So, art, quite like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And while for us simple, mortals, art means a lovely painting, a thought-provoking statue, or architecture that could be breathtakingly modern or reflect the past, for some, art takes on entirely different and darker connotations.
Take for instance performance art. Performance art became yet another medium of expressing art as a “live” performance. The artists created something, sometimes directed, sometimes interactive, and sometimes even gory or creepy as a form of self-expression. One of the first few notable names in performance art is Yoko Ono (yep, she was far more than just Lennon’s wife and widow) and Yves Klein.
So Yves Klein liked to paint monochromatic painting in an intense blue shade, using “live” brushes – basically he’d smear blue paint onto naked ladies (mostly actresses) and himself and then writhe or drag his live brush onto the canvas – and create live art in the form of paintings, collectively called The Anthropometries of the Blue Period.
And who can forget the rather eclectic 1964 performance of Yoko Ono, Cut Piece where she sat motionless on the stage and the audience was invited to come over and snip off pieces of her clothing one by one, until she was naked. And in case you are already slack-jawed by what people do in the name of art, well, read on, for there’s plenty more jaw-dropping, NSFW imagery yet to come with these artists whose art crossed all boundaries of dignity, humanity, decency, and sometimes even plain common sense.
15. Bury Me, And Hear Me Do The Dirty: Vito Acconci
Way back in 1972 when flower power and the hippie culture had America in its thrall and sex was simply no biggie, and neither was nudity or marijuana for that matter, performance artist Vito Acconci kind shocked everybody out of their wits at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery. He buried himself (with help of course) under a ramp in the art haven, and then proceeded to, um, masturbate (no, no help, he did this one all by himself) by using the sounds of the gallery visitors and patrons walking above him, so to speak, to fuel his sexual desire.
If that were not enough, he also let everyone know that he was doing the dirty by giving a running commentary of all the really dirty thoughts running through his “artistic” mind that was projected via a microphone to the poor visitors there. We are guessing this sent them running, forever scarred and scared, of the all that goes on between the sheets. Diss and snicker all you like, but London’s Tate Museum has labeled the Seedbed as one of the most important live artworks of the 70s! Remember that in case this sparks your own “let’s be open about it” fantasy – Vito was an artist, this was the 70s, and you will be arrested for indecent exposure!
14. Help, There’s A Camera In My Head: Wafaa Bilal
Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal is no stranger to performance art, but his performance art is strange indeed. He is perhaps most known for his performance piece titled Domestic Tension in which he stayed in a gallery for a month and his viewers could shoot paintballs at him through a webcam. A total of 60000 shots were fired by viewers from 128 countries and ended up with Bilal suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In yet another performance art, he made viewers smell decaying meat in acid in protest of Saddam Hussein’s torturing prisoners by randomly dripping nitric acid on them.
In 2010, he went a tad extreme and implanted a camera at the back of his head, mounted on a titanium plate. He could have just worn the camera but no, it had to involve blood, gore, and surgery. Titled The 3rd I, the purpose of this performance art was to take mundane pictures unknowingly. Barely three months later, Bilal had to have the camera removed due to infections and constant pain.
13. Pregnant? Let’s Use The Baby As A Prop: Marni Kotak
In case you really want to see a woman giving birth to a child, as live and messy as it gets, you’ll just have to wait for Marni Kotak to get pregnant again. In 2011, Marni decided to turn the birth of her baby into a live art performance and so she built a home birthing center at Microscope Gallery in New York, invited an audience to watch and a doula to oversee it all and then proceeded to push baby boy Ajax out into the wide, wide world in front of viewers watching with wide, wide eyes.
Titled The Birth of Baby X, she also created a 10-foot trophy that was so awarded to baby Ajax for being born and other components of the exhibition showed Kotak’s pregnancy test as well as really creepy photo collages of babies with many eyes, ears, and mouths. Many criticized her art as being narcissistic, and said she was doing nothing more than what mommy bloggers to do all over the world. Mommy Marni and baby Ajax were unfazed…
12. Art Or Sadomasochism: Adrian Parson’s Live Self-Circumcision
So while the writer here really doesn’t want to be telling you all this but since it’s her job to do so, will do it as valiantly as she can and then barf her guts up… In 2007, there was this brave dude named Adrian Parsons who, for some insane reason, decided to circumcise himself, all on his own, in front of an audience at a gallery, and – wait it gets worse – with a dull Swiss Army knife. Yikes.
