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The Disruptive Power of Performance Art

Disrupting and questioning established things. Isn’t that what art should be all about?

3 minutes


Disrupting and questioning established things. Isn’t that what art should be all about?


Throughout the history of art, the human body has been painted and sculpted: an object of the process of the mimesis. But when it comes to postwar culture, everything changed and radically transformed. Dominated by the ever-present spirit of Freud’s theories on the unconscious as affecting human behavior, the body and the mind underwent an intellectual and quasi-scientific reconsideration. Consequently, performative acts started to pop out all over the globe as a brand new (often refused) artistic practice. Visual arts began to experience that fertile period of rebellion and revolution, in which the body started to be conceived as a powerful tool for the transmission of political, social, and new cultural idea(l)s.


The other side of performance art’s revolutionary charge lay also in the questioning of the concept of the art space itself. Performances and happenings could take place anywhere, quickly, and – sometimes – without notice. As the writer Tracey Warr explains, this created “non-gallery spaces and alternative ideologies to create process-based, multidisciplinary work” (The Artist’s Body).


Yves Klein, Anthropometries. Video byTateShots (Tate).


Some of the first nude bodies displayed appeared in the 1960, with the appearance of the female ‘brush-models’ of the French artist Yves Klein (Niece, 1928 – Paris, 1962). His Antropometryes were a series of works painted using female models, whose bodies were sponged with his “Klein blue”, and then printed onto large sheets of paper.


The theatrical and sensational aspect of this pictorial technique implying the use of a female body as, literally, an object, an extension of the artist’s hand, generated much debate. In 1965, during the flourishing years of feminist protests, the Japanese artist Shigeko Kubota (Niigata, 1937 – NY, 2015) performed her Vagina Painting. She laid a large sheet of paper on the floor in which she painted red strokes by using a brush attached to her underwear’s crotch! Reiterating both the Gutai and Fluxus practices, hers was an explicit self-assertion as a woman, and an aggressive critique against the virile acts of Pollok’s “ejaculatory paintings” (Warr) – whose art was then intended as performance – and the male-chauvinist ones of Klein.


This “artistic fight” well exemplifies the debate that existed between feminism and art itself, as well as between performance and static art.


When talking about performance art, Joseph Beuys (1921, Krefeld – Düsseldorf, 1986) comes up. His performances evaluated everyday gestures as a type of art belonging to everyone: “everything is art and everyone can do it.” In How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) the artist locked himself in an art gallery at Dusseldorf and began to speak to a dead hare about the meaning of the artworks displayed.

A hare comprehends more than any human beings with their stubborn rationalism



Through performative acts like these, art underwent a complete revolution: the revolution of the transitory. Art had a valence only when experienced.


beuys hare uberaura

Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt), Schelma Gallery, Dusseldorf, 26 November 1965. Photo from Above: Shigeko Kubota, Vagina Painting, 1965. GEORGE MACIUNAS. Photo from


Oddness doesn’t stop here.


Artists such as the Viennese Actionists saw art in a more shamanic way, as a purifying element for both artists and viewers. These artists violated the taboos of an ostentatiously pious and hypocritical society. Yet, they did nothing but get along with Freud’s theory of evil and perversion as the roots of human behavior. The founder of the movement Hermann Nitsch (1938, Vienna) truly believed in the purging and releasing effect of his performances. The Orgies-Mysteries-Theater (1984) were a manifestation.


(do not watch this video if you are weak heart!)


The Action art of Hermann Nitsch — Hermann Nitsch (1962-2003). Courtesy of the artist.


The undisputed and iconic star of performance art remains the still much-debated artist Marina Abramović (1946, Belgrade). Hers were true political acts, such as the Balkan Baroque performed at the Venice Biennale in 1997, described by her as deeply traumatic. Performing an act of mourning towards the tragedy of the Balkan wars, the artist was seated on a huge pile of a thousand beef bones, which she cleaned one by one, for six hours a day, over five days, singing fragments of folksongs she knew from her childhood. The artist and her parents appeared on large video screens, adding deep intimacy to the performance.

The body of the artist was becoming pure expression in the 60s and 70s: an “aggressively activist body” (Warr, 21). Artists such as Ana Mendieta, Gina Pane, Carolee Schneemann performed very explicit, violent, and sincere acts that spoke powerfully of the status of women in their contemporary society.


Brief doc on Marina Abramović’s Balkan Baroque, 1997. Courtesy of the artist. © Coehlo/Godschalk 1999.


The radical nature and the strong political and social valence of these performances inspired generations of artists. Today performance art is a well-rooted reality within the art world and one of the most political and evocative art practices. Often, contemporary performers question culture and society, such as in Dread Scott’s strongly satirical art pieces. They push the boundaries of morality and of the politically correct and investigate on issues such as war (Wafaa Bilal, Mireille Astore), gender and rape (Emma Sulkowicz), racism (Nate Hill), and xenophobia (BR1).



Mireille Astore, Tampa, 2003. Photo by Anne Zahalka

Mireille Astore, Tampa, 2003. Photo by Anne Zahalka


Nate Hill, The White Ambassador, 2011, ©Tod Seelie.

Nate Hill, The White Ambassador, 2011, ©Tod Seelie. Courtesy of the artist.

After earning a BA in Art History (with concentration on modern and contemporary art) she realized her deep interest in museum studies while attending the MA in Visual Arts and Curatorial studies in Milan. Her research is focused on the cultural dynamics of museums and public collections and on their capacity of creating critical spirit within different audiences.

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