Body art, as a subset of Conceptual art and a precursor to Performance art, uses the artist’s body as the medium rather than paint, stone, or wood. The art often takes the form of public or private performances that are documented in video or photographs. The form and content vary widely, but it often has spiritual, political, or even masochistic intentions.
Chris Burden’s “Shot” was a small public performance in which he submitted to being shot in the arm. Gina Pane cut herself with razorblades and posed with roses to represent the anguish of love. Lucas Samaras, in a series of “Autopolaroids,” photographed himself dressed as famous nudes (like Degas’ “Bather”) and performing a mock self-castration with kitchen cutlery.
The concept of body image is central to Body art, and many female artists have seen the medium as the perfect vehicle for feminism. Female artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Eleanor Antin, and Yoko Ono focused on politics of the gendered body and female self-representation. Schneemann insisted that the impetus of the feminist performances was the act of “giving our bodies back to ourselves.”
Oddly, these self-affirming performances were often violent and disgusting, not celebratory. Schneemann performed while paint-smeared, snake-covered, and defiantly ugly. Her aggressive “Interior Scroll” piece involved a ranting oratory delivered as she pulled the scrolling text from her vagina. In Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” she sat still while members of her audience cut away pieces of her clothing. The performance questioned the distinctions between subject and object, victim and aggressor.
Precedents for Body art include Marcel Duchamp’s star-shaped haircut, and Joseph Beuys’ Actions. In “Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me,” Beuys videotaped a week-long performance in which he shacked up with a coyote.
Unfortunately, many performances reduce themselves to violence, as artists equate the tolerance of pain with artistic integrity. Sometimes, these performances are the artists’ final acts. Rudolph Schwarzkogler, a member of the gore-obsessed Viennese Actionists, died after a series of “artistic” shock therapy treatments.
In this first and several subsequent performances, Ono herself sat kneeling on the concert hall stage, wearing her best suit of clothing, with a pair of scissors placed on the floor in front of her. Members of the audience were invited to approach the stage, one at a time, and cut a bit of her clothes off which they were allowed to keep.
The script for Cut Piece appears, along with those for several other works, in a document from the spring of 1966, called Strip Tease Show.
First version for single performer:
1. Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him. It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage one at a time to cut a small piece of the performer's clothing to take with them.
2. Performer remains motionless throughout the piece. Piece ends at the performer's option.
1. Second version for audience: It is announced that members of the audience may cut each others clothing.
2. The audience may cut as long as they wish*
Marina Abramovic performed ‘Rhythm O’ in 1974. In the piece, the audience was given instructions to use on Abramovic's body an array of 72 provided instruments of pain and pleasure, including knives, feathers, and a loaded pistol. Audience members cut her, pressed thorns into her belly, put lipstick on her, and removed her clothers. The performance ended after six hours when someone held the loaded gun up to Abramovic's head and a scuffle broke out.
Chris Burden actually had an assistant shoot him in the arm in his piece ‘Shoot’ (1971), which was observed by a live audience. This was documented in an eight-second video and is a notorious example of video art as well as performance art. In ‘Through the Night Softly' (1973), Burden crawled naked through broken glass, which he saw as stars in the sky, and turned the video footage into a ten-second commercial that was aired on television. In ‘Locker’, he spent five days jammed into a 2' x 2' x 3' locker at UCI; in ‘Sculpture in Three Parts’ (1974), he sat on an upright chair on a sculpture pedestal for 48 hours, until he fell off due to exhaustion; in ‘White Light/White Heat’ (1975), he spent 22 days alone and invisible to the public on a high platform in a gallery, neither eating, speaking, seeing or being seen. Most of these performances are known only through photographs or short video clips.