As feminist artist Judy Chicago put it, “Performance can be fuelled by rage in a way that painting and sculpture cannot”. It therefore comes as no surprise that many of the early pioneers of feminist art chose performance as a medium to make their voices be heard. Here, we celebrate six artists who vocalised the ideas of the second wave of feminism through radical new methods, paving the way into the male-dominated art world for many female artists to come.
As one of the first artists to inquire sexuality through the means of performance, Carolee Schneemann advocated for a self-determined and shameless approach to the often stigmatised subject of female sexuality. Her 1964 performance “Meat Joy” was filled with sexual innuendos: a group of men and women danced, rolled around on the floor, spilt paint over each other and played around with sausages, fish and raw chicken. The whole thing was wild, messy and consensually playful, challenging the dogma of female restraint and self-effacement. In “Interior Scroll”, which she performed twelve years later, she stood naked on a table, reading out a transcript of her video “Kitch’s Last Meal“ from a scroll of paper which she unrolled as she pulled it out of her vagina. The text was a conversation based on artistic concepts traditionally associated with women, such as intuition and bodily processes, against notions of order and rationality which are typically perceived as male. By literally rooting artistic discourse inside her vagina, she rendered the nude female body a source of artistic creation rather than a projection space for male desire.
Although Yoko Ono is often reduced to her role of the widow of John Lennon, she can look back on a thriving artistic career that started long before the both of them even met. Although most of her works are instructive, she staged a number of groundbreaking performance pieces such as her 1964 work “Cut Piece“. Wearing an elegant suit, she kneeled in front of an audience, having the spectators slowly cut off her clothes with a pair of scissors until she was down to her underwear. The performance pointed towards the potentially aggressive act of unveiling the female body and the passive role women often played in public spectacles.
VALIE EXPORT invented her artist name in 1967 as an artistic concept and logo to be written in capital letters only. The pioneer of artistic self-commercialisation and performative video art has touched upon feminist topics in many of her works, but her most well-known work to date is her 1968 performance “Tap and Touch Cinema”. Advertised as the smallest cinema in the world, VALIE EXPORT invited onlookers to put their hands into a large, curtain-covered box in front of her torso and touch her naked body for up to 30 seconds. Demonstrating the objectification and sexualization of women in film by breaking sexist cinema down to its essence, the performance has remained controversial up until today. When artist Milo Moiré performed a very similar performance in London last year, she was arrested for inciting public disturbance.
While she is most famous for her subtle yet powerful interventions within nature, Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta also acted out a number of performances that dealt with violence against women and questioned stereotypical notions of female beauty. In 1972, she performed “Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants)”, in which she transferred the beard hair of a male colleague onto her own face and “Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints)”, in which she distorted her body and face by pressing it against a pane of glass. One year later, Mendieta drew attention to the brutal rape and murder of nursing student Sarah Ann Ottens by covering herself in blood and recreated the victim’s poses in front of a live audience. The horrible incident inspired several other of Mendieta’s works, such as her video “Moffitt Building Piece”, in which she poured animal blood and rags onto a sidewalk and secretly filmed bypasser’s reactions to the apparent traces of violence. Mendieta referred to these pieces as a personal response to the cases of violence, explaining: “I can’t see being theoretical about an issue like that”.
No list of performance artists would be complete without Marina Abramovic, the self-declared “grandmother of performance art”. Amongst her many performances, two in particular have shaped the discourse on feminist art. In “Art Must Be Beautiful”, she repeatedly and violently combs her hair while increasingly manically repeating the words “art must be beautiful, artists must be beautiful”, critiquing the pressure that is often put onto young female artists by the industry. Her iconic performance “Rythm 0”, in which she invited the audience to use 72 objects including a feather, honey, band-aids, salt, scissors and a gun, on her unopposing body, can, similarly to Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece”, also be seen as a reflection on aggressions against the female body.
Hannah Wilke was a controversial figure amongst the feminists of her time. Many accused her of perpetuating the objectification of women by displaying her naked and conventionally beautiful body in her works. Wilke brilliantly responded to the accusations with a poster that read “Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism“. Refusing to be policed by both men and women in the ways she used her body, she performed “Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1976, completing a striptease behind Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”. The glass panes of Duchamp’s work, which is strictly divided into a male bachelor and a female bride section, served as a window for the onlookers. Through it, they could watch Wilke, who was dressed in a white satin man’s suit that embodied both bride and bachelor, strike a few fashion magazine-like poses and then slowly take off her clothes.