Beginnings of Body Art
Body art has its roots in the Performance Art movement, which sprung up among avant-garde artists in the late 1950s when artists such as John Cage and members of the Fluxus group were staging "happenings." These were performances that accentuated a content-based meaning with a dramatic flair instead of traditional performances meant for purely entertainment purposes. An interest in performance as an alternative means of artistic expression began to spread through the US, Europe, and Asia where collectives like the Viennese Actionists and Japan's Gutai Group sprang up to produce live-action artworks that erased the need for an end product or commodity. In many of these progressive new performances, the artist's body became subject of, or object within, the overall piece, creating a literal embodiment of the artwork.
The Nouveau Realisme movement in France was instrumental in developing performance art in a way, which focused on the body of the artist and other participants, arguably producing the first "body art". Yves Klein, in particular, explored the idea of the human body as tool, medium and subject, particularly in his Anthropometries series where he instructed naked women to drag and rub their painted bodies against very large canvases that were placed on the walls and floors.
Although body art was frequently performative, it did not always involve a live, performance-based process in front of an audience. Many body artists, such as Hannah Wilke and Ana Mendieta, used photography or video art in order to stage their bodies as central to the artwork.
Against Abstract Expressionism
In the early 1960s, Abstract Expressionism dominated the art scene in the US. The canvases by artists such as Jackson Pollock were created through a painting process that was highly action-oriented. However, the abstract qualities of the movement meant it wasn't suited for making political or other content-driven declarative statements. It was also a male-dominated art form, and many women artists were seeking a new form of art that would highlight the female condition in radical ways beyond the domestic. In 1963, Carolee Schneemann, who had previously worked as a painter, started carrying out performances using her own body to challenge the domination of Abstract Expressionism. In her performance Eye Body: 36 Transformational Actions, she rejected the coldness of Abstract Expressionism by painting and affixing multiple items to herself and then merging as an eroticized character into her other painted environments. The resulting photographs represented another dimension in which her gestural, creative emotion was still felt even as she was inserted into the work itself. In her own words, "in 1963 to use my body as an extension of my painting-constructions was to challenge and threaten the psychic territorial power lines by which women were admitted to the Art Stud Club."
The Cultural Revolution
Body art's birth during the cultural revolution of the 1960s was well timed due to the more relaxed attitudes affecting the Western world. The age of free love and psychedelic drugs created new freedoms for both men and women in how they looked and acted. Societal expectations were loose and people were able to express themselves more meaningfully through their clothes and appearance. The use of the body to make political and sexual statements was edgy but not all together too far out in a world besieged by a new sense of wild styles with an emphasis on personal freedom and empowerment.
It was also an era of political and social activism, where throngs of students were protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear armament, the lack of equal rights and many other trigger issues, oftentimes by using their bodies as barriers, shields or simply immovable presences. Famously, in 1969 John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged a weeklong "bed-in", where they lay in bed and made love, as a protest for peace. More widely, people staged marches and chained themselves to trees to support feminism, environmentalism and anti-war sentiments.
The Rise of Feminism
This involvement of the body was something that resonated particularly strongly with the Feminist movement, which had been burgeoning since the early 1960s. A large number of women artists chose performance as their medium of choice at this time, often using their own bodies as powerful vehicles of demonstration, rebellion and voice. Performance, photography, and video art became popular choices for female artists, to counteract the dated historical weight and onus of more traditional formats such as painting. As these current forms mirrored the electricity of the changing times this was an opportunity for a fresh feminist aesthetic in which the female body would take center stage, not as the by-product of the male gaze but as a self-claimed artistic subject-object.
However, the body art movement was not just restricted to women artists and artists working with a feminist aim. Other artists using their own bodies in their work included Dennis Oppenheim, who once experimented with the material of the body by embedding his discarded fingernail into a wooden floorboard in exchange for a sliver of wood into his own finger. Chris Burden's controversial piece Shoot featured the artist being shot in the arm by an assistant. Vito Acconci also provoked with his taboo piece of the same year, Seedbed, where he hid beneath the gallery floor and whispered fantasies about the visitors while masturbating, fantasies that were simultaneously piped out through the loud system for all guests to hear.
Body Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Pain and Suffering
In many body art performance pieces, the artists inflicted physical pain on themselves in front of their audience. By causing pain and cutting, burning, scarring or otherwise marking the skin, artists could bring their performances into a realm that was unequivocally visceral and bodily, making physical sensation a part of their artwork in a way that had never been done before. Examples include Chris Burden, who had nails driven through his hands to attach him to a Volkswagen car in Trans-fixed (1971). Burden's use of his own body made his experience more relatable to his audience, because they could imagine the pain being inflicted as if it were their own. In Thomas Lips (1975), Marina Abramović cut a five-pointed star into her belly and then laid until nearly unconscious on a cross made of ice.
