Art practices from the 1960s onwards in which the human body forms the substance of the work. It is often manifest in performances which are documented by film or photography.

Marina Abramovic Star (from the portfolio ‘Dear Stieglitz’) 1994 © Marina Abramovic. Courtesy of Marina Abramovic and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. DACS 2018.

Origins of body art

Body Art arose as an international phenomenon during the liberated climate of the 1960s, concurrently with Performance Art. It became a powerful means of exploring a range of issues relating to identity, gender, sexuality, illness, death and violence through performance, video and photography. The style was a particularly popular choice for women during the emergence of the Feminist movement.

Much like Performance Art, the movement was influenced by the ‘happenings’ of John Cage and Allan Kaprow, and the performance events organised by Fluxus. In line with Conceptual Art, Marcel Duchamp’s ideas were instrumental, emphasising the idea that art could be made from anything. French Nouveau Realism through the work of Yves Klein was also influential, especially through his Anthropometries of 1960, where he turned female bodies into art tools by instructing them to rub their naked bodies against large canvases. Piero Manzoni’s Living Sculptures were  another important precursor, where he signed his name onto people’s bodies.

Feminism

With the rise of the Feminist movement during early 1960s, women artists saw the potential for Body Art to express feeling of oppression and create powerful acts of demonstration and rebellion. In art the female body as seen through the male gaze had existed for centuries; for Feminist artists this was their chance to take back control and assert themselves. Along with performance art, they also used their bodies to create photography and video art.

Many female artists made Body Art as a deliberate reaction against the macho, male dominated language of Abstract Expressionism. In American artist Carolee Shneemann’s Eye Body: 36 Transformational Actions, 1963, she merges her own body with the environment of her paintings, saying, ‘I wanted my actual body to be combined with the work … I am both maker and image.’ Similarly, Shneemann’s group performance Meat Joy, 1964, featured scantily clad men and women, playing with raw meat and various objects along to a pop soundtrack, which she described as a ‘celebration of flesh as material.’

Serbian artist Marina Abramovic is well known for her performance art which often tests the limits of human endurance. Her own body is her material, which she often subjects to self-mutilation and ritualised pain. Her Star (from the portfolio ‘Dear Stieglitz’) relates to a performance called ‘Lips of Thomas’, 1973, in which she carried out a series of rituals including carving a star into her stomach with a razor blade.

The Male Body

Body Art was adopted by many male artists who saw its potential for breaking down barriers between the viewer and the artist, challenging gender stereotypes and confronting difficult aspects of everyday life. Artists often made work which was deliberately unsettling for the public.

British duo Gilbert & George described themselves as ‘living sculptures’, using documentation of their own bodies to explore gender and sexuality. Bruce Nauman’s practice explores bodily consciousness and physical and mental activity, often through irony and humour. In his Self Portrait as a Fountain, 1966, he pays homage to Duchamp’s Fountain.

Contemporary developments

The body continues to be explored as a tool by many contemporary artists, continuing to provide a means of exploring a range of issues relating to identity and society. American photographer made  haunting, deeply psychological self-portraits of her own body, often seen in a highly vulnerable state. British artist Marc Quinn famously cast a self-portrait using his own blood, saying, ‘the self is what one knows best and least at the same time …casting the body gives one an opportunity to “see” the self.’ British sculptor Antony Gormley has made sculptures and casts of his own body throughout his career, including his 6 Times, 2010, in Edinburgh, where his body image is transformed into a symbol for all mankind.

Artists

Marina Abramovic
born 1946
Gilbert & George
Gilbert Proesch born 1943; George Passmore born 1942
Bruce Nauman
born 1941
Antony Gormley
born 1950

Glossary terms

  • Art of the 1960s that incorporates found objects, often to pass comment on society. The movement is particularly associated with France, where it is known as Nouveau Réalisme. Exponents included Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely.

  • Art in which the idea takes precedence over its manifestation in visual form. It emerged in the 1960s and was often concerned with the nature of art and the use of language.

  • Works in which the actions of the artist constitute the art. Artists have used performance techniques throughout the 20th century but the term is usually applied to works from the 1960s onwards.