Performance Art and its Journey to Recognition

Art History

March 19, 2017

We could start the journey of performance art as we know it today in Ancient Greece, where philosopher Diogenes used his body as a medium in performative acts which purposefully stated his opinion inside the public space - by pretending to be a dog (cynic), living in a barrel, disregarding Alexander The Great by telling him to move away and stand out of his light.[1]
Moving on to the 16th century Iberian Peninsula, poets are autonomously presenting their art through live acts which connect visual arts, music and literature inside the public space. In the 19th century, we find romantics invading cemeteries and dishonoring corpses so they can recite poetry to the dead.[2]

It can be seen that all these mentioned acts happened outside the gallery space, as a necessary part of life, before the "official" beginning of performance art which dates to 1909 as a part of the Futurist avant-garde - based on the most important art-historical research written on this topic, Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present, by the leading art historian and curator in this field, RoseLee Goldberg.

Starting with her work, we will start our exploration officially, from 1909, even though acts of performance could be traced back even to the period of Upper Paleolithic, if we choose to not only view cave paintings as a form of art, but to also broaden up the definition of art which could include the first religious dance rituals as performances - maybe the ones which interconnected life and art at it's finest, the ones in which people honestly believed in the power of performing as something that can change reality, invite rain, bring back the dead. Times when play and life were one.[3]

The desire for the reunification of these two during the last century was actually explored mostly trough performance art, by disregarding authority of institutions and existing art forms since Dadaism, by trying to make everyday life into art through Fluxus happenings, by making religious-like rituals which include suffering as in the works of today's most famous performance artist Marina Abramović. We can see that the art world accepted performance as its part mostly since the 1960s, when it attempted to move from the avant-garde to the mainstream, by the use of media; but not fully ‒ since there is still a very small amount of asrt historians dealing with this topic, and since retrospectives by artists working in this field for more than 40 years, like Abramović, are happening just now, during the last decade.

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Tehching Hsieh with One Year Performance,1980-1981, Carriageworks Sydney, Courtesy of The Guardian

Setting Up Key Ideas for a Whole Century of Performance Art - The Futurism Artists

Performance art "officially" begins on February 20th, 1909 in Paris, with the publication of the first Futurist manifesto in the newspaper Le Figaro. It was written by an Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who was influenced by the eccentric poet Alfred Jarry and his absurdist production of the play Ubu Roi, in 1896. It was a satirical piece which brought up extreme changes to the theatre; the main character was wearing a horse's head made out of cardboard around his neck, in only one set, without raising or lowering the curtain, with costumes having as little historical accuracy as possible. The opening line of the play was simply - "Merdre". The audience found this outrageous and acted repulsively, not only because the usage of this word was still very taboo in the public, but also because this was far from being a traditional theatre performance they wanted to see. However, this play made Théâtre de l'Œuvre famous and was scandalous enough to inspire an entire next generation of performance artists who will turn the tradition of theater upside down ‒ The Futurists.[4]

Marinetti himself presented his new satirical play titled Roi Bombance at the same theater, only two months after the publication of the manifesto, and the first official Futurist evening happened in 1910, in Trieste, Teatro Rosetti. The main ideas behind the first performances were critiques of revolution, democracy, the cult of tradition and the commercialization of art. The Austrian police took note of the Futurists already from the first performances, who called them walking pissoirs, and would ocassionaly end up going to jail for a night or two.[5]

We will focus primarly on Futurism because all of the avant-garde ideas about performance actually did start here and were just more developed trough the 20th and 21st century. The ideas were first written in multiple manifestos and then brought to practice. The Futurists were the first ones to make a connection between different types of art, a connection in which painters became performance artists, because they felt that their ideas about dynamic sensations made eternal, activity, change, and abolition of traditional cults in the world and art were better and more directly communicated to the audience trough performance. Also, they were the first ones to write that the spectators must live at the center of the painted action, that the painters should go out into the street, launch assaults from theatres and introduce the fisticuff into the artistic battle, that one should never create works for the audience but should despise the mediocre consumers of art; that ideas of simultaneity which put improvisation, instinct and immediate response and action were the key to a good performance (as explained in the Synthetic theatre manifesto).[6]

