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Performance and Body Art

Performance and Body Art

Author: Ian McConnell

This lesson will explore Performance and Body Art.

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An overview of performance and body art.

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about performance and body art. As you watch the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you should be able to identify and define today's key terms, to describe the precursors to the development of performance art, and identify examples of performance art. Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is happening, a form of artistic practice that creates an event for organic audience participation. Performance art, an artistic form that has elements of action, temporality, and use of the body. And body art, an unconventional form of art where the body is used as a medium and can include forms of self-abuse. The big idea for today is that Dada performances, action painting, and the work of Yves Klein were precursors to performance art.

We'll be looking at art from between 1960 and 1980 today. We'll be traveling to Paris, France, where Yves Klein died in 1962, Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Allan Kaprow was born in 1927, New York City, where Hannah Wilke was born and where she died in 1993, and where Anna Mindieta died in 1985, and Los Angeles, where Chris Burden lives and works. In his short career and life, Yves Klein managed to become one of the most influential of the post-war artists. Performance art draws from the influences of Dada performances, like the poetry readings at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland, that you may remember, and the action painting of artists like Jackson Pollock as well as the work of Yves Klein.

Now in many ways, he was ahead of his time. Aside from being a pioneer in performance art, he experimented with painting and photography and is seen as an important influence on the minimalist and pop art movements that follow. Although he died young, this performance wasn't the reason. This work, called "Leap Into the Void," is a very convincing photo montage in which the tarp that he's jumping into has been cropped out.

Now it's important to address the idea of performance art, as its association with dance or acting often overshadows other types of performance art. Performance art is defined as an artistic form in which there are elements of action, temporality, and use of the body. And in this example, we have all three. Klein was trying to evoke a sense of freedom and abandon in this work, albeit through a tightly controlled and rehearsed performance.

So the idea of having the viewer or audience as an active and essential component of a work of art is a very modern and 20th century idea. We've seen it in other works of art. Latin American "Penetrables" comes to mind. A number of artists of the 20th century took this idea of audience or viewer participation or interactivity in unique and strange new directions.

Case in point, the performance piece "Seedbed" by the artist Vito Acconci first opened in 1971. It was a room with a wooden ramp that ran the length of the room under which sat Vito. He had a microphone connected to a PA system so that people could hear him but not see him. So what was Vito doing under the ramp? Well, he was naked and masturbating, sometimes for upwards of eight hours a day, in response to the movements of the people above him as he vocalized his fantasies to the people as they moved about the room.

So how is this art, you may ask. Well let's take a step back and consider the sponsoring idea for this performance. It was Vito's take on creating a work of art that was completely unique, for sure, something that was dynamic and an example of interactivity. The performance was really fueled by the presence and participation of the audience.

Now another take of this can be seen in the work of Allan Kaprow, and some of his work we can see here. His series of performance pieces called "Happenings" was created in a similar spirit. These involved scripted performances with room for improvisation that could occur anywhere and involve anyone. An example might be 20 college students spontaneously piling into a Volkswagen Beetle. Or better yet, a modern example that you've probably seen before would be that of a flash mob.

Now his installation artwork "Yard" that we see here is a collection of old rubber tires that the audience is encouraged to climb on and through and jump on. Now it's in works like this that we can appreciate the temporality component of performance art. Every performance, even scripted, is unique.

Now body art is a type of art in which the human body is the medium and the focus of the work. It can crossover with performance art, but doesn't need to. An example of non-performance body art could be tattoos. Body-based performance art can result in some rather interesting displays with the artist literally putting themselves in harm's way.

Now Chris Burden can really push the envelope with personal safety. Two of his most famous examples of body-based performance art are "Shoot," in which his assistant literally shot him in the left arm from a distance of about 15 feet, and this example of transfixed, in which he is depicted as crucified upon the body of a Volkswagen Beetle, which supposedly was run during the performance, revving its engine for several minutes before shutting off. Now perhaps surprisingly, Chris Burden is still alive and working out of Los Angeles.

Hannah Wilke, Anna Mendieta, and Carolee Schneeman are female artists known for their work in body-based performance art. We'll look at works of art from the first two, beginning with Hannah Wilke's "S.O.S." work from 1974. Now in it, she addresses feminine identity, partially masked while posing in different stereotypical female roles, such as the housewife or the model. Now audience members were given chewing gum, which was later collected and formed into tiny little vagina sculptures which were attached to her body, a starification and form of glamorizing that is simultaneously self-mutilating.

Anna Mendieta had a fiery personality and passion to her and was married for a short time to the minimalist artist Karl Andre until her untimely and suspicious death in 1985. She fell to her death from her apartment window. Her "Silueta Series" is the first known combination of multiple emerging forms of art specifically land and body art. She combined these into a form of art she called earth-body art. She traveled from the United States to Mexico. She would photograph her naked body's silhouette or the impression it made on the earth, and then color it with various materials, including her own blood.

That brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the precursors to the development of performance art? And can you identify examples of performance art?

The big idea for today, is that Dada performances, action painting, and the work of Yves Klein were precursors to performance art. And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Performance and Body Art"


Yves Klein, Leap into the Void, Fair Use According to Wikipedia, Allan Kaprow, Yard, Photo by Andrew Russeth, Creative Commons, Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, Fair Use According to Wikipedia,; Hannah Wilke, SOS, Fair Use According to Wikipedia, Ana Mendieta, Silueta series creative commons but not allowed in assessments; Image of Vito Acconci Creative Commons

Terms to Know
Body Art

An unconventional form of art where the body is used as a medium and can include forms of self-abuse.


A form of artistic practice that creates an event for organic audience participation.

Performance Art

An artistic form that has elements of action, temporality, and use of the body.