French Performance and Land Artist
Summary of Gina Pane
As we walk through this world, our bodies become our most intimate vessels, imprinted with both the personal and collective experiences of our existence. French artist Gina Pane's artistic career was carved out of using her own body as a symbol for humanity's universal body - a canvas on which to express communal concerns surrounding sexuality, spirituality, gender, politics, feminism, the environment, and suffering. Pane's work contributed greatly to Art Corporel, the French Body Art movement, in which artists use their own flesh and blood as art medium, laying bare the body's strength and fragility as a viable tool for expression.
- Pane is most noted for her "azioni" pieces, in which she would perform a strategic set of "actions" upon herself, oftentimes requiring high levels of the physical endurance and tolerance for pain. By using her own body, she invited the audience to resonate deeply with the feelings she was going through or trying to convey, igniting empathy and relative emotionality.
- Pane was very interested in the visual language of ritual and executed her performances with this in mind. She borrowed heavily from religious rites and other self-sacrificial practices to create her own contemporary versions of the relationship between the personal and the spiritual.
- Pane's work emerged when many artists were starting to exhibit the documentation of a conceptual work as the artwork itself. Many of her actions were done in private but meticulously staged and photographed so that the viewer would still viscerally feel the emotional depth of the piece even if they had not actually witnessed its creation.
Progression of Art
Situation idéale: Terre-Artiste-Ciel
Pane's first major stage of work focused on her interactions with the environment. Here, in a work whose title is translated as Ideal Situation: Earth-Artist-Sky, Pane stands firmly with her feet on the brown, freshly tilled ground, silhouetted against a pale blue, cloudless sky. Her hands are in her pockets, and her stance is comfortably contrapposto, meaning that she gently rests her weight on her left side and places her right foot slightly in front of her. She is a strong vertical presence contrasted with the strong horizontality of the image, which is evenly divided between ground and sky. Pane commented simply of this piece, "Between two horizontals: earth/sky, I placed my body vertically to provoke an ideal situation."
Pane was working within the landscape at the same time as her American peers, but many of them were making bombastic, mostly permanent, and sometimes aggressive pieces. This included Michael Heizer's Double Negative, which consists of two massive, deep cuts into the earth and displacement of 240,000 tons of dirt; Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, which shapes 6,000 tons of earth and rock in the Great Salt Lake into a spiral; and Walter de Maria's Lightning Field, which features 400 stainless steel poles fixed in the ground, to name a few. In contrast, Pane's work was much more cerebral and spiritual. Critic Dean Daderko suggests that Terre-Artiste-Ciel is about the artist "[becoming] the connection between terrestrial and celestial realms." However, there is also the underlying discomfort manifested in the artist taking the "landscape's immeasurable magnitude" and "[compressing] it into the frontality of a photographic rendering," as Elisbeth Lebovici notes. Rather than the landscape achieving primacy and visual power, the figure of Pane does; her physical form mediates the image. Thus, the relative simplicity of the image is belied by the potential for multiple interpretations, all of them centering on the relationship of (wo)man to nature.
Performance and Photographic Documentation
Set in a studio, this performance features Pane ascending a metal ladder with sharp bits on the rungs. It is documented via dozens of close-up shots of her bare hands and feet on the rungs, and a red rose clenched between her teeth. The event lasted about thirty minutes, the point at which Pane was too exhausted to go further. Francoise Masson photographed Escalade according to detailed and precise plans laid in place by the two beforehand. The lighting, the angles of the images, the exact position of Masson's body moving around Pane were all methodically planned out. Though there was no audience for this piece, the resulting documentation was created with the viewer in mind.
