Marina Abramović is one of the most well known performance artists, and her work has dealt with issues of femininity, relationships, and her Serbian upbringing. In Rhythm 0, Abromović exposed humanity’s darker side by sitting passively at the mercy of others for six hours. Abromović arranged a variety of objects in front of her — a rose, a feather, a knife, a gun, and more. Visitors were allowed to poke her, prod her, and do anything else with the objects she provided. Although they began the day curious, as time wore on the audience pushed the limits and became violent. Her clothes and skin were cut by the knife, and one person even loaded the gun and pressed it to Abramović’s head.
Russian protest artist Pyotr (or Petr) Pavlensky has used extreme performance art to bring attention to corruption in the Russian government and of his qualms with Russian society. In one of his most extreme ‘living pain’ performances, Pavlensky stripped his clothes off and nailed his scrotum to the floor of the Red Square, a central city square in Moscow, and he remained there for an hour and a half. He said this performance was ‘a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of modern Russian society.’ His other works of protest have included sewing his mouth shut and setting the wooden doors of the former Soviet security agency office on fire.
Guillermo Vargas Jiménez received death threats after his controversial exhibition in Nicaragua featured an emaciated dog with ‘You Are What You Read’ written on the wall in dog food. It was reported that the dog had starved to death as part of Vargas’s work, but the director of the gallery claimed the dog was fed regularly and was only tied up for three hours one day before it escaped. Vargas has refused to comment on the fate of the dog but said that no visitors made any attempt to free the dog, give it food, or even call the police. Jiménez’s work aimed to call out hypocrisy; the dog had been carelessly looked over in the streets, but once he put it in a gallery people started to care about it.
Ideas of masculinity, sexual desire, and trauma are picked apart in Ron Athey’s extreme body art and performance art. Athey was born in America and has centered a large part of his work around HIV awareness. His controversial work focuses on performing physical acts to his body as a way of transcending bodily pain. In Self Obliteration, Athey sat in a glass box wearing nothing but a long blonde wig with needles hidden underneath against his scalp. As he brushed the wig, blood spurted from his scalp onto the surrounding glass walls.
Wafaa Bilal’s brother Haji was killed by a missile in their hometown Kufa, Iraq. Bilal felt that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis like his brother were invisible to Americans, so in a 24-hour live performance Bilal had his back tattooed to bring awareness to their deaths. Over a borderless map of Iraq, one dot was placed for each Iraqi and American war casualty. Bilal had 5,000 American soldiers represented by red dots and 100,000 Iraqi casualties represented by dots in green UV ink, invisible until shown under a blacklight. During the performance the names of the dead were read off. Bilal asked visitors to donate $1 to fund scholarships for Americans and Iraqis who lost parents in the war.
Elvira Santamaría’s politically-charged Urban Actions depicts the mourning of decades of violence in Colombia. The Mexican artist honors the victims of the corrupt country by covering herself in white and red carnations and solemnly walking through or lying in public spaces. Although her work is not outwardly shocking, her attempt to build empathy through reminding passers-by of their sorrows and their anxieties makes an impact on an individual scale. Santamaría intends to build herself as a symbol of hope in renewal for the future.
French artist Orlan’s most famous performance piece saw her go through nine plastic surgeries from 1990 to 1995 in order to adopt characteristics of the women of famous artworks. Orlan was not trying to make herself more beautiful through the surgeries; rather she aimed to use her body as a canvas to challenge ideas about bodies and beauty. Through her implants and operations Orlan ended up with the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the nose of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Psyche, the lips of François Boucher’s Europa, the eyes of Diana, and the forehead of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Her surgeries were another performance in themselves: Orlan lay fully conscious during the surgeries, listening to poetry and music, in costume, and occasionally with performing dancers while filming and broadcasting each feat.
Mao Sugiyama caused a scandal with his performance art in Japan. Sugiyama, who identifies as asexual, underwent elective genital-removal surgery and then had his genitals cooked and served at an upscale dinner party. Five paying guests were allowed to taste the severed penis, testicles, and scrotal skin, which were seasoned with parsley and served alongside mushrooms. Although Sugiyama carefully followed all Japanese laws, he was later charged with indecent exposure. Sugiyama said the performance was meant to raise awareness about “sexual minorities, x-gender, asexual people.” View photos of the meal here (warning: the content is as graphic as it sounds).
Vito Acconci is an American designer, landscape architect, and performance artist. Much of Acconci’s artwork is considered controversial, including his famous performance piece Seedbed. For this performance, visitors entered a room on a low wooden ramp. Acconci, who lay hidden under the ramp, masturbated while whispering sexual fantasies about the guests walking around above him. His voice was projected by loudspeakers throughout the gallery so that the visitors could hear every dark fantasy he came up with. Acconci kept up this activity for eight hours a day over three weeks.
Over the course of his career, American performance artist Chris Burden has endured many brutal, self-inflicted performances: he nailed himself to a Volkswagen Beetle, spent five days and nights inside a locker in the fetal position, and was kicked down two flights of stairs. In Shoot, Burden has himself shot in the arm with a .22 rifle. Although his works seem outrageous and untraditional, Burden, like many other artists of the 1970s, was fueled by the violence and suffering of the Vietnam War. In a world seemingly desensitized to pain, Burden forced viewers of his performances to confront the discomfort.
In another shocking piece by Marina Abramović, the artist had a near-death experience at one of her performances. In Rhythm 5, Abramovic placed a large, five-point star soaked in gasoline on the ground. She lit it on fire and systematically cut off pieces of her own toenails, fingernails, and hair and threw them into the flames. After this, Abramović jumped through the flames into the center of the star, where she passed out due to a lack of oxygen. After a few moments the audience realized this wasn’t part of the performance, and Abramović was rescued from the flames and taken to the hospital.
In 2014, Pavlensky took another symbolic stand against the Russian government. As a protest of the use of forced psychiatric treatment to achieve political goals, Pavlensky climbed up onto the roof of Moscow’s psychiatric center fully naked and cut his left earlobe off with a large knife. Pavlensky, with blood rushing down his body, was quickly removed by police. Moscow’s psychiatric center was infamous for diagnosing dissidents in the USSR on highly questionable grounds. Pavlensky himself has been sought after by prosecutors to undergo psychiatric evaluation for his previous cases of vandalism.
Bas Jan Ader’s famous last piece is somewhat of a mystery. After a career of artistry in photography, film, and performance, the Dutch artist disappeared at sea in 1975 during his performance In Search of the Miraculous, in which he aimed to cross the North Atlantic from Massachusetts, USA, to Falmouth, England. He estimated that the journey would take him about two and a half months, but Ader lost radio contact after just three weeks. His boat was found empty ten months later. Whether it was his intention to commit suicide or his death was purely an accident is still unknown.
Yang Zhichao uses his work to bring attention to the relationship between the body and the world. In Iron, Hide, Zhichao, with the help of artist Ai Weiwei, went through a public operation in which a metal object was permanently inserted into his leg. In his next two works, Planting Grass and Earth, Zhichao implanted natural objects into his body. In both instances, the natural objects were rejected by his body, which festered with infections, whereas the metal object was adopted into his body without a problem. His artwork challenges notions of humanity’s connection to the natural and technological worlds.