Summary of Body Art
If life is the greatest form of art, then it seems only natural for artists to use the physical body as a medium. This is exactly what many Performance artists did to express their distinctive views and make their voices heard in the newly liberated social, political, and sexual climate that emerged in the 1960s. It was a freeing time where artists felt empowered to make art ever more personal by dropping traditional mores of art making and opted to using themselves as living sculpture or canvas. This resulted in direct confrontation between artist and audience, producing a startlingly intimate new way to experience art.
The body artists were a loose group - mostly categorized as a group by critics and art historians - which developed early within the Performance Art movement. The larger movement's main impetus was to evolve definitions of art to include situations in which time, space, the artist's presence, and the relationship between artist and viewer constituted an artwork. To the body artists, the artist's presence translated to an artist's physicality; not only did they need to personally fulfill a role in the presentation of an artwork, their own flesh and blood would become a key figure in the work as well.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Body art diffused the veil between artist and artwork by placing the body front and center as actor, medium, performance, and canvas. Lines were erased between message and messenger or creator and creation, giving new meaning to, and amplifying the idea of, authentic first person perspective.
- In the post-1960s atmosphere of changing social mores and thawed attitudes toward nudity, the body became a perfect tool to make the political personal. What else could be more demonstrative of an artist's passions, opinions, and voice than a direct, literal representation of the self as the prime channel of communication in making a point? Especially in matters of the hot button issues of the time, using the body became a way for an artist to connect the individual with the universal human experience - one person asking others to resonate as a whole.
- By forcing audiences to partake in oftentimes violent, jarring, shocking, or unimaginable experience, Body art asked its viewers to consider the role they were playing in the dark and uncomfortable spaces between innocent bystander and culpable voyeur.
- Whether regarded as a temple and honored as a sacred vessel or treated as an object to test, wield, or destruct, the body was placed on a pedestal and became a literal (rather than just appropriated, imagined, or created by the artist's hand) collaborator in the art making process. This focus so narrowly directed toward the body, ultimately forced viewers to hone a spotlight on their own physicality and its role in their fleeting existence.
- Body art can be seen as a forebear to today's general mainstream acceptance of tattooing, piercing, scarring, or otherwise adorning the body as a means to establish one's own individuality as well as connections to certain forms of community and likeminded mentality.
Overview of Body Art
"The body is the medium," Marina Abramović has famously said, and in pieces like Rhythm O (1974) she used her own body as the subject to pioneer Body art.
Important Art and Artists of Body Art
In his Anthropometries series, Yves Klein covered nude women in blue paint and had them press, drag, and lay themselves across canvases to create bodily impressions. The piece was inspired in part by photographs of body-shaped burn-marks on the earth, which were caused by the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Klein crafted this idea into a performance piece, hosting a formal event where guests observed the nude models executing the piece.
The work makes reference to the painting practices of Jackson Pollock, who would pour and drip paint onto his canvases. Klein takes the physical element of painting even further by adding an audience and using the human body to spread the paint. In utilizing the female body as canvas and paintbrush, Klein challenged viewers' expectations about the artistic process and precipitated a new direction for performance art. By incorporating the human body into the act of creating art, Klein gave the performativity of the body an unprecedented privilege within its discourse.
Notably, Klein's work and his objectifying use of women's bodies is at odds with much of the feminist body art which came after it. Many later female artists would have objected to this use of women's bodies as mere tools, rather than as active participants. Yet many of the women who participated in Anthropometries at the time, said they felt as if they were co-creators of the work and described the process as being fun.
In this photograph, Yayoi Kusama lies naked on a couch covered with her soft sculpture accumulations comprised of phallic shaped sprouts. According to the artist, "The reason my first soft sculptures were shaped like penises is that I had a fear of sex as something dirty. People often assume that I must be mad about sex, because I make so many such objects, but that's a complete misunderstanding. It's quite the opposite - I make the objects because they horrify me. Reproducing the objects, again and again, was my way of conquering the fear." In the background is spread a sea of macaroni pasta. She is slim and stylish, with a fashionable haircut and painted with polka dots that allow her to blend into the psychedelic scene as an intrinsic and inseparable part of the artwork. For Kusama, there is no difference between life and art and she boldly states this within a tableaux that all the while winks an eye at traditional pin-up layouts of women.
Amelia Jones argues that Kusama is "racially and sexually at odds with the normative conception of the artist as Euro-American male. Rather than veil her differences (which are seemingly irrefutably confirmed by the visual evidence of her 'exotic' body), Kusama exacerbates them through self-display in a series of such flamboyant images." In doing so, she also subtly criticizes the canon's normativity and conformity.
In 1970 feminist artist VALIE EXPORT staged a performance where she was tattooed with an image of a garter strap and stocking top on her thigh. The garter refers to the fetishizing of women's underwear and, by extension, of women's bodies. By permanently tattooing herself with a symbol of sexualization and objectification, EXPORT posits that by extension, as a woman, her whole body is a permanent subject for male visual pleasure.
However, by turning this into a public act and then photographing herself with the tattoo in the nude, EXPORT co-opts a symbol of female restriction and transforms it into one of personal empowerment - a badge of liberation. In her own words, "incorporated in a tattoo, the garter belt signifies a former enslavement, is a garment symbolizing repressed sexuality, an attribute of our non-self-determined womanhood. A social ritual that covers up a bodily need is unmasked, our culture's opposition to the body is laid open."
Cultural historian Sabine Kampmann argues that EXPORT made a radical choice in making her own skin the substrate for her art: "EXPORT makes an association between human skin, vellum (hide prepared for scripture), and books to legitimize her extraordinary choice of skin as material for her artwork." She was making the statement that writing on her own skin was no different than writing on a piece of paper, albeit with messages whose permanence perhaps carried greater weight.
Kampmann also suggests that EXPORT's work may be the first time that a tattoo had been used as a work of fine art in art history. This links to the use of the term "body art" today to refer to tattoos and body ornamentation more generally.
Useful Resources on Body Art
- Body Art / Performing the SubjectOur PickBy Amelia Jones
- The Artist's BodyOur PickBy Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones
- Body ArtBy Nicholas Thomas
- Body Art: The Body as LanguageBy Lea Vergine
- Carolee Schneemann: "I never thought I was shocking"By Steve Rose / The Guardian / March 10, 2014
- Five radical female artists who used their body as a canvasOur PickBy Sam Johnson / Another Magazine / October 21, 2015
- Flesh as communication: body art and body theoryBy Falk Heinrich / Contemporary Aesthetics
- The 10 most shocking performance artworks everBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / November 11, 2013
- Marina Abramović interviewBy Rachel Cooke / The Guardian / August 23, 2014