From a real-life crucifixion to carving the word pervert into flesh and reading scroll from a vagina – these are the acts of art that know no limits
On 23 December 1888, Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh cut his ear off. While the cause of severing remains debated, it's one of art history’s most widely known extreme acts by an artist. It's also widely known that Van Gogh ate yellow paint so he could experience what the colour felt like. Since Van Gogh's death over 128 years ago, artists in his wake have been taking their pursuits to extreme lengths in order to push the limits of what we call art.
By Google’s account, “extreme” can be defined as “reaching a high or the highest degree; very great”, or “furthest from the centre or a given point” – both explanations can be used when referencing artists and their works, such as Marina Abramović’s “The Great Wall of China”, or Joseph Beuys’ “I Like America, America Likes Me”, which don’t fit into a one-size-fits-all idea of art.
Extreme art can be emotional, symbolic, metaphorical, even violent. It’s also important to consider context, which can be used to understand such extremities, and why these far-fetched measures are critical for using art to progress social and political reality.
In celebration of Van Gogh's birthday, we look at 10 of art history's most extreme acts.
JOSEPH BEUYS: “I LIKE AMERICA, AMERICA LIKES ME” (1974)
Joseph Beuys was a German performance artist, sculptor, and installation artist. In 1974, he travelled to New York to create a work that would profess his worry for America’s social and political reality at the time, including an opposition to the Vietnam War. When he landed in New York, he was wrapped in felt and loaded into an ambulance to ensure he never touched American soil. He then arrived at René Block Gallery in Soho, where he spent the next three days trapped in a room with a live coyote.
For Native Americans, the coyote was a powerful god. But after the arrival of European settlers, the animal was turned into a pest that needed to be exterminated. In this sense, Beuys’ coyote is symbolic. The artist saw the degradation of the coyote by settlers as a symbol for the damage done by white men to the native American land and people and aimed to use this performance to amplify the inhumane nature of the white settlement. “You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted,” he once said to Caroline Tisdall in her book Joseph Beuys, Coyote.
Over the three days spent with the coyote, its behaviour fluctuated from being aggressive and detached to cautious and sometimes friendly. Whether the coyote stripped his felt from him with its powerful jaws or allowed him a brief embrace, the artist persisted in his attempts to connect with the creature right up until the final hours of the performance when he was bundled up again and delivered back to the airport to return to Europe.Through “I Like America, America Likes Me”, Beuys attempted to show how American society could move forward – only by communication and understanding among its own varied populations.
CATHERINE OPIE: “SELF PORTRAIT / PERVERT” (1994)
American photographer Catherine Opie started her career shooting queer reality across America while addressing ideas on sexual identity and gender performance. Taking influence from her social documentary predecessors like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Opie spotlighted the leatherdyke community in LA, drag kings and cross dressers. In 1994, she inverted her lens, taking a series of self-portraits whose extreme lengths enabled Opie to truly reflect her own identity. “Self Portrait / Pervert” (1994) features Opie appearing like an executioner, sitting topless in a latex gimp mask with the word pervert carved into her chest in fancy typography. As her blood marks the edges of her carved chest, 46 neatly placed 18-gauge steel pins pierce her flesh on both arms.
As an avid member of her local S&M community since the early 80s, the extremity of this image amplifies Opie’s identity. The photo was taken at a time where she was very concerned about the divide between the leather community and the wider gay and lesbian community; one she had witnessed at a Washington march earlier that year. At the march, the wider LGBT community was saying 'we're normal', which created a binary of 'abnormal' between the two groups. “That was hard for me and that is what pushed me to make that piece,” Opie told CNN. “It was like, 'OK I'm wearing the language that you're calling me on my body and I'm just going to sit here like Henry VIII in Hans Holbein's paintings and that's what you're going to have to deal with. Think about Holbein and you're going to have to think about this image'.”
AI WEIWEI: “DROPPING A HAN DYNASTY URN” (1995)
Ai Weiwei is not the obvious choice for a list on artistic extremism, but within the Chinese context of deep oppression, one of Ai’s earliest artworks, 1995’s “Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn”, was an extreme act of resistance. The work features a black and white triptych that shows Ai in three different stages of dropping an ancient, 2000-year-old Han Dynasty ceremonial Urn, allowing it to smash to the floor. The Han Dynasty was a defining period in the history of Chinese civilisation, so to smash one of its relics was to diminish the cultural and social importance it holds to Chinese identity. Many called the piece a desecration to which Ai replied: “General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.” Here Ai refers to the widespread destruction of antiquities during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), where it was instructed by the state that in order to build a new Chinese society, the old must be destroyed. So for Ai, he was simply following state order.
