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9 Canon Body Artists You Should Know

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body artists

Body artists often create works about the relationship between body and mind. Through their bodies, they explore themes such as suffering, pain, nudity and shame. Body art also deals with gender, power and identity. Body artists have often blurred existing boundaries in the relationship between artist and audience. In recent years, many body artists have experimented with body implants and virtual bodies. Here are 9 body artists you should know.

What is body art?

body artist marina abramovic
Marina Abramovic during The Artist is Present performance, 2010, via WSJ

Body art is vast: body and facial modifications have been around for a long time, dating back to prehistoric times. Tattooing and makeup are ancient practices originating from the indigenous cultures of New Zealand and North America. Mimes can also be considered a type of body art that originated in ancient Greece. Performance artalso known as Body art, first emerged as a medium in its own right in the mid-1960s, then enjoyed a revival in the 1990s.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Western world experienced several social revolutions, such as the fight for women’s equality. The perpetuation of idealizations of women’s bodies in Western art and media, generated overwhelmingly by men, has begun to be studied by artists and art historians. Feminist artists are reclaiming their bodies and using new ways of representing them. Using their bodies in performance has become a way for many artists to assert control.

Using their bodies, artists connected their individual experiences to the shared human experience. A body artist’s performance therefore functioned as a synecdoche with humanity and the challenges we face in finding common ground for our experiences. The body became a perfect tool to show that something personal was indeed political.

1. Chris Burden

filming by Chris Load
Photograph by Chris Burden, 1971, via Carnegie Museum of Art

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​​Chris Burden cemented his place in art history with the work entitled To pull. At a public exhibition in 1971, the controversial artist invited a friend to shoot him with a .22 rifle from a distance of 15 feet. The shooter was slightly off target and the bullet entered Burden’s arm. This performance allowed the audience to witness a real-life example of what happens when a person is shot. The desensitization of society to violence and the difference between seeing a terrible event live and on television were the main themes of this work.

2. Marina Abramovic

marina abramovic balkan baroque
Balkan Baroque by Marina Abramović, 1997, via Christie’s

In response to the countless murders perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia, Abramovic composed the Balkan Baroque. She spent four days washing each of these bloody bones, sitting on 1,500 cow bones, wearing a white dress, surrounded by projected photographs of her and her parents. She sang some of her country’s folk songs and recorded an explanation on how to eliminate rats in the Balkans. Due to the scorching heat and foul stench in the basement bedroom, the performance progression became visceral. She believed that the analogy between the inability to wash away all the blood and the inability to remove the shame of war had universal application.

3. Yoko Ono

yoko ono cut piece
Cut piece by Yoko Ono, 1964, via MoMA, New York

Yoko Ono was one of the pioneers of participatory art. Ono performed it for the first time Cut piece in Kyoto in 1964. Since then, she has performed it in Tokyo, New York, London and, more recently, in Paris in 2003. The involvement of others is fundamental in her work. Cut piece depends on the audience’s willingness to understand and comply with the artist’s instructions, or the rules she calls the score. These rules defined the roles of the participants.

Cut piece The artist sat on stage in her best costume, holding a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience had to approach her one by one, using the scissors to cut off a small piece of her clothing that they had to keep. Some people approached her cautiously, cutting a small square of fabric from her skirt or sleeve. Others came boldly, cutting her bra straps or the front of her clothes. In an interview with MoMA, Ono said: When I do the Cut Piece, I go into a trance, so I’m not too afraid.… We usually give something for a specific purpose… but I wanted to see what they would take… There was a long silence between one and the other. person who arrives and the next person who arrives. And I said it was fantastic, beautiful music, you know? Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut! Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut! Beautiful poetry, in fact.

4. Valie EXPORT

value export body configurations
Body configurations by Valie EXPORT, 1976, via MoMA, New York

This photograph shows a woman tracing the cityscape of Vienna with her body, curving her back to imitate the curve of the sidewalk. The image overlaps with a thick red line that follows the shape emphasized by the position, highlighting the relationship between the city and the body. This is part of the Configuring settings (Body Configurations), on which Valie EXPORT began working in the mid-1970s. The characters in the series accentuate the geometry of the city. The prints are highlighted by additions like the red line seen in the work above or black ink painted on gelatin silver prints. The artist’s body is represented as something that contrasts with the urban landscape.

