Performance Art
Characteristics, History, Happenings.

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Dream Like Love (2005) by Li Wei.
Li Wei is a postmodernist Chinese
artist who combines performance art
and photography to create interesting
illusions of reality.

Performance Art


Origins and History
Famous Performance Artists


This new form of contemporary art - which emerged out of Happenings and Installation, and became a major form of avant-garde art during the late 1960s and 1970s - takes as its medium the artist himself, the actual artwork being the artist's actions. Performance art, now practised by an increasing number of postmodernist artists, has always been more theatrical, at times ritualistic, and normally more scripted than its immediate forebears, often taking acting and movement to extremes of expression and endurance not permitted in the theatre. Words are rarely prominent, while music and noises of various kinds often are. Performance events are hosted in several of the best galleries of contemporary art in the world.

"Trash People" a set-up involving
a mixture of performance art and
installation, and consisting of
one thousand life sized people
made from crushed cans, electronic
waste and other rubbish as his
critical commentary on runaway
human consumption. The show has
travelled to major tourist sites
around the globe. The above
spectacle was staged in Cologne
in 2006.

Nude Performance Art, Amsterdam 2012
Choreographed by Spencer Tunick.

For a guide to aesthetic issues,
see: Art Definition, Meaning.


Although this type of postmodernist art is not easy to define precisely, one important feature is the requirement for the artist to perform or express his 'art' before live audience. For example, allowing the audience to view an interesting assemblage or installation sculpture would not be considered performance art, but having them watch the artist construct an installation, would be.

In keeping with the early 20th century traditions of the anti-art Dada movement, and the wider style of Surrealism, the line between Performance art and exhibitionism is often kept deliberately thin. Due to the ephemeral nature of the medium, performance events were often recorded on film and video, and ultimately these recordings became the principal means by which Performance was disseminated to the public at large.

Sleeper, by Mark Wallinger, Winner
Of Turner Prize (2007). The 2-hour
film records a performance in which,
over a period of 10 nights, the artist
dressed in a bear suit and wandered
aimlessly around the brightly-lit
entrance hall of the Neue
Nationalgalerie in Berlin, designed
by Mies van der Rohe.
See also Turner Prize Winners.

Origins and History of Performance Art

Ever since German Expressionism in the 1900s, twentieth century art has seen a continuing series of contemporary movements rejecting the formalist conventions of traditional art - in which pride of place is given to the painting, sculpture or other physical work of art in question - and focusing instead on the 'message' or 'concept' of the artwork. These include the Dada and Surrealist movements, Futurism, Conceptual art, Assemblage, Installations and Happenings, all of whom form the intellectual origins of Performance.

Key participants in these movements include the Romanian Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) the so-called father of Conceptual Art Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the faux naif artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), the loner Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) and his 'Merzbau' assemblage, the avant-garde composer John Cage (1912–1992) who created the the 4-33 'silent' symphony, Sol LeWitt (b.1928) the High Priest of Conceptualism and his influential essay 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art' (1967), the Assemblage exponent and main creator of 'Happenings' Allan Kaprow (b.1927). Dramatic, humorous or irreverant events, verging on Performance art, were consciously or unconsciously staged by all these individuals, to publicize their artistic ideas.

Gilbert & George - A Portrait Of The
Artists As Young Men, Video Duration
7 Mins, Tate Modern, London (1970)
(In 1969, Gilbert & George began to
present themselves as ‘living
sculptures’ and developed the
mask-like personas that are
presented here)

For a list of important dates about
movements, schools, famous styles,
from the Stone Age to 20th Century,
see: History of Art Timeline.

Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.


Performance Artists

The immediate stimulus for Performance art was the series of theatrical Happenings staged by Allan Kaprow and others in New York in the late 1950s. In 1961, Yves Klein (1928-62) presented three models covered in his trademark blue paint, who moved their bodies around leaving prints on white paper. In the early 1960s several other American conceptual artists such as Robert Morris (b.1931) Bruce Nauman (b.1941) and Dennis Oppenheim began to include Performance in their repertoires.

In Germany, Performance was known as Actionism, influenced in part by the 1950 photographs taken by Hans Namuth of the Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock (1915-56) at work in his studio performing his 'action paintings,' (See also Jackson Pollock's paintings) although strictly speaking the term Actionism relates to the Vienna based group Wiener Aktionismus founded in 1962. Leading members of Aktionismus were Gunter Brus (b.1938), Hermann Nitsch (b.1938) and Rudolph Schwarzkogler, whose theatrical Performances (Aktionen and Demonstrationen) - supposedly designed to highlight Man's violent nature - incorporated shocking exhibitions of self-torture and pseudo-religious rituals. The strident nature of the group's philosophy of art was also reflected in actions by the Viennese artist Arnulf Rainer. More powerful during the 1960s, were the events and happenings staged by the Fluxus movement, established by the Lithuanian-American art theorist George Maciunas (1931-78). One of the most famous members of Fluxus was the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-86) the German Professor of Sculpture at the Dusseldorf Academy of Arts, whose performances included the extraordinary How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965).

British Performance artists included Stuart Brisley (b.1933), as well as Gilbert Proesch (b.1943) and George Passmore (b.1942) - more popularly known as Gilbert and George - a duo who teamed up in 1969 at St Martins School of Art in London, and became known as 'living sculptures'. The idea was to turn themselves into sculpture, thus erasing their separate identities for the sake of art. To that end, they became interchangeable cyphers and even dropped their surnames. They painted their faces, dressed in identical clothes, and staged 'one-man' shows during which they mimed to the popular tune 'Underneath the Arches'. After travelling around British art schools, they toured the Continent, America, Japan, Australia, and China, enlarging their range of 'living sculpture' with a distinctly 'British' tone, in the process. Their subject matter encompassed inner-city decay, Margaret Thatcher-worship, anti-Royalism and more, typically presented in a strident manner, and accompanied by a wide range of visual art products including postcard sculptures, films, videos and installations. The ultimate Performance, say the art critics, but is it art? Whatever the answer, the whole world seems to have responded to it.

Other Performance Artists

Other top contemporary artists who have included Performance in their repertoire include: Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) the controversial Japanese artist noted for her happenings and phallic images; Joan Jonas (b.1936), known for her performance videos; Helio Oiticica (1937-80) the Brazilian experimental artist, founder of Grupo Neoconcreto; Rebecca Horn (b.1944) known for her thought-provoking installations; the Serbian Marina Abramovich (b.1946); and Chris Burden (b.1946), known for his body art and installations. Other performers include: Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Chong Ping, Martha Clark, Ethyl Eichelberger, Karen Finley, Richard Foreman, Dan Graham, Holly Hughes, Suzanne Lacy, Tim Miller, Meredith Monk, Linda Montano, Yoko Ono, Rachel Rosenthal, and Carolee Schneermann. Another innovative artist is the musician and artist Korean-American Nam June Paik (1932-2006), who started out in performance art before working with video, and thereafter installations.

Like several contemporary art movements, Performance is acted out for it's own sake and according to its own priorities. Sometimes resembling a circus act, at times amusing, offensive - even repulsive, it challenged conventional ethics and (above all) our notion of what art is, or should be.


• For more information about avant-garde art, see: Homepage.

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