In performance art, works in a variety of media are premeditated and then executed before a live audience. Although this might appear to be ‘theatre’, theatrical performances present representations of events, while performance art presents actual events as art.
An open-ended artform, performance art can have many different variables, often with a renovating experience of time and space (long or short in duration, intimate or spectacular in scale). It can work outside the context of museums and gallery spaces and draws freely on many disciplines and media (narrative, poetry, music, dance, architecture, video, slides), often putting the body squarely at the centre of art-making. Enter Gilbert & George.
Performance does us not only break down the categories between artforms (between art and architecture, in the works of Frank Stella or Vladimir Tatlin, for example), but indeed between art and life. It directly raises the question of art’s role in life, and life’s role in art.
See Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire
Founded by Ball in 1916, this now-famous Zurich nightclub featured spoken word, dance and music as artists experimented with new forms of performance, such as sound poetry and simultaneous poetry.
See Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (King Ubu)
Premiering in 1896, this play from French writer Jarry was one of the precursors to the Theatre of the Absurd and the surrealist art movement of the early 20th century.
See Hans Namuth Jackson Pollock painting 1950
Performance art explored the relation of subjectivity to art production along a slipstream created by abstract expressionist artists such as Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Before it was museumised and corporatised, abstract expressionism provided, in its free-flowing lines, an alternative model of how to be a person, of how to desire, of how to re-experience time.
See Yoko Ono Cut piece 1964
In this work, first performed in 1964 in Japan and later in other venues and by other performers, Ono invited the audience to come up and cut away her clothing as she sat motionless on the stage.
See Joseph Beuys Explaining pictures to a dead hare 1965
Some performance works plug in to indigenous energies through tribal ritual, positioning the artist as teacher, activist, shaman, healer. Unlike literal communication or pure entertainment, ritual is about transformation of consciousness by intensity of concentration and the transformation of meaning and symbols. In Beuys’ conversation with a dead hare (a traditional symbol of fecundity), the artist – wearing a magnetic sole on one foot and felt on the other – is connecting to the ancient cycles of death and rejuvenation.
See Chris Burden Shoot piece 1971
For this performance piece (also known simply as Shoot), Burden was shot in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of about five metres. Many saw it as a statement about both the war in Vietnam and the right to bear arms that is enshrined in the US constitution.
See Mike Parr Integration 3 (leg spiral) 1975
Australian artist Parr lit a fuse that spiralled around his leg to demonstrate his increasing concern with the relationship between action and catharsis.
See Sam Hsieh Cage piece 1978–79
What is the difference between an artist performing for one year in a cell, and a real prisoner spending one year in a cell? From 29 September 1978 to 30 September 1979, Hsieh locked himself in a 3.5 x 2.7 x 2.4 metre (11.5 x 9 x 8 foot) wooden cage, furnished only with a wash basin, lights, a pail and a single bed. He was not allowed to talk, read, write, listen to the radio or watch TV. A friend came daily to deliver food, remove the artist’s waste, and take a single photograph to document the project. The performance was open to viewers once or twice a month from 11am to 5pm.
See Sophie Calle
In 1980, Calle met a man at a party and followed him to Venice, tailing him from a distance through its streets. A year later she returned to Venice where she got a temporary job as a chambermaid and then made a piece about her imagined ideas of who the hotel guests were, based on their personal belongings.
See Eva and Franco Mattes aka 0100101110101101.ORG Reenactment of Gilbert & George’s The Singing Sculpture, Synthetic Performance in Second Life 2007
In a series of reenactments of historical performances inside virtual worlds such as Second Life, Eva and Franco Mattes perform all the actions through their avatars, who were constructed from their bodies and faces. People from all over the world can attend and interact with the live performances by connecting to the video-game.