Performance art is an art form that makes use of time and the human body (or bodies) to express a feeling or idea. Works of performance art can be carried out almost anywhere by anyone, can be public or private, and can rely on scripted or unscripted actions.
While all forms of performance art involve bodies in one way or another, some performance artists draw particular attention to their own bodies. A loose movement of body-related performance art emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, pioneered by artists who placed their own bodies at the forefront of their art. Below is a survey of artists from the M+ Collections who have experimented with this type of art.
In her private performances, Ana Mendieta used human silhouettes or her own body to create a dialogue between herself and the land. Spanning nearly ten years, these performances were done in the United States, Mexico, and the artist’s native Cuba.
Mendieta was sent from Havana to an orphanage in Iowa, in the American Midwest, at the age of twelve. The trauma of this displacement resonates throughout her practice. In her performances, Mendieta left traces of her body in dirt, sand, and mud, and converted these materials with fire, water, and smoke. She transformed her separation from family and homeland into poignant expressions of absence and presence, life and death, present and past.
In Silueta Sangrienta (1975), Mendieta lies nude on the ground. She then disappears from view, leaving an imprint of her body in the soil. The hollow created is instantly filled with red liquid, in which the artist immerses herself, lying face down. The sequence of her actions evokes a sense of loss and alludes to blood and violence.
Marina Abramović is one of the most well-known performance artists working today. She is particularly known for her works exploring the limits of the body.
She first started using her body as a medium in the early 1970s, in works such as Rhythm 5 (1974). In it, she lit a large petroleum-drenched star on fire. She cut her nails, toenails, and hair, and threw them into the flames. She finished the performance by lying down in the centre of the star. At first, the observing audience did not realise that she had actually lost consciousness from the lack of oxygen.
The work by Abramović in the M+ Collections is one that connects her to China: The Lovers, from 1988, in which she walked the Great Wall. She planned it with her long-time creative and romantic partner, German artist Ulay (born 1943). The idea was that each would start at opposite ends of a section of the wall with the intention of meeting midway. However, while it was initially planned that upon meeting they would get married, by the time they performed the piece, their relationship had deteriorated. Instead, their meeting in the middle of the wall became their break-up and farewell to each other.
Wang Peng’s 84 Performance (1984) is the first-known nude performance in China. In it, Wang used his naked body to print ink onto Xuan paper, which is typically used for calligraphy and ink painting. At the time of the performance, he was attending the high school affiliated with the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His performance emerged out of frustration with the emphasis placed on technical skill in art education.
It is important to note that, in China, nudity in art at this time was considered illicit. This was especially true in the years following the Anti–Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1983, designed to curb the influence of liberal Western ideas. Wang performed in private with the assistance of two classmates: Li Tianyuan took photographs, and Chen Kemei smeared ink onto Wang’s body. Fearful of the reaction to his work, Wang did not display these photographs until the early 1990s.
Zhang Huan has spoken about his use of his own body in his performances: ‘I had discovered that my body could become my language; it was the closest thing to who I was and it allowed me to become known to others.’
In the early 1990s, Zhang was part of the Beijing East Village artists, a small radical artists’ community that collaborated on a series of challenging performances marked by extreme applications of the body. One of these performances was Zhang’s 12 Square Metres (1994). In it, Zhang sat naked in a public toilet for an hour, attracting flies through the combination of honey and fish sauce smeared all over his body. He finished his performance by submerging himself in a pond.
Another of Zhang’s most iconic performances is Family Tree (2000). In it, three calligraphers took turns writing words, names, and stories connected to the artist’s cultural heritage on his face, from morning until night. As the words accumulated—bearing stories and names of people he knew—the ink obscured the artist’s skin and his face became unrecognisable. The work can be regarded as a visual, and even literal, representation of the impact of personal and family stories on an individual.
Patty Chang’s performances deliver strong statements on the complexities of Asian female identity. In her groundbreaking, career-defining works—staged in modest theatres in New York in the late 1990s—Chang laid bare her body, her gender, and her race in ways that challenged the prescribed behaviours of an Asian-American woman.
Chang’s 1998 work Shaved (at a loss) is an example of the daring ways in which she used her own body in her performances. In the work, she sits blindfolded, with her skirt—which evokes a bridal gown—hitched up around her waist, legs parted. She starts roughly scraping at her pubic hair with a razor. Performing this intimate act while blindfolded in front of an audience, she not only draws discomfort but both acknowledges and refuses their gaze. By confronting them with an activity that society deems mandatory—in order for women to be considered desirable—but demands not be done in public, Chang poses a threat to the societal norms surrounding womanhood.
Li Binyuan’s practice is both personal and political. In Freedom Farming (2014), the Beijing-based artist confronted his responsibility as the heir to his family’s agricultural land. Instead of using typical farming equipment, Li used his own body to cultivate the land.
As part of the 1983 land reform in rural China, Li’s family was granted 2.2 mu of land for farming rice and vegetables. (Fifteen mu are equivalent to one hectare.) Upon his father’s death, Li inherited 0.1 mu as the only living son and was decreed by the government to manage it. In considering his responsibility to both himself as an artist and to his family, Li responded with this personal and affecting work. Over the course of an afternoon, surrounded by his family and neighbours from his hometown, Li repeatedly threw his body into the soil and water. His dramatic and physically challenging performance signified his effort to reconnect with this inherited land in his family’s name.
These works may only scratch the surface of the history of the body in performance art, but they offer some key examples of the ways in which artists have bared and exposed their bodies in the name of art.
Want to view some of these performances in full? Stop by our Mediatheque to browse documentation of performance art in the M+ Collections on-demand. This article was originally published on M+ Stories to coincide with Five Artists: Sites Encountered in the M+ Pavilion.
Ellen Oredsson is Editor, Web Content at M+.