history. How do you learn from the work of predecessors and how do you keep yourself standing in their spotlight? In later durational performances, Poppe relates to, or fights with, the art itself in different ways. This reflection addresses two examples.

In “De Profundis“, the artist is chained to a block of Carrara marble in the courthouse of Ostend. With a hammer and chisel, the tools of a sculptor, he must carve his way through the marble to free himself from his chain, which is integrated centrally into the block. For twenty days and nineteen nights – from November 10 to 29, 2017 – he remained condemned to an intense coexistence with the marble, a titan of art history, under the gaze of the public, with only a chair and table, a mattress, and a toilet available.

In the performance “En de boer hij ploegde voort“, Poppe drags a reproduction of one of Michelangelo’s Dying Slaves behind him as he walks through a meadow during the entire duration of the Kunstenfestival Watou, from July 2 to September 4, 2022. His steps are limited to a large repeating infinity sign. His path etches itself into the grass. Here too, his freedom is bound – once again, art history is a block, a weight, and a chain. Yet, this is also a declaration of love because whether he shares life with a block of Carrara marble for twenty days or drags a Michelangelo for two months, he forces himself to find a relationship with his chosen companion.

In the past, Poppe referred to himself as an artist-terrorist. This does not express an intention to harm himself or others; rather, this statement speaks of the conceptual threat emanating from his work. He sometimes quotes the phrase ‘nous voulons chanter l’amour du danger, l’habitude de l’énergie et de la témérité from Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909) as his motto.

Someone who challenges themselves physically or even tortures themselves sometimes does so in the hope of a temporary escape from psychological pain. A performance artist places their body in the service of collective existential pains, questioning our human condition. The body as an instrument, as material, allows the artist to exert complete control and bear total responsibility for the work. By definition, every performative act – every artist who delineates their own rules of the game – is subversive in relation to controlling authorities or authoritarian limitations.

Poppe places his own body and being at risk. With the violence he inflicts on himself, his work is precisely about the violence that determines our lives – from the fleeting danger that people pose to themselves, each other, and the world, to the violent weight of structures like borders, (art) history, and production and consumption drives.

A performance artist does not produce in the same manner as someone, for instance, who creates paintings or sculptures. A performance artist merely exhibits oneself; there is no object. Even the body remains a body, though performance artists continually push that body against its shifting, disturbed boundaries. The elusive and immaterial nature renders performance as a medium (quasi) uncollectible and unsaleable. In a sense, each performance is an act of resistance against the commodification of art.

However, Poppe also works with other media, especially during the artistic thought process that precedes or runs parallel to his performances. Photography, in particular, has an uncertain status compared to performance. Can a photo be more than just documentation but also become ‘performative’ itself? He experiments with images that, despite their tangibility, convey a hint of the transcendental nature of performance. In the seclusion of his home studio, he explores the possibilities of photography, but also charcoal, paint, and ceramics – but there are always performative characteristics, aspects of intervention, destruction, deformation, and strength. He is less accustomed to showing all these media, but when he does, it is an attempt to approach his audience. The performance “En de boer… / And the Farmer, He Plowed On” in Watou was accompanied by models, drawings, and photographs, all providing insight into how the artist develops a work.

Regardless of the audience’s reactions; the fact that performance tugs at our empathetic nerves cannot be denied. From his own ego – which he tries to cancel out in favor of the artwork – to ours, Poppe transposes fundamental existential questions, about guilt, morality, suffering, beauty. Time plays a role in this too. A long-duration performance can, at some point, become so abrasive that time becomes viscous. Due to the long duration and repetition, the action takes on an almost static character. As a spectator, it is almost impossible to experience the work from beginning to end; you pass by, drop in, and leave again. Life goes on. Meanwhile, the artist himself continues to exist as an image. Due to the inevitable semantic saturation, a new layer of meaning opens up, transcending its own form. Perception may not evoke an immediate response, but it nestles in the absorptive minds and even bodies of the witnesses.

He titled the performance in the courthouse in Ostend “De Profundis“. The Latin lament could apply to his entire body of work. Beyond the limits and through the temporality of the body, he digs his way into the depths of the human soul. He traverses an infinite path in which he bears the sublime burden of art history, all the while examining, positioning, balancing, dragging forth, between performance and visual art. The two words also form the beginning of Psalm 130, a plea to God in the context of penance and pilgrimage. Liberation seemed imminent, but after twenty days of carving marble, Poppe was ultimately unchained by others. That proves to be exemplary for his work: seeking redemption but never quite finding it.

His self-imposed trials may testify to a form of Leidenschaft – the German word for a persistent passion is an ambiguous state of being; a longing passion that drives body and mind to blind perseverance. With the risk of destroying his own body and ego in the service of art, Poppe touches the viewer in their existence, consciousness, time, and vulnerability.

The completion of Poppe’s work lies precisely in the anti-cathartic, in the exposure of the unrelenting weight of art history and existential questions, but above all of an eternal desire, to be more than a human in a body. There is no grand finale, no glorifying end result, no catharsis. The suffering he imposes on his body is inevitably part of persevering in desire. There is no sublimating end, the desire itself is sublime in all its cyclical ambiguity. Could that perhaps lie in every image that becomes a work of art?

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