At its inception, performance art was a reaction to the postwar crisis in conventional mediums. Faith having collapsed in long-established forms such as painting and sculpture, creativity ricocheted back onto the artist’s own body. Some observers considered this a liberation, part of the period’s expansion of artist materials and methods. Others wondered if it reflected a more fundamental crisis in the institution of art itself, a sign that art was exhausting its resources.
Developed in the wake of Minimalism, performance art shares qualities with process art, which investigated common materials and mundane, repetitive activities. Many first-generation performance artists were attracted to task-based activities, in contrast to the highly choreographed and ritualized actions of traditional theatre and dance.
In “Body and Soul: Performance Art – Past and Present,” eight performance artists—some historically renowned, others emerging—appear in live performances and in video or photographic documentation of their earlier actions. The pioneering figures VALIE EXPORT, ORLAN, Nicola L, and Carolee Schneemann have long used their bodies to express concerns related to gender, femininity, personal relationships, and politics. Their innovations were both formal and thematic, directly confronting mid-20th-century gender inequality and social repression. The exhibition’s younger participants, building on that heritage, address the performance art canon itself (Derrick Adams), cultural fragmentation and multiple identities (Aisha Tandiwe Bell), paternity and the cycle of life (John Bonafede), and the contestation of social roles and dynamics of bodily expression (Katarzyna Kozyra).
Thanks to the bold innovations of the first generation and the sustained conscientiousness of today’s practitioners, performance art is not an “outsider” form of art anymore. Whereas art performances were looked upon in the ’60s and ’70s as oddities, sometimes being mistaken for instances of pathological acting-out or political demonstrations, artists today consider performance a standard, highly effective tool. The Zeitgeist changes, but the immediacy, interactive nature, and theatricality—as well as visual excitement—of performance art have prevailed throughout time.
Promoted by Rush Philanthropic Art Foundation, New York
- VALIE EXPORT DELTA. Ein Stück, 1976/77 Persona Performance b&wphotograph!(c) VALIE EXPORT, Bildrecht Wien, 2017; Photo by Elisabeth Jappe. Courtesy VALIE EXPORT
- John BonafedeForth and Back #5, 2013. Photo by Keith Ferreira