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What is performance art?

Performance art: The basics

What is performance art? Is it theatre? Can it be dance? Where does the "art" part come in? These are all fair questions when it comes to performance art, an interdisciplinary art form that brings together elements of time, space, bodies, and audiences.
The origins of performance art date back to the First World War and Hugo Ball's Dada Manifesto, which rejected a world that could be consumed by war and called for a new society–and a new form of art for that society. The Dadaists prized nonsense, irrationality, and intuition over reason and logic, and performed songs and actions that reflected this attitude. The Futurists and Surrealists shared a very similar anti-establishment outlook.
Stuart Brisley, Moments of Decision/Indecision, 1975, 18 photographs, black and white, on paper on card, 54 x 42 cm (Tate)
At the forefront of the American avant-garde were figures like Yves Klein and Merce Cunningham, who explored the limitless possibilities of human movement, and composer John Cage, who did the same for music. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, artist Allan Kaprow had set the stage for happenings, theatrical events that took place in a gallery or installation and made use of light, sound, and bodily performance, often making use of audience participation (something we'll explore further in that section.)
Also flourishing at the time was a movement called Fluxus, taking its name from the word flux, meaning "flow," dubbed by the revolutionary Lithuanian-American artist George Maciunas. The group's intentions, according to Maciunas, was to "promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art, promote living art, anti-art." The living art of Fluxus and Kaprow's happenings set the stage for the development of performance art, which moved away from static installations to placing more and more emphasis on the actions of the artists themselves.
German artist Joseph Beuys pushed the envelope even further, incorporating items like dead hares, honey, and pure fat in his performances. More importantly, Beuys believed that every human being was an artist, and that every considered action constituted a work of art. The performance artists that worked in the following decades took this dictum to heart, making art through the sheer presence and actions of their bodies in space.
Bruce McLean, _Pose Work for Plinths 3_, 1971, 12 photographs, black and white, on paper on board, 75 x 68 cm (Tate)
Performance artist Marina Abramović became an icon of the field and continues to produce new and engaging work. Her piece Rhythm 0 (1974) was a six-hour performance at Galleria Studio Morra in Naples during which she allowed herself to be manipulated by the public in any way they chose, using a range of objects laid on a table, including hair brushes, feathers, food and even weapons. By doing so, she created a dialogue with the audience, drawing them into artistic territory that was unfamiliar, and even dangerous–the piece only ended after someone held a gun to the artist's head.
Since then, performance art has developed from the groundbreaking work of artists like Abramović and Vito Acconci, evolving to reflect upon the issues of new generations and societies. Some artists like Bruce McLean have used performance art to make humorous and critical observations on the nature of performance and how it fits in among other forms of artistic practice. Performance art is and continues to be concerned with how collective action can challenge oppressive regimes and overturn established ways of thinking. At its heart is a strong social critique, asking questions about how we perceive the world around us–and our place within it.

Collaboration: Making art work together

Gilbert & George, _Gordon's Makes Us Drunk,_ 1972, video, monitor, black and white and sound (mono), duration: 12min (Tate)
With its spirit of collaboration and group action, performance art has long been a call for artists to work together. Gilbert & George, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jeff Koons and his muse Cicciolina, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, Marina Abramović and Ulay: these artists among many others have made the choice to think, work, and create together. If Beuys was right when he said that every human being is an artist, and every action a work of art, then the very collaboration between two humans is a work of art in itself.
Gilbert & George–their name reflecting a joint artistic identity–harness the power of cooperation through humorous physical performances and deadpan silliness. In their film Gordon's Makes Us Drunk, they sit down and politely drink a bottle of gin while Elgar and Grieg play in the background, declaring now and then, "Gordon's makes us very drunk." Their performance brings into question notions of politeness and "good behaviour" through a humorous collaboration. You can hear more about their work from the artists themselves in our Audio Arts seriesPaul Harrison and John Wood make a similarly silly duo in Twenty-Six (Drawing and Falling Things) (2001), in which they crash, swing, and tumble through a series of deadpan physical antics, inviting us to consider how bodies, actions, and a sense of humour can be used to make art.
Japanese artist Daido Moriyama invites collaboration in his performance Printing Show(1974), in which he works with assistants to create photobooks from copies of his photographic prints–which have been carefully selected by members of the audience themselves. Michelangelo Pistoletto and Ei Arakawa create actions and performances that both foster and rely upon collaboration between themselves and gallery visitors. Can you think of any other artists that collaborate to make art together?

Participation: Get involved with art

Roman Ondák, _Good Feelings in Good Times_, 2003, performance, people, overall display dimensions variable (Tate)
Performance art has become more than a prompt to consider the nature and function of art–it's often an invitation for its viewers to get involved. Many contemporary performance artists create works that don't just encourage participation but actually rely upon it to exist. Robert Morris' groundbreaking work Bodyspacemotionthings, for example, first took place in 1971 and was among the first fully interactive exhibitions ever staged. Beams, weights, platforms, rollers, tunnels and ramps built from materials such as plywood, stone, steel plate, and rope transformed the gallery space into a physical and visual playground. Without an audience, it was just a jumble of various materials. But with visitors clambering their way through, over, and around, it became a performance in which participation proved itself to be a valuable element of art.
As another example, Thomas Hirschhorn's Flamme Éternelle (2014)–or "eternal flame"–brought together over 200 artists, writers, philosophers, and poets to join the artist himself and an ever-changing audience to wander the space, give and listen to lectures, make art, and chat over drinks. The creative engagement fostered by the artist was just as much a part of the artwork as the environment he constructed around it. And what about those lectures, talks, and moments of creativity that occured within that environment–wouldn't they be part of the artwork, too?
Ryan Gander created a similar participatory situation in his Locked Room Scenario in 2011, crafting an environment that led viewers into a journey of discovery and doubt and as they began to question the authenticity of the supposed "group exhibition" they found themselves in. Roman Ondák's works have turned audiences into participants, both willingly as when they volunteered to be measured in Measuring the Universe (2007), and perhaps unwittingly when confronted with a queue waiting for nothing in particular in Good Feelings in Good Times(2003).
These performances and others have pushed the element of participation into the spotlight, encouraging artists to reach out to visitors and engage with new communities. Suzanne Lacy's Silver Action, for example, brought together hundreds of older women to share their stories of activism and protest with one another as well as with the passing audience, both in person and through a live web broadcast and social media commentary. As part of the innovative BMW Tate Live series, Silver Action is one among many such pieces that bring performance into the digital realm, broadening the scope of interactivity and "liveness" and redefining participation for the 21st century.
Piqued your interest? Looking for an in-depth history of performance art? Learn all about the happenings, actions, interventions, and revolutions at our Performance Art 101 blog series:

Want to join the conversation?

  • female robot grace style avatar for user Anna
    Would the performance of a symphony by an orchestra be considered performance art since it is a performance and music is one kind of art?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user Camille @ Tate
      That's a great question. Although we could potentially say the term "performance art" includes more mainstream activities like orchestral performance, dance, theatre, and music, these are typically known as the "performing arts." "Performance art" is a term usually reserved to refer to the kind of usually avant-garde or conceptual art which belongs to and grew out of a tradition of the visual arts, such as John Cage or the Fluxus artists who were very much inspired by Dada, Surrealism, and Futurism.

      But the term "performance art" could encompass activities like theatre and dance if they aim to go beyond performance for its own sake or entertainment, and instead try to convey meaning in the way conceptual art does. Does that make sense?
      (3 votes)