"THE BODY IS AT ONCE THE MOST SOLID, THE MOST ELUSIVE, ILLUSORY, CONCRETE, METAPHORICAL, EVER-PRESENT AND EVER-DISTANT THING--A SITE, AN INSTRUMENT, AN ENVIRONMENT, A SINGULARITY, AND A MULTIPLICITY. THE BODY IS THE MOST PROXIMATE AND IMMEDIATE FEATURE OF MY SOCIAL SELF."
In the 1960s and 1970s, the body became an influential site for artistic inquiry and exploration. By replacing paint and canvas with the immediacy and physicality of the human form, body artists aimed to unite physical, psychological, and emotional experience. The body--most often the artist's own--was manipulated, probed, and investigated as its physical capabilities and limitations were put to the test. Crucial to Body Art is its performance aspect. Whether artists "performed" in front of an audience or in the privacy of the studio, documentation through photography, film, video, and/or text allows the work to be experienced by others.
Body Art emerges in both European and American art in the early 1960s. In 1960, French artist Yves Klein, Italian Lucio Fontana, and the British duo Gilbert & George used live models and the human body to perform "living sculptures." Hermann Nitsch, founder of Vienna Aktionism, gave performances reenacting ancient Dionysian and Christian rituals that involved sacrificial acts with animals and blood. Yayoi Kusama and Carolee Schneeman, who both worked in New York City in the mid-1960s, did Happenings and installations incorporating live, nude performances that represented the nascent stages of feminist art. In the later 1960s, some of the artists included in this exhibition--Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Bruce Nauman, Martha Rosler, and William Wegman--began subjecting themselves to actions, tasks, and manipulations that tested the limits and malleability of the human body in varying degrees.
Chris Burden's performances were the ultimate test of bodily pain and endurance. In his most notorious piece, Shoot (1971), Burden asked a friend to shoot him at close range with a .22 caliber rifle in a gallery space (he was hit in the arm). In Seedbed (1972), Vito Acconci hid under a ramp for the duration of the exhibition and masturbated, "spreading his seeds" as he listened to viewers' footsteps. Speakers installed in the gallery transmitted his fantasies.
While spectator response is fundamental for Adrian Piper and Barbara Smith in their critical examination of the body in the social and political realm, Bruce Nauman conducts repetitive, mundane actions in the privacy of his own studio. At the core of these works, in which the body becomes the site for artistic activity and exploration, is a basic human need for self-discovery.