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Modern performance art

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Performance art is developing in Europe and the United States and many movements, such as Fluxus, are gaining an international base.

In Europe, it was undoubtedly after his trip to Japan, from September 23, 1952 to January 1954, that Yves Klein would relaunch, through his “gestures” and “actions”, performance art in France. During this trip he may have seen the actions of the Gutaï group and the first monochrome works of Atsuko Tanaka. Yves Klein realizes a release of blue balloons in May 1957 at the Iris Clert gallery, sale of Zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility, in 1959. He is one of the major actors in the development of performance in Europe in the 1950s with Piero Manzoni in Italy , and Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell in Germany. Only ten years after a Second World War with devastating effects for the entire continent, many felt they could not accept the essentially apolitical content of informal art and abstract expressionism, then in vogue. The attitude of the artist painting in his studio as in an ivory tower came to be regarded as socially irresponsible.

In the United States, in North Carolina, the Black Mountain College art school contributed to the development of performance as an artistic practice with the productions of Spectrodrama and Danse macabre (1933).

In 1945, performance became an activity in its own right in New York, recognized as such by artists and surpassing the provocations that had characterized it until then.

This is where the happenings movement was initiated, with musician John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham, with the presentation of Untitled Event in 1952, a student show that was the precursor to many artistic events at the end of the 1950s and in the 1960 in the United States. But it is thanks to the American artist Allan Kaprow and his piece Happenings in 6 Parts, presented in New York in 1959 at the Reuben gallery, that a wider audience can attend an event of this type. The spectator was asked by Kaprow to participate in the performance by having to follow a series of instructions presented on a program. The term “happening” then had no meaning: it only served to indicate “something spontaneous, something that happens by chance”. This piece required several rehearsals beforehand as well as every day of the week when it was presented with great skill, however.

These artists, as well as the members of Fluxus such as George Brecht in 1962, initiator of the movement with George Maciunas, continued during the 1960s the performances in Germany and the United States.

If Dada or the Bauhaus are recognized as being at the origin of the performance movement, new sources of inspiration around dance appeared in the 1950s, dance as a way of life, dance around daily gestures. This approach was developed by the Dancers’ Workshop Company, with Anna Halprin, and subsequently influenced many artists.

Performance art was not confined to Europe and the United States: in Japan the origins of performance art as it is currently understood go back to the activities of the Gutaï group undertaken in Japan from 1954, which claimed to be in particular those practiced in public from the same date by Georges Mathieu (a practice also used by Salvador Dalí). On very large format paintings, cutting, tearing, burning, projecting, throwing, letting the ink flow or dripping randomly… are the watchwords of Jirō Yoshihara and his students; which almost systematically include the body of the artist in the work. This is usually destroyed in action, so very few traces of the originals remain. On the other hand, there are numerous cinematographic, video and photographic traces. Contemporary “performance” art has particularly flourished in Japan because of the way the Japanese mentality experiences time (and space). The art of Japanese performance is to be related, in particular, to the notions of impermanence, Mono no aware and Ma. In addition, the work, among others, of Japanese calligraphy predisposes to a strong concentration in the present moment and to a “letting go” likely to give rise to the unpredictable and the dazzling.


Some consider the notion of performance to be a fundamental characteristic of postmodernity.

Artists are experimenting with new artistic performance practices that refute the idea of ​​an art object in favor of the concept. Along the same lines as Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni and Joseph Beuys, performance artists adopted their own bodies as artistic material. Works that focused on the artist’s body became known as Body art.

By 1972, the fundamental issues raised had been incorporated into the new works, but the demands for social change and emancipation (of students, women, etc.) had considerably diminished. The global monetary and oil crises changed lifestyles and concerns alike.

The art gallery, an institution once rejected because it was accused of exploiting the artist, was restored to its function as a convenient outlet.

Viennese Actionism

The 1960s saw the emergence of actionist art forms in which one can find elements of happening, theater, body art and, later, performance art. The Viennese Actionists are in fact precursors of performance. Therefore, in terms of art history, their works are not considered typical performances in the strict sense of the term.