Pane conceived of this piece as a political statement, writing in her notes that it was ultimately about "American escalation in Vietnam" and that the "physical pain in one or several parts of the body" would demonstrate "internal pain, deep, suffering. Moral pain." In 1977 Pane explained in her article "Before May 1968" how she decided to use her body as a stand-in for the collective body and indeed, one can rarely see her face so she becomes a generic and universal symbol. She climbed the ladder with anesthesia, which is how she hoped individuals would begin to confront the horrors of Vietnam. Climbing, as Frederique Baumgartner writes, "signified both an effort to overcome an obstacle and an affirmation of free will" and as her physical self was being awakened, so would the viewer be from "an artificial sleep." The structuring of the documentary photographs, as well as their number and their repetitive nature, stresses the temporality of the performance and how Pane's suffering grew over time. The photographs reenact her suffering in order to "encourage identification of Pane's own body with the viewer's so that the viewer's return to consciousness would grow." Hopefully, then, the viewer consuming media images of the Vietnam War would be shaken and awakened to the trauma.
Black-and-white photographs, steel - Musée National d'Art Moderne / Centre Pompidou, Paris
In The Conditioning Pane enters a room with a metal bedframe positioned over two rows of burning candles. She lies fully clothed atop the frame and does not move or speak. She commented later, "needless to say, the pain started right away and was very difficult to dominate." The evidence of the pain was in the wringing of her hands, which the audience could clearly see. When the event was over, she stood up and softly caressed her skin, explaining, "When, half an hour later, I was able to get up, I caressed my body very gently. There was no violence; my body hurt but I could feel my touch."
The documentation of this piece is scant compared to her later works, but the images that do exist "demand mental and emotional engagement with the sensate experience. In this way they recall the live [action]," as curator Jennifer Blessing writes. Critic Sam Johnson states, "the candles and the bed suggested ideas of sexual love and pleasure, the manner in which Pane positioned her body around these objects caused harm and surreptitiously threw up questions around the fixed notions of pleasure and pain." Pane uses her body as a stand-in for the sexual violence often experienced by women in the bed and in the world at large. Her pain reverberates through the audience and the viewers of the documentary images, opening up a psychic space for the recognition of the universal body-in-pain.
Psyche was a twenty-seven minute and thirty-two second performance at the Rodolphe Stadler Gallery in Paris in which Pane articulated various actions on her skin. She applied red lipstick directly on the surface of a mirror so that her face would be obscured. Then she cut the skin below her eyebrows so the blood dripped down her eyelids and cut a cruciform incision on her navel at "the location of original connection of fetus and mother," as art writer Alexandra Gonzenbach Perkins writes.
Pane has flat-out said that her work would not exist without the audience, which is forced "to recognize itself as a voyeur" as Pane herself sets up the conditions of their watching. Pane observes herself and the audience, subverting the much-theorized "male gaze" usually given primacy in the visual dialectic between woman and watcher, and, Gonzenbach Perkins writes, through the conspicuous presence of the documentary photographer, "frustrates the viewing experience" and "pushes the spectator into the realm of psychological abjection." Unsurprisingly, her audiences often had emotional responses to what they were seeing and how they saw it, especially as Pane remained stoically silent during her pieces so the visual consumption of her touch-centric performances was unfettered. She stated that she elided the linguistic because "words [are] empty of their meaning" and the body was to be "written" on because "the 'body' is occupied and shaped by Society." It thus becomes "the site of social mediation" because Pane overturns the passivity with which women are forced to endure pain and violence. She, as Anja Zimmermann notes, "hurts and marks her own body to destroy and re-create it at the same time." Through self-inflicted wounds she opens her body to the spectator to help them identify with her, to reflect their image back. This is not done, as Clélia Barbut writes, to decenter or depersonalize the spectator but to "simply [use] her action to highlight the fact that the viewer exists and is an operating force."
Performance and Photographic Documentation
Pane performed this piece in the Galleria Diagramma in Milan, in front of an audience of only women. Dressed in all white, she entered the gallery with a bouquet of red roses, which she offered and took back while she sat, stood, or laid on the floor. She removed the thorns and pierced her arm with them, arranging them in a neat row. She then took a razor blade and cut into the palm of her hand. Now with a bouquet of white roses stained by her bloody palm, she repeated the offering and taking back of the flowers. As she performed all of these actions, two voices read letters between mothers and daughters, friends, and lovers.