They mixed everything; film, sound art, acrobatics, song, dance, clowning, stupidity and absurdity to push the intelligence to the border with madness. They abolished the common theatrical elements such as having a storyline and always invented new elements of astonishment. Furthermore, through Variety theater, the public was involved in the creation of the work for the first time, and they were liberated from a passive role of being "a stupid voyeur". The Futurists also embraced all the technical innovations, so they gave birth to Noise music, inspired by the sound of the machines, and made it part of their performances. They also tried abolishing the concept of having a human performer on stage at all and giving the light, the sound, or the mechanical puppets the main role in the performance. The movements of performers were also very often created as responses to the mechanical development and music made by noise instruments, such as intonarumori created by Luigi Russolo.

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Futurists performing with Noise Machines, 1914, Courtesy of RoseLee Goldberg

Dada: Irrationality as a Protest

Beginning as a protest against World War I in Zürich, Dada continued developing Futurist ideas on bringing closer different types of art, and bringing art and life itself closer. It also focused on the irrational, non-intellectual quality of human beings, often taking inspiration from ancient cultures, tribes and civilizations which valued the ritual dance, magic and intuition more than ratio, since rational language was that which brought us to a state of justifying war, murders and destruction. They used objects found in the streets, materials freely available because of the mass-production of objects, turning them into art by simply displacing them as ready-mades or using them to create masks and costumes for their wild performances. The most important center of their artistic production was the Cabaret Voltaire, started by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, which hosted DADA evenings for five months; events in which poetry, dance, music, paintings and sculptures were all brought together and made fun of, a place where Hugo Ball recited his famous sound poem Karawane, consisting only out of letters which made up nonsense words and abolished referential language completely.

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Left: Hugo Ball - Karawane, 1916, Courtesy of Wikipedia / Right: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in a costume, Courtesy of Wikipedia

First Institutional Experiments - The Bauhaus

Even though Bauhaus is considered important as a school of architecture and design, there is one crucial part to it which actually interconnected all of the basic ideas behind architecture – the notion of space itself and our relation to it. The Stage Workshop was its central part, when it was directed by Oskar Schlemmer, who started experimenting with performances that questioned the relation between theory and practice, painting and dance, the geometrical forms as ideals and human movement as reality. Other important experiments happened trough the well known Bauhaus Dances and costume parties where all participants were creating a performance together by appearing in costumes with a shared theme. Such was the famous Metallic festival, where they would explore movements these costumes imposed on them, thus celebrating and making art simultaneously. One of the most important performance pieces coming from Bauhaus was definitely Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet from 1922, exploring the relation between humans and space, mechanical and natural, consisting out of three dancers, three architectural compositions of space, eighteen costumes and twelve dances, lasting several hours. This work is known as the ultimate balance of opposites, of abstract concepts and emotional impulses; a key idea explored trough Schlemmer's theory of performance.

artwork including vito acconci on view at museum
Oskar Schlemmer - Excerpts from the Triadic Ballet, 1922, Courtesy of Printmag

The Key to Understanding Artist Performance - Black Mountain College

In 1933, a key art community was formed in North Carolina, when twenty two students and nine faculty members moved into a rural-based college Black Mountain, surrounded by mountains, valleys and nature. The community lived and made art together, creating unity and harmony between these two categories. Their experimental approach to art education soon attracted visual artists, writers, playwrights, dancers and musicians willing to learn, live and work there. This was the most important experimental institution for the birth of neo-avantgarde and contemporary ideas in performance art, and it was mostly inspired by two key artists who were then at the beginnings of their carreers: composer John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham. Going back to the exploration of some early manifestos about sound and performance, such as the ones from Futurism, John Cage started inventing new forms of sound, putting silence in its central position, experimented with improvised ryhthmic structures, insisting on indeterminacy, finding inspiration in philosophy of Zen Buddhism. He also got mutual support from the dancer Merce Cunningham, whose work was also based around the means of chance, abandoning the narrative concept of dance performance. They combined their work and created sounds and movements which were inspired by everyday life; walking, standing, breathing, being silent. In 1952, John Cage made his most important early work, 4' 33'' which consisted of him sitting by the piano, making no sounds at all, so that silence and any sound created by the audience actually became art. In this same year, Cunningham has also returned to Black Mountain College and, together with its other members, created the key piece Untitled event,. Here, they interconnected all types of art with Zen philosophy, improvisation and freedom. This gave birth to movements and ideas which further developed trough Fluxus, and also opened space for the various experiments in performance art which happened during and after 1960s.