5. Gina Shutter

body artist gina pane sentimental sentimental
Azione Sentimentale by Gina Pane, 1973, via MoMA, New York

Gina Pane is best known for her Azion pieces in which she performed a series of actions using her own body. These actions often required extreme physical endurance and pain tolerance. She encouraged the audience to have emotional empathy with what she was going through. She performed her actions in private, but they were precisely timed and filmed so that the viewer could feel the emotional depth of the piece even if they had not observed its performance.

The Sentimental AzioneIt is a complex, multi-layered work that uses the visual language of ritual and religion to comment on pleasure, heartbreak, and love between women. Pane performed this act before an all-female audience at the Milan Theater. Diagramma Gallery. She entered the gallery dressed in white and holding red roses. She offered the roses to the public and then brought them back. She removed the thorns and stabbed her arm with them, carefully arranging them in a row. She then cut the palm of her hand with a razor blade. After which, she began offering the audience white roses stained by her bloody palm. The juxtaposition of white and red, blood and stigmata mark the sacrifice and allude to Christian theology.

6. ORLANE

orlan disfigurement refiguration
Disfiguration-Refiguration, Pre-Columbian Auto-hybridizations no. 35 d’ORLAN, 1998, via AWARE

ORLAN is a pioneer of what she considers Carnal art. She poses intriguing concerns about consent, self-image, and beauty that foreshadow and inspire many current debates about transhumanism, utopian technology, and body modification. The methods ORLAN uses to draw public attention to her body, such as cameras, microscopes, and live streams, are essential to the meaning of her works. ORLAN’s body is the main subject of his works. His work explores the surgical process rather than the end product of plastic surgery, making the altered body a site for public debate rather than a spectacle.

7. Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle

beth stephens annie sprinkle ecosexuality
Ecosexuality by Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, 2008, via ArtCollaboration.co.uk

Annie Sprinkle has discussed sex and love in a variety of contexts, from the perspective of a sex worker and porn actress to that of a performance artist. She and her partner Beth Stephens are pioneers of ecosexuality, a planet-friendly form of sexual identity that states that the Earth is our lover. Viewing nature as a lover suggests that the connection to the Earth is reciprocal and, therefore, ecosexuality holds people responsible for protecting the environment. It challenges heteronormative notions and redefines concepts of gender, love and sexuality.

Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle married Earth in 2008. The first wedding was followed by many more, including a white snow wedding, a purple moon wedding, and many more. Wedding guests joined Stephens and Sprinkle as they vowed to love, honor and cherish many facets of the cosmos. Sprinkle and Stephens wrote vows to marry the Earth, ecosexual manifestos, and instructions for making love to the Earth called 25 Ways to Make Love with the Earth.

8. Herman Nitsch

herman nitsch orgies mysteries theater drawing
The drawing of the Last Supper from the Orgies Mystery Theater by Herman Nitsch, 1983, via the Nitsch Foundation

Herman Nitsch was an Austrian contemporary artist. His performances are theatrical and integrate different media. He focused on involving bodies in ritual and violence in order to explore life more holistically.

The Orgies Mystery Theater was a 6-day spectacle held during a folk festival meant to celebrate humans. The work included different artistic mediums and was first produced in the 1950s.

9. Yayoi Kusama: body art without the artist’s body

yayoi kusama rooms with infinity mirror
Infinity Mirror Rooms by Yayoi Kusama, 2011/2017, via Tate, London

Rooms with infinity mirror is a series that Kusama began manufacturing in the 1960s. The artist has now created more than twenty of these rooms. Each Infinite Mirror Room is a black room entirely covered in mirrors. Kusama had previously decorated these rooms with lanterns, phalluses and pumpkins. Today, small LED lights suspended from the ceiling blink repetitively to create pulsing electronic dots. Mirrors give the impression of unlimited space. The person experiencing the piece becomes essential to the piece itself.

The artist’s body is not present, nevertheless the work depends on the body and the physical presence of the viewer to create meaning. The participant’s body doubles, triples and quadruples endlessly. Thus, this work plays with the perception of the body and identity.

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