Azione Sentimentale is a complex, multifaceted piece that utilizes the visual language of ritual and religion to comment on pleasure and pain, love between women, and "the female condition analyzed in its most intimate and universal parts," as the Museo Madre writes. Pane alludes to Christian theology in the contrast of white and red, the blood, the stigmata markings on her hands, and the allusions to sacrifice. Monica Lombardi notes that in ritual "sufferance [is] a way of representing spirituality, carrying a deep emotional and symbolic charge." With the inclusion of the reading of the intimate, sometimes erotic letters, Pane is commenting on the sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit, eroticism in much of religious ritual.
Seven chromogenic color prints - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Saint Georges et le dragon d'aprés une posture d'une peinture de Paolo Uccello, Partition pour un combat
Pane elided performance from her practice in 1980, and instead turned toward mixed media pieces in which the artist's corporeal form is no longer present. Saint George is part of the Partitions series in which Pane asks her viewers to construct meaning from a seemingly disparate array of objects and materials. Inspired by Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello's Saint George and the Dragon (1456), Pane's low-relief assemblage is presented on the wall like a traditional painting. From left to right, there are four red felt triangles; several small mirrors in varied geometric shapes; a slender iron pole extending upward from the mirrors; several shiny aluminum circles; a thin wooden shelf tilted downward to the right; and a black square on the far side.
Critic Dean Daderko notes that the Partitions series is an "amalgam of Pane's longtime interests: simple geometry; color and its symbolism; mythical and religious iconography; the physical, mental, and spiritual capacities of the body; and the material transformation of matter." Using simplified, formalist shapes Pane distills the elements of the famous painting and its narrative of violence, heroism, and legend. The triangles are the princess, the shattered mirrors the dragon, the iron pole the lance, the wooden shelf the horse, the aluminum circles the armored knight, and the black square the copse of dark trees. There are also two small photos near each side of the "lance" of two of Pane's azioni in which she shed her own blood, which, Anne Tronche posits, reference "the intimate connection between a theory of body and the artistic impulse" found in both Uccello and Pane. Engaging with the wounded body ultimately allows Pane to achieve the transcendence of the sacred, elevating it to the level of mystery.
Felt, glass, iron, mirror, polished aluminum, wood, wood, copper, color photograph, hardware - Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France
Biography of Gina Pane
Gina Pane was born in Biarritz, France in 1939 to an Italian father and an Austrian mother. She spent most of her youth in Italy and grew up speaking both Italian and French. Her father was a piano maker, and Pane explained that her use of felt in her art derived from her father's profession: "It's the first material I came into contact with, when I was a child, cutting discs for the pianos to be repaired."
Beyond these biographical details, very little is known about her childhood and early life.
Early Training and Work
In 1961 Pane moved to Paris to attend the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. She also spent time working at Atelier d'Art sacré, an organization that paired artists to execute projects for civic and religious buildings. It was a key training ground for female artists in particular.
Though she would be most famous for her performance art pieces, Pane explored painting, sculpture, and land-based art.
Pane's paintings were mostly geometric, hard-edged abstractions although she admitted being deeply moved by the work of Vincent van Gogh. Describing her paintings, the MART (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trente and Rovererto) noted her "predilection for color and minimalist forms." According to Pane, her training as a painter marked the starting point for her own profound research of the physical dimension. She wrote, "I use color not as a simulacrum of space or depth but to render it real, as it is. (...) it renders a sensation material in the most direct way possible. It contacts, exists."
As for Pane's early three-dimensional works, they were, as Dean Daderko describes, "a series of welded metal sculptures that were uniformly coated with sprayed-on layers of vibrantly colored enamel paint. The palette for these works included primary red, white, vibrant greens, and oceanic blues."
