The History Of Performance Art

Performance art offers the ultimate experience of engaging with the protagonist medium of the body.

by Vasileia Anaxagorou

In the 1960s, the art world had moved away from its traditional approach and the search for newer methods of art-making gave birth to an exciting and challenging art movement. Performance art embraced a wide diversity of styles and activities that often involved the body as its medium. The medium has gained considerable impact since 1960 and has been primarily interpreted to be the result of the relinquishment of conventional mediums such as painting and sculpture.

history performance art
Relation In Time, Marina Abromovic and Ulay | Source: WideWalls

The Origins And Meaning Of Performance Art

Often unfolding live artistic events that included poetry, music, and film in addition to visual art, the Dadaists were the first to unleash the interaction of poetry in respect to the visual arts. Outside its theatricality, the Dada movement in Zurich gave the first insight of the potential of performance art at the well-known Cabaret Voltaire.  The couple Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings, the founders of Dadaism, opened the backroom of the Cabaret Voltaire, welcoming boisterous artistic experimentation in the form of chaotic and radical performances.

history performance art
Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire. | Source: Wikipedia

With new forms of poetry, avant-garde music, and simultaneous performances, the Cabaret Voltaire was a breakthrough in expanding the internationalization of cultural ideas, giving a voice to the new movement that was about to come. During the German Bauhaus movement, which was founded in 1919, theatrical workshops began to explore the relationships between sound, space, and light. Even though the term was not invented yet at that time, it marked the early manifestations of performance art in Europe.

By the 1960s however, performance art emerged and established its origins, placing itself outside any theatrical element but rather outstanding its universality into more specific terms; it was live, but it was purely art and not theater. It differed mainly on the traditional norms of theater because of its rejection of a clear narrative and the use of chance in appealing to the broader audience. There was no way of selling or trading this form of art as a commodity. Hence, performance artists elaborated the impact of the movement by taking the art outdoors, presenting it directly to the public; eliminating the mainstream need for galleries, agents and any other aspect of traditional representation of art. In a distinctive way, performance artists sought to enhance the purity of art encompassing the body of the artist – the flesh – as the canvas.

The Impact Of Performance Art

During the 1960s, many pressing themes gained voice and status through the power and integrity of performance art, the most important of which was Feminism. Yoko Ono, who first explored performance art in 1962 with the artwork, Wall Piece for Orchestra, elaborated her practice inviting the audience into a more explicit, unveiling live experience of the female body. Through the piece titled Cut Piece in 1964, Yoko introduced feminism to the movement.

history performance art
Cut Piece, Yoko Ono. | Source: Artnet

Understandably, the exposure of the female body did not occur with the introduction of performance art. Yet, performance art was the first movement that immersed the public into witnessing the direct objectification of the female body. One of the most important aspects of performance art is that people are forced to take responsibility, engage and thus, allow the artist to create a strong statement about the narrative of the work and the messages intended by it.

One of the most essential attributes of performance art is the idea of challenging traditional norms, triggering the inner reflection upon our passive perception into several issues throughout history and through the live experience gained. Performance art fills the gap between the creator, the artwork, and the audience. Carolee Schneemann with the performance known as Interior Scroll in 1975 marked an important milestone in the history of performance art. By pulling a scroll from inside her with excerpts exploring female sexuality, responding to the cultural representations of women and the conceived disconnection between women and their bodies, the artist broke the taboos of the female idolization and created a vocal source of thought and creativity when it came to the female vulva. With such strong statements being delivered through the medium, it is no wonder that performance art soon became the birth passage of feminism to flourish into conceptual and physical forms.

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Technology And Performance Art

The new technology was indeed influential in terms of the development of performance art in the 1980s. The foundations of the movement allowed any element to be combined with it; there were no anticipated boundaries within this specific artistic movement, which made it revolutionary in its nature. Indeed, due to the chaotic nature of performance art and the chance required for its exploration, technology worked perfectly in terms of representing and preserving works of performance art.

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Artists like Laurie Anderson, one of the most well-known performance artists of the movement, still continues to present her pieces using technology. Anderson managed to put her own stigma into the field by altering traditional instruments, replacing the strings of a violin with magnetic tapes to modify the effects of sound and create different vocal effects during her live performances. Through this exponent, performance art was not only a place where the audience engages with the artist and the medium (body) itself, but rather a place where all the exclusive elements which made the performance live and alive were becoming part of the public forum. The digital influence was outstanding and this period saw the creative contributions of celebrated artists like Nam June Paik who worked with a variety of technological media and John Cage, who, through sound and music, became a major force in the avant-garde period.

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Untitled, Nam Jun Paik. | Source: MoMA

Performance Art Today

In the post-war era and within the context of contemporary art, performance art continued its manifesto in being the alternative form to established art forms where artists feel that they are objectified in terms of economic and cultural values. Being highly accepted as the new trend, the practice and understanding of performance art still resists the commodification and traditional values of museums and galleries.

Marina Abramovic, in a 2010 retrospective exhibition at Museum of Modern Art, enacted archival video documentations of original performances of the past, creating the longest (in duration) conversation with the public. In a way, she demanded a physical and emotional interaction making performance art part of the lives of ordinary people through the piece, The Artist is Present. The exhibition included the artist sitting silently on a wooden chair for three months, and staring emotionless at the visitors of the museum, creating a masochistic synchronization of brainwaves. The impact was extraordinary! We saw the artist and performance art immersing as a case study for cognitive scientific explanation of the phenomenon where two people measure the magic of their mutual gaze in a designated energy field, solidifying people’s consciousness and ability to live in the moment without the hastiness of the presence.

Hence, performance art has proved to be a field where provocation, timelessness, and no boundaries are being repeatedly used as concepts.

history performance art
The Artist Is Present, Marina Abromovic. | Source: Vimeo

Remaining constantly in presence, performance art opened the doors for a new sort of activism to flourish. The key in understanding performance art is to visualize it as an alternative form of traditional mediums – to interpret it as a movement that reflected the draining resources of the art at the time hence, marking its creation inevitable.

The most essential way to let loose into a performance piece is to perceive it without restraints, to embrace its ephemerality and the creative process which defines the artistic element of a performance piece. Engaging with the protagonist medium of the body is the ultimate experience offered by performance art – a medium at the forefront for appreciating the abstract nature of art itself that reflects our thoughts, emotions and burdens of everyday life.


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Vasileia Anaxagorou was born in Larnaca, Cyprus. She graduated from the University of Nottingham obtaining a bachelors degree in Politics. Following her postgraduate degree in History from Goldsmiths College, University of London she decided to enter into the world of art. She then enrolled in London Metropolitan University in London, United Kingdom and obtained a certificate of Higher Education in Fine Art with distinction. She is now a senior student in the School of Visual Arts in New York City where she resides. Vasilia has exhibited in London and Cyprus.


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