Works in which the actions of the artist constitute the art. It is generally based around a specific event which some artists document with film or photography. Artists have experimented with performance techniques throughout the twentieth century but the term is usually applied to works from the 1960s onwards.
Early Performance Art: Politics and Provocation
From its infancy, performance art was an experimental, vanguard approach to making art that broke all artistic conventions. Writer RoseLee Goldberg reflected on the history of the medium, describing it as 'avant-garde’s avant-garde', writing, '… performance manifestos, from the Futurists to the present, have been the expression of dissidents who have attempted to find other means to evaluate art experience into everyday life.'
The Italian Futurists were among the first artists to experiment with performance art in the early twentieth century, organising events which deliberately caused provocation, shock and uproar. Together they created avant-garde theatre, futurist ballet, choreography and live poetry readings, incorporating elements of noise-music, mechanical movement and simultaneity, as well as pranks aimed at antagonising audience members. Performance was the ideal platform for waking up passive viewers to their politically driven artistic agenda, which rejected the past in favour of the machine age, with fascist undercurrents.
In Germany during the First World War Dada emerged through a group of left-wing, anti-war protestors. The group was led by the visionary poet and writer Hugo Ball, who read out the group’s first manifesto at Berlin’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1917. Believing the rational, civilised society that had led to war was inherently corrupt, they rejected past logic and reason in favour of a new culture led by play, nonsense and irrationality, described as an 'anti-academic, spontaneous, and primitive' style. The conceptual nature of performance art made it the ideal platform to suit their nihilistic, anti-art stance and they performed songs, poems and actions at regular evening cabarets. Various other avant-garde art movements also incorporated performance art into their schools of thought, including the Russian Constructivists and the French Surrealists.
Performance Art after World War II
After the Second World War performance art emerged in the United States during the 1950s, at a time when artists were rapidly expanding the boundaries of traditionally accepted art forms. At the liberal, progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina John Cage and Merce Cunningham led a series of ‘happenings’, including the iconic Theatre Piece no. 1 in 1952, where various artists including Charles Olson and Robert Rauschenberg explored unusual sounds, noises and movements taken from everyday life into their work.
In 1959 Allan Kaprow officially coined the term ‘happening’ to describe his experiential artworks, describing them as, 'something spontaneous, something that just happens to happen,' such as 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, 1959, performed at the Reuben Gallery in New York, which included live painting, music, reading from placards and performers repeating single syllable words including ‘but’ and ‘well’.
The significance these events gave to everyday occurrences, objects and sounds led the way for the international Fluxus phenomenon, which continued to promote performance art ideas. Yoko Ono invited audience members to cut off her clothes in Cut Piece, 1964, while Joseph Beuys believed every 'conscious act' could be a work of art, staging various events, which he referred to as 'actions' and 'social sculptures', including Three Pots for the Poorhouse – Action – Object, 1974 and I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974, layered with references to personal and cultural symbolism.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s performance art took a darker, subversive edge, as artists began to push their bodies to the limits of human endurance, producing a strand of performance art often referred to as Body Art. Stuart Brisley lay in a murky bath of dark matter surrounded by rotting meat for several hours a day over a two week period, while Vito Acconci hid under the gallery floorboards in Seedbed, 1972. British artist duo Gilbert & George styled themselves as 'living sculptures', treating their whole existence as a unifying work of performance art.
Feminist agendas took centre stage during this period of political uprising and women’s liberation, with many women challenging stereotypical norms for representing the female body. The gorilla masked Guerrilla Girls exposed the latent sexism, racism and corruption of the art world establishment, while Marina Abramovic revealed her naked body to audience members and opened it up to acts of mutilation and Carolee Schneemann fearlessly confronted taboo subjects around female sexuality and nudity.
Digital media took on greater significance during this time as performance artists increasingly documented their work through video or photography. Many allowed new media to expand the possibilities of performance, such as Dan Graham’s iconic Performer, Audience, Mirror, 1975, in which he records himself performing in front of a mirror and a live audience, creating various layers of representation and Charles Ray’s photographs such as Plank Piece I-II, 1973, where he treats his own body as a sculptural object. American artist Bruce Nauman explored the ways performance art could be extended into repetitive actions on a loop through video art, lending it an unsettling, compulsive quality that taps into the fragility of the human subconscious, as seen in Raw Material Washing Hands, 1996.
Performance art remains a powerful and subversive form of art today, with the potential to disrupt and challenge our ways of seeing the world. Many of today’s performance artists incorporate the style with other mediums including video, costume and installation. Diverse contemporary examples include Monster Chetwynd’s elaborate, theatrical costumes and sets, Rachel Maclean’s haunting, politically charged video art and Matthew Barney’s lavishly surreal, fantastical Cremaster Cycle film series, 1994-2002.
Watch Monster Chetwynd | Drawn to Transformation