While sculptural elements remained a part of her oeuvre to an extent, Pane's interest in painting was relatively short-lived; in 1969 she threw four pieces into the Chisone river in Perosa Argentina, Italy so they'd eventually reach the sea, stating that this ritual abandonment of the medium was "a reasonable, boring, self-critical act."
In the late 1960s Pane was deeply troubled by the conservatism of the French government and the increasing violence and trauma of the Vietnam War. During May 1968, a volatile period of unrest unfurled itself in France punctuated by demonstrations and major general strikes as well as the occupation of universities and factories across the country. At its height, it brought the economy of France almost to a halt. Instead of explicit political or social activism, Pane sought to convey her disillusionment and frustration through her art. From the years 1969-1979 she began turning to her own body as a way to express her concerns. She is best known for her azioni, or "actions," in which she used her body as material in order to comment on politics, gender, love, and the role of art.
In one of her few artist's statements, "Before May 1968" (most of her writing consists not of statements but of the notes and documentation for her performances), she explained that "the confrontation of mine with the post-1968 public benefitted from a relationship I could describe as 'Active' and my work was not only looked at, but lived." She also stated in a letter, "my language is that of the body since 1968."
Pane was openly homosexual and a feminist, and was open about the various ways in which a patriarchal and hetero-normative culture and discourse circumscribed the bodies and minds of those outside its rigid structure. She was in a relationship with Anne Marchand, who worked closely with her on preparing and documenting her performances. She was also keen on surrounding herself with women, whether it was the photographer Francoise Masson, her photographer and collaborator; the writer Anne Tronche; or the women-only audience in her major work, Azione Sentimentale (1973). In terms of Masson, Pane saw her as utterly crucial to every project she worked on. Pane expounded, "During the action, [Masson] occupied the same place as I in regard to the media of the action, uniquely constructing it according to a precise scenario I handed over to her in advance."
Pane began teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts in Le Mans and established an experimental performance workshop at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1978. Of teaching, she stated, "Each person's originality is of crucial importance, and one person's experience can never be reduced to somebody else's...A reciprocal exchange of views between teacher and student prevents their relationship from becoming exclusive or oppressive. Students must realize that the 'master' does not provide the rules; he is an instrument helping them to construct their own rules." Jean-Louis Raymond, a ceramics professor at Le Mans, remembered her fondly: "She was exceptionally good at listening to people. Most students in Le Mans come from a rural or working-class background. Gina Pane was genuinely attentive to her students' words or allusions that, in her view, revealed desires taking shape. She thought that their imaginative power stemmed from their social environment... She succeeded in finding a common language even with those who were most incapable of verbal formulation. This is a clear indication of the trust she placed in others, of her expectations." Jean-Francois Lecourt, an artist and student in her class, also remembered her as "possessed by the singularity of her story," as a strict but fantastic instructor, and as the vehicle through which the students became aware of contemporary art movements and ideas.
In 1980 Pane abandoned performing after sustaining injuries and due to her conviction that it had become "spectacularized." Until her death her work would be mixed media, combing aspects of painting, sculpture, and photography. In the last years of Pane's life she suffered from cancer, and died in 1990.
The Legacy of Gina Pane
Gina Pane's performances, which included aspects of physical suffering, were directly inspiring to Feminist and Performance artists such as Marina Abramovic, Catherine Opie, Valie Export, and Giuseppe Penone. Abramovic even performed Pane's The Conditioning as part of her Seven Easy Pieces (2005), a series at the Guggenheim where Abramovic performed seven works of her peers. Artist Pascal Lievre adapted Pane's work Death Control (1974) (in which children sang "Happy Birthday" while live maggots crawled over Pane's face). Lievre covered her body with cake and had the audience eat it off of her. Her subversion of the image of the female body as mere consumption for the male gaze can be seen in the work of Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, and Orlan, and her explorations of the body's threshold of pain are recognizable in the work of Abramovic and Ulay, Chris Burden, and Hermann Nitsch.