Performance Art:

The Line BetweenArt And Life

Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada.

Whenever artists have become discontented with conventional forms of art, such as painting and traditional modes of sculpture, they have often turned to performance as a means to rejuvenate their work.

The most significant flourishing of performance art took place following the decline of modernism and Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s, and it found exponents across the world. Performance art of this period was particularly focused on the body, and is often referred to as Body art. This reflects the period’s so-called “dematerialization of the art object,” and the flight from traditional media. It also reflects the political ferment of the time: the rise of feminism, which encouraged thought about the division between the personal and political and anti-war activism, which supplied models for politicized art “actions.” Although the concerns of performance artists have changed since the 1960s, the genre has remained a constant presence, and has largely been welcomed into the conventional museums and galleries from which it was once excluded.

The foremost purpose of performance art has almost always been to challenge the conventions of traditional forms of visual art such as painting and sculpture. When these modes no longer seem to answer artists’ needs – when they seem too conservative, or too enmeshed in the traditional art world and too distant from ordinary people – artists have often turned to performance in order to find new audiences and test new ideas. Performance art borrows styles and ideas from other forms of art, or sometimes from other forms of activity not associated with art, like ritual, or work-like tasks. If cabaret and vaudeville inspired aspects of Dada performance, this reflects Dada’s desire to embrace popular art forms and mass cultural modes of address. More recently, performance artists have borrowed from dance, and even sport.

Some varieties of performance from the post-war period are commonly described as “actions.” German artists like Joseph Beuys preferred this term because it distinguished art performance from the more conventional kinds of entertainment found in theatre. But the term also reflects a strain of American performance art that could be said to have emerged out of a reinterpretation of “action painting,” in which the object of art is no longer paint on canvas, but something else – often the artist’s own body.

In France, art corporel, or body art, compiled an avant-garde set of practices that brought body language to the center of artistic practice.

MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ – Art must be beautiful
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ – Art must be beautiful


Abramović, who has referred to herself as, “the grandmother of performance art,” was part of the earliest experiments in performance art, and she is one of the few pioneers of that generation still creating new work. She has been, and continues to be, an essential influence for performance artists making work over the last several decades, especially for works that challenge the limits of the body. Although she does not view her own artwork through the frame of Feminist Art, her confrontations with the physical self and the primary role given to the female body have helped shape the direction of that discipline. Her commitment to giving new life to older performance works – both hers and the works of others — led her to create the Marina Abramović Institute for Preservation of Performance Art, set for a 2012 opening, in Hudson, New York. This nonprofit organization will support teaching, preserving and funding performance art, ensuring an enduring legacy for her performances and, more broadly, for the ephemeral art form itself. About this Institute, Abramović has said, “Performance is fleeting. But this, this place, this is for time. This is what I will leave behind.”

Performance art borrows styles and ideas from other forms of art, or sometimes from other forms of activity not associated with art, like ritual, or work-like tasks

AI WEIWEI, Rooted Upon
AI WEIWEI, Rooted Upon


He is an inspirational figure for many people both in the West and in China, and both in and outside the art world. Ai’s struggle for freedom of speech and expression sheds light on specific issues that are important in their own right. More broadly, it reminds us of the power of visual art to move us as individuals, and sometimes entire nations, to action. Ai’s work underscores the idea that art may have the power, and even the responsibility, to change society.

Members of the general public and the wider art community continue to support him. His often enigmatic messages on Instagram and Twitter have moved his “followers” to participate in the creative process by responding in an array of on-line expressions of artistic and political solidarity that are in turn indebted to his approach to art as social practice. In October 2015, for example, when Lego refused Ai a large shipment of blocks (on the grounds that it doesn’t endorse political art), hundreds of Ai’s followers sent their own Legos to the artist, via mail and official collection points. The entire event was organised through social media.

YOKO ONO, Wish Tree for Hiroshima
YOKO ONO, Wish Tree for Hiroshima


Well before her famous partnership with John Lennon, Yoko Ono was the “High Priestess of the Happening” and a pioneer in performance art. Drawing from an array of sources from Zen Buddhism to Dada, her pieces were some of the movement’s earliest and most daring. With unprecedented radicalism, she rejected the idea that an artwork must be a material object. Many of her works consist merely of instructions.

