Six Days of Performance Art and Video

A woman that froths, a man wearing a branch and offal and balloons made out of binbags. It's performance, but is it art?

Alistair MacLennan is standing barefoot on the front lawn of Queen's University. His boots have been cast off, and he is meandering around on the short, springy grass in a long black coat. Balanced on his balding head is a giant branch, hung with long white ribbons that flutter in the breeze.

Unpleasant-looking lumps of meat – a pig's ear, a dead fish – are also suspended from the branch. You can smell them as MacLennan passes. His fingers are knotted tightly through the white ribbon, and this is how he appears to be steering the whole apparatus.

He wanders blindly, glasses skewiff, in random circles. Passers-by stop to stare. 'Ooh, pigs' ears,' giggles a female student. 'So special,' enthuses a Japanese tourist, stopping to take a snap.

This is a piece of performance art, entitled TUC CUT, part of a six-day festival in and around Queen's. There is also a woman drooling blue foam from her mouth and a man consuming a bunch of grapes without using his hands.

It all culminates in a marathon six-hour group event by Black Market International, a long-established collective whose performances are 'exercises in derision, concentration, sacralisation and effacement'.

I don't want this review to be an exercise in derision. It's almost pathetically easy to lampoon performance art with its weird, repetitious antics often involving nudity, offal, plastic bags, and physical humiliation, or, if you're especially unlucky, all four together. Performances tend to be enacted with a great air of solemnity.

And then there's the sheer length of time that they often go on for. One could be two hours, three hours or more. You need to be doing something quite extraordinary to keep an audience's attention for that long.

At its best, performance art can provoke, interrogate, illuminate. It can be humorous, poignant, witty. Unfortunately, in my experience, this is highly unusual. Performance art can also be boring, pretentious, long-winded and tedious.

There is something melancholy about MacLennan's sad barefoot shuffle across the lawn. My response is caught somewhere between pity and revulsion. With his tattered ribbons and suspended decaying matter, is he saying something about the frailty of life, the brevity of joy, the inevitability of mortality? Or is he just lugging around a load of smelly old meat?

Inside the Black and White Hall, in the Lanyon building, Mexican artist Elvira Santamaria Torres is inflating a black bin bag using a large helium pump. She presses the rustic-looking balloon against her face, ties a long piece of black thread to it. Then Torres – a slim figure, dressed all in black – walks slowly to the marble Galileo statue in the hall, where a vase of long-stemmed red carnations waits.

She selects a flower and attaches it to the balloon, then presents it to one of the people who have come to watch the performance. Looking around, I see several people sitting and standing with their bin-bag balloons; this performance has clearly been going on for some time. The name of the work is Before Galileo... D I A L O G O.

As ever with performance art, half the curiosity comes from the reactions of the audience. In this case, that's unwitting students and staff of the university, passing through the hall as they go about their business.

Two young men in GAA tops, deep in banter, are brought up short with a surprised 'What the...?' A young woman in high heels clip-clops briskly in, then reverts to an awkward tiptoe once she sees Torres at work. A schoolboy taking a short-cut skirts the wall like a wary rat, then makes a run for the door. It is interesting to observe how people negotiate a public space that has been unexpectedly reserved for art.

Other than that, the atmosphere is hushed, punctuated only by the sound of several photographers clicking away. In doing so, it's as if they confer a kind of status on the performance itself, as a meaningful spectacle, worthy of being documented. But is it?

I think I would feel a lot better disposed towards performance art if it were treated in a less precious way – less like a sacrament, more like street theatre. There is no reason why it should be received in reverent silence. As viewers in a public space, we are entirely at liberty to react with mirth, tears, spoken comment or even plain indifference.

Too often art is inaccessible, remote, swathed about with needlessly obscure language. Too often it is the preserve – or is perceived to be the preserve – of an intellectual elite. Unfortunately, this perception is sometimes underlined by over-zealous gallery staff.

Assistants in the newly-opened MAC, please take note: it's not a good idea to tell people 'don't touch the exhibits' before they have barely set foot in the art gallery. Fewer rules and instructions mean people feel encouraged to come in, not deterred. If needs be, there's time enough for 'don't touch' later.

I remain as confounded by performance art as ever. But at least the artists participating here are taking their practice to the public domain, not hiding away in the comfort of a gallery setting. Taking a risk for art is always to be applauded. So, for that at least, bravo.

Images from Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker.