Important Art and Artists of Body Art
In his Anthropometries series, Yves Klein covered nude women in blue paint and had them press, drag, and lay themselves across canvases to create bodily impressions. The piece was inspired in part by photographs of body-shaped burn-marks on the earth, which were caused by the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Klein crafted this idea into a performance piece, hosting a formal event where guests observed the nude models executing the piece.
The work makes reference to the painting practices of Jackson Pollock, who would pour and drip paint onto his canvases. Klein takes the physical element of painting even further by adding an audience and using the human body to spread the paint. In utilizing the female body as canvas and paintbrush, Klein challenged viewers' expectations about the artistic process and precipitated a new direction for performance art. By incorporating the human body into the act of creating art, Klein gave the performativity of the body an unprecedented privilege within its discourse.
Notably, Klein's work and his objectifying use of women's bodies is at odds with much of the feminist body art which came after it. Many later female artists would have objected to this use of women's bodies as mere tools, rather than as active participants. Yet many of the women who participated in Anthropometries at the time, said they felt as if they were co-creators of the work and described the process as being fun.
In this photograph, Yayoi Kusama lies naked on a couch covered with her soft sculpture accumulations comprised of phallic shaped sprouts. According to the artist, "The reason my first soft sculptures were shaped like penises is that I had a fear of sex as something dirty. People often assume that I must be mad about sex, because I make so many such objects, but that's a complete misunderstanding. It's quite the opposite - I make the objects because they horrify me. Reproducing the objects, again and again, was my way of conquering the fear." In the background is spread a sea of macaroni pasta. She is slim and stylish, with a fashionable haircut and painted with polka dots that allow her to blend into the psychedelic scene as an intrinsic and inseparable part of the artwork. For Kusama, there is no difference between life and art and she boldly states this within a tableaux that all the while winks an eye at traditional pin-up layouts of women.
Amelia Jones argues that Kusama is "racially and sexually at odds with the normative conception of the artist as Euro-American male. Rather than veil her differences (which are seemingly irrefutably confirmed by the visual evidence of her 'exotic' body), Kusama exacerbates them through self-display in a series of such flamboyant images." In doing so, she also subtly criticizes the canon's normativity and conformity.
In 1970 feminist artist VALIE EXPORT staged a performance where she was tattooed with an image of a garter strap and stocking top on her thigh. The garter refers to the fetishizing of women's underwear and, by extension, of women's bodies. By permanently tattooing herself with a symbol of sexualization and objectification, EXPORT posits that by extension, as a woman, her whole body is a permanent subject for male visual pleasure.
However, by turning this into a public act and then photographing herself with the tattoo in the nude, EXPORT co-opts a symbol of female restriction and transforms it into one of personal empowerment - a badge of liberation. In her own words, "incorporated in a tattoo, the garter belt signifies a former enslavement, is a garment symbolizing repressed sexuality, an attribute of our non-self-determined womanhood. A social ritual that covers up a bodily need is unmasked, our culture's opposition to the body is laid open."
Cultural historian Sabine Kampmann argues that EXPORT made a radical choice in making her own skin the substrate for her art: "EXPORT makes an association between human skin, vellum (hide prepared for scripture), and books to legitimize her extraordinary choice of skin as material for her artwork." She was making the statement that writing on her own skin was no different than writing on a piece of paper, albeit with messages whose permanence perhaps carried greater weight.
Kampmann also suggests that EXPORT's work may be the first time that a tattoo had been used as a work of fine art in art history. This links to the use of the term "body art" today to refer to tattoos and body ornamentation more generally.