The courageous idiot then proceeded to stuff the ragged foreskin into a glory hole in the wall, though he was heard lamenting, the hole is too small. Asked as to why he did this performance art titled Shrapnel, Parson said, and I kid you not, “I was trying to penetrate, the gallery and the audience. I wanted to be organic shrapnel.” Considering the gallery wall was indeed penetrated by the cut skin, and that the audience is probably forever scarred by it all, he managed to achieve his goals pretty well, don’t you think?
11. Fancy Living In A Bear Carcass? Abraham Poincheval May Join You
In 2014, French artist Abraham Poincheval had an epiphany, probably after watching the very disgusting, barf-worthy scene in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls with Jim Carrey apparently emerging from the behind of a rhino (actually a robotic rhino). So he decided to ditch the robotic rhino and opt for a bear, though thankfully for the bear it was already dead. What was the performance art? Well, Abraham here stayed inside the dead bear for a whole two weeks, equipped with a little food and water, a light, a cushion, some reading material, a kettle and a toilet of some kind at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature…
This from the artist who also entombed himself for a week inside a limestone boulder and is currently sitting on some 10 chicken eggs, in a bid to hatch them (one has hatched, so that leaves him with nine more chicks to go). Why, dare you ask? Cause he’s the son of the dude who invented pills to make people’s flatulence smell like roses. Or chocolate. Take your pick.
10. Naked and Impaled By A Bat: Meet Ron Athey’s Incorruptible Flesh
The performance art project called Incorruptible Flesh began way back in 1996 when artist Ron Athey and his collaborators started to study the lives of saints and the display of their incorruptible bodies – basically wax sculptures with the corpse inside. Ron Athey is HIV positive, so this became a representation for him too – the worse had already been done to him, could you do more?
In 2014, his performance art went live, and began with him being naked and strapped to a table, or rather a macabre metal examination table, and he himself was transformed into one scary corpse (he was alive, and still is). His eyelids and cheeks were pinned back and a baseball bat impaled him from behind (yes, seriously). Two “monks” offered the audience to anoint him with a “white, foamy substance” they were carrying in buckets and after the anointing, came the theatrical resurrection. Once a Pentecostal, well, always a Pentecostal.
9. Milo Moire: The New & Nude Heights Of Art
So one artist gave birth as performance art and one is still sitting on chicken eggs, trying to hatch them. Can the two be married? Ask and ye shall receive. Swiss artist Milo Moire’s performance art piece titled Plop Egg Painting was a literal labor (of love). Known for her nude artwork, in fact, there exist many uncensored videos of her you can watch on her site, for a fee. Milo went so over the top in 2014, that it perhaps cannot be called art, but can certainly be called trite or Easter has gone very, very wrong!
So what Milo did was get on top of a table at the German Art Cologne, stark naked, and plop eggs full of ink and color out from her nether regions and onto the stationary canvas below. The eggs spattered on impact. Once all the egg popping was done, the canvas was folded to reveal “powerful, symmetrical, vaginal art”. Any takers?
8. Vagina Monologues? Nope, VAG Knitting: Casey Jenkins
So Casey Jenkins is a feminist and basically wants to remove the taboos associated with the female form and possibly the taboo about nudity too. She could have been an actor, or a spokesperson, or even a blogger but nope, she turned into a performance artist that has had people gasping in shock.
In her 2013 performance art titled Casting Off My Womb, but dubbed Vaginal Knitting by the media, Casey knitted from wool that was wound such that it would unravel from the center and stuck it up inside her. She used a new skein every day, for 28 days, come hell or high water, or menstruation – which she did say made knitting difficult for the wool was wet, and you really had to yank at it. What she did knit from this, errr, improperly placed wool, was just a really long scarf. But tell anyone what she did and you get a simple and heartfelt response, “What the hell is VAG knitting?”
7. To Rhythm Or Not To Rhythm: Marina Abramovic
A decade after Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece where she kneeled on stage motionless and the audience was invited to cut off part of her clothing with scissors came Rhythm 0 by Belgrade-born Marina Abramovic who sat silent and still on a chair and beside her, on a table, were placed 72 objects that people were allowed to use (a sign informed them) in any way that they chose on her, for the next six hours. They could harm her, hurt her, or give her some pleasure. Among the objects were a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, a gun, and a single bullet. While initially, the audience was hesitant and gentle, it began to become more and more aggressive, and one audience member even pointed the loaded gun at her face, while still another took it away. At the end of the six hours, Marina got up and walked towards the audience, who actually fled to avoid any confrontation. Such is the misery of the human race.
6. Can Cannibalism Be Called Performance Art? Zhu Yu
What can you expect from a performance artist who bought five human brains from a local hospital, cut and boiled them, and then neatly labeled them in jars that he signed with his name? Frankly, when the audience ends up buying fifteen jars of boiled human brains, we don’t know what.