CAROLEE SCHNEEMAN: “INTERIOR SCROLL” (1975)
Visual artist Carolee Schneeman’s context of male-dominated American art in the 70s demanded extremity to be heard. On August 29, 1975, Schneeman performed her landmark piece “Interior Scroll” at feminist exhibition Women Here and Now in New York. With an audience keenly watching, Schneeman undressed in front of a long table, under two dimmed lights. She wrapped herself in a sheet and climbed onto the table. After announcing to the audience that she would be reading from her soon to be published book, she dropped the sheet to reveal she was wearing an apron to the crowd. She then proceeded to paint her body. Still holding her book in her hand, she began to read from it before she removed her apron and drew a narrow scroll of paper from her vagina, reading aloud from it. As continued to draw the scroll out from within her, she read a story from a super 8 film Schneemann had begun in 1973 titled Kitch’s Last Meal, which detailed a conversation with a ‘structuralist filmmaker’. When reading from the scroll, Schneeman set traditional concepts of rationalism and order associated with masculinity, against the intuition, and intrinsic ties to the body of femininity. In feminist journal Fluxus Feminus, performance theorist, Jeanie Forte, said of “Interior Scroll”, “(Schneemann)'s vagina itself is reporting...sexism”, while other art critics emphasised the context of the performance, showing how Schneeman was turning art world focus away from male-dominated conceptual and minimalist art.
PETR PAVLENSKY: “STITCH” (2012), “FIXATION” (2015)
Petr Pavlensky works within the oppressive context of Putin’s Russia. In 2012, he literally sewed his lips shut for the performance now known as “Stitch” (2012) – a reaction to the arrest and trial of Russian political activist group Pussy Riot, after they stormed the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow to perform. While Pussy Riot was on trial, Pavlensky took a needle with red thread to his lips, sewing it closed as an act of defiance against state censorship. As the red string swings from one hole in Pavlensky’s flesh to the other, we can envision the weight of state censorship on freedom of speech. “The trial of Pussy Riot destroys the concepts of human rights and freedoms, Russia openly declares that it is becoming a totalitarian state, which, moreover, rejects its secular character. There is a trial of the whole society, which is shown that it must shut up, shut down. I opposed it. With his lips sewed, Pavlensky arrived at the Kazan Cathedral in St.Petersburg, holding a sign that said “Action of Pussy Riot was a replica of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Mathew 21: 12-13)”
Following the same vein of extremity is Pavlensky’s “Fixation” (2015). In November 2015, Pavlensky nailed his testicles to the cobblestones of Moscow’s Red Square. “Fixation” was precisely timed – it occurred on Russia’s national police day, as a reaction against police control and surveillance. “A man sitting on Red Square and staring at his balls nailed to the cobblestone is a metaphor of fixating on one's helplessness”, Pavlensky once told Dazed Digital. “This is the very heart of Moscow…but it’s always under surveillance from the snoops, security cameras, snipers and policemen…The only thing left would be to stay nailed to the cobblestones by your balls, infinitely fixating on your helplessness.”
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ: “RHYTHM 0” (1974) “THE LOVERS: THE GREAT WALL WALK” (1988)
Marina Abramović is the queen of extreme performance art. Her extremity is found in her endurance both physically and mentally and nearly all of her performance works test how far she can push her mind and body. “Rhythm 0” (1974) is one of her earliest performances to show this – a six-hour performance in Naples where Abramović stood still in front of a table of 72 objects, ranging from a rose and a feather to nails, a scalpel and a gun loaded with one bullet. The audience was invited to use the objects in any way they pleased, with Abramović’s aim to see how far the audience would go in the face of passivity. The performance started off lightly, but soon progressed to something dark, as the audience cut up her clothes, stuck rose thorns in her stomach and, towards the end of the piece, one member even pointed the loaded gun at her face. “I wanted to give the audience every opportunity,” she told Dazed, “for pleasure for pain, for tenderness and also the possibility of death; to kill me with one bullet and pistol. I wanted to see what the public would do If I didn't do anything and so I gave them these instruments.”
Abramović’s endurance continued with “The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk” (1988), which saw her and then-soon-to-be-ex-lover Ulay spend 90 days each trekking the Great Wall of China from opposite ends, in order to meet in the middle to say their final goodbye. The performance was continuous, with Abramović walking every day for three months. Abramović’s 2010 “The Artist is Present” is another example, and the artist sat for eight hours a day, for nearly three months, to meet the gaze of 1000 strangers.
