I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
What Is Performance Art?
The standard descriptions of this genre include the elements of a human body and an audience in the presence of time and space. The body or bodies are the “artist/artists,” usually in strange clothing or none at all. Nudity seems to be a frequent feature of performance art.
The presence of an audience is self-explanatory; but time and space? We could go simplistic and suggest this means how long the performance lasts and where it is held.
Or, we could listen to Marina Abramović, a renowned performance artist: “I could say the performance is the moment when the performer with his own idea step in his own mental physical construction in front of the audience in particular time.” Got that? Me neither.
Sadly, a diligent search of the internet turns up nothing much more lucid. One practitioner, when asked to define performance art, fell back on the cliché “I know it when I see it.”
This video, with a rapid-fire commentary, gives a history of performance art and attempts to explain it.
Performance Art Makes Us Uncomfortable
A line from the above video stands out “Performance can make you uncomfortable because that’s what it’s supposed to do.”
Perhaps, this is in the mind of Wagner Schwartz with his creation “La Bête.” In this performance art event, he sheds all his kit and … let’s have him explain: “As I stand or lie naked and vulnerable I allow my audience to interact with my body by inviting them to pull, reshape, and manipulate it into many different poses and to construct images using my body.”
This caused more than a bit of a stir at the Sao Paulo Museum of Modern Art in Brazil in 2017. A four-year-old girl, under the guidance of her mother, an artist, crawled around a nude Schwartz touching parts of his body. But, there’s not the slightest hint of creepiness about this. Oh, no, no, no. It’s art; performance art.
The event certainly pushed a lot of people outside their comfort zones. Petitions and even fist fights followed, but there was no court time for Wagner Schwartz.
The Artist Is Present
Marina Abramović, who gave us such a vivid illumination of the meaning of performance art, put on an event at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010. It was called “The Artist is Present” and involved Ms. Abramović seated at a table and visitors were encouraged to sit opposite her and engage with her.
Wasn’t that absolutely riveting?
The elderly, bearded man who appears at 1:30 in The Artist is Present video is another performance artist who goes by the name of Ulay. He and Abramović were lovers for more than 20 years. In 1988, they separated but not in the way regular folks go about ending a relationship; this had to be performed. They each started at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and walked towards the middle. When they met they said “Goodbye.
Artist and comedian Lisa Levy, 59, took the idea several steps further in her “The Artist Is Humbly Present” event. For five hours a day, Ms. Levy sat naked on a toilet in a studio in New York City. Another toilet was placed opposite her so that patrons, should they be so inclined, could interact with her.
This was intended to be a parody of Ms. Abramović’s gift to the artistic community.
Lizzie Crocker of The Daily Beast asked Ms. Levy what the point of this was and got the cryptic reply that “I want to make it as accessible as possible for people who don’t know her (Abramović) or don’t know about art.”
Author David Sedaris once wrote about performance art in a way that seems appropriate in this context; he said it was a medium “where god-given talent was considered a hindrance.”
Painting the Performance Art Way
Performance artists look down on such things as Constable landscapes, or even a Picasso portrait as horribly conventional and boring.
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If it’s gritty authenticity you want then look to Millie Brown. The British performance artist drinks milk mixed with coloured food dye and then―brace yourself―vomits it onto a canvas.
She told The Guardian that she wants “to use my body to create art …to truly come from within to create something beautiful that was raw and uncontrollable.” She added, “I think it’s misunderstood by a lot of people.”
You’ve got that right, Millie.
Another performance artist, Milo Moiré, also likes her artwork to come from within, this time from her vagina. The folks Art Cologne Fair in Germany in 2014 watched as a nude Ms. Moiré released paint-filled eggs from her genitalia to splat onto a canvas.
She said this is “about the creation fear, the symbolic strength of the casual, and the creative power of the femininity.” Well, of course it is; supremely obvious once it’s pointed out to you.
These women are following in the groundbreaking footprints of Yves Klein. The young French artist created Anthropometry in the early 1960s. This involved naked women covered in blue paint imprinting their bodies on canvasses.
An art auction house describes one of these entitled “Le Buffle” (the buffalo) as “The bodies’ imprints merging together create a colossal, abstract entity that conveys some notion of orgiastic energy.” It sold in New York in 2010 for more than $12 million.
Performance Art Shock and Awe
Once someone pulls an outrageous stunt and calls it performance art someone else is bound to say “I can top that.” This is a brief selection of the less outrageous examples of performance art.
In 2011, Marni Kotak performed “The Birth of Baby X” at a New York City gallery. Before an invited audience, she actually gave birth to her son. Thanks to The Washington Post we now know that “She plans to re-conceptualize her role as a parent to baby Ajax into a work of performance art that will last for the rest of her life.”
Hermann Nitsch is an Austrian performance artist who focuses of gory stuff, such as fake crucifixions and drinking blood.
Franco B is an Italian who performed “I Miss You” at the Tate Modern Gallery in London in 2003. He strolled down the runway clad only in white body paint (this is not the sort of thing you can pull of while wearing overalls) and bleeding from wounds to his wrists that he had inflicted on himself. Franco B explained to Metro U.K. that “I don’t make work that lives in somebody’s living room but lives in the memory because it speaks to them.” Speak to me “I Miss You,” speak. Sorry, I’m getting nothing.
There’s a lot more of this sort of stuff, but you’ve had enough, right? Okay, just one more.
Jennifer Hartley’s “Last Supper.” Um? Err?
- Over the course of time, performers have presented depictions of all bodily functions—that is all—under the rubric of art.
- A lot of what passes for performance art in its modern form can trace its origins to the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland. During World War I this was a gathering place for writers, dancers, actors, poets, philosophers, and anyone else who saw the world as broken as its leaders hurled endless ranks of young men into pointless battles. They called themselves anti-artists and performed absurdist sketches dressed in outlandish costumes. They recited nonsense poetry and they played music that was jumbled and discordant. The cabaret quickly fizzled out but its members spread throughout Europe challenging artistic convention.
- “Marina Abramović: What Is Performance Art?” KhanAcademy, undated.
- “Girl, 4, Is Encouraged to Touch Naked Man for Weird Art Performance.” Joe Roberts, Metro, October 1, 2017.
- “Performance Art Goes to the Toilet—in Brooklyn, Of Course.” Lizzie Crocker, The Daily Beast, April 13, 2017.
- “Lady Gaga’s Vomit Artist: ‘I Have Experienced Migraines.’ ” Leo Benedictus, The Guardian, March 24, 2014.
- “A Woman Publicly ‘Gave Birth’ to a Painting at Art Cologne.” Leigh Silver, Complex.com, April 21, 2014.
- “Cabaret Voltaire: the Dada House.” Altas Obscura, undated.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 29, 2020:
Rochelle, that was the very thought that kept going round in my head as I was writing this.
Another thought was "Am I just a grumpy old geezer who fails to understand the creative genius of performance art just as my father could not grasp the magnificence of Elvis Presley?"
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on February 28, 2020:
Again the emperor is not wearing anything.