As everyone knows, Dadism, Futurism and Surrealism transformed the rules and codes of artistic creation at the beginning of the 20th century. But things didn’t stay the same for long, the second half of the 20th century ushered in new changes as well, especially when the practice of artistic performance entered the picture. Certain artists pushed this art form to its limits, to the extent of producing terrifying (not to mention even gory) works. Aside from the purely physical and morbid aspect some of these the works, incredible as it may seem, did embody the artists’ convictions. These are the works that Artsper would like to focus on. And don’t worry, we’ll start gently, the most shocking performances are saved for the end.
According to Joseph Beuys, a revolutionary and compelling 20th century artist, “Every man is an artist”, and every man can use art to help heal his traumas. In 1965, he staged a bizarre performance piece at the Schmela gallery in Düsseldorf: How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. And as in all his performances, the symbolic occupied a prominent place. With his face covered in honey and gold leaf and a foot wrapped in felt, he manipulated a dead hare with his hands to bring it to life and used it to whisper explanations of the works on display. The gallery was empty, with the assembled visitors watching the scene from the outside through windows, for three hours – a strange ritual, but one that can be explained.
An incredibly charismatic artist, Beuys liked to tell his own legendary story by employing symbols in his artworks: during the Second World War, his plane crashed and he was fed honey by nomads then anointed with fat and wrapped in felt. As for the hare, it is an animal that symbolises intuition. Even though it is dead, Beuys views it as an extension of his body, one that is defunct but which he is capable of reviving.
You may be surprised to learn that before creating phrases used on all types of stationary, Ben performed hundreds of performance pieces. Some, such as Pisser contre un mur et signer (Pissing against a wall and signing), are not without humour; others, such as Signer les tableaux des autres (Signing the paintings of others), are rather cheeky; and finally, there are the pieces that are perhaps too avant-garde: Manger un oeuf dur (Eating a hard-boiled egg), Extraire une boulette de mon nez (Extracting a small ball from my nose), Ouvrir et fermer les yeux (Opening and closing your eyes)… or perhaps more provocative than avant-garde.
And included among all these performances, there are some that are decidedly strange. We place the following in our top three: Vomir (Vomiting) – no explanation required; Exposer de la viande pourrie (Exhibiting rotten meat), which dates from 1960, though he repeated the experience several times in 1962; and finally, La hache (The axe), a performance during which the brazen artist, with a bag on his head, descended into the audience and span around while brandishing an axe above his head, almost injuring two people.
At the start of the 1990s, it might have seemed as if the world of art had only one word on its lips: ORLAN. Having already proved her artistic credentials with a number of artistically committed and cheeky pieces, ORLAN notched things up yet another level in order to convey her convictions all the more strongly.
From 1990 to 1993, she moved onto the operating table for a series of performance pieces: nine surgical operations… filmed. La réincarnation de Sainte ORLAN (The reincarnation of Saint Orlan) is a performance piece during which she underwent operations to alter her facial features, using icons from the Renaissance as models. Without anaesthetic, and indifferent to the pain, she even read Michel Serres’ Le tiers instruit (The Troubadour of Knowledge) during the performance, a text which was also engraved on the remaining flesh. This was her way of denouncing violence against women. During another performance, Omniprésence, ORLAN again underwent surgery, this time having horn implants placed in her temples, thus denouncing the conventional notions of beauty that are imposed on women.
Through these performances, ORLAN hoped to produce fresh new images. Despite the polemical character of these works, ORLAN’s career cannot and must not be reduced simply to this series of operations. Her entire body of work is rich in content and serves her convictions with ardour and vehemence.
Hang on tight, because the story of Chris Burden is both singularly unique and shocking! His subject of predilection? Danger. And Chris Burden started early with a trong start. As part of his thesis, he staged a performance titled Five day locker piece, during which he was shut in his locker for five days. In the 1970s, far from being satisfied with this extreme experience, he asked a friend to fire a gun at him for his risky work Shoot, resulting in an injury to his arm. In 1972, he held a TV presenter hostage (one of the few to have agreed to do a live interview). And during this entire period, Burden, who was not exactly a novice at this kind of thing, was also daring to do the unspeakable: having himself crucified, trying to drown himself, cutting himself, and so forth.
This non-conformist artist spent the last part of his career creating monumental, gravity-defying sculptures – an unexpected volte-face, but a wiser choice perhaps.
The work Rhythm 0 (1974) by Marina Abramovic is surely the most disturbing and most fascinating performance pieces in the history of art. By the time it ended, the artist had undergone a period of stress so intense that some of the hairs on her head had turned white. In order to put her body to the test and explore her psychological limits, she made various objects available to the public. Among these items were food, drinks and roses, but also included knives, chains and a pistol containing a bullet, as well as a single instruction: “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. Performance. I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility. Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am).”
Though the performance began uneventfully, it would soon take a horrific and pernicious turn. Certain audience members chained her up, cut her clothes off to make her naked, and made an incision in her neck to drink her blood. An even stranger and more sinister atmosphere took hold of the venue that evening. Two groups were formed, one made up of those who wanted to protect her, and the other made up of those who wanted to go to even greater extremes. When one of the spectators held the pistol against the artist’s head, a fight broke out in the audience; the gallery owner then intervened and threw the gun at the window.
At the end of the performance, when the artist approached the visitors, a large portion of them fled, incapable of taking responsibility for their acts or accepting her humanity. The artist’s conclusion: people are capable of behaving immorally when there are no consequences involved.
Committed and rebellious, Piotr Pavlenski pushes the artistic process to its limits in his quest to challenge the Russian authorities. He chooses to use political art to awaken the consciousness of people he considers to be both “zombified” and passive in the face of subjugation by the state. His extremely unsettling performances have had a strong impact around the world and placed him squarely in an obstinate, unrelenting battle with the Russian government.
At his tender 33 years of age, he has already carried out several seriously seditious acts, with almost every one of them involving his body in a violent manner: in 2012, for his piece titled Stitch, he sewed his lips together in reaction to the trial against Pussy Riot, denouncing the lack of freedom of expression. In 2013, in a protest against Russian laws (especially laws concerning homosexuality) and the reduction of the Russian people almost to the state of animals, he wrapped himself in barbed wire for his work Carcass. That same year, this activist artist nailed his scrotum to the floor at Red Square during the Russia’s National Police day. In 2014, he sat naked on the wall of the Serbsky Centre (notorious for being a place where Soviet dissidents were interned) and cut off part of his ear to denounce the misappropriation of psychology for political ends. And finally, in 2015, he set fire to the door of the headquarters of the FSB (formerly the KGB) and received seven months in prison.
Pavlenski has frequently been required to undergo psychological examinations and has always been declared completely stable. In an interview with Vice magazine, he revealed his desire to imitate the government’s own visual codes and violent actions in order to better denounce its actions.
In 2017, he was granted political asylum in France.
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