So, What Exactly Is Performance Art?

When people haggle over the legitimacy of contemporary art, there are two main targets: abstract expressionist painting (“my kid could do that”) and performance art. Even reading the words "performance art," my guess is that you conjure up the image of two naked individuals pressed up against a wall blowing bubbles and clapping intermittently. Why two naked individuals pressed up against a wall blowing bubbles? Who knows! And that’s exactly the point. Performance art is the Jan Brady of the contemporary art bunch, consistently misunderstood. And yet, with Berlin’s month of performance art upon us, now seems like as good a time as any to take up the question: what exactly is performance art?

It is Reduction

When I think of performance art, three pieces come to mind: Vito Acconci masturbating under the stairs in “Seedbed,” Chris Burden getting shot in the arm by a friend during “Shoot, 1971,” and Joseph Beuys spending eight hours a day, for three days, in a cage with a coyote for “I Like America and America Likes Me.” What do all of these pieces have in common? Well, they happened decades ago by artists who are now legendary; they’re deeply shocking, disturbing, and seductive. They also all involve the fundamental elements of life itself: birth, death, and the search for meaning.

"Belvedere Performance Art with Talcum Powder." Photo: David Shankbone

This brings us to the first commandment of performance art: performance art is a reduction; a stripping away of the trappings of social convention and civilization itself. Performance art is an attempt to reach for truer meanings buried beneath the way things are, which explains why so much performance art happens in the nude—a visual and metaphorical stripping away.

It Is Memorable

But wait, you may say—I’ve seen naked women. Hell, who hasn’t? You can barely open a new tab these days without boobs popping out at you. I’ve seen people shot before, too—albeit, generally in the movies. But what sets performance apart is the motivation. Performance art is for art’s sake—no one is trying to sell you anything because performance can’t be sold. No one is trying to fuck you or kill you, hurt you or spite you, turn you on, turn you off or turn you around. The only purpose of performance art is art itself, which is of course also a purpose; making performance art just as real as it is fake—a snowflake in the 21st century monsoon of sex, death, and the search for meaning. 

It Is Live

Whether shocking or seductive, thought-provoking or just plain strange, performance art is memorable, and it has to be, because in no time at all the memory will be all you have left: performance art happens live. As Marina Abramovic has said, “It’s not a painting you can hang on the wall and look at it tomorrow. If you talk about immaterial art, it’s about energy.”

"Right Here, Right Now" at Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Photo: Sebastian Dooris

Indeed, it is a uniquely constructed moment in which life itself becomes art; the body in space and time is the main material. When the moment has passed, the piece is complete and any documentation, ephemera or recreation is simply an idol—a false god. And it is that exact phenomenon that makes performance art so powerful: the indelible link to life itself. 

It Is Transformative

Unlike a play, which is a recreation, a staged, set-dressed simile, life is like this. Performance art, while staged and constructed, is spontaneous. It happens as it happens, just like life. And although performance art nearly always has a point (much like any fight with your roommate), that point is made in real time and real space, subject to all the vagaries and eccentricities of the honest moment.

All of which brings us back to Marina Abramovic, who famously (or perhaps infamously) has been recreating her influential performance art pieces since 2005 with “Seven Easy Pieces” and then “The Artist is Present.” When Ulay, Abramovic’s former partner​, spoke about life, work, and art earlier this year, he dismissed her recent work as theater; mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. Ulay, who had to be rushed to the hospital while fasting at a table for 14 days only to return to that same table and fast for 2 more, Ulay who mutilated his own feet to fit into women’s shoes in his gender modification exercises, Ulay who shared one breath back and forth with Marina until they both fell to the floor unconscious—Ulay rejects the recreation of these works despite the power of the sheer mention of the event. Why?

"Old Rites," an interactive performance. Photo: John Benson

Because performance art is transformative. Performance art shifts the world just slightly to the left, altering the meaning of everything by re-presenting typical actions in atypical scenarios. As Marina herself has said, “ If you open the door and you don’t enter, and if you open the door and don’t exit … and you do it for three hours, the door isn’t a door anymore.” Of course, if you open the same door for the next night and don’t exit, the door still isn’t a door, it’s something else: a metaphor, a point, an example—it is no longer a disturbance in the force.

It Is On The Edge

So performance art is reductive (which can explain the nudity), performance art is memorable (which can explain the curious larger-than-life gestures), performance art is live (which explains the sheer, raw power of the work) and performance art is transformative because the very fabric of our world is shifted through our actions—just as it always is, but this time for art’s sake. But as art historian Virginia B. Spivey has pointed out, “Performance art’s acceptance into the mainstream over the past 30 years has led to new trends in its practice and understanding.”

While we can now clearly see how Fluxus artists, poets, and musicians presenting the most mundane events like brushing teeth, making a salad, or exiting the theater as forms of art, are in fact valid pieces of performance art, the discipline never ceases to shock, confound, frustrate, disturb and disrupt. New performances from the likes of Andrea Fraser, who videotaped a sexual encounter with a collector—who paid $20,000 to be part of the work of art—confound our expectations of performance art and call into question our understanding of art itself. 

"Live at the Borderline Biennale." Photo: Thierry Ehrmann

Which brings us to the final tenet of performance art—performance art lives on the edge, between the border of art and non-art. Performance art evolves like the generations who practice it; shocking, confronting, confusing and pissing off the previous generation. Performance art is the one genre that is so closely tied to life itself that, like the scion of Generation whatever-we’re-at-now, Miss Miley Cyrus, it cannot be tamed.

So this month, if you do nothing else, eat an egg as a piece of art, throw toothpaste at your neighbor or lie silent on a pile of sand for exactly 2 hours. And don’t worry too much if you don’t get it—performance art, after all, is complicated.

Article by Hannah Nelson-Teutsch

​Editor's note: this article was originally published on Artparasites in May of 2013.
If Performance Art is your thing, we have more where that came from:

Open Your Heart To Performance Art
Kanye West & Jay Z Reach Out To The Art World
How To Turn Christmas Into Performance Art