Ono’s performances and instructional paintings of the early 1960s changed forever the relationship between artist and audience. Bed-In and Bagism, pieces staged in 1969 with Lennon, are direct antecedents for subsequent works that turned private life into public spectacle, most famously Tracy Emin’s My Bed (1998) and her involvement in the peace movement encouraged future generations of artists to use visual art as a political platform. Her mutually influential partnership with John Lennon is well-traversed territory, but it is worth remembering that in leading us through the process of imagining a different, better world, Lennon’s famous solo song “Imagine” is essentially a reprise of Yoko’s instructional pieces. Ono’s innovative, iconoclastic presence in the art world extended far beyond this partnership, furthering the dialogue on materialism and cultural consumerism in a way that has inspired Rirkrit Tiravanija, Suzanne Lacy, and other artists involved in social practice. Finally, in calling attention to the vulnerability and resilience of the female body, Ono gave future female performance artists, among them Valie Export, Hannah Wilke and Marina Abramovic, permission to take even greater risks.

Ono’s performances and instructional paintings of the early 1960s changed forever the relationship between artist and audience

LAURIE ANDERSON, Chalkroom installation
LAURIE ANDERSON, Chalkroom installation


One of Anderson’s early performance art pieces was Automotive (1972), for which she orchestrated car horns at the Town Green in Rochester, Vermont. In Duets on Ice, another early piece, Anderson wore ice skates frozen in blocks of ice; she then proceeded to play a duet with herself on an altered violin that she described as like a “ventriloquist’s dummy”—she replaced the bow hair with prerecorded audiotape and the strings with a tape head. The piece ended as soon as the ice melted.

By 1974 she had received several grants that gave her more freedom to pursue her artistic explorations. In 1994 a book of her work was published entitled Stories from the Nerve Bible: A Retrospective, 1972–92. A year later Anderson embarked on a multimedia tour entitled The Nerve Bible, in which she read excerpts from the retrospective book and incorporated elements of music, comedy, illusion, dance, film, songs, and a simulated tornado into her performance. In 1995 she also crafted, with designer Hsin-Chien Huang, the highly complex interactive CD-ROM Puppet Motel. Anderson next toured in 1999 with Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, a multimedia musical event. She later served as NASA’s artist in residence, and the experience inspired her one-woman show The End of the Moon, which debuted in 2004. Her other projects include The Waters Reglitterized (2005), an installation inspired by her dreams, and the albums Life on a String and Homeland (2010). Anderson also collaborated on the opening ceremony for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

VALIE EXPORT, Encirclement, from the series Body Configurations
VALIE EXPORT, Encirclement, from the series Body Configurations


Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT placed her own body, and the female body in general, at the centre of her entire corpus of work. In this sequence of edited photographs, belonging to the series “Körperkonfigurationen“(Body Configurations, 1972-76), she positioned herself in several points of the city of Wien and mimed through her body the built environment immediately around. Her actions are the representation of her own states of mind, communicated by her postures and gestures. Through a performance that assumes the form of an apparently passive adaptation to the configuration of the city or the landscape, the artist reacts to the built environment in a completely different way than the one implied by the urban design.

Marina Abramović has been, and continues to be, an essential influence for performance artists making work over the last several decades, especially for works that challenge the limits of the body

In 1967, she changed her name to VALIE EXPORT (written in uppercase letters, like an artistic logo, shedding her father’s and husband’s names and appropriating her new surname from a popular brand of cigarettes). In conversation with Gary Indiana for BOMB magazine, Export described her name-change:

“I did not want to have the name of my father [Lehner] any longer, nor that of my former husband Hollinger. My idea was to export from my ‘outside’ (heraus) and also export, from that port. The cigarette package was from a design and style that I could use, but it was not the inspiration.”

Alastair MacLennan is Research Professor in Fine Art at the School of Art and Design, University of Ulster in Belfast. He is one of Britain’s major practitioners in live art.

Since 1975 he has been based in Belfast and was a founder member of Belfast’s Art and Research Exchange. He is also a member of the European Performance Group called ‘Black Market International.’

During the 1970’s and 1980’s he made long durational performances in Britain and America, of up to 144 hours each, non-stop, usually neither eating nor sleeping throughout. Subject matter dealt with political, social and cultural malfunction.

He currently travels extensively in Eastern and Western Europe, also America and Canada, presenting ‘Actuations’ (his term for Performance/ Installations).



Twelve people with blank stares walked among the crowd; each was on a red leash and wore costumes made of cowhide, lambskin and goatskin — the animals’ hooves were still attached to the costumes. For one and a half hours, they wandered in different directions at a steady pace; sometimes attaching their leashes to one another.

The scene above is part of Dogwalk, an art performance created by Yogyakarta-based artist Mella Jaarsma during the programs presented by the Museum of Modern And Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN) in West Jakarta.

Jaarsma, who was born in the Netherlands, seeks to look at the relationship between humans and animals in a satirical interpretation of a fashion catwalk. “The idea is about human perception of animals – where one needs another – but we also have control over them. [We decide] which animals are killed and which are considered holy and protected,” Jaarsma said. “It’s always the human who makes the rules, which hypocritical.”