To what extent would you be willing to use your own body for your art? That is a question that many artists over the last century, in particular, have asked themselves, producing results that have been by turns insightful, controversial and, well… a little gimmicky. Forget Carolee Schneemann, Jenny Saville or Bruce Nauman – here are five slightly more obscure practitioners to have made their own bodies central to their work.
Many of us remember where we were in autumn 2015 when a naked Poppy Jackson perched herself on a London gable for four hours for her performance piece, Site. Part of the Spill Festival of Performance, the artist’s defiant pose drew plenty of both admiration and derision.
While The Guardian‘s Lyn Gardner described Jackson’s performance as “unassumingly beautiful and quietly moving to behold“, the Daily Mail was more inclined to ask: “Isn’t that a bit chilly?”
The artist herself has said that “My performance art led me to recognise how the body is political. It can do so many things and is just an amazing vehicle to say something about the state of society with – everyone has a body so people can all relate in some way.”
The Anglo-Argentine artist has already long challenged viewers with her surreal performances questioning their ethical values while drawing attention to the contradictions and consequences of their choices. An especially memorable performance for many was Carrion, which addressed consumerism through a direct comparison of a woman’s body to animal flesh. Fornieles sat in a skeleton hut in the company of a cow carcass, which after undressing, she stabbed and stuffed with audience-collected messages of thanks or apology.
When asked how she felt being nude in a public space, the Kingston University and Slade School of Fine Art graduate responded: “It depends on the context. If I am using my body in a performance then I don’t feel in any way intimidated or embarrassed because there’s a purpose to it and I believe very strongly in what I do.”
Cast your mind back to October 2013, and you might recall a certain Central Saint Martins student – Clayton Pettet – announcing that he would have sex for the first time in front of 150 invited spectators for a performance piece called Art School Stole My Virginity.
So, did the 19-year-old follow up on his promise? Not in the slightest, although those attending the ticketed event were at least treated to quite the spectacle, with one recalling that he found himself crouched in a small booth with Pettet and being ordered to slide a banana into the artist’s mouth. It turned out to be one of the most highly publicised art hoaxes since the days of William Boyd and David Bowie’s ‘Nat Tate’. But as the artist perhaps astutely observed: “I think if people were expecting something else, it shows what they really wanted. They didn’t want an art piece, they wanted to see me have sex.”
The late Terry Fox was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 17, a development that influenced his references to cycles of illness and wellness in various subsequent artworks.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Fox later based himself in San Francisco, from where – at the Richmond Art Center – he spent six hours laying on his back for a performance piece called Levitation in 1970. It gave him a profound sense of being out of his body – indeed, after four hours, he could no longer feel his body, which led him to conclude that his limbs had gone to sleep. The artist was unaccompanied for the performance, and when visitors were allowed to enter the room, they were greeted with an imprint of his body in the earth. He considered this resulting sculpture to be the most successful he had created, such was its moving quality of absence.
While many of the artists to have used their body for art have become critical darlings, the Swiss conceptual artist Milo Moire has attracted widespread censure for her practice that aggressively blurs the lines between art and pornography.
Her performance PlopEgg No. 1, for example, saw her entertain attendees to Art Cologne 2014 by pushing ink and paint-filled eggs from her vagina to create abstract works. She wore no clothes for this act, which critic Jonathan Jones described as “absurd, gratuitous, trite and desperate. Anywhere but an art gathering, this would be regarded as a satire on modern cultural emptiness.”
Her notoriety continued this year with her Mirror Box performances in various European cities, which involved her inviting bystanders above the age of 18 to reach in through reflective compartments in the box that she was wearing to spend 30 seconds touching her chest or genitals. On performing this act in London, England, she unsurprisingly found herself detained for 24 hours by local police.
What do you make of these often opinion-dividing artists? Are there others that you admire for their use of their bodies in their art, and how have you used or considered using your own body for the purposes of your art practice? Don’t be shy to contribute your thoughts below.