When it comes to performance art, the odds are that whatever the work it will likely be controversial in some shape or form. From the anarchic dadaist movement that came out of Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 and Joseph Beuys cradling a dead hare to the disturbing performances of Hermann Nitsch’s blood-drinking and ritualistic incorporation of human entrails, performance art’s shock value often far surpasses alternative media. That being said, it is also often the medium most worthy of critique and ridicule.
But performance art isn’t all about getting naked and proclaiming transcedent statements about the universe. At its best, performance art can be dangerous and relevant, tearing away the veneer of civilisation. In Cut Piece, Yoko Ono allowed visitors to cut her clothes with scissors, and in doing so took an aim at the violent treatment of women in society. Chris Burden offered genuine personal risk as artistic expression in his 1971 piece Shoot, where he was shot in the arm with a rifle from close range.
It would be unthinkable not to mention Marina Abramović; the doyenne of performance art, she has one of the most robust oeuvres. In the past, Abramović allowed viewers to pierce her skin with thorns and point loaded guns at her head, look into her eyes for 736 hours, and watch her almost die in a flaming five-point star. To celebrate her latest exhibition at London’s Serpentine, 512 Hours, in which visitors can view Abramović doing nothing for eight hours a day, six days a week, we take a look at ten of the most controversial performance artworks in recent times.
SEBASTIAN HORSLEY – CRUCIFIXION (2000)
When British painter Sebastian Horsley wanted to paint the crucifixion, he decided it was necessary to be actually crucified in order to understand the biblical event better. He travelled to the Philippines and paid £2,000 for the experience of having five-inch nails hammered through his hands, while being hoisted onto a cross. As well as the “indescribable pain” and losing consciousness, Horsley explained he felt hallucinogenic endorphins during the half hour process, despite his foot support breaking beneath at one point.
MAO SUGIYAMA – TESTICLE BANQUET (2012)
As the famous saying goes, you can’t have your testicles and eat them. Unfortunately, Japanese man Mao Sugiyama wasn’t present for that class. The self-described "asexual" decided to have his genitals fried up for a banquet to raise awareness about "sexual minorities, x-gender, asexual people.” Five people paid around 100,000 yen (£600) in total, to consume the severed penis, testicles, and scrotal skin alongside a garnish of button mushrooms and Italian parsley. Sugiyama was later threatened by police with charges of indecent exposure.
Visual artist and New York University professor Wafaa Bilal spent many years living a nomadic existence in the Middle East, and became sick of it. His piece, The 3rd I, saw Bilal have a titanium plate implanted into the back of his head, while a camera was attached capturing an image every minute for 24 hours a day, automatically posting online. According to Bilal, it would raise "important social, aesthetic, political, technological and artistic questions," but due to privacy issues, he was forced to cover the camera while on campus.
At Art Cologne 2014, Swiss artist Milo Moiré stood naked on a pair of stepladders outside the German art fair, proceeding to squeeze paint-filled eggs out of her vagina. Each egg smashed on the blank canvas below, creating a supposedly colourful expression of fertile creativity. Moiré explained: “I’m interested in pushing boundaries through art, living and expressing my art with my body and mind while opening mental doors.”
There aren’t many topics more controversial than abortion. Aliza Shvarts tackled the issue by repeatedly artificially inseminating herself and carrying out self-induced abortions every month, using legal, herbal drugs. At the time a PhD student in Performance Studies at Yale University, Shvarts sparked a protest on campus, a backlash on the Internet, and widespread debate around the country. She even filmed herself in her bathtub cramping and bleeding from the miscarriages. Yale distanced themselves, claiming the work was fiction.
In an act designed to be a metaphor for apathy in Russia, performance artist Petr Pavlensky went to Moscow’s Red Square, close by Lenin’s mausoleum, and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones. Intended to coincide with Police Day, officers demanded that he stand up until they realised the artist’s ballsy situation. He sat there for an hour and a half. Pavlensky’s previous work, also strongly led by the theme of repression, saw him sew his mouth shut, and another, where he wrapped himself in a blanket of barbed wire while naked.
"No religion forbids cannibalism,” argued Chinese artist Zhu Yu. "Nor can I find any law which prevents us from eating people. I took advantage of the space between morality and the law and based my work on it." Zhu Yu recorded himself in his own kitchen eating a six-month old dead foetus, which was supposedly stolen from a medical school. It led to a global outcry, and as a consequence, China’s Ministry of Culture cited it as a menace to social order and the spiritual health of the Chinese people.
DEBORAH DE ROBERTIS – ORIGIN OF THE WORLD (2014)
An avid student of art history, Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah de Robertis went to Paris' Musée d'Orsay in order to respond to Courbet’s famous 1866 piece Origin of the World. The painting itself was riotously controversial for the 19th century, depicting a vagina in vivid detail, but De Robertis believed that it was still through the male gaze, and got out her own Origin of the World, in a performance. Gallery visitors applauded, but two museum guards filed complaints against her.
GUILLERMO VARGAS – EXPOSICION N° 1 (2007)
In a performance piece that caused fury amongst animal rights activists, Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas tied a starving dog just out of reach of a pile of food. The animal was supposedly captured in the alleys of Managua – near to the exhibition space Galeria Codice – by some children paid by the artist. Meanwhile, the statement “eres lo que lees” - “You are what you read” - was written on the gallery wall in dog food. Vargas received dozens of death threats, but it merely proved his point: take a stray dog off the streets, put it into a gallery, and it suddenly becomes an ethical phenomenon.
LAI THI DIEU HA – SKIN IRON (2011)
Hanoi artist Lai Thi Dieu Ha is known for using her own body as a material in her work. Her 2011 piece took this to the extreme, with Dieu Ha applying hot irons to a mass of fresh pig bladders. She then rubbed them all over her bare face, arms and legs. The 35-year-old artist then supposedly applied the iron to her own arm until the skin blistered, and also fused the pig flesh to her own. The audience was understandably terrified, and images leaked to the wider world, despite cameras being banned.
Marina Abramović performs "512 Hours" from June 11 to August 25 at the Serpentine Gallery. Entry is free of charge and strictly on a first-come, first-served basis
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