Art has been a key component of human culture since the dawn of man, from primitive cave drawings to Mona Lisas galore. In its more modern manifestation, art has added many more materials; everything from oil paint to digital paint and marble to recyclables spill from the artist’s pallet, but the most exciting addition is the human body itself. This new canvas inexplicably birthed performance art. This new form of art allowed for the artist to include their own bodies in the exhibition, changing the scene for expression on a global scale.
Performance art has gained notoriety due to its powerful ability of subjecting viewers to visual and dramatic expressions that highlight various issues within society, culture, politics, gender roles and constructs, human rights and relationships, and our state of mind.
One of the most renowned of its masters is Marina Abramović, who has ruled the performance art stage for over three decades, bringing newer and more innovative pieces to audiences worldwide. Noted by many as ‘the grandmother of performance art’, Marina has inspired a whole movement within this field that focuses on the conceptualisation of the human body and consciousness, and the progression of the body-as-a-text motif that has brought a wave of new performance artists to the scene.
Whilst performance art seeks to bring forth the issues that are evident in our everyday lives, some simply cannot see beyond the initial shock and horror of it all. Being quite a direct art form, it can be difficult for audiences to positively relate to or accept the themes of the performances – and even harder for them to digest the methods through which these messages are presented.
Rhythm 0, Marina Abromović’s first performance series, is one such example that caused alarm. Arguably her most notable and dangerous exhibition to date, it took place in Naples in 1974 when Marina was just 28. The piece consisted of Marina standing in an empty space in the gallery with a table laid out in front of her covered in seventy-two objects, ranging from harmless items such as a rose, some perfume, wine and grapes, to more dangerous pieces like a scalpel, a pair of scissors and a pistol with a single bullet. A sign at front of the table read ‘I am the object. During this period, I take full responsibility’.[vimeo 71952791 w=800 h=450]
The ultimate objective of the exhibition was to see what bystanders do when liability for their actions is removed, and the results were both shocking and eye-opening. Marina found that, as time went on, the actions of the audience became more and more horrific, concluding in a man threatening her life when he loaded the pistol and aimed it at her chest, wrapping her finger around the trigger. Ultimately, Rhythm 0 was a success: the actions of the bystanders highlighted how dysfunctional and irresponsible society can be in a way that other art perhaps could not. Whilst many contest the method, another art form would be hard-pressed to make such an impact.
Other issues with performance art lie within the level of bodily involvement, and while Marina’s ‘naked body/naked mind’ exposition might perpetuate the idea that performance art is all a gimmick, she isn’t the only performance artist in the world, and nudity isn’t the only methodology. Other artists have a variety of performance tactics that are nothing like the Abramović’s method, which are often overlooked during these criticisms of the form.
Terence Koh is one such artist that explores performance art in a different, more minimalistic style. His first solo exhibition, nothingtoodoo, consisted of Koh crawling on his knees around an eight-foot tall mound of rock salt for twenty-five days. The exhibition took place in the Mary Boone Gallery in New York City and attracted many people. The exhibition was a silent commentary on the struggle for peace in the world, rather than some guns-blazing, nude ensemble. Koh’s experimentation with performance art is both unique and intuitive, and proves the artist needn’t rely on such exhibitionistic means to portray their meaning.
Another artist to add to this list is Wafaa Bilal. The Iraqi-born American artist has incredible inventiveness when it comes to his performance art, and one stand-out piece from his long line of work is …and Counting. Bilal’s exhibition at the Elizabeth Foundation in New York was both powerful and painful, with the artist having the names of Iraqi cities tattooed on his back, alongside 5,000 red dots representing dead American soldiers. He then added another 100,000 dots in invisible ink, viewable only under ultraviolet light, representing dead Iraqi citizens. The might of the piece lay in Bilal visually epitomising the consequences of war, the suffering that innocents endure and the suffering that many forget and do not see presented in the media.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5ghcDsPaTE]
Yes, performance art can be a tricky subject to understand, but just like any form of art it deserves to be respected and acknowledged. The objective of artists like Abramović, Koh and Bilal is to shed light onto the darker aspects of life in this world. Their art might be shocking, but that’s only because what they speak of can’t be taken with a pinch of salt.