Art Dictionary

Body Art

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Cover from the publication »Zhang Huan«, detail

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In the late 1960s began a form of art, reaching its zenith in the 1970s: Body Art.

“Being an artist means that you’re constantly licking your own wounds and, at the same time, putting them on display.”  (Annette Messager)

A practically naked young women lies on her back, on the floor, which is covered with a white plastic sheet. Her arms are outstretched; between her legs are the fleshy leftovers of dead turkeys. On top of her lies a man in a pair of briefs. In the background are other, similar pairings, throwing dead fish around, kissing each other, smearing themselves with blood and paint . . . Do these things still shock us today? In 1964, when Carolee Schneemann staged her performance piece,Meat Joy, in New York and Paris, it took—shall we say—some getting used to. The same thing happened in 1960, when Yves Klein covered models in paint (blue, naturally), and then had the young women roll around on large rolls of paper, and thus created a group of works known as the Anthropometries. Or when Yoko Ono allowed the audience at one of her performance pieces (Cut Piece) to cut the clothes off of her body, using a large pair of scissors. These artists, and others, led the way for a form of art that expanded in the late 1906s, reaching its zenith in the 1970s: Body Art.

As the name indicates, the body—usually the body of the artist—is of central importance here. It is painted, costumed, wounded, mutilated, and shot, generally in front of an audience and/or a running camera. Michel Journiac, Dennis Oppenheim, Vito Acconci, Gina Pane, Marina Abramovic, and Chris Burden are important figures in Body Art. The shock the audience would experience was factored in, even desired by the artist, because an artist presented Body Art with the conviction that the shock of witnessing these avant-garde actions would have a liberating effect on the viewer, freeing him or her from social and political constraints. Keep in mind that Body Art arose at a time when the youth of the Western world were in rebellion: in Europe, it was to protest the state of denial about crimes committed under the Nazis; in America, the Viet Nam war was the object of protest. The sexual revolution and the women’s movement were also underway at the same time. Artists, however, also wanted to use their bodies as the means to express and overcome their suffering, caused by their own psychological wounds. For instance, French artist Gina Pane climbed a ladder covered in razor blades in her bare feet (Escalade non-anaesthesiée / Ladder without anesthesia, 1971); she also shaved her eyebrows with a razor blade, while applying her makeup in front of a mirror (Psyche, 1974). Her fellow countryman, Catholic theologian Michel Journiac, had himself bled, made sausage from the blood, and then offered it for sale to his audience. His “mass,” celebrated in 1969 (Messe pour un corps / Mass for a body) was his way of working through his Catholicism.

Paris, New York, Milan, and Prague were centers where Body Art was celebrated—literally celebrated, for there were often references to traditional religious rituals and symbols; the audience tended to remain passive, while the artists worked in meditative, mystical silence. The pieces were more like performances than happenings, even though Body Art developed out of the Happening and Fluxus movements. At least, this is true of American Body Art, because in Europe, the Viennese Action artists Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler had become great, highly influential artists. Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater (Orgy mystery theater) of the 1960s turned to antique Dionysian cults, in the hopes that a quasi-religious, ecstatic, orgiastic, communal experience would allow individuals to go deeply into the repressed areas of their psyches. The audience was supposed to gain more awareness of its own existential reality. For his action Wiener Spaziergang(A walk through Vienna, 1965) Brus had himself painted completely white, except for a black stripe running through the middle of his body, right up and over his head. He then went walking through downtown Vienna, looking like a statue that had left its pedestal, until this magical, animated, liberated work of art trespassed on the boundaries of the social order, and was very soon stopped by police.

The Viennese Action artists regarded themselves as political artists; they rebelled against the dreariness of “provincial” Austria, which had quickly come to see itself as the victim of the Nazis and was in denial about its own complicity and guilt. The artists were convinced that “art is politics that has created new styles of communication.” The only manifesto on Body Art, published in 1974 by Francois Pluchart, stated that it was politically necessary for individuals to have immediate experiences of their own bodies, that the expression of the body was much more important than “overvaluing beauty—something with overtones of prostitution,” and that “Body Art is exclusive, arrogant, and non-conciliatory.” Pluchart was convinced that art could have an effect on society—that it was possible to “strengthen the individual” and be liberated from social and political constraints through physical experiences.

Most of the Body Art actions took place between 1970 and 1974: Dennis Oppenheim, for instance, lay down on the beach and allowed the sun to burn him, until the book placed on his stomach left a clearly visible white patch (Reading Position for Second Degree Burning, 1970). Vito Acconci put his hand into his mouth until he triggered the gag reflex (Hand in Mouth Piece, 1970); he also bit himself and then dyed the marks with ink, in order to make them more visible (Trademarks, 1970). Chris Burden proved to be particularly stoic: he rolled around naked in shards of glass (Through the Night Softly, 1973), shut himself into a locker for five days (Five Day Locker Piece, 1971) and, during one performance, had a “helper” shoot him in the arm (Shoot, 1971). He made sure that the audience was not responsible for interfering, which triggered some hefty reactions. The same thing occurred during Marina Abramovic’s performance ofRhythm 0 in 1974: she gave her audience 72 dangerous objects—knives, scissors, guns—and then let them do whatever they wanted to her body for six hours. She was painted, the clothes cut off of her body, someone threatened her with a gun, and a fistfight broke out among the audience. It was not only the artist’s psyche that was revealed during these actions ...

It should be noted that many women turned to Body Art, and that the presuppositions made about them were different than the ones made about their male colleagues. They met with greater resistance; they were frequently accused of excessive narcissism—and this came from their own ranks! Of course, the female body had always been a favorite motif throughout the history of art; now, female artists wanted to turn their bodies from passive objects into subjects that made art. Waltraud Höllerer, who began calling herself Valie EXPORT in 1967, buckled a square box onto her naked breasts (Tapp- und Tastkino / Grope and touch cinema) in 1968, and anyone who wanted to, could “visit” the cinema with his hands—just not in the anonymous dark of a movie theater, but out in the open, making eye contact with the artist. This action resulted in very different signals than the ones that occur when a male gaze examines the female body—an experience, to which women throughout (art) history have become accustomed. In her Body Sign Action in 1970, EXPORT had a garter tattooed on her thigh. One possible way to interpret this action is to say that the body is a place upon which gender-specific “imprints” are left, and it can also be a place for a discourse on the topic.

The term Body Art refers to the art of the early 1970s, but of course, the body is always an important theme. The 1990s, for example, saw the start of a debate on gender, in which it was claimed that gender was not so much a biological fact, as a behavior influenced by education and role models. In the 1990s French artist Orlan had a camera film an operation on her face, which was supposed to make her eyes or lips resemble those of the Mona Lisa or Brigitte Bardot. Her action, which she called L ´Art Charnel (Charnel art), intended to show that there is nothing beneath the skin, no essence of man or woman; it is only about the compulsion to be like an ever-changing series of role models.

Valie EXPORT’S garter tattoo was unusual for her time, but in the meanwhile, tattoos have become part of popular culture and endow identity. When, however, Wim Delvoye has pigs tattooed with crucifixes, hearts, etc., then he reveals the ridiculous aspect of these symbols, which are supposed to express people’s longings and desires. Another spectacular action involved the horizontal line that Santiago de Sierra had tattooed on the backs of six people in Cuba. Each person was paid just thirty dollars for participating—the action was intended to point out the society’s different social levels—a political act, as the Body Artists would call it. One might add that Body Art is not passé, nor will it ever be: its “material” is far too inspirational for that. It simply goes by another name now.

12.02.2010 Carola Eißler

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