Performance and the Artist's Body by Silvia Karman Cubiñá

Performance made its debut in contemporary art in the late 1950’s, more or less when Yves Klein’s “The Leap” was documented for posterity. Klein’s later experiments such as his exhibition “Le Vide” (The Void) featuring an empty Paris gallery, his blue paintings, and especially his live-action paintings in which he used nude females as paintbrushes, all sought to establish a more direct contact with the audience. In this “de-materialization of the art object” (as coined by Lucy Lippard), this artist and those that would subsequently experiment with performance, were seminal in expanding the limits of expression in contemporary art. In America, musician and performance artist John Cage extolled incorporating chance situations and daily life into art, and was an enormous influence on a group of artists of his generation including Allan Kaprow, Fluxus (Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Yoko Ono, George Maciunas), Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, among others. Throughout the 1960s, these artists further experimented with collaboration, the artist’s body and multidisciplinary actions that blurred the borders between dance, music, poetry, theatre and art. Artists began incorporating violence and sexuality as shock-value resources in their iconoclastic actions and Happenings. In Austria in the late 50’s, a group of artists who called themselves the Viennese Actionists had taken the lead in pushing the limits of violence in art, the most well-known of them-Hermann Nitsch, as they performed ritualistic “Dyonnysian”-like actions using animal blood onto their nude bodies in the context of art galleries and other cultural venues. Later in Paris, the Situationists International, similar in style to the followers of John Cage, also brought their random daily experiences into their works, but in their case, their anarchic actions were deliberate political acts against the art establishment.

The 1970’s brought a more introspective individuality to performative works of art. As opposed to collective "Happenings” artists began dealing more directly with their individual experiences and the socio-political aspects surrounding their particular conditions. Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, Ana Mendieta and Joseph Beuys, for example, all sought to establish the body politics and institutional critique as the principal motivation of their works of art, many times resorting to sexuality, violence and mutilation. This pluralistic decade saw the inclusion of women and diverse cultures (Ralph Ortiz, Papo Colo, Marina Abramovic and Ulay Orlan) within the mainstream art world for the first time, laying the foundations that ushered in the multicultural 1980s.

Patty Chang/Tracey Emin/Naomi Fisher/Paul McCarthy is not an exhibition, but more accurately, four parallel projects. In varying degrees, all four of these artists use their bodies to produce performative works of art. Furthermore, they all incorporate violence and sexuality informed by very different concepts. Tracey Emin’s life has been described as a “ready-made” object (Gregor Jansen). Her personal experiences with love, sex, relationships and pregnancy translate into a voyeuristic body of work in which she is the epicenter. Paul McCarthy is a larger-than-life artist who resorts to a “bad taste” aesthetic in his violent performances. He deploys ketchup, mayonnaise, and other food stuffs to represent bodily fluids saturated with sexuality in a caricaturesque representation of the tyranny of the American media, consumerism, middle class values and the “spectacle” of society. Naomi Fisher, similar to Tracey Emin, performs an action in order to achieve the end-product work of art. Her raw photographs fuse the artist’s body with nature, sexuality and violence in an expressionistic, feminist tone. Patty Chang’s work is motivated by the duality of “attraction and repulsion” in videos and photographs that document rather ambiguous situations that use sexual undertones to confuse the viewer. Whether their live actions are merely documented in other media; or inversely, in order to produce the art object, the artists develop actions, is incidental. In these four projects, Patty Chang, Tracey Emin, Naomi Fisher and Paul McCarthy use the artist’s body in different ways as the ultimate vehicle of expression.