Body of Art

The Art of Transgression: 13 Historic Performances That Will Totally Freak You Out

Body of Art
The Art of Transgression: 13 Historic Performances That Will Totally Freak You Out
Oleg Kulik performing The Mad Dog, or Last Taboo Guarded by Alone Cerberus, 1994

When it comes to exploring what the human body can mean and do in the context of art history, it’s hard to beat performance art for its versatility, emotional impact, and sheer strangeness. These works, each excerpted from Phaidon’s new book Body of Art , are some of the most famous examples of contemporary artists transgressing the agreed-upon limits of safety, sanity, and decency in order to reframe our everyday lives through the prism of aesthetics. Though the results are often visceral or even repulsive, each performance speaks back to the so-called “normal” social conditions most of us barely notice.

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Hermann Nitsch

1ST ACTION. Hermann Nitsch

Hermann Nitsch (b.1938) and the Viennese Actionists sought to liberate aggressive instincts through ritualistic performances, slaughtering animals, and extreme tests of the human body’s endurance. In the first of a series of taboo-breaking “Actions,” Nitsch, dressed in white linens as
 if a priest, had himself tied-up in a cruciform position in the apartment of fellow Actionist
, Otto Mühl (1925–2013), and then had Mühl pour animal blood over him. The work recalls both Christian liturgy and pagan blood rites. The body had long been subject of Christian art and ritual, for example, paintings of martyrdom, or the red wine transubstantiated to blood in the Eucharist. But in addition to symbolism, which could have been conveyed in any number of mediums, Nitsch’s performance also afforded the artist a direct and visceral experience. Nitsch’s interpretation of Freud, who observed how the repression of aggressive and sexual drives in society, could lead to neuroses for its members, also inspired his Actions. Freud noted that recalling a repressed trauma could help release emotional tension, a process called “abreaction.” Nitsch thought of his Action as an Abreaktionsspiel (abreaction-play), hoping his corporeal gesture would offer a cathartic release of those instincts for himself and his viewers.

Shigeko Kubota


Vagina Painting was performed in July 1965, just 
a year after Shigeko Kubota (b.1936) relocated
 to New York. Having been active in avant-garde circles in her native Japan, Kubota was invited 
to New York by George Maciunas, one of the founding members of Fluxus, a group centered 
on performance and experimental art. Fluxus members sought to collapse the maker and viewer, art and the everyday, through action, performance, and play. Vagina Painting stands as an iconic Fluxus performance and has been interpreted as a key moment in feminist art; although 
Kubota herself denies its feminist import. During the performance, Kubota squatted over white paper spread out on the floor, creating gestural strokes via a paintbrush attached to her underwear, each linear mark an index of her bodily movements. The brush was dipped in red paint, in a deliberate evocation of menstrual blood. Equally deliberate, however, was the association with distinctly masculine modes of creativity such as the Action paintings of Jackson Pollock (see p.412) or Yves Klein’s “Living Brush” works (see p.289), as well as traditional Japanese calligraphy. Vagina Painting was one of several performances by female artists in the mid-twentieth century that emphatically utilized 
the body, co-opting corporeal performative actions, then coded as male, and deliberately subverting them.

Vito Acconci

SEEDBED Vito Acconci

Underneath a ramped floor built in New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, Vito Acconci (b.1940) spent eight hours a day over three weeks crawling around and masturbating in an attempt to scatter as much of his semen as possible. The effort of stimulating himself constantly in the confined space tested Acconci’s physical endurance, and the work highlighted the permeable boundaries of the body, blurring the distinction between inside and outside. The artist wrote: “My aim is to have constant contact with my body so that an effect from my body is carried outside.” As he heard the sound of visitors’ footsteps above him, he fantasized about their bodies in order to arouse himself. He broadcast these fantasies through a microphone, and visitors heard comments such as "I’m touching your ass" emitting from a small speaker in the corner of the room. His supine, hidden position reflected the social stigma of masturbation, and his comments forged a psychological, and at times invasive relationship between the body of the viewer and that of the artist. The gallery visitor might not realize that he or she unwittingly participated in this piece simply by moving his or her body through the space, until reading the artist’s statement posted on the far end of the gallery.

Marina Abramović

RHYTHM 0. Marina Abramović

Rhythm 0 marks one of Marina Abramović's (b.1946) most extreme performances. For six hours the Serbian performance artist submitted body to the random will of the audience at Galleria Studio Morra in Naples to test the limits of human collective behavior and her own physical and mental endurance. Placing seventy-two objects on a table, ranging from honey, olive oil, feathers, and perfume to razor blades, knives, a scalpel, and a pistol with one bullet, she offered herself as a silent puppet for viewers to do with as they chose. Initially respectful, they became increasingly violent; they chained her up, stuck a knife between her legs, cut up her shirt to reveal her breasts, slashed her neck and drank her blood, and even held the loaded gun to her head her until the gallerist intervened. Thus Abramović’s body became a stage of collective participation and ritual upon which themes of female subjugation, masochism, sadism, self-expression, and catharsis were enacted. Evoking ancient sacrifice, Abramović’s objectification of her body poses questions about group ethics, exhibitionism, and collusion. When the performance ended and they became Abramović resumed control, the audience fled.

