This Frieze stunt isn’t performance art, it’s more like child abuse

I can't envisage any child whose ambition in life is to parade mutely around an art fair in a hideous matted wig

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Oh, you look so sweet, I thought, looking indulgently at my two sons. Angelic. Brotherly. Playing the fundamentally low-tech game of Subbuteo on the kitchen table (and being very on-message too, since apparently such old-fashioned games are back in favour).

I reach for my phone, to take a photo. My sons immediately turn away. “You’ll only put it on Twitter,” mopes the youngest. Children do not like being items on display, or at least mine don’t. They love taking selfies, of course, but standing around while I take a photograph of them? Forget it.

Bribery needs to be deployed, and, sometimes, vague notions of utterly gutted grandparents, viz: “Please be in this photograph because Granny would so love to see it.” I am resigned to the fact that my children are now of an age where a fleeting presence is all I am going to get, most of the time.

So how about: “Please walk around this contemporary art fair for a few days and be gawped at by a load of pretentious fashion victims?” Not a hope. “With conjoined hair, too.” Whaat? Yep. If anyone is interested, this is a genuine opportunity from a performance artist who cryptically goes by the name of Tunga.

You see, Tunga, apparently “the greatest living Brazilian artist”, took a series of photographs back in 1984 of two 11-year-old girls whose long hair was either a) very badly plaited or b) drastically lacking conditioner. It was so hopelessly tangled that one child was joined to the other. Or as Tunga’s people put it, “connecting almost umbilically”.

Are these rather voyeuristic photographs for sale? They are not. At Frieze art fair in London, as reported in this paper yesterday, you will be able to buy a “performance” of the subject, snappily entitled Siamese Hair Twins. People, please form an orderly queue.

The idea is this: you part with £20,000 and then the “iconic” Tunga, before laughing all the way to Barclays, gives you a certificate which will allow you to hire a pair of girls with matted hair and watch them walk about the fair.

Frieze clearly thinks the UK is full of wealthy mad people, since it is currently scouting for a pair of twin females, aged around 12, to fulfil this grim vision. Hair condition, irrelevant. Because nobody in the UK has really badly matted hair these days, thanks to the prevalence of Herbal Remedies conditioner in every bathroom across the nation, Frieze will lob in a long “conjoined” wig to achieve the desired Tunga look. Hurrah!

“People who feel art should be paintings on a wall are missing elements that are really exciting,” said the director of Frieze, Victoria Siddall, who (I am guessing here), has perhaps never lived with a 12-year-old, boy or girl. Siamese Hair Twins is part of the “live” section of Frieze, where people can invest in performance art. This is hardly a radically new idea; performance art is a venerable element of contemporary art, and can be utterly mesmerising. And people pay for it.

I once sat on a staircase in a south London house and watched someone jump over a plastic bag for about an hour. It was amazing. I then watched another artist put small tumblers of water, each containing a single tablet of Anadin, up the same staircase. That was pretty good, too.

I’ve even looked into the legendary Annie Sprinkle with the help of a speculum, in the name of performance art. But this, and other pieces of performance art, from Orlan’s plastic surgery to Franco B’s bloodletting, were creative acts dreamed up and executed by performance artists themselves.

Sometimes a performance artist might recreate a work originally devised by someone else, but again there is a significant level of self-determination going on. To my mind this is totally different from hiring children and having them perform out your own strange vision. I suppose anyone who has a child currently performing in, say, Billy Elliot or Matilda may disagree, but child actors are not performance artists. Furthermore they are trained, protected, chaperoned and, one hopes, physically present by their own volition.

I cannot envisage any child whose ambition in life is to parade mutely around an art fair in a hideous matted wig. The lonely children in the original Siamese Hair Twins photograph look anonymous, featureless, degraded by their follicular horror. Frankly, it is more Victorian freak show than anything else.

Can you imagine the conversation over the dinner table? “Darlings, Mummy’s got a fantastic idea for you both next Saturday.”

Oh, Brian Sewell, how we miss you!