What Is Performance Art?

Jun 12, 2022 | 4 comments

The definition of performance art

Performance art is a term used to describe an art exhibition in which the body is the medium or live action is in some way involved. You can watch this art live or through documentation. It may be created, written, or developed spontaneously. Performance art involves four basic elements that are time, space, body, and presence of the artist. Apart from that, there is a strong relationship between the art creator and the audience in performance art. The audience will become part of the happenings and simultaneously experience them. Performance artists believed art can and should change everyday life.

Performance is not a medium, not like painting and sculpture. It’s not about what it is made of. It is a tool used by the artist to raise questions about how art relates to us and our social worlds. Performance operates in the gap between art and life, connecting us to both. It is a living, shape-shifting, often hard-to-define entity that is there to make sense of our changing world and to include us into art’s frame. Robert Rauschenberg describes it as “art that refuses to settle.”

Marina Abramovic defines performance as follows: performance is a mental and physical construction that a performer makes in a specific time and space in front of the audience, and then energy dialogue happens. The audience and the performer make the piece together. There is a critical difference between performance and theatre. In the theatre, the knife used by the actors is not real, and the blood is just ketchup. In the performance, however, the blood is the material, and the razor blade or knife is the tool. Unlike theatre, you cannot rehearse a performance since many actions in performance cannot be done more than once in life. All human beings are afraid of simple things such as suffering, pain, and mortality. The artist stages these kinds of fears in front of the audience and uses their energy. By the use of this energy, the artist can push his or her body as far as they can.

Origins of performance art

Many people consider performance art as a contemporary mode of art. This, however, is nothing new. Throughout history, people have always performed in front of each other through dance, various carnivals, rituals, storytelling, and many more. But after years and as the art evolved, people started to use objects like painting, drawing, and sculpture to describe a thing. They started to define art as these motion-less works. Live actions. On the other hand, live actions were related to other genres like opera, theatre, and ballet. During the 20th century, however, artists started to describe live-action as art and used it in their works.

The Role of Futurists in Performance Art

In the 1910s, the Italian Futurists believed that performance was the only way to reach a large audience through staging noise concerts. They also performed a kind of disruptive variety theatre aimed to destroy the quote that said, “the solemn, the sacred, the serious and the sublime in Art.” Futurism in those years was an Avant-Garde movement that spread its theories with poetry and music halls in public places, which anticipated the performance art.

Bauhaus and the Avant-Garde performance classes

The Bauhaus was the first institution to offer a particular performance class during the Weimar years in 1919, confirming it as a medium in its own right. It had some art workshops with the goal of exploring the relationship between the body, light, sound, and space. The instructors of Bauhaus were exiled by the Nazi Party, so they moved to the US after World War II and founded Black Mountain College. With avant-garde composer John Cage conducting workshops and performing collaborative productions, it became a centre of experimental, multidisciplinary practice. Cage explained to his students how music relates to Zen Buddhism and how art should be in action within life with all of the accidents, chaos, and occasional beauty that entails. Participants in his productions were given ambiguous scores that might be interpreted in a variety of ways, produced unpredictable results, and were impossible to recreate. The emergence of action painting

In the 1950s, the action painting technique or movement was given birth by the artists. An art critic, Harold Rosenberg, explained that “the canvas began from one American painter to another as an arena in which to act. What was to be painted on the canvas was not a picture but rather an event.” The term performance came to define an artwork that had a live element witnessed by the audience. But as the performance took root, people began to see that painting and sculptures could have performative aspects, too, like Jackson Pollock’s actual paintings. In the 1960s, some artists started to break down the traditional boundaries between different media and raise questions about what art could and should be. These artists wanted to make the unpredictable and changing nature of life the subject and the material of the work. They believed that art that incorporated a life element reflected the modern condition better than statice painting and sculpture. They also wanted to make art that could not easily be bought or sold. 

The use of the body as a tool for performance

During the same period, the Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism emphasized the body’s political power, and artists capitalized on it. Through performance, female, black, and queer bodies that bring together multiple identities could be reclaimed, reasserted, and portrayed through a variety of perspectives, not just by white men this time but by the real people in question. Incorporating real bodies into artworks was a quick method to dispel the illusion of a universal perspective, insisting that everybody is a self that is shaped by events, language, history, and identity and is always in perpetual flux. These selves could do lots of things. They became part of paintings, positioned themselves in space and nature, performed tasks, followed strangers, subjected themselves to danger, tested their endurance, and many more. Performance art has been a reasonably consistent feature in the world of art since the 1970s. It was used internationally to examine an array of subjects. It’s been recorded and exhibited, but it’s largely resistant to commercial pressures. It gives artists a way to work outside of the market’s often oppressive framework.