Carolee Schneemann

INTERIOR SCROLL. Carolee Schneemann 1975

Performance artist Carolee Schneemann (b.1939) initially performed Interior Scroll before an exclusively female audience. Standing on top of a table and clad only in an apron, she ritualistically painted contour lines on her body, and then read from her book Cézanne: She Was a Great Painter . At the conclusion of the work, Schneemann dropped her apron and pulled a thin scroll from her body that had been wound up and hidden in her vagina. Reading aloud from the scroll, she recounted her interaction with a sexist male filmmaker who criticized her art for its “personal clutter, persistence of feelings ... primitive techniques, painterly mess.” Interior Scroll , like 
so much feminist art of the 1970s, enacted the mantra “the personal is political.” When shared publically, the description of insults lobbed by a misogynist, personal feelings of inadequacy, and the intimacy of one’s body constituted an act of political critique. Schneemann’s identification of common fears and concerns evoked feelings of unity and empowerment in her viewers, rather than isolation. Interior Scroll allowed the artist
a public ritual of cleansing in which she figuratively pulled the anger out of her body before a supportive audience. The work also tapped into Schneemann’s lifelong interest in the feminine body as the primal source of sacred knowledge, birth, and ecstasy.

Oleg Kulik


On a freezing late November night, Oleg Kulik (b.1961) staged his first ‘mad dog’ performance outside a small gallery in Moscow. Stripped naked and wearing a chain leash held by his ‘owner’, the artist growled and barked at passersby. A crowd soon gathered, laughing, and taking photographs. Suddenly, with savage ferocity, Kulik bit a complete stranger. He then ran into the traffic, jumping onto a car, and throwing himself at the windscreen. Kulik’s unpredictable and often frightening actions were a kind of shock art, forcing the viewer to consider his own animal nature, and vital instincts. Symptomatic, perhaps, of a pent-up artistic spirit freed from Soviet restrictions, Kulik has often performed with animals (including goats, cows, cockerels, and birds), protesting at the hubris, and anthropocentrism of human culture. He is perhaps best known for the scandal he caused at the opening night of a Stockholm art show in which The Mad Dog was an exhibit. Chaos ensued after he attacked and bit a man who had ignored the “dangerous” sign posted next to his “dog house”, before running riot over several artworks.

Tania Bruguera


In the late 1990s, Tania Bruguera (b.1968) began
a series of highly visceral, metaphorical performances that commented on the history of the Cuban people and contemporary guilt felt about the nation’s foundation, during which the island’s native population was eradicated. The Burden of Guilt is inspired by a story of the collective suicide of a group of indigenous Cubans who in an act of rebellion against their Spanish oppressors ate dirt until they died, literally consuming their own ancestral land and gaining ownership over the destruction of their culture, heritage, and bodies. Bruguera re-enacted this solemn gesture, rolling dirt mixed with saltwater, symbolizing tears of sorrow and regret, into small balls, and slowly eating them over several hours in an act of penance. She appeared naked except for the carcass of a slaughtered lamb hung from her neck, at once resembling a shield, a gaping wound, and a sacrificial offering. Brugera’s work examines fundamental questions of power and vulnerability in relation to the personal, political, and collective body, and typically features the artist performing physically demanding rituals. Having relocated from Cuba to the USA, her early work involved restaging of corporal performances by another exiled Cuban artist, Ana Mendieta.

Xu Zhen

RAINBOW. Xu Zhen. 1998

Xu Zhen’s (b.1977) artworks use the body as medium – either his own or other people’s – and center on themes of life, death, pain and lust. 
 Xu grew up in Shanghai during China’s economic boom and rapid commercial development, and witnessed the political and ideological changes this brought about. When he made his first videos in the late 1990s, a number of Chinese artists were becoming notorious for works involving nudity, violence, cruelty, and the use of live animals, human body parts, and corpses. Xu’s early works were ironic variations on these themes, and their provocation is finely calculated. His video work Rainbow (Chinese: Caihong ) presents an anonymous human’s naked back. Over the course of four minutes, the bare flesh changes color from a normal skin tone to a painfully bright pink. Each new gradation of color is preceded by a slap, which the viewer hears but does not see inflicted. The rhythm of the slaps is uneven, causing tension as the viewer, empathizing with the victim, flinches in anticipation of the next assault. As the slapping gains in speed and intensity the back becomes covered in handprints that eventually merge into an overall redness.

