Peak Performance

By Jo Morten Weider

Let’s be honest. The art world is full of crazy, strange people. That is exactly what makes it so fascinating. There are not many art forms where all the madness, confusion, but also genius, are as clear as in performance art. In its foundations, performance art refers to an artwork dependent on the presence of the artist himself or herself rather than an artifact made by him or her. Here are some of the most interesting and absurd examples, from well-known classics to those that have gone below the public radar.


The Birth of Baby X by Marni Kotak, 2011
Ajax Bell was born at the tiny Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, weighing 9lbs 2oz in October 2011. Marni Kotak – who said giving birth is the ‘highest form of art’ – had set up a home-birth centre at the gallery and turned it into a brightly decorated bedroom with ocean blue walls and photo-imprinted pillows, along with a shower. Around 20 people were present for Ajax’s arrival and they helped to clean up and bring food to the new mother. But the performance did not stop there. “She plans to re-conceptualize her role as a parent to baby Ajax into a work of performance art that will last for the rest of her life,” The Washington Post explained.


I like America and America Likes Me by Joseph Beuys, 1974
In 1974 Beuys flew to New York, got picked up by an ambulance, swathed in felt, and was then transported to a room in the Rene Block Gallery. For three days, Beuys shared the space with a wild coyote, performing actions both necessary to preventing harm to himself and carrying a symbolic weight for the viewer. At the end of the three days, by which time Beuys and the coyote had essentially become friends, the artist was loaded onto a stretcher, taken back to the airport by ambulance, and flown back to Germany. He never set foot on the ground in America and saw nothing of the country but the gallery.


Rhythm 5 by Marina Abramovic, 1974
In Rhythm 5, the Belgrade-born, New York-based artist Marina Abramovic placed on the ground a large, five-pointed wooden star, an echo of the communist red star, soaked it in petrol and lit it. As it blazed, she threw in bits of toenail, fingernail and hair, which she cut off in front of a watching audience. Then she jumped through the flames into the centre. She did not know the fire had sucked up all the oxygen and, since the audience couldn’t see her clearly for smoke, it took several moments for them to realise that she was unconscious. Abramovic was rescued just in time and rushed to hospital.


Vaginal knitting by Casey Jenkins, 2013
Feminist artist Casey Jenkins, a self-professed “craftivist”, caught the attention of the pop performance art world in 2013 when she opted to knit from a ball of yarn wedged inside her vagina. “I’m spending 28 days knitting from wool that I’ve inserted in my vagina”, the Melbourne-based artist stated in a video of the act. “Everyday I take a new skein of wool that’s been wound so that it will unravel from the centre and I stick it up inside me… and then I pull out the thread and knit.”


Shrapnel by Adrian Parson, 2007
In 2007, DC-based artist Adrian Parsons circumcised himself on stage, in front of an audience, with a dull Swiss army knife. Parson then proceeded to stuff the ragged foreskin into a glory hole in the wall, though he was heard lamenting, the hole is too small. Asked as to why he did this performance Parson said, “I was trying to penetrate, the gallery and the audience. I wanted to be organic shrapnel.”


Seedbed by Vito Acconci, 1972
In 1972, Vito Acconci stunned audiences at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery when he buried himself, so to speak, under a ramp in the art haven and proceeded to masturbate, using the sound of visitors walking above him to spark his “sexual fantasies.” He also used a microphone to project his ongoing monologue — basically, a series of very dirty thoughts — to the entire room.

Inducing miscarriages by Aliza Shvarts, 2008
In 2008, Aliza Shvarts, an art major at Yale, set up a performance art piece sanctioned by Yale. For nine months, she artificially inseminated herself using a needleless syringe by injecting freshly collected sperm near her cervix. On the 28th day of her cycle, not knowing whether she was pregnant or not, she would pop in an abortifacient drug (the kind that results in an abortion, or rather a miscarriage) and would thus proceed to have bad cramps and heavy bleeding. She did this to herself for nine months and the exhibition piece featured videos of her having the induced miscarriages and also other physical evidence such as blood of the same.

Testicles for dinner by Mao Sugiyama, 2012
In 2012, just days after Sugiyama’s 22nd birthday, the artist underwent elective genital-removal surgery to raise awareness about sexual minorities, x-gender, and asexual people. He divvied up the severed penis shaft, testicles, and scrotal skin between five people, and garnished it with button mushrooms and Italian parsley. On April 13, five diners who signed up for the $250-a-plate feast, sat down to dinner.

Shoot by Chris Burden, 1971
In 1971, young American artist Chris Burden stood still while a friend shot him in his left arm from a distance of about sixteen feet (5 m) with a 22 rifle. The violent images of the war in Vietnam and the television media in general provided a background setting for Burden. The bullet was originally supposed to nick the side of Burden’s arm, but the shooter was slightly off target and the bullet went through the arm instead. This piece presented exactly what happens when a person is shot so that the audience could experience it in person, and not just in a detached setting such as watching the television while sitting comfortably on the couch. The performance was caught on video, and later collected by museums like the MoMA and the Whitney.

Eating people by Zhu Yu, 2000
In 2000, Chinese performance artist Zhu Yu recorded himself eating what appeared to be a dead fetus stolen from a medical school. It was presented with stills of the act (which did not actually involve a human fetus) at the bombastic “Fuck Off” exhibition organized by Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi. “No religion forbids cannibalism,” Zhu Yu claimed. “Nor can I find any law which prevents us from eating people. I took advantage of the space between morality and the law and based my work on it.”

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