March 2008, Zoe M. Peled interviews Tanya Mars

 Performance view, Tanya Mars, 2008

Tanya Mars has been active on the Canadian art scene since the mid-70’s. Engaging predominantly in multiple layers of Feminist discourse, Mars is a multi-disciplinary performance artist and educator. Widely recognized for her PURE series, Mars continues to exhibit her work across Canada and is involved with numerous artist-run-centres and galleries.

Last October, Mars was in Vancouver, performing at Fuse ( of Vancouver Art Gallery fame). As part of the LIVE Performance Art Biennale, Mars gave an engaging talk at Emily Carr Institute, which gave me the opportunity to further investigate her motivations, work, and practice.

ZMP: “Women who use humour are women who use power,” reads one of the first statements in your article. Is humour one of our only ways to assert power, and what are some other ‘outlets’? (Are they as effective?)

TM: Of course “humour” is not the only way for women to assert power—we need to pursue economic, political and academic roles, and those don’t often involve humour. They should, however, because those situations/institutions are sorely lacking in humour. That said, I think that for me, humour is my most successful performance strategy. It allows me to disarm the audience (be less alienating), and it balances the rhetoric around certain political issues. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t try to solve the world’s problems in my work, rather I point to the problems (that are, that persist) in a way that ( I hope) motivates the viewer to respond in a pro-active way. We should also remember that humour doesn’t always need to be gut-splitting, roll-in-the-aisles laughter (although it can be). There are many facets to humour. The danger in using humour is that often, it isn’t taken seriously.

ZMP: Images of female performance artists during the 70’s who have received the most attention in art history, (you write), are those of women “stuffed, bound and naked”. These terms are commonly included in discourse revolving around attack, violence and rape. Why were (are) women presented in these ways?

TM: The women artists presented themselves in those ways, they were not presented that way; and I was struck by it as a young artist, and chose to avoid the masochistic/victimized representation of women in favour of images that were more celebratory. In the 1980's (90s), to be fair, there were American women artists who also employed humour (Holly Hughes comes to mind, and even Karen Finley—although in an odd way, and of course the most obvious Lynda Benglis)—but if you thumb through Moira Roth's Amazing Decade, you don't see a lot of humour addressed in the work. I think the women artists who have embraced the representation of women as austere are trying, in their own way to: 1) represent the "violence" in order to own it; and 2) I think they were also trying to obtain status in the male-dominated art world. What better way than to re-inforce the subjugation of women? (even though I know, or I am pretty sure, that it was not the "intent" of the women artists to reinforce subjugation). Let me clarify that I am not entirely AGAINST this strategy, I just find that I personally cannot use it; it goes against my grain. 3) I think that they wanted to deal with issues in a serious manner.

 Performance view, Tanya Mars, 2008

ZMP: Do you believe that there was a wide range of female performance artists practicing in the 70’s, yet weren’t recognized because they did not follow the same conventions as the aforementioned?

TM: Many Canadian women artists were very much using humour, such as those I mention in the article: The Clichettes, The Hummer Sisters, Anna Banana ( even their names are humourous), and others—but being a female Canadian artist (especially performance artist) wasn’t/isn’t likely to get you into the mainstream international art world, with the three strikes against you: female, Canadian, performance artist.
 I think that humour was also used in the UK (Rose English comes to mind), although my knowledge of 70’s UK performance is not great (sadly). The definition of performance art was dominated by what work was being done by the "famous" artists of the time: Ulay and Abramovic, Chris Burden, Acconci, Herman Nitsch, Hannah Wilke, etc; which was (in my opinion) largely dominated by male performance artists and their aesthetic.

ZMP: To appropriate a question directly from the article, “Why is humour diminished in artistic circles, when is most societies, the humourist adopts a position of superiority…of truth telling?”

TM: I think because we expect “art” to be serious and “entertainment” to make us laugh. If art makes us laugh, then it can’t be art, can it? I know that sounds simplistic, but quite honestly, I think it as simple as that: how art is framed in our society as “high art” or “fine art” implies that it moves us in more lofty ways. Humour isn’t lofty.

ZMP: Why do you feel that is easier to deal with danger, alienation, etc. in a comic rather than tragic light? Is it simply delaying an inevitable reaction?

TM: I prefer to see my approach as a comic/tragic light—that to look at the situation and realize one’s impotence is at one tragic and comic. I mean, we are here, we do need to deal with issues constantly—when things don’t change quickly, or when there is backlash, what can you do but laugh? Getting angry also helps, but getting angry fuels an aggressive response from the “other”. I hope to avoid aggression (although there are times when my performances instigate aggression, even when I think they are funny, and non-aggressive.)

 Performance view, Tanya Mars, 2008

How do you see performance art, specifically that of the body, operating right now in the art world? Do you observe any trends or patterns?

TM: I think that “relational” aesthetics is still the hot performance strategy, and I do not have a clear sense of what will replace it. I hope it leaves us soon, as it can be abused (artists being lazy); however, I think that the artists I've met on the international scene in the last couple of years (those who have come to Toronto and those I've met at festivals) are eager to find a way to connect with an audience outside of other artists; to find a way to resolve art's privileged position and to engage with people. Whether or not one can achieve this, I don't know. I like to think that we can (as artists). That we can be approachable, that our art can be understood and that art can make a difference.

Do you see performance art holding any advantages over mediums such as painting, sculpture or photography?

Yes, because it's live; it requires presence of both artist and audience. It lives on as mythology. I love that about performance, it's ephemerality.

ZMP: Do you think that women tend to shy away from the term “ Feminism”? Nowadays, are women worried to be labeled, or label themselves, a Feminist?

TM: Absolutely, young women are very reluctant to call themselves feminists and I find this probably the most disconcerting part of being a professor: I see young women grappling with the same issues that we (me and other feminists) were grappling with in the mid-70s and I think to myself, oh my god, things are really not better. There is more acceptable objectification of women in the mass media, facilitated in large part by internet access. At one point I was hoping to be able to put down the feminist mantle (or to pass it on to someone else), but really, it is very, very important to be vigilant. I will keep beating the feminist drum until I die. Someone has to do it.
 I ask my female students "Is anyone here a feminist?" None (maybe one) will admit that they are. Then I ask "Why not?" They give the predictable responses "We don't hate men." I say, "do you believe that women should get paid the same amount of money for the same work?" They say, unilaterly, "yes." Do you believe in equal rights for women? They say "yes". I say, "you are a feminist." They all want to make work about body issues, equality (especially in performance and video classes) and I absolutely encourage them to do it. There is always crying in my classes. It's like consciousness raising. I do hope that soon young women will be unashamed to call themselves feminists; that they will be as proud as we were when we took it up again in the mid-70’s.

Performance view, Tanya Mars, 2008

ZMP: Many critics of the Feminist movement say that it has “had” its time: women are free to vote and do as they please, therefore we do not require it anymore. Obviously, this is a gross misconception, considering the movement of World Feminism, but how do we ensure communication and work to break down the stereotypes that individuals attach to the Feminist movement?

I think that those of us (both young and old women) who believe in equal rights and all that goes with it, who want to be treated with respect and not held back by glass ceilings, need to fight against inequality when we encounter it. My personal project is to make sure that my three grandsons will be good to women, will respect them, will learn to cook and to take care of themselves and to think of a "wife" as an equal partner. I encourage my female students to be strong and proud and to have ambition.

Zoe Peled

Zoe Peled is a writer in Vancouver Canada.

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