Art lives to create an impact. Its form and message continuously differs but what it always seeks to do is grab our attention. Whether it's to draw forth political awareness, make a social critique, express sentiment, or give voice to the unheard, art looks to the extraordinary and novel to relate its message. Expanding from typical mediums, performance art makes use of the body and its capacity in new and often provocative ways. Taboo has no distinction here where anything is open to the impetuousness of creativity, so long as the body can withstand it.
But what makes art? There’s no simple definition and determining that, like a favorite meal, is better suited to taste. An art piece makes a statement, whether we can agree with it or not. But how to make one that really sticks? Some artists seem to think it has to tickle us in a place we don’t like to be tickled, that, or in a place we’d prefer not to feel.
Whatever the statement (and whether or not it can be readily understood), art seeks to challenge our understanding of something. Performance art takes that notion to its extreme. As creative creatures, our self-expression knows no bounds, so be forewarned that the following art performances are graphic, extreme, and absolutely shocking in nature.
10 Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, 1974
American artist Chris Burden was nailed to the back of a Volkswagen Beetle and driven around for a few minutes in his 1974 performance artwork. The painful and confounding act took place at a time where large-scale violence broke out during the Vietnam War to shatter illusions of peace and the guise of justice and equality in the U.S. Burden considered the Volkswagen to be the “the car of the people” and likened his Christ-like crucifixion to self-liberation through demystifying the terror and violence of such an act while displaying the human body as truly free from being governed by laws. Three years before this performance, Burden stood before a loaded rifle and was shot in the arm for another one of his extreme performance pieces appropriately called Shoot.
9 Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 5, 1974
Serbian artist Marina Abramovic leapt into the center of a flaming communist star she had outlined in petroleum. Before the leap, she systematically cut off her toenails, fingernails, and hair and fed them to the flames in a symbolic and ritualistic representation of her purification. Afterward, she jumped into the center but lost consciousness due to the lack of oxygen induced by the flames. It took a few moments before members of the audience realized her inertia wasn’t part of the performance. She was taken out of the fire and sent to the hospital.
8 Wafaa Bilal, 3rdi, 2011
In 2011, Waffa Bilal, an Iraqi-American artist, had a camera implanted into a two inch hole in the back of his head which could transmit photographs to his website. The piece effectively combined man and machine to transform the New York University arts professor into a walking surveillance apparatus. The camera takes 1 photo per minute and in this way fulfills Bilal’s “need to objectively capture [his] past as it slips behind…from a non-confrontational point of view”.
7 Vito Acconci, Seedbed, 1972
In 1992, American artist Vito Acconci hid beneath a false floor he constructed in a New York art gallery. He was hooked up to speakers that played his voice throughout the gallery where visitors could hear him whispering his sexual fantasies about them as he pleasured himself. He did this for 8 hours a day. The piece evoked paranoia and fear and intended to link these feelings to reflect those inspired by the Nixon era.
6 Gina Pane, Unanaestheticized Climb, 1971
In this piece, Gina Pane climbed a ladder with rungs studded with sharp metal spikes, barefoot. This was one of her performance pieces in a series of works depicting acts of self-injury. After climbing the ladder, she laid down on a bed of needles and proceeded to put on a full face of make up. Afterward, she made small incisions all over her body with a razor blade. In another piece, she put out a fire with her bare feet and hands. These acts were performed for a private audience and intended to elicit the viewer’s empathy at seeing her pain. The purpose of doing that was to incite awareness of social and political issues, such as the Vietnam War, by channeling the viewer’s empathy and projecting it towards real life problems.
5 Orlan, The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan, 1990
French artist Orlan’s daring project began in 1990 and she would undergo several cosmetic surgery operations to transform her body into the representational nude of masterworks of Western European paintings. The purpose of Orlan’s artwork is to attempt to embody the ideal beauty as depicted by male artists in iconic works like the Mona Lisa and Botticelli’s Venus de Milo. The project was presented as a documentary titled, Carnal Art and has been exhibited in numerous art institutions around the world.
4 Ron Athey, Saint Sebastian 50, 2011
In 2011, American Ron Athey performed Saint Sebastian 50, a tribute to his age and his lengthy career as an extreme performance artist and a remake of Sebastian Suspended first performed in 2000. His piece is essentially that, Athey pierced with arrows and is then suspended in the air by needles. The gruesome and unnerving display is Athey’s masochistic display of his body as an object, summoning ideas about sexy, religious iconography, and the objectification and exploitation of the human body, as well as the trauma of these horrific acts. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 when he was 26 and has described his body as a “living corpse”, claiming to have had no expectation to live very long. This is what perhaps lends him the power to subject himself to both the physical and emotional anguish of treating his flesh as a piece of meat.
3 Pyotr Pavlensky nails his scrotum to the floor of the Red Square in Moscow, 2013
In May 2013, artist and political activist, Pytor Pavlensky, publicly nailed his scrotum to the paving stones of the Red Square in Moscow. This is the latest of two other of his public self-mutilations. In 2012, as an avid supporter of Russian activist punk group Pussy Riot, Pavlensky sewed his lips together with thread and needle in protest of their recent arrest by Russian authorities. Before that, he wrapped his naked body in barbed wire as a protest against Russia as an oppressive police state. When asked what statement he sought to make through this extreme performance, Pavlensky responded that it could be interpreted as a “metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of contemporary Russian society”.
2 Voina, How to Snatch a Chicken, 2010
A Russian group of revolutionary art provocateurs, Voina, named after the word Vor, Russian for “war”, staged one of the most shocking art performances yet. They were founded in 2006 and are known as anarchist activists that have terrorized their native Moscow with large-scale pranks such as setting lose a horde of cockroaches in a court room and their well-known giant penis drawing on the Liteiny bridge in St Petersburg. On July 2010, the group entered an ordinary supermarket when one of the members secluded herself in the meat section. While she struggled to stuff a whole, uncooked chicken into her most private of lady-parts , the rest of the group distracted shoppers by displaying huge signs that read “F*** whoring yourself!” It’s unclear just what the group meant to raise awareness of through this unsavory display. Voina has been charged with over 20 criminal offences and today several members are wanted criminals.
1 Mao Sugiyama cooks and serves his surgically removed genitals to guests, 2012
In May 2012, 23-year-old artist Mao Sugiyama, who identifies as an asexual, had his genitals surgically removed. He soon after prepared them as a meal for a special banquet and sent out a public invitation for guests to attend via twitter. When the day finally came for his hungry guests to arrive, Sugiyama presented his genitals cooked in mushrooms and basil and fed them to his 5 guests at $250 the plate. The performance was done in order to raise awareness of asexual individuals and their rights; the artist sought to demonstrate that a being that pertains to neither sex has no purpose in being identified as either.