Contemporary Art History 101: Performance Art and its Enduring Legacy

This week we’re delving into the world of performance art and how artist’s preserve their ephemeral works. Looking at the history and challenges of the art form, check out our findings on this misunderstood art form.
Feature image: A still from the documentary “Burden” (2016), showing the artist performing “Trans-Fixed” (1972). Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Performance art can be one of the most elusive and misunderstood forms of art, and what is more complicated is how artist’s preserve their pieces in the aftermath of the performance.

Audiences can be seen scratching their heads, furrowing their brows, and scoffing in derision when witnessing a performance piece. The boundless nature of the medium leaves so much open for interpretation and experience, and can leave the casual gallery-goer mystified. Questions on the definitions of art, limits of the body, roles of the audience as participants, political and ecological issues in addition to existential conundrums are often explored through the medium.

Where traditional methods of painting and sculpture may fail an artist in being able to capture and distill these complicated themes, performance art allows the artist freedom to explore and challenge artistic and societal norms.

This week we are taking a look at the complexities of performance art and highlighting some key past and present artists who have made a mark on this area of the art world.

Photo of Sophie Täuber dancing at the opening of Galerie Dada, March 1917

Performance art is the time-based experiential art form where artist’s typically engage with an audience or onlookers in the process of creating the piece. Sometimes involving dance, poetry, music or other mediums within the performance, the art form is an event rather than artifact, though works are typically documented with video, photography and sound recordings to preserve the piece. Oftentimes, audiences witnessing or participating in the performance are a crucial component to the piece, and other times, performance pieces are more

Francoise Sullivan, “​​Danse dans la neige”, 1948 (film still)

Performance works have an inherent auratic quality and their ephemerality has interested artist’s since the 1960s. Although, Dadaists planted the seeds for performative-based works like the German artist Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), who taught at the Bauhaus from 1920 to 1929 and is perhaps best known for Das triadische Ballet (1916–22; “The Triadic Ballet”). Living through the First World War and the first instance of trench warfare, machine-led conflict, and mass dissemination of wartime news via newspaper and radio, the Dada movement sought to reconcile this new wave of modernism in their art, and performance-based practices were a natural outlet to fully express the anger, confusion, and trauma of the war.

The purpose of performance art has always been to challenge conventionally accepted definitions of art such as painting and sculpture, and to push the boundaries of the body as an outlet. Performance pieces primarily focused on the body of the artist as the artistic vehicle. Not necessarily feminist or political in tone, although key feminists artist’s reclaimed their bodily autonomy throughout the 1960s and 1970s as ways to convey their messages of dissatisfaction with patriarchal norms, performance art was often referred to as “body art”. Artists like Yves Klein (1928-1962) blurred the lines between performance and painting when he used models, painted in his signature blue, to create artworks which left the painted record of the model’s trace on the canvas while also leaving a video record of the performance for longevity.

Ana Mendieta, “Untitled (from the Silueta series)”, 1973-1977, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Arguments can also be made for performance pieces created by surrealist and futurist artists like Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and Claude Cahun (1894-1954), however the mid-20th century is widely recognized as the greatest period for the art form when the medium flourished.

Some other variants of performance art emerged in the post-war era and are commonly referred to as “actions”. Artists like Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) explored the limits of prolonged activities such as locking himself in a room with a coyote over a period of three days and engaging with the animal while his collaborator and companion documented the performance (I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974).

How do artists and art stewards preserve the performance in its aftermath? The intrinsic ephemeral nature of the work calls attention to the definitions of art and how audiences play a role in their existence. How can a work exist if there was no witness? We’ll skirt around the philosophical questions of what makes art art, however it is something to bear in mind while we take a look at the documentation practices and examples of performance artists of the 20th century and present.

In the tool kit of a performance artist is a camera or recording equipment to preserve the performance. Whereas early performance artist’s relied more heavily on camera’s to take multiple stills of their pieces in action, artist’s later turned to film and digital mediums as technology advanced. Artists like Yoko Ono (b.1961), Chris Burden (1946-2015), and the artistic duo of Marina Abramović (b. 1946) and Ulay (1943-2020) frequently filmed their performances in addition to having documentary photography taken for archival records of the ‘happening’. In the present era, we can look back on these performances and watch the pieces unfold as witnesses to their auratic natures.

Some issues facing performance art surround the preservation of the works in the face of technological advancement and the deterioration of original recording materials. Although many works have been digitized, printed as photo stills, and preserved on archived cloud platforms, the natural progression of deterioration of a record of the work is still concerning. Moreover, many of the original methods of records are technologically obsolete, raising new challenges for conservators and curators when seeking to exhibit works.

Works that have been documented with video, film, slide, audio, or computer technologies generally fall under the conservation and restoration of time-based media art given the materials and inderent time dimension. The digitization of performance works has become the dominant method to prolong the existence of the works for new generations of audiences to experience.

Francis Alÿs, “Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), Mexico City”, 1997 (film still)

Institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and Tate Modern have developed conservation techniques, updated exhibition-mode technology and have gone so far as to examine the licensing possibilities to “re-perform” a work. As performance art has undefined boundaries, where, how and who can have access to these performances through exhibitions. The artist’s intent must also be weighed as their preferences for a piece may include how their works should be preserved.

There are innumerable incredible performance artists to delve deeper into, however, we have selected a few key words as a jumping-off point in the exploration of the medium:

  • Ana Mendieta, “Silueta Series” (1973–1977): the artist imprinted her body into natural Mexican and Iowan landscapes, filling natural crevices her body made with flowers, branches and moss.
  • Carolee Schneemann, “Interior Scroll” (1975): the artist undressed in from of an audience of primary women and slowly removed a paper scroll from her vagina while reading the text on it aloud.
  • Chris Burden, “Trans-fixed” (1974): the artist was crucified to the back of a Volkswagen Beetle, driven out of the garage to take a photograph of the happening, and then brought back into its parking spot.
  • Tehching Hsieh, “One Year Performance (Time Clock Piece)” (1980-1981): Hsieh punched a time clock in his studio every hour on the hour for an entire year and photographed himself everyday in the same position and clothing with the clock.
  • Francis Alÿs, “Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), Mexico City” (1997): the artist pushed a large block of ice around Mexico City for nine hours until it completely melted.
  • Adrian Piper, “The Mythic Being” (1973-1975): the artist dressed up as her male alter ego and cruised the streets of New York performing typically masculine behavior as a critique on identity and gender norms.
  • Tino Sehgal, “This Progress” (2006): Visitors were ushered up the spiral ramp at the Guggenheim Museum in New York as guides asked them questions related to the idea of progress. The work placed the audience squarely as participants in active dialogue rather than the witness to the piece.

Image by Fortnite

In the age of social media and the Metaverse, performance art is presented with new possibilities. Already, live performances in the Metaverse have made headlines and amassed thousands around the world. Performance artworks incorporating conceptual practices and hosted on digital platforms offer new opportunities for mass dissemination and longevity and offer a whole new horizon of creative opportunity.

Katlin Rogers
Katlin Rogers
Katlin is a Toronto-based art consultant, advisor, and appraiser. She holds a Master’s in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London and enjoys writing on topics surrounding the globalization of the art world, politics and ethics in art, and post-colonial theories in contemporary art.