Otto Muehl himself distinguished his material actions from happenings and from art in general. Although Muehl is often considered a performance artist, his actions during his therapeutic action theater period in the 1970s are not part of performance art as such.

In retrospect, the six aesthetically radical and influential works of the Viennese actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogle can be described as performances. Between February 1965 and the fall of 1966, he devoted himself almost exclusively to photography. Like Yves Klein’s leap into the void, Rudolf Schwarzkogler plays with the impression of the immediate presence of the actor: his photographs present self-mutilations, real or staged. Most of the time, he does not photograph himself, rather he uses an anonymous model.

Rudolf Schwarzkogler died in 1969, falling from a window. Many myths have arisen around his life and work, including misinterpretations of his works, most related to themes of castration, self-harm and suicide. For example, fictional Canadian artist John Fare is often associated with Schwarzkogler’s work.

Happening and performance

If performance is defined as visual art that extends the visual innovations of painting and sculpture into dimensions such as action and time, Fluxus happenings and actions, which contain elements of performance, should be considered as precursors. According to this point of view (cf. Jappe), performance as an art form in its own right did not appear until the early 1970s. Unlike the Happening where there should only be participants, the artists performers present, directly or via the media, their work to spectators who are not necessarily part of the participants.

Some artists, whose work already tended towards action art around the end of the 1950s or who staged happenings in the 1960s, turned to presenting their art in the form of performance in the early 1970s. For example, Carolee Schneemann, who had developed her own form of happening, “Kinetic Theater” with a group of artists in the 1960s, began solo performances that radically and innovatively showed the female body as an artistic medium. and gave viewers the opportunity to happily reflect on their own gendered behaviors.

Gilbert & George are known as “The Singing Sculpture” (1970). This work features them standing on a table or pedestal with their faces and hands painted gold, as they sing “Underneath the Arches”. They often pose like this for hours. Gilbert & George performed many other works, still recognizable by their expressionless faces and matching business suits. They refused to separate their acting art from their everyday life, defining all their activities and themselves as a living sculpture.

Between 1972 and 1976, Joan Jonas brought video and performance into dialogue, expanding the formal aesthetic foundations of feminist video and performance.

1970s-2000s and feminism

A work by Niki Saint Phalle.
Credit: MoSchle, Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0 license

(A work by Niki Saint Phalle. Credit: MoSchle, Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0 license)

Among the social movements, that of feminism had a major role in the development of artistic performance. Women artists have found in this medium, a means adapted to their desire to express themselves. Challenging cultural codes will bind women to the body, as an experimental ground. The generation active from the second half of the 1960s focused on recognizing the experiences and culture specific to women, reassessing their contributions to the history of art and questioning traditional canons. The participants also decode that they have been collectively conditioned from an early age to permanent awareness of their bodies. In other words, they had to exaggerate their femininity to be valued in the eyes of men and other women. The approach to the body as a theme in its own right underlines the intertwining of the feminist movement.

Ephemeral practice, commitment, dematerialization, subjectivity, the artist’s body is an instrument of perception, knowledge and production. We are talking about a body-tool used as a marking site, witness, accessory.

In this particular political and social context of the 1960s and 1970s, some of these filmed performances therefore contained a strong political character. At this time, the video is freshly arrived on the market. This medium allows artists to record, broadcast and study their performances. The emergence of video-art coincides with the sexual liberation of the 1960s. It is an era in which feminist artists, aiming to redress the position of women in society, appropriated new technology. In the story of the emergence of video the voice of women could be clearly heard. A new practice, it did not impose any male model that could oppress the production of female artists.

It is particularly in the United States and Europe that these feminist performances have taken place with artists creating “strong” pieces. Helena Almeida, Lynda Benglis, VALIE EXPORT, Gina Pane, Rebecca Horn, Shigeko Kubota, Yayoi Kusama, Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono, ORLAN, Martha Rosler, Niki de Saint Phalle, Carolee Schneemann, Nil Yalter belong to this generation of artists.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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