Merce Cunningham - Untitled Event artwork
Left: Stage space of Untitled Event, 1952 / Right: Hazel Larsen Archer, Merce Cunningham Dancing 1952, Courtesy of Hammer museum

The 1960s - Media and Sudden Popularization

Just like in politics, philosophy and sociology – the 1960s were also a period of great and radical changes in the art scene, which allowed performance art to become more popular and accessible to the public. Of course, a lot of influence came from technical innovations, such as the availability of video cameras, which changed the idea of broadcasting. Suddenly, everyone could tape their art without having to be responsible to a large producing company and their wishes, therefore performance art could become more accessible to the public. However, it also opened up new possibilities to the artists, and a whole new world of video art. Movements like Fluxus changed the way we view art itself, and started questioning the zone where everyday activities and art become interwined through Happenings, where already in 1959 in 18 Happenings in 6 Parts by Allan Kaprow gave the audience clear directions in how to conduct a performance themselves, through activities like painting a picture, squeezing an orange, climbing a ladder or shouting a political slogan – just like in the early Duchamp's readymades, but now moving it forward by making everyday subject and object of art identical. During this period, because of this new and interesting concept of the identity between subject and object, artists also started raising questions about the body. Here, they explored new ideas like pain, suffering, ritual, the position of female body and identity. One of the most important pieces of this period which combines all of these ideas is Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1964). Other influential artists from the period were Yves Klein with his key piece Anthropomentry of the Blue (1960), where the artist used female bodies as paintbrushes for his famous blue pigment, Joseph Beuys with his work which broadened the definition of art itself How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), politically engaged and anti-war work by Yayoi Kusama, which included doing an action nude inside the public space trough Flag Burning on the Brooklyn Bridge (1968).

Yoko Ono - Cut Piece (1966)

The 1970s - Radical Rituals

During this period, artists already started using video art in more innovative ways, and exploring the human possibilities of enduring pain and suffering, through performances which focused a lot on the body and its material aspect. Also, feminist art started being omnipresent in performances, mostly through the groundbreaking works of Carolee Schneemann and her piece Interior Scroll (1975), where she extracted a paper scroll from her genitalia and read from it, changing the idea of the female position in art. The artist best known for her performances today, Marina Abramović, also started experimenting with her body, ritual and pain during this period, in her most important early work Rythm 0 (1974). Here, she placed herself as an object and gave the audience 72 items they could use to cause her either pleasure or pain, during a period of 6 hours.

The performances of the 1970's were mostly done in a ritual manner, which is an element that interconnected all different approaches to the exploration of the materiality of our existence. There was an entirely new concept emerging by Gilbert and George, two British artists performing together as living sculptures and best known for their early performance Singing Sculptures (1970), which could last for an entire day. Time in performances also became a key element, which Abramović explored later in her long works. This was radically explored by the Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh, already starting in the late 1970s with his works that lasted for an entire year and involved using technology as a key part of it such as in the Time Clock Piece (1980-1981), where the artist took a photo of himself every hour for a year inside of his apartment and made a 6-minute movie out of the collected photos when he finished.

