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Performance Art Pushes the Envelope...but is it Art?

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performance artists, past and present
Works by performance artists like Marina Abramovic, Joan Jonas, Teching Hsieh, and emerging artist Myla DalBesio continue to push the envelope.

There are artists who take their craft to a whole other level - the stage, that is - and whether or not the wide variety of performance art out there is indeed “art” is still a hotly debated question. Performance art often challenges traditional social and cultural practices; it has multiple meanings, is live, often autobiographical and above all, there are no rules. The artist may use scripts or improvisations, perform solo, or with collaborators or audience participants. Performance artists tend to shock, evoking a response from the audience that is just as powerful as the piece itself. As critic and writer RoseLee Goldberg once noted, “Performance [art] has been a way of appealing directly to a large public, as well as shocking audiences into reassessing their own notions of art and its relation to culture.” Essentially, performance art intends to make an impression - and it can be labeled ‘art’ simply because the artist says so.

Check out these performance artists who have inspired a wide-range of reactions from critics and crowds, setting the stage for years to come. Like it or not, performance art begs the question...Is it art? You be the judge. imageUp first on our list is the self-proclaimed grandmother of performance art, Marina Abramović, whose career spans well over three decades. “Once you enter into the performance state you can push your body to do things you absolutely could never normally do,” the artist has said. In some of her earliest works - the Rythm series, for example - Abramović played with knives (her injuries became part of the performance), cut her hair and toenails and threw them into a fire (which she later leapt across), and took pills to induce various altered mental states (including seizures). These explorations of ritual and gesture all meant to portray the violation of her body.  (Above: Scene from The Artist is Present, 2010, with Abramovic and a participating viewer)

In 2010 she performed The Artist is Present at MoMA, which was the venue’s first performance art retrospective. Running for over two months, visitors were invited to sit across from the artist for any length of time, thus participating in the artwork. For her part, Abramović sat silently for hours, appearing more haggard as time went on. The Artist Is Present was her longest performance to date, and following its success, MOCA invited Abramovic in 2011 to serve up an “epic” exhibit for its annual gala, which she did with characteristic flair.

Next, we couldn’t fail to mention a few of the genre’s other ground-breakers, like artist Chris Burden, whose 1971 imagepiece Shoot involved him being shot in the arm by an assistant. Just a few years later, the artist brought pain back to performance when he was veritably crucified, nailed to the top of a Volkswagen for the aptly- titled Trans-Fixed. That same year he performed White Light/White Heat, spending 22 days lying on a triangular platform in the corner of New York’s Ronald Feldman Gallery, during which time Burden claims he didn’t talk, eat, or sleep. (Right: Burden is literally 'transfixed' by the Volkswagen. Below, image from Hsieh's infamous Cage Piece). imageThen there’s the notorious navigator of imprisonment, Tehching Hsieh. In one of his most famous works, One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece), the artist was locked in a small wooden cage for one year, where he was not allowed to talk, read, write, watch TV or listen to the radio. Visitors were permitted to view Hsieh’s self-imposed jail sentence twice a month. In his career, the artist has completed a total of six durational pieces, which are said to be explorations of individual struggle. His most recent work lasted 13 years.

Feminist artists have also used performance as a way of responding to obstacles imposed by society, by using imagetheir own bodies in their art. In 1993’s Loving Care, (pictured right) artist Janine Antoni painted the floor with her “mop” - her own dye-soaked hair, which she used to push visitors out of the gallery space. Also boldly using her body in artistic narrative is the celebrated Carolee Schneemann. She famously extracted a handwritten scroll from her vagina for 1975’s Interior Scroll, “giving birth” in a way, to a new feminist doctrine, which the artist then read to the audience.

Presently probing the female form and all its unique functions is Marni Kotak, who recently performed The image of Baby X at Brooklyn’s Microscope Gallery in October. Kotak has been “reenacting” pivotal moments from her life for over a decade, including her wedding night and her grandfather’s funeral. The artist brought her pregnancy to the stage for a real-time performance, when she invited visitors (20 were present) to watch as she gave birth to her son, Ajax. “I believe that everyday life contains the most meaningful ‘found performances,’ birth, the act of creating life, is the highest form of art,” Kotak stated. And baby Ajax, arguably the real star of the show, will be the focus of his artist-mama’s current ongoing performance piece The Raising of Baby X. (Above Left: the artist prepares for the arrival of Baby X at the Microscope Gallery, in a specially designed delivery room)

Model-turned multi-disciplinary artist Myla DalBesio also turned heads when she blurred the lines between performance art and pornography with her controversial Young Money piece at Ramis Barquet Gallery last summer. As part of the Glutton for Punishment show, a topless DalBesio gyrated seductively on the floor, rolling around in dollar bills to the tune of Lil’ Wayne’s Young Money, as an LED screen flashed corresponding cash messages. Willing audience members were treated to a lapdance by the artist, who poured champagne on herself and her participants’ crotches. DalBesio said this act reversed the role of subject-and-object, transforming the dancer into a figure of power. For her finale, the artist incorporated Evangelical Christianity's “faith healing”, thumbing the sign of the cross on participants’ foreheads. She says Young Money “confronts questions of our own morality and desires, and what drives us to act on them. I’m often aiming to expose people to parts of themselves that they may never have acknowledged before.” image
Scene from Young Money, 2011, by Myla DalBesio. Image courtesy of  artist's website (Candy Battleship).

Want more? Check out our interview with Clifford Owens, whose exhibition Anthology at MoMA PS1 aims to create a history of African-American performance art.

Share your thoughts on performance art. What do you think about this provocative genre?

Written by MutualArt Staff is a revolutionary online art information service which covers the world of art by collecting content about events, venues, artists, articles and auctions from thousands of web sites.
Marina Abramović
Janine Antoni
Chris Burden
Joan Jonas
Carolee Schneemann
Tehching Hsieh