Art fair: Anthea Moys tests the limits

The performance artist says the idea came from her fascination with how we play and work together, and how we make, abide by, break and remake the rules of the game.

“You might win, you might lose; but for a time we will sit opposite each other, look into each other’s eyes and battle it out,” she says.

Moys performed a work entitled The Artist is Arm Wrestling is a playful reimagining of Marina Abramovi’s work The Artist is Present (2010), and a continuation of her own performance cycles Anthea Moys vs. The City of Grahamstown and Anthea Moys vs The City of Geneva.

“I am essentially fascinated with how we play and work together, how we make, abide by, break and remake the rules of the game – in sport, in life, in work, in play.” Motivated by this empathetic curiosity, Moys’s work is inherently playful and experiential, using games as performance form and theoretical framework.

Last year, she took on the world in a series of performances in which she pitted herself against individuals, teams and whole cities, competing in a wide range of activities including arm wrestling, karate, playing the Alpine horn, soccer, ballroom dancing and an historical reenactment.


“Setting up this kind of competition”, Moys explains, “asks the participants two very clear things: are you willing to teach me how to play your game? And, are you willing to play your game in a different way – all of you against me?”

Through these impossible matches, Moys explores and challenges notions of wining and losing, the rules of play, and the individuals’ relationship to the group.

Ongoing creative process
The creative process Moys goes through in developing a piece is as important to her as the final performance. In fact, Moys views all her work as an ongoing performance trajectory, where each live performance counts as part of a larger creative process.

“Part of an ongoing investigation into the things I am interested in: play, games, people, learning, exchange, winning, losing,” she says.

Unlike more traditional art forms, performance art is “arguably a more engaged and often a physical experience that happens between people.” Indeed, engagement and participation are paramount, and occur at every point from conception, through creation, performance, and documentation.

For Moys, there is the personal engagement with the initial idea and the process of developing it into a reality. Then there is the interaction with the people she works with, the listening and learning that take place as the idea takes shape. 

This is followed by what she calls an “engagement with ‘rewiring’ or ‘recontextualising’ the ‘rules of the game’” – a central aspect of her work. The audience’s engagement with a work is equally important for Moys.

True character revealed
“By inserting an arm-wrestling contest into the space between the artist and the public, I introduce the rules and create a completely different game. The Artist is Arm Wrestling explores how rules paradoxically encourage play, and reveal true character. How and why do we compete, and for what?” Moys challenges us.

In short, Moys’s hope is that through this interaction, people will have a unique experience; a small personal victory.

“The value of my art, for me, is largely in the experience itself – the time, space and action between the people I am playing with/competing against and myself”, Moys concludes.

This article is adapted from an interview with Anthea Moys on Between 10 and 5 10and5.com.

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