For many feminist body artists, using their own body as the subject and object in their artwork drew out a clear connection with sexuality. They used body art to draw attention to the way in which our understanding of the gendered body and our understanding of sexuality and eroticism are intrinsically linked. Carolee Schneemann criticized traditional depictions of women's bodies, which refuse to acknowledge that women are sexual and physical beings in the same way as men. Her works such as Interior Scroll (1975) made manifest the interiority of the female body, something that is usually hidden. For other feminist artists such as Hannah Wilke, presenting her own nude body as an object for visual interest allowed her to claim her body and her sexuality as her own.
These artists were not only furthering a feminist agenda, they also pushed the limitations of the art world in general. The vagina informed a metaphoric birth of new artistic dialogues, expanded opportunities to unravel the feminine mystique and multiple voices in the fray as a loud and reverberating denouncement of the traditional male gaze. Some of these women were creating works that simply could not be produced by a man; they were leveling the playing field and breaking old barriers with gender as their weapon.
The Body as Canvas
Some body artists used the human body as a site for making marks or applying paint, turning the skin into a surrogate for canvas. For example, Polish artist Ewa Partum's 1975 work Change was a performance in which she stood naked while several make-up artists painted half of her body to look several decades older, replicating wrinkles and stretch marks. For Partum, using her body as both a medium and subject for her art allowed her to draw attention to a key aspect of female bodily experience and the double standards surrounding the sexualization of women's bodies at different stages of their lives. This use of the body marks a turning away from the traditional materials for art making and represents a move towards a form of art where the artist and the artwork are more closely integrated. It is notable that in common parlance, "body art" refers to tattoos and body ornamentation. Significantly, artists during this era such as VALIE EXPORT began to use permanent mediums such as tattooing in their work.
Body: A New Medium
In considering the body as a new medium, artists also looked toward the use of bodily liquids and other bodily parts. For example, Austrian Vienesse Actionist Hermann Nitsch staged elaborate ritual productions under the title Das Orgien Mysterien Theater in which urine, feces, and blood were commonly slathered over bodies of the performers. French artist Michel Journiac's most famous action was Mass for a Body (1969) where he offered pieces of blood sausages made with his own blood to the audience and invited them to eat - a parody of Catholic liturgy. His fellow art corporel member Gina Pane practiced cutting herself regularly to engage with blood much like paint in her pieces. In Andy Warhol's Oxidations series, (1977), he invited friends to urinate on canvas painted with metallic pigment in order to create abstract patterns birthed by the chemical reaction.
Audience Participation: Shock, Discomfort, and Reflection
Many body art works were highly confrontational pieces performed in front of an audience. These performances asked audience members not only to question their role as spectators but also to willingly get uncomfortable. They also, secondarily, evoked thoughts within viewers around voyeurism versus action and personal accountability versus following the rules. When artworks included highly sexual aspects or involved the infliction of pain, the audience was led to consider their own agency in the performance.
In several of Marina Abramović's performances, audience members made the decision to intervene when she seemed in danger either from her own performance or from other audience members. In 1968, VALIE EXPORT invited her audience (who were made up of random individuals she met on the street) to come uncomfortably close. Her Touch Cinema consisted of her wearing a Styrofoam box with a curtained opening. Passersby were invited to put their hands inside and feel her naked breasts, forcing them to question their interaction with the female body on screen versus in physical form. In some cases, viewers were led to consider their own relationship to the body as well as their body's relationship to various concepts such as intimacy. In Abramović and Ulay's famous Imponderabilia, (1977), visitors to a gallery were forced to walk between the two naked artists who stood facing each other in the entrance door in order to get inside. Patrons had to make choices: who would they face while entering, who would they be willing to touch as they passed, and how would this experience ultimately make them feel within their own skin?
Later Developments - After Body Art
Body art has only recently been recognized as an art form that is separate to Performance art. Art critic Amelia Jones in her 1998 book Body Art: Performing the Subject made this distinction most clearly and extensively. Jones notes that the 1980s saw a move away from body art, which coincided with a "disembodiment" inherent in the politics of the Reagan-Thatcher era. She claims that the 1990s, however, "witnessed a dramatic return to art practices and written discourses involving the body."