In 2000, he went several steps ahead and recorded a performance art titled Eating People which was shown in the F*ck Off, Please art exhibition. The video shows Zhu eating what looks to be a dead fetus, which he claimed he stole from a medical school. Critics, and should we say rightfully, tore the artist apart for aiming to be famous with a deliberately shocking and needlessly cruel act. Zhu was later prosecuted for this though he claimed that no religion or law forbids cannibalism, he took “advantage” of this space between morality and the law… He certainly got no takers for his “art.”
5. Aliza Shvarts: Inducing Miscarriages, But Was She Really Pregnant?
So when you think of performance art, for the amateur who is reading this article wide-eyed, it may seem more and more voyeuristic, masochistic, and even sadomasochistic until now. Well then, let’s get you more into this groove.
In 2008, Alia Shvarts, an art major at Yale, set up a performance art piece sanctioned by Yale. For nine months, she artificially inseminated herself using a needleless syringe by injecting freshly collected sperm near her cervix. On the 28th day of her cycle, not knowing whether she was pregnant or not, she would pop in an abortifacient drug (the kind that results in an abortion, or rather a miscarriage) and would thus proceed to have bad cramps and heavy bleeding. She did this to herself for nine months and the exhibition piece featured videos of her having the induced miscarriages and also other physical evidence such as blood of the same.
4. Exposing The Black Hole: Deborah De Robertis
Inspired by Gustav Courbet’s much admired and talked about painting that, in English stands translated as “The Origin of the World” – basically a loving close-up of a woman’s genitalia, in oil – performance artist Deborah de Robertis decided to go one bold step ahead.
She strolled into the Musée d’Orsay wearing a nonchalant attitude and sparkling gold dress. She then sits down right in front of said painting, splays her legs open and then spreads her nether regions to expose her origin of the world for all to see. Panicked guards wondered what to do as one even stands in front of her to shield the visitors, though the visitors break into spontaneous applause. Later, she was arrested – vags are okay in paintings but even the French draw a line at real world viewing!
The artist later said, “I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.”
3. Protesting In Russia: Has To Be Flinch-Worthy If It Is Pyotr Pavlensky
We can first remember reading about Pyotr when he famously “stitched” his mouth shut, in political protest against the incarceration of members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot – scaring little boys for real when their mothers threatened to staple their mouths shut! Then came Carcass, a political protest against repressive government policies where his assistants brought him naked, wrapped in barbed wire, to the entrance of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg. He remained silent, lying still in an embryonic position inside the cocoon, till he was released by the police with the help of the garden clippers.
In 2013, he made every man in the world wince with his protest against Russia’s descent into authoritarianism, by nailing his testicles to the ground in Red Square on Sunday to denounce Vladimir Putin’s “police state” in his performance art called, well, Fixation! Ouch… He later cut off his earlobe while sitting naked on the roof of the infamous Serbsky center… This man may have some issues.
2. Shoot Me, And A Friend Did: Chris Burden
Chris Burden passed away in 2015 due to melanoma, but he has been and will be remembered for his performance art and kinetic art pieces for a long time. What shot Chris into stardom was a performance art piece titled Shoot in which Chris asked a friend to shoot him with a .22 rifle from 15 feet away, within the confines of a gallery in 1971. The performance was recorded and shows Burden dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and, after being shot, clutched his arm, looking stunned even though he planned it all.
Shot in the arm notwithstanding, Chris made a full recovery. And then went on to have himself nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle, in the name of performance art titled Trans-Fixation. He lay face up on the car and had nails hammered into both of his hands as if he were being crucified onto the car. The car was pushed out of the garage and the engine revved for two minutes before being pushed back into the garage.
1. The Genital Attacker: Serving Up A Meal Is Mao Sugiyama
So in 2012, when performance artist Mao Sugiyama was turning 22, he declared himself to be asexual and had his genitalia and nipples surgically removed on his birthday. Why? Well, we just said he’s asexual, didn’t we? And also to “raise awareness about sexual minorities, x-gender, and asexual people.”
So initially he had thought of cooking his discarded genitalia and eating it himself but later changed his mind. Before you say whew and thank god, he changed his mind about eating them but not cooking them. So he staged a public meal where he cooked all those discarded unmentionables and invited people to dine on them for an exorbitant sum of 100,000 yen. Later, he got five takers who paid $250 for the meal. Other diners ate less exotic, but infinitely more palatable beef and crocodile – as opposed to Mao’s chopped and sautéed genitals with button mushrooms and Italian parsley. Gag. Barf.