Santiago Sierra
December 1999

250 CM LINE TATTOOED ON SIX PAID PEOPLE Santiago Sierra December 1999

In Old Havana, Cuba, in 1999, Santiago Sierra (b.1966) paid six unemployed young men US $30 each in exchange for being tattooed. The men stood shoulder to shoulder, facing the wall, while their backs were marked with a single horizontal line. Their bodies had been bought and used in the same way that an artist might use any other material, but the fact that this indelible line had been drawn on living human beings made the action both shocking and perverse. As Sierra pointed out, ‘having a tattoo is normally a personal choice. But when you do it under “remunerated” conditions, this gesture becomes something that seems awful, degrading’. The performance, which was recorded on video and in photographs that would be sold as works of art, was intended to provoke debate around issues such as capitalism and its inequities, art as a commodity, poverty, and human dignity. Speaking about the fact that these six men would be marked for life, Sierra remarked: “the tattoo is not the problem. The problem is the existence of social conditions that allow me to make this work. You could make this tattooed line a kilometer long, using thousands and thousands of willing people.”

Sigalit Landau

BARBED HULA Sigalit Landau 2000

An activity usually enjoyed by children for fun, or by adults for fitness, hula-hooping gained widespread popularity in the 1950s, and typically involves gyrating the hips in order to keep a hoop elevated around the waist for as long as possible. For Sigalit Landau (b.1969), the action takes a disturbing turn, as we see the torso of the naked artist rotating a hoop made from barbed wire. Over the course of the film the camera moves closer, revealing the extent to which her skin is torn, and bleeding, and still she twists, without making a noise – the only soundtrack the gentle lap of the waves. The video was shot on a beach in southern Tel-Aviv, and in it the artist makes a connection between the geographical boundary of the sea – Israel’s only natural border – and the skin as the body’s boundary. In a nation where religion is central to daily life, the action brings to mind rituals of self-mortification undertaken for spiritual reasons. The work also references a lineage of ceremonial–cathartic body art practiced since the 1970s, in which artists have used their own bodies as a medium to explore broader political, social, and sexual issues, often enduring discomfort or pain.

L.A. Raeven

WILD ZONE 1. L.A. Raeven. 2001

In their performances and videos, Dutch identical twins Liesbeth and Angelique Raeven (b.1971) use their bodies to investigate Western standards of beauty. Creating art, or what they call “aesthetic terrorism”, under the name L.A. Raeven, they starve themselves, forcing the viewer to examine contemporary attitudes of beauty in art, fashion, and the media. In Wild Zone 1 , the artists slouched on a gallery floor surrounded by partially filled wine glasses, some holding wine, some urine, occasionally feeding each other morsels of dry crackers. As part of the installation of the work, the video is accompanied by a scent based on the sisters’ body odors. While the artists’ skeletal frames, spindly limbs, and gaunt faces draw comparison with the waiflike models that fill fashion magazines, they also suggest concentration camp victims, or AIDS patients. According to the artists, they are neither anorexic nor are they celebrating the disease, but are using their bodies to ask uncomfortable questions. What should women be willing to do to attain an ideal body? When does self-determination stop being an act of rebellion or resistance and become dangerous? L. A. Raeven’s work also questions the possibility of being an individual (especially as a twin) if one is always trying to become an unattainable and ultimately generic ideal.

Martin Creed

WORK NO. 610 (SICK FILM) Martin Creed 2008

Martin Creed (b.1968) works across many different media, including sculpture, painting, film, music, and dance. He is often described as a conceptual artist, but if asked to categorize his art, Creed himself would call it Expressionist. “Everything that everyone does is always an expression, whether you’re answering a phone in a call center or making a piece of sculpture which is going to be exhibited in an art gallery,” he points out. He cites vomiting as an exemplar of true expression since it is a convulsion that cannot be faked. In his view, vomiting is also a good analogy for the process of making art: “It puts your insides out. You don’t really know what’s going to come
out, it’s painful, but you feel better afterwards.” In Sick Film , which shows different people – mainly student volunteers – vomiting, Creed also draws attention to the fact that living is a matter of “trying to come to terms with what comes out of you ... That includes shit and sick and horrible feelings. The problem with horrible feelings is you can’t paint them. But horrible vomit – you can film that.” Strangely enough, on film, “horrible vomit” becomes a form of painting.

Ron Athey


Messianic Remains is the third performance in Ron Athey’s (b.1961) “Incorruptible Flesh” series, which began in 1996. Athey, who is HIV positive, began researching saints, martyrs, and others with “incorruptible” bodies (believed to be immune to decomposition, a sign of holiness) as he watched his friends struggle with the impact of AIDS. Raised by Pentecostal Christians, Athey enacts rituals such as anointing the sick, and a belief
 in the body as a site of transformation or resurrection, much to the ire of American religious conservatives. His work examines the limits of pain: the physical pain of masochism and disease, and the psychological pain of surviving an epidemic. Tattooed, naked, and bearded in the style of an ancient Egyptian, Athey is strapped to a metal rack resembling a medieval torture device. Hooks in his cheeks and eyebrows pull his flesh towards the cross at the head of the rack, and a baseball bat protrudes from his anus, suggestive of sexual violence. Reflecting the anointing of Jesus by Mary, the audience is invited to rub a foamy substance into Athey’s corpse-like body, which is spotlighted. He then rises in the midst of a funeral procession inspired by Jean Genet’s 1943 novel Our Lady of the Flowers , a mostly autobiographical account of a homosexual man’s life in the Parisian underworld.

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