The Role of Technology
From the 1990s through present day, many body artists have looked toward rapidly advancing technologies and the Internet to articulate their work. Some original feminist artists, such as Laurie Anderson and Maureen Connor, have developed their artistic practices to use the body to explore both the female condition and the effects of technology. Other younger artists have filmed and photographed their bodies and placed them on social media; artists such as Petra Cortright and Amalia Ulmann utilize Instagram and YouTube to explore female self-presentation online in a way that strongly echoes their feminist Body art predecessors. Contemporary artist Moon Ribas, who considers herself a "cyborg" artist, had an online seismic sensor chip implanted in her elbow that allows her to feel the occurrence of earthquakes through vibration. In her performances, she allows these vibrations to inform her improvisational dance.
The Radical Practices of Body Art Continue
Other artists have recently used the more extreme aspects of body art to make political, sexual, and social statements. For example, in the 1990s, the French artist Orlan began a series of projects to have her face and body surgically altered to resemble Botticelli's Venus, in a bid to draw attention to the double standards and pressure surrounding perceptions of female beauty. Since the early 2000's Chinese Zhang Huan has used his body to depict experiences involving masochistic actions such as sitting in a Beijing latrine nude, covered in honey and fish oil, while flies swarmed across his skin. In 2008, Yale art student Aliza Shvarts caused much controversy by stating that her senior project would consist of a nine-month performance in which she would repeatedly inseminate and then abort herself - an act that was never verified to be true or false after her project was banned by the school from coming to fruition. In 2013 Russian artist Petr Pavlensky sat naked outside the Kremlin and nailed his scrotum to the floor as a protest against Russia's political system. In 2014 at Art Cologne, Milo Moire literally birthed her paintings by standing nude on a platform and ejecting eggs full of paint from her vagina onto a canvas below. The media frenzy surrounding many of these works brings up questions about the personal and ethical responsibilities of artists and whether taboo actions toward the body were appropriate, even in the liberated world of art.
- Yves Klein attacked many of the ideas of the art world that underpinned abstract painting, audience participation, and other approaches to making and viewing art. Also, he famously used a single color, the rich shade of ultramarine that he made his own, "International Klein Blue."
- Carolee Schneemann is an American visual artist, known for her discourses on the body, sexuality and gender. Her work is primarily characterized by research into visual traditions, taboos, and the body of the individual in relationship to social bodies. Schneemann's works have been associated with a variety of art classifications including Fluxus, Neo-Dada, the Beat Generation, and happenings.
- Jim Dine is an American painter commonly associated with the Neo-Dada and Pop art movements. In addition to showing alongside such Pop icons as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Ruscha, Dine is also well known for collaborating with Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg and John Cage on a series of "happenings".
- Dennis Oppenheim advanced the definition of art - as idea, intervention, fleeting moment, large monument - in his many creative works.
- American performance artist Chris Burden is most known for his 1970s works that placed him in extreme danger, such as being shot in the arm by an assistant or being crucified on the back of a car.
- Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese multimedia artist, best-known for her awe-inspiring and captivating installations of polka dots and psychedelic colors. Through her installations, poetry, paintings, performances, and film she importantly contributed to many of the post-war art movements.
- Now seen as an iconic and path-breaking Feminist artist, Wilke's performances and photography are a crucial component of the Feminist movement in their use of the artist's own body in ways that addressed issues of female objectification, the male gaze, and female agency.
- Austrian performance artist VALIE EXPORT is known for her guerilla performance pieces, as well as her video and sculptural work, much of which focuses on the female body and feminist ideals.
- The Chinese Zhang Huan's performances are confrontational and personally dangerous, often engaging with overpopulation, cultural erasure, political repression, and poverty.
- Marina Abramovic's is one of the key artists in the performance art movement. Her work often involves putting herself in grave danger and performing lengthy, harmful routines that result in her being cut or burnt, or enduring some privation.
- Ana Mendieta was a Cuban-American performance artist who created work in the late twentieth century focusing on violence against the female body, as well as pieces involving a close connection with nature and the landscape.
- Rebecca Horn is a German installation artist most famous for her body modifications such as Einhorn (Unicorn) - a body-suit with a very large horn projecting vertically from the headpiece.
- Gina Pane was an innovative performance artist, who lived and worked primarily in France. A significant influence on late twentieth-century art practices, she incorporated elements of self-mutilation into her work.
Do Not Miss
- Feminist art emerged in the 1960s and '70s to explore questions of sex, power, the body, and the ways in which gender categories structure how we see and understand the world. Developing at the same time as many new media strategies, feminist art frequently involves text, installation, and performance elements.
- Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
- The artistic history of the US stretches from indigenous art and Hudson River School into Contemporary art. Enjoy our guide through the many American movements.
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
First published on 02 Mar 2017. Updated and modified regularly