Performance art is a unique form of art in which the body is the only expressive tool.
Performance art began to take shape in the 1960s, however in the 1970s, on the wave of youth movements of ’68, it would finally acquire artistic status by redefining the role of the artist in modern society.
This new form of artistic expression explored new languages of communication. Moreover, it has no codified rules – it can be spontaneous or follow a script, performed by an individual or in a group, and also varies in duration. Often the observer-visitor is invited to interact, overturning the traditional passive experience of art. While a traditional work of art is “material” and remains unchanged over time, performance art comes to life in the instant and does not produce “material” realities. This form of art leaves the memory of an emotional and aesthetic experience, generated when the performance takes place. It is the triumph of the ephemeral, a perfect mirror of a modernity that lacks any fixed points of reference.
However, the performance does not exist only in the memory of those who are attending or experience the story in photographs or videos. Over the years, it has assumed the characteristics of reproducibility even by people other than the performer who conceived it. These are reinterpretations, not copies, because by changing the frame, the audience and often the performers, the event takes shape as something new, a creative regeneration.
The phenomenon originated in an evolution – in all fields, from clothing to ballet – during the 1900s that saw the progressive liberation of the body from the constraints imposed by ethics and customs. A good example can be found in Martha Graham, who in 1927 revolutionized choreography. Tossing tutu and shoes out the door, her dancers danced barefoot with fluid costumes that followed the undulating movements of the body. In the meantime, the artistic avant-gardes of the early 1900s, like Dadaism, had unhinged the traditional art system and untied the work of art from manual work by making the artist no longer the one who can do something, but rather they know how to think. This had paved the way for experiments in materials and techniques as well as innovative contaminations among different forms of art. As part of these changes, the artist no longer feels the need to narrate or decorate. New artistic currents are born, including conceptual art that dematerializes the artistic object and releases it completely from materials and manual skills to the zero level with Body Art first, and then with Performance Art. The work, deprived of materials, is no longer an “object” to be collected, but rather reduced to the body alone.
An embryonic example of performance art can be considered Dadaist shows or certain experiments by Dali, but certainly a fundamental role in the elaboration of this phenomenon as an autonomous artistic genre was carried out by the painters of the Viennese Actionism group, who in the 1960s gradually replaced canvases and brushes with their own bodies, even going so far as to use blood, body fluids and food in the place of colours and paint.
During the actual performance, emotions and references vary greatly, but some aspects are the self-destructive and violent aspects that draw on the most disparate fields. For example, in the 1970s, Hermann Nitsch touched on the pre-Christian sacrifices of animals in performances in which blood-stained sheets of ancestral memory were produced. Moreover, Chris Burden, who in the America of the Vietnam War and in explicit dissent with the methods of communication of the mass media, denounced the numbness of consciences and shocked the viewer with actions that attempted to give truth to what in the communication seemed virtual.
In order to show the real appearance of pain, anger and fear, he had himself shot by a friend at close range. Years later he was crucified with real nails onto a car. Abramovich was no different. She often risked her life, like the time when she was at the centre of a star of fire, and almost died of suffocation. However, performance art does not always have such extreme characteristics. Vito Acconci, again in the ’70s, emitted saliva for as long as possible to probe the limits of resistance, or investigated the minimum distances between individuals beyond which proximity becomes annoyance and then irritation.
Performance art is an expression of our restless times, without past or future. In fact, there exists only the present, defined by the time the artist shares with the audience. His or her actions are destabilizing, they shake us in a way that a static and reassuring traditional work of art could never do.
Anna Maria Calabretta