Performing the Body

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Biology 202

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Performing the Body

Perrin Braun

In 1963, at the height of the revolution in body art, artist Caroleee Schneemann wrote in her notes that "the body is in the eye; sensations received visually take hold on the total organism." That same year, Schneemann covered her body in paint, grease, chalk, ropes, and plastic and placed herself amongst a seemingly random array of objects in a work that she entitled Eye Body (Jones 1-2). In such performative and theatrical works, often referred to as "body art," the human figure is essentially transformed into a canvas that obscures the distinction between life and art (Green 6). This means of visual communication creates a whole new conception of the body for the audience, especially since the body of the artist is no longer his/her own, but instead belongs to the viewer. Body art therefore creates an interesting dichotomy between the body and the self, expanding the concept of the I-function into conflicts between the artist and the viewer, and the artist and the body.

In a collage from the 1960's, Japanese artist Yayori Kusama posed herself in an odalisque position on a couch amidst uncooked, and decidedly phallic, macaroni. She is nude save for high heels and 1960-esque polka dots that cover her flesh, knowingly gazing straight at the viewer. Kusama is unapologetic of her status of her non-male, non-white artist, visually performing her identity and eroticism as well as enacting the role of the artist as a public figure. In images such as these, viewers are forced to entertain the notion of the artist staging her self as her work. Indeed, Kusama's body is literally absorbed into the subject of the work and therefore becomes it; intertwining viewer, artwork, and artist/artwork (Jones 6-8).

However, Kusama's work displays her conflict as to her identity in the piece. She is performing the question of whether she is an object or a subject, celebrity pin-up or artist. Regardless, this image of Kusama is "deeply embedded in the discursive structure of ideas informing her work that is her 'author function'" (Jones "Presence 14-15). In such blatantly public works such as hers, the body of the artist is no longer his/her own, but instead belongs to the viewer. There is a certain dualism that is inherent to body art that differentiates between the self of the artist and the subject of the work (the artist's body) because the artist transcends the body in order to convey a larger message to the audience.

The revolution in body art has radically transformed the ways in which the public views the means of interpretation which governs our comprehension of visual culture. The work of such body performers as Kusama and Schneemann is contingent on being watched by an audience, as opposed to existing independently like a painting. Michel Foucault said that "the body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a disassociated Self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration" (qtd. in Jones 12). The body, therefore, is the locus of a dispersed "self" that is transmitted through the audience, with all of its racial, sexual, gender, and class identifications (Jones 13).

Throughout history, the artist has always been the "I" in a work of art. For example, self-portraiture and even the concept of signing one's name on the bottom of a painting are indicative of the artist's self-awareness. It was a fairly modern development that the subject is so dependant on the expectations of the viewer and experiences he/she might have had that influence the perception of the work.

Jackson Pollock, a twentieth-century artist, is particularly renowned in the art world for his series of paintings which concern the act of performing art. His images display a shift in the relationship between artists and their work in the sense that his means of creating an artwork is drastically different from the more conventional artist-at-easel image. Instead, Pollock stands above his canvas and performs the act of painting by pouring a stream of paint directly out of a can while he moved (Jones 53). He is famously quoted to have said that "I am nature," meaning that anything that he created became and extension of himself and consequently nature.

The I-function in performance art is therefore an extremely complex issue due to the multiple identities involved in the performance. Especially more so since the artist, the viewer, and the subject of the work are all integral to the interpretation and analysis of the piece. Viewers are forced to engage with works that are so closely intertwined with their own experiences and those of the artist that it often seems like the I-function takes more than one form in body art.

Works Cited

Green, Gaye Leigh. "The Return of the Body:Performance Art and Art Education." Art
Education. Vol. 52. pp. 6-12.

Jones, Amelia. Body Art: Performing the Subject. University of Minnesota Press:
Minnesota, 1998.

Jones, Amelia. "Presence in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation." Art
Journal. Vol. 56. pp.11-20.

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