Performance Art
Characteristics, History, Happenings.

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Performance Art


Characteristics of Performance Art
Performance Artists


This new form of contemporary art - which emerged out of Happenings and Conceptual art to become 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 live actions. Now popular with an increasing number of postmodernist artists, Performance art is typically intensely theatrical, 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, as well as traditional centres such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the most famous exponents of contemporary performance art is the Serbian Marina Abramovic (b.1946).

For a guide, see:
What is Art?



Important Examples

Nude Performance Art, Amsterdam 2012
Choreographed by Spencer Tunick.

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 entrance hall
of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
See also Turner Prize Winners.

"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.

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.

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

For a list of important dates,
see: History of Art Timeline.


Although this brand 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 a live audience. For example, allowing the audience to view an interesting assemblage or installation would not be considered Performance art, but having them watch the artist build the assemblage or installation, would be.

Subject to this condition, Performance artists can incorporate any discipline or medium into their art, including Dance, Music, Recitation, Mime, Fashion, Theatrical Design, Film, Juggling, Tumbling, Contortionism, Escapology, Installation, Body and Computer art (to name but a few), as well as more traditional genres like painting, drawing and sculpture.

Performance Art may be spontaneous and one-off, or rehearsed and series-based. It may consist of a small-scale event, or a massive public spectacle. It can take place almost anywhere: in museums or other arts venues, in cafés and bars, in squares or on the street.

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 are often recorded on film and video, and ultimately these recordings are the principal means by which Performance is disseminated to the public at large.

NOTE: Some art critics believe that Performance art is best understood as a "performing art", like drama, dance or stand-up comedy, rather than a form of "visual art" - especially since the "artwork" in question is typically accorded a low priority by the performance artists themselves.

Origins and History of Performance Art

Although it dates back to the medieval performances of court minstrels and travelling troubadours (if not to the oratorical performances of Classical Antiquity), modern Performance Art owes its existence to the activities of avant-garde movements such as Futurism (c.1909-14), Dada (1916-24), Surrealist Automatism (1924-40), Nouveau Realisme (early 1960s), Fluxus (1960s), Neo-Dada (1960s), Body Art (from 1960) and Feminist Art (1970 onwards). These movements rejected the "formalist" conventions of traditional art - in which pride of place is given to the "finished product": the painting, sculpture or other work of art in question - and instead focused on the 'message' or 'concept' of the artwork.

Key participants in these movements include the Romanian activist Tristan Tzara (1896-1963); the so-called father of Conceptual Art Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968); the lonely Dadaist 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); and 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.


Development of Performance Art

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. Then in 1961, Yves Klein (1928-62) presented three nude models covered in his trademark blue paint, who rolled around on sheets of white paper. He was also famous for his "jumps into the void". For more details, see Yves Klein's Postmodernist art (1956-62). 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 painting", 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 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, founded by the Lithuanian-American art theorist George Maciunas (1931-78), which began in Germany, before spreading across Europe and establishing itself in New York. One of the best-known members of Fluxus was the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-86) - German Professor of Sculpture at the Dusseldorf Academy of Arts - whose works included the extraordinary performance entitled: "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare" (1965). Fluxus-style festivals of contemporary art - all of which involved Performance art - were staged in several European capitals, as well as New York.

In Britain, notable 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, said the art critics, but is it art?

The most recent contemporary art movements associated with "performance", include: Body art (Marina Abramovich), mime (Marcel Marceau), including "living statues" and Feminist art (Carolee Schneermann).

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; and the body artists Marina Abramovich (b.1946); and Chris Burden (b.1946). 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 challenges conventional ethics and (above all) our notion of what art is, or should be.



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