Trend: Planking

Trends are interesting to me because they seem to always hit me the same way. First I hear about something here and there and don't think much of it. Then there's always the wallop. Suddenly in the space of a week or so I'll hear about something constantly. That's what has just happened with Planking. Planking is simple. You lie down, face down, with your arms touching your side in public. Usually you then have a photo taken and post it on the internet. Sometimes it is done as a performance piece over a longer period of time.

Sometimes referred to as "the laying down game" or my favourite, "lazy Parkour", Planking seems to have originated in Australia and has become an out-and-out fad this year. This past May, things started to hit a tipping point when a man was arrested for planking on a police car, and shortly afterwards Australian Prime Minister John Key was pictured with his son, Max Key, planking on a lounge suite. The photo of the PM and his planking son made the front page of a newspaper and soon became a phenomenon.

The internet based version of planking certainly seems to be about absurdity and humour, the joy of capturing the bizarre. Some would call it an internet meme like extreme ironing or flashmobbing.

But what of this other, fine art element? When does it cease to be a plank-prank and become performance art?

Recently the curator of the gallery I work for was at the Venice Biennale, and shared pictures of Canadian (but Beijing-born and NYC-based) artist Terence Koh's installation "Tell it Like It Is" (pictured below.) The installation consists of him laying with his head in an ancient well for over ten hours. While I'm not sure the artist would himself define his performance piece as "planking" it certainly seems to me to be  a similar type of art experiment. Has Terence turned an internet meme/street trend into contemporary performance art? It certainly seems that way, and I'm not the only one to make this pronouncement.

This past weekend I was in Kensington Market, Toronto for their Pedestrian Sundays. I stopped to observe three artists participating in a similar performance piece. Three tall square white pillars were placed on the sidewalk, each with a performer placed on or beside it. In the middle, a man sat on the pillar, but with arms dangling at his sides, bent at the waist with his head between his knees. On either side, the artists leaned up against the pillars, with their noses resting just on top of the pillar, arms at their if they were 'vertically' planking. With no signage, I was unable to ascertain who the performers were (and also didn't have a camera unfortunately).  Here's a picture I was able to find of a similar performance piece on flickr.

I of course immediately think of planking when I see this because it has the same arresting effect. Especially in the hustle-bustle of Pedestrian Sundays, a completely still figure cuts a sharp contrast to the swirl and noise happening around it.

Observers seemed to look quizzically at the display for a moment or two, then moved along. Some stood and stared for a longer period. We stopped for a moment or two, and during the time we were there the fellow in the position pictured at left seemed to want to stretch his ankles and made tiny movements to do so. I wondered if they were falling asleep. He was careful to keep the rest of his body in the exact posture however, and his two companions were remarkably still during our time there.

While this long-term posing seems closer to what Terence Koh is doing, it also seems similar to me to planking. There is certainly a trend emerging of these long, still performance works. I'm no expert in performance art but I am also calling to mind the work of Marina Abramovic, whose work explores the relationships between performer and audience as well as the limits of the human body and mind. Her work won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennale in 1997 and she had a major installation at the Museum of Modern Art in NY in 2010 called The Artist is Present. 

That seven hundred and thirty six hour long work involved the artist sitting still in a chair, with the possibility for an audience member to sit across from her and look into her eyes for a time. The work gathered much press (especially since celebrities such as Bjork and James Franco were in the audience and participated). Each person who sat with the artist had their portrait captured. Those pictures can be seen here and they are quite haunting.

This stillness - planking in unusual places, leaning on pillars in the midst of a bustling pedestrian-filled street, laying face down for ten hours over a well, or sitting in a chair for over 700 hours is a trend that I can't ignore. I'm not sure what to call it, so I've gone with Planking. If you have another term for me, please share. Perhaps it is the intensity and fast pace of our lives that has led artists to take time to demonstrate the opposite of this life experience through a complete rejection of action and tension.

(I'm posting this blog without discovering who the Kensington Market artist is - if you know, please comment, and I'm also continuing to research it. So if I find out, I'll update this post.)
Read More:
See pictures of planking around the world.
Link to the Toronto Planking Association
"Planking Turns Deadly" via the Globe and Mail
Photos of how the other half lives - Vito Schnabel's party celebrating Terence Koh's installation

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