Some of the most famous artists

Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic, who calls herself the grandmother of performance, was born in Belgrade, Serbia. She was raised in a religious and strict family and spent most of her childhood in a church. She lived under the strict supervision of her mother, who did not allow her to leave the house after 10 in the evening. That was the case until she was 29 years old, meaning that all of her insane performances were taken place before 10:00 p.m. She studied art and then taught in several universities and institutions worldwide.


She has 158 works and started her first performance in 1973. During the years, she has encountered pain, exhaustion, and danger through performing with her body and engaging the audience. She has received several awards for her work, including the Golden Lion for the best artist for her Balkan Baroque performance. In that performance, she hand-washed 1500 cattle bones, which was a response to the war in Bosnia. She wanted to mention that as the idea of cleaning blood from the bones is impossible, the war also cannot be washed from shame. She has also gained an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Plymouth in the UK.

Rhythm 0, the most moving performance of Abramovic

In one of her most remarkable performances, she sat in a gallery and assigned a passive role to herself, asking the audience to perform. There were 76 objects on the table and an instruction noting that the audience is allowed to do whatever they want with her body and she will take the responsibility. And what do you think were those objects? Some of the objects were a glass of water, a coat, a shoe, and a rose, but some were a knife, razor blade, hammer, and a pistol with one bullet. According to Abramovic, at the very beginning, they used pleasing objects like rose or water, but very soon, they started using other objects to harm her body. A man, for instance, used scissors to cut her clothes, and then a person used the thorns of the rose and stuck them to her stomach. Someone took the razor blade, cut her neck, and drank the blood. There was another person who put the pistol on her temple to kill her, but another person took the gun from him, and they started fighting. After six hours, when the performance was over, she stood up half-naked, full of blood and tears on her face, and suddenly everybody escaped. They could not confront her as a normal human being. After that performance, a piece of her hair had turned grey.

Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan is a famous Chinese painter, sculptor, photographer, and performance artist, mostly known for his performance. He has studied at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His real name is Dong Ming, and he changed it to Zhang Huan when started his studies.


He has established an artistic community on the margins of the city known as Beijing East Village, where Zhang was often reprimanded for his works. He, like Marina Abramovic, uses his body occasionally to stage his extreme performances. In one of his performances in 1994 named 12 Square Meters, Zhang sat naked and immobile with a shaved head in a prison-like restroom for one hour. He put some visceral liquid from fish and honey to attract flies, and after just a few minutes, his body was covered with flies. That performance related to his childhood living conditions when he had to use small, crowded, and unclean restrooms. “Once I stepped in, I found myself surrounded by thousands of flies that seemed to have been disturbed by my appearance. I felt as if my body was being devoured by the flies.”, he said.

Angel, the one that led to the censorship of Zhang

One of Zhang’s first performances was Angel, staged at the National Art Gallery of Beijing in 1993. He placed a canvas on the exhibition floor. Then, he stepped on the canvas and poured a jar of red liquid and mangled parts of a baby doll on himself. He started to collect the doll parts, assembled them to make a complete doll, and then put it on the canvas. That work was a critique of the Chinese government’s mandate of abortions for women who have more than one kid due to the overpopulation of the country. The exhibition was quickly closed, and the artist was severely reprimanded.


Performance art arose from interdisciplinary thought and continues to thrive in the gaps between disciplines. Many artists have employed performance as a means of intentionally offending, upending convention, and remaking art from the inside. Performance art arose from a desire to break down the hierarchies that exist in traditional art forms, allowing the artist to communicate directly with the audience rather than via coded forms or the separation of a canvas or frame. It wasn’t so much that people sought to develop performance as these activities seeped out from other fields where they didn’t quite fit in. It’s up to you to judge whether or not you believe it’s any good, just like with any other kind of art. However, the path to performance is to allow oneself to be bothered by it, to reveal your feelings of mistrust, fear, hate, or claustrophobia. Performance art can allow you to reflect on who you are, where you are, and how you interact with others who are not you. It can help us think about the written and unwritten norms that govern every given environment or location. performance can make you feel uneasy because that’s what it’s designed to do.

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  1. Grace Wilson

    such breath-taking performances

    • admin


  2. zoritoler imol

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    • admin

      Damn right. Thanks for your comment.


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