Five Defining Performance Art Works that Transcended Museum (and Societal) Boundaries
This article mentions and includes images of self-harm which was part of a performance art piece.
“By the year 2000 no young woman artist will meet the determined resistance and constant undermining which I endured as a student. Her Studio and [History] courses will usually be taught by women; she will never feel like a provisional guest at the banquet of life; or a monster defying her ‘God-given’ maternal role; or a belligerent whose devotion to creativity could only exist at the expense of a man, or men and their needs. Nor will she go into the ‘art world,’ gracing or disgracing a pervading stud club of artists, historians, teachers, museum directors, magazine editors, gallery dealers — all male, or committed to masculine preserves. All that is marvellously, already falling around our feet.”
– An excerpt from Carolee Schneemann’s Women in the Year 2000, written in 1977
It is an unfortunate fact that women are still, in the 21st century, largely underrepresented in museums, auction houses, and art galleries. This is especially egregious because, despite systematic hurdles, female artists have always found ways to make considerable artistic strides while also pushing the limits of museum (and societal) boundaries, conventions, and expectations. This is true in the realm of performance art, which has been notoriously slow to be accepted as a valid art form in museums and galleries.
The following list includes what I consider to be five defining performance art pieces that challenged the traditional museum experience of spectator vs. spectacle. These works, both directly and indirectly, sought active engagement from audiences. They set the stage for innovation in installation and exhibition practices. While performance art lends itself well to this exchange between artist and viewer, it is the radically disruptive and experimental artists behind pieces like these that proved the medium to be a dynamic, worthy, and meaningful one.
1. Up to and Including Her Limits, 1971-76, by Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019)
Carolee Schneemann was one of the most important feminist artists to emerge from post-war America. She interrogated politically charged issues, such as sexuality and the body. Between 1971 and 1976, Up to and Including Her Limits was performed nine times in various galleries, each time with a new element added. She was inspired by Jackson Pollock’s “action painting” method and sought to create her own version of it, inserting herself into the hyper-masculine art scene.
Describing the piece, Schneemann stated: “I am suspended in a tree surgeon’s harness on a three-quarter-inch manila rope, a rope which I can rise or lower manually to sustain an entranced period of drawing — my extended arm holds crayons which stroke the surrounding walls, accumulating a web of coloured marks. […] My entire body becomes the agency of visual traces, vestige of the body’s energy in motion.”
Recreation of Schneemann's Up to and Including Her Limits. Source.
2.Action Psyché, 1973, by Gina Pane (1939-1990)
Gina Pane was a highly influential artist within the body art movement on an international scale. Much of her work (which is not for the faint of heart) engaged with complex issues (e.g. the female gaze, cultural anxieties), which centred around finding catharsis through ritual. Pane performed Action Psyché at the Richard Saltoun Gallery in 1973. She pierced her arm with rose thorns and made incisions with a razor blade onto her stomach and eyelids.
Of the piece, she said: “If I open my ‘body’ so that you can see your blood therein, it is for the love of you: the Other.” It is no surprise that Pane’s work was and remains controversial. Even so, her performances held up a mirror to audiences, creating an awareness of their role in the visceral exchange.
Stills from Pane's Psyché Series, 1973. Source.
3. She Lost It, 1992 by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
Drawing thematically from her memories and experiences, Louise Bourgeois’ stunning career spanned eight decades. Her large-scale installations and sculptures defined her work. In 1992, she collaborated with the Fabric Workshop and Museum to create a 245 foot-long scarf with red text that said: “A man and a woman lived together. On one evening he did not come back from work, and she waited. She kept on waiting and she grew littler and littler. Later, a neighbour stopped by out of friendship and there he found her, in the armchair, the size of a pea.”
Louise Bourgeois photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Source.
The scarf was used in a live choreographed performance in the museum. Multiple dancers wore garments made by Bourgeois with different phrases on them, such as "fear makes the world go 'round" and "the cold of anxiety is very real."
4. Rhythm 0, 1974 by Marina Abramovic (b. 1946)
Perhaps the most colossal performance artist of our time, Marina Abramovic is no stranger to using audiences as active participants in her work (see The Artist is Present, A Living Door and Lips of Thomas for further examples). Rhythm 0 lasted 6 hours in Studio Morra in Naples, Italy. Abramovic placed 72 objects on a table, some of which included a loaded pistol, a rose, a boa, an axe, wine, a pen and scissors. She stood still near the table, inviting gallery visitors to use the objects in whichever way they wanted on her.
A recreation of the objects on the table from Rhythm 0. Source.
The piece tested the limits of her mind and examined how far the audience was willing to go. Abramovic reflected on how the stress of the piece made her grow one single white strand of hair in the span of the six hours. Rhythm 0 remains a frightening, heavily influential and vital work that set the tone for the rest of Abramovic's career.
Marina Abramovic, 2012. Source.
5. Cut Piece, 1964 by Yoko Ono (b. 1933)
Yoko Ono's immense contributions to contemporary and performance art have frustratingly been overshadowed by her personal involvement with John Lennon (a phenomenon that is rarely endured by male artists). One of Ono's earlier works, Cut Piece is a more controlled predecessor to Rhythm 0. Performed for the first time in Tokyo, Ono sat on a stage and audience members were told that they could cut a part of her clothing off and keep the piece.
Yoko Ono during Cut Piece. Source.
The work serves as a powerful commentary on objectification. It also acts as a metaphor for what Japanese civilians lost after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The audience became active participants in the creation of Cut Piece.
All five of these artists have had colossal far-reaching influences on art and the museum world in general. They redefined what art is and brought life into museums and galleries by refusing to be static. Each of them posed as a real threat against the hegemony we still witness in the art and museum worlds today. These artists and their work remain startlingly relevant, thought-provoking and controversial – yet always fearless.