JENNY SAVILLE + GLEN LUCHFORD: CLOSED CONTACT (1995-96)
In 1995, painter Jenny Saville became obsessed with the process of cosmetic surgery after she witnessed several operations. She was fascinated by the ability to create man-made beauty from a surgeon’s knife by cutting, pulling, nipping, and tucking human flesh, and the painful lengths humans would go to achieve socially constructed ideals of perfection. Eager to express her fascination, Saville turned to fashion photographer Glen Luchford to produce their 1995-96 collaboration Closed Contact. The photo series features Saville as the model, as she manipulates her body on large sheets of perplex, with Luchford taking photos from below. The outcome takes the body to inconceivable lengths. Her flesh is pushed, pulled, squelched, and contorted into the glass and her body appears malleable – as if she has no bones. The series not only takes the body to physical extremes, but the disfigured imagery pushes human perception to think beyond societally constructed conceptions of beauty, as the human body (one of the world’s most scientifically understood mechanisms) is taken beyond realism. Closed Contact is the antithesis of ‘beauty’ on purpose, as to create a resonance in viewers about their own conceptions of what it means to be perfect.
ZANELE MUHOLI: SOMNYAMA NGONYAMA (2016)
South African photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi takes artistic extremism to metaphoric means with her 2016 photo series Somnyama Ngonyama. In over 60 photographs taken across Europe, North America and Africa, Muholi uses her body as a canvas to metaphorically inflict the pain of the politics of race and representation on herself. “Every image is a reaction to something that has frustrated me,” Muholi once told Dazed.
The series covers issues such as the misrepresentation or lack of representation of PoC in the media, as well as racial profiling. “It has taken a long time to have black faces in the media, so long that now it feels negotiable like this person can now ‘qualify’ to be on the cover of the media. It’s painful because all of this has happened before; grandmothers, mothers, people we all know, have been subjected to this racial objectification. I often find myself thinking ‘this can’t be’ and the images are a manifestation of that feeling that it is still very real. We now need to find different ways to articulate this pain. This is my take.” The complexity of Somnyama Ngonyama is translated through Muholi’s careful selection of props. She uses accessories like beaded fly whisks and cowrie shells to reflect Westernised, exotic representations of African culture in one image, while in another image, she uses latex gloves and scouring pads to address issues of oppressive domesticity and social constructions of gender identity.
SEBASTIAN HORSLEY: CRUCIFIXION (2000-02)
The late painter Sebastian Horsley refused to paint things as they were, but rather as they felt. So when he wanted to paint scenes of crucifixion in 2000, he followed his artistic mission and crucified himself so that he could then translate the experience into art. On the week of his 38th birthday, the painter travelled to the Philippines where crucifixions are carried out. After refusing painkillers, a nail was driven into each of his hands and he was crucified on a wooden cross. Medics describe the act of crucifixion as hours of limitless pain, intermittent partial asphyxiation, and loss of tissue fluids. It wasn’t long before Horsley passed out, being caught by an onlooker, which saved his life. “I did have terrible anxiety that this was a wanton act of self-destruction and I was taking it too far even for me,” Horsley told The Guardian. “But I wanted to go to every extreme, to stretch my sensibility through suffering in order to feel and communicate more. I reasoned that I wouldn't be able to produce a great work of art without that pain and anxiety. I wanted to break limits and test the boundaries of reality.” The experience was turned into a video, as well as a set of subsequent paintings that were exhibited in his 2002 show Crucifixion.
PIERO MANZONI: “ARTIST’S SHIT” (1961)
Testing the limits of what art can be was Italian conceptual and avant-garde artist Piero Manzoni’s 1961 “Artist’s Shit”, where he claimed to have tinned 90 cans of ‘freshly preserved’ ‘artist’s shit.’ In what seems like a metaphor for the level of crap the commercial art world buys into, Manzoni went on to sell the cans. A receipt dated August 23, 1962, certifies that Manzoni managed to sell one in exchange for 30 grams of 18-carat gold. In 2007, Sotheby's sold one of the tins for €124,000 and in 2015, tin 54 was sold at Christie's for £182,500. The value that Manzoni's critical and metaphorical piece placed on the artist pointed the way towards the understanding that the persona of the artist could be traded and commodified as an art form itself – a sentiment picked up on by artists like Jeff Koons.
One of Manzoni’s friends, artist Agostino Bonalumi, claimed the tins are not actually full of shit, but plaster. Cleverly, the cans are steel so they can’t be x-rayed or scanned to find out what’s inside, and opening a can would make it lost its value – is this one of the most extreme products of conceptual art ever made? Only Manzoni knows.