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Body art

A subset of Conceptual art and a precursor of Performance art, Body art is just what its name implies: an art form in which the artist’s body is the medium rather than the more conventional wood, stone, or paint on canvas. Body art often took the form of public or private performance events and was then seen in documentary photographs or videotapes.

Frequently motivated by masochistic or spiritual intentions, Body art varied enormously: Chris Burden had himself shot; Gina Pane cut herself in precise patterns with razor blades; Terry Fox attempted to levitate after constructing what he termed a “supernatural” gallery environment; and Ana Mendieta created earthen silhouettes of herself in poses reminiscent of ancient goddess figures from the Near East.

Precedents for Body art include some of Marcel Duchamp’s early-twentieth-century Dada gestures (a star-shaped haircut, for example) and the actions of Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni during the early 1960s. Body art was at once a rejection of the cool Minimalism of the 1960s and an embrace of the body-oriented ferment of that moment. The experimentation with sex, drugs, and psycho-sexual frankness in society at large was mirrored—and enacted—by Body artists.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.