Tehching Hsieh - One Year Performance 1980 – 1981 (Time Clock Piece)

100 Years Later -  Full Acceptance?

The most prominent work of this century is definitely Abramović's The Artist is Present from 2010, presented at MOMA, New York. It is a work in which she spent more than 736 hours inside a museum, sitting on a chair silently and looking deep into the eyes of every visitor who came to sit across her. This performance was also followed by a retrospective, focusing on more than 50 works spanning over four decades of her artistic presence, where some of her performances were even recreated by other artists as a part of the exhibition. Other key performance artists such as Gilbert & George also got their retrospective just recently, in 2007, at Tate Modern. The exhibition covered 40 years of their career. Also in 2009, the first and crucial Performance Art Retrospective was held, covering 100 years of its past, conducted by PS1 and Performa and co-curated by Roselee Goldberg. As for the contemporary performance artists, combining both video, photo and film works with the idea of performance and broadening it more, such as Tania Bruguera, Tino Sehgal, Allora & Calzadilla, Sigalit Landau, and Ryan Trecartin, they are having a much easier way of finding a space for exhibiting their works, because of the sudden popularity and acceptance of performance art itself. Thus happened rapidly in the 2010s, one hundred years after the very beginnings of the art form.

Photo Including The Artist is Present 2010 with a sign
Marina Abramovic - The Artist is Present, 2010, Courtesy of MOMA

What Took It So Long?

Could it be ‒ perhaps ‒ that the immateriality and non-definiteness of this art form prevented it from affecting the world of art during the last one hundred years of capitalism, an era which tried to narrow the world down to a binary definition that's always material, which makes it easily placed on the market? Was it the inability to place a performance onto a wall like a painting, or sell it like a "play" which becomes a regular repertoire of a certain theater, or a "concert" within a musical institution? Yes, there were other immaterial forms of art, like theater or music, but they easily found means of traditional distribution in art history. They also found their audience ‒ since they were structured like art as it was accepted through its narrow mainstream definition. This definition provided an evident distinction between art and regular life, and an evident distinction between the artist and public; either by the way theater performances were held on the stage which created a physical barrier, just like the musical ones, or by the structure, script, perfection, harmony and beauty as its definition-makers.

Even though it started as an avant-garde movement in the streets and cabarets, without having an official institution to regularly host or sell it (since the audiences were still not sure if performance was art at all) and since the professionals in the field weren't sure about it as well ‒ it is currently being institutionalized and sold by galleries just like all other art forms, since it is finally accepted and recognized,. In the meanwhile, there was an important development of media and technology, which allowed us not only to pay for experiencing art within an institution, but also capture and distribute it easily in the form of photography and video art - this also made it more material and valuable on the market. We are currently living at a moment when performance art is slowly becoming a mainstream art form, but it's also more and more difficult to find and express the initial anarchist ideals which started the whole story with this art form, with their uncertainty, fluidity, closeness to life, non-definiteness.

Editors’ Tip: Performance: Live Art, 1909 to the Present

A provocative history of 100 years of performance art traces the precedents of contemporary multi-media events to Bauhaus experimentalism and surveys the Futurists' manifesto-like events, the Dadaists' cabarets, and later "happenings" and "spectacles. The first written past of performance art, based on various materials; ranging from manifests to photographs and videos, but also constructed from texts, scripts and descriptions from onlookers. In tracing an utnold story, this first performance review inevitably works itself free of its material, because that material continues to raise questions about the very nature of art. It does not pretend to be a record of every performer in the 20th century, rather it pursues the development of a sensibility.


  1. RoseLee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present, Harry N. Abrams, Inc Publishers, New York, 1979
  2. Johannes Birringer, Bauhaus, Constructivism, Performance, Design and Performance Lab at Brunel University, London, 2012
  3. A. David Napier, Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology, University of California Press, 1996
  4. D.Dudley, History of Cynicism: From Diogenes to the Sixth Century A.D., Bloomsbury 3PL, 2013
  5. Kathy Marks, Tehching Hsieh: the man who didn't go to bed for a year, The Guardian [March 7, 2017]
  6. André von Ah, Performance Art: A Bit of History, Examples and a Fast Dictionary, Huffington Post [March 5, 2017]

Featured image: Abramovic and Ulay - Relation in Time, 1977, Courtesy of Wikipedia; Linda Mary Montano - Chicken Dance, The Streets of San Francisco, March 3, 6, 9, 1973 (still); performance, in front of Reese Palley Gallery, 550 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Photo: Mitchell Payne; Vanessa Beecroft - VB 39: U.S. Navy SEALS, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, digital chromogenic print, 1999; Laurie Anderson - Duets on Ice; Chris Burden - Shoot, 1971; Gina Pane performance. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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