Performance art is art for which the artist uses their own body as the medium and performs an action or series of actions which become the artwork

Mona Hatoum, 'Performance Still' 1985, printed 1995
Mona Hatoum

Performance Still 1985, printed 1995 © Mona Hatoum

Introduction to performance art

Performance art is sometimes carefully planned and scripted but can also be spontaneous and random. Although it often takes place in front of an audience and may involve audience participation – or the orchestration of other participants by the artist – it can also be an action performed privately by the artist.

Performance art has origins in futurism and dada, but became a major phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s and can be seen as a branch of conceptual art.

At the heart of performance art is a strong social critique. It asks important questions about how we perceive the world around us and our place within it.
Frank Skinner

Comedian and art enthusiast Frank Skinner explores performance art from its origins through to Yoko Ono and Joseph Beuys:

Performance art in America

An important influence on the emergence of performance were the photographs taken by the photographer Hans Namuth in 1950 of the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock making his so-called action paintings. Performance art had its immediate origins in the more overtly theatrical happenings organised by Allan Kaprow and others in New York in the late 1950s. By the mid 1960s this theatrical element was being stripped out by early performance artists such as Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman.

Performance art in Europe

In Germany and Austria performance art is known as actionism, though this term is usually specifically applied to the Vienna-based group Wiener Aktionismus, founded in 1961, whose deliberately shocking performances were intended to highlight the endemic violence of humanity. The German artist Joseph Beuys was a hugely influential pioneer of performance art, making a wide impact with his ‘actions’ from 1963 on. These were powerful expressions of the pain of human existence, and explored complex social and political issues through a focus on man’s relationship to nature. In Britain the artist duo Gilbert & George made highly original performance works from 1969.

A major problem for early performance artists was the ephemeral nature of the medium. Right from the start performance pieces were recorded in photography, film and video, and these eventually became the primary means by which performance reached a wide public.

Performance art in Tate’s collection

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Further reading

BMW Tate Live
BMW Tate Live is a four-year partnership that features a series of innovative live performances and events including live web broadcast, in-gallery performance, seminars and workshops. Find out upcoming events and watch archive footage of past performances.

Art, Lies and Videotape: Exposing Performance
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Liverpool in 2003, explored the history and significance of performance art spanning the last century. Read the exhibition text and see which works were on display.

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Modern in 2012, looked at the dynamic relationship between performance and painting since 1950. Read the exhibition text and see which works were on display.

Performance artists in focus

Gilbert & George

Gilbert & George adopted the identity of ‘living sculptures’ in both their art and their daily lives, becoming not only creators, but also the art itself. They performed THE SINGING SCULPTURE 1969, all over the world, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch. Realising that they could reach only a handful of people at a time, they began to create films and pictures that could extend the idea of living sculpture without requiring their physical presence.

Gilbert & George
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Modern in 2007, brought together a range of artworks which span their entire 40-year career. Read the exhibition text and see which works were on display.

In the film below, Gilbert & George discuss their involvement in the Gilbert & George exhibition at Tate Modern, and talk about how their art practice began.

Audio Arts: Gilbert & George
William Furlong interviews Gilbert & George at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, where they unveiled the GINKGO pictures. The pictures incorporate images drawn from contemporary street culture, while the artists present themselves as grotesque figures.

Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman, 'a' 1970
Bruce Nauman
a 1970
Screenprint on paper
image: 517 x 662 mm
Purchased 1994© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

Bruce Nauman, is known for his performances, neon works, installations and videos. Since 1968, performance has formed a major part of his output. Documented using video, these involve the artist undertaking actions (for example putting on makeup); and explore language – in Good Boy Bad Boy, actors repeat the same phrase through various stages of anger.

Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think Me
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Liverpool in 2006,  focused on the artist’s investigation into the human condition. Read the exhibition text and see which works were on display.

Sound Waves
In this Tate Etc. article art historian Robert Storr’s interviews Bruce Nauman about his use of language, and his Turbine Hall commission, The Unilever Series: Bruce Nauman: Raw Materials, a provocative sound work which engages visitors as they progress through the space.

Audio Arts: Documenta 9
This double issue of Audio Arts was recorded at documenta IX, in Kassel, Germany, in June 1992. Listen to Bruce Nauman’s Anthro / Socio, a piece consisting of three projection surfaces, six monitors and a singing man. Art editor Michael Giraud talks about Nauman’s visual poetry of the body, and how this piece is a symbol of documenta.

Joan Jonas

In the 60s, I saw happenings and performance pieces by visual artists and that inspired me to shift as I saw I could make much more dimensional work…I loved to preform and I could see that I could develop my gestures by working with my body.
Joan Jonas at Venice Biennale

See Joan Jonas perform at Tate Modern – a performance captured live as part of BMW Tate Live: Performance Room:

Venice Biennale: Joan Jonas
Watch Joan Jonas talk about her work Reading Dante on display at the Venice Biennale in 2009, and discuss the freedom she feels within the medium of peformance and installation.

Joan Jonas
Watch footage from this Joan Jonas screening at Tate Modern, where the artist also discusses her use of moving image within the medium of video and film collage.

Other Perspectives

Students from York talk about the impact of the ARTIST ROOMS: Bruce Nauman exhibition and how his work inspired their marketing campaign.

‘Here, I knew I was being watched’
Co-curator of the BMW Performance Room Capucine Perrot, explains the influences behind this project, and reflects on the past performances.

What does performance have to do with architecture?
In this blog post, we explore performance architecture from the past to now in relation to the Art in Action programme in The Tanks and its place within the musum and performance art.

MixTate: Claude Speeed on Matthew Barney
MixTate is a series which asks up-and-coming musical figures to create sound mixes inspired by Tate works. In this MixTate, Berlin-producer Claude Speeed takes inspiration from video artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 5.

Performance art in context

Performing for the Camera
This exhibition which is at Tate Modern in February 2016 examines the variety of ways in which the photographic image has both documented and developed our understanding of performance.

Performance Art 101: The Black Mountain College, John Cage & Merce Cunningham
This article was the first of six weekly posts introducing some of the key moments from performance art, its context and its history. This article begins with the fifties.

Bring the noise
This Tate Etc. article looks at the audience interaction element of futurist performance and how they led the way for participatory art.

Hear from Wang Peng, who enacted the very first-known performance work in China at a time when installation and performance art was banned.

Performance art in detail

This talk addresses some of the thoughts and observations emerging from the inter-disciplinary debates around the nature of the performative and live art in order to identify future trajectories for performance in this highly mediated digital age.

Talking Art: Marina Abramović
Watch Marina Abramović in conversation with Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel gallery, where they discuss her recent work The Artist is Present.

Performance, Gender and Identity Study Day video recordings
Watch the videos documenting this study day which looked at how several women artists from the 1960s and 70s appropriated performance art to explore their own sexual identities, and the performative approach of self-portraiture.

NeCCAR: Performing Documentation in the Conservation of Contemporary Art
Watch our conference series which includes a talk by Allesandra Barbuto on the museum’s role of preserving and acquiring performance; and Andreia Nogueira and Hélia Marçal’s discussion on the challenges of documenting Francisco Tropa’s oeuvre.

Performance art for kids

Bruce Nauman, 'e' 1970
Bruce Nauman
e 1970
Screenprint on paper
image: 518 x 662 mm
Purchased 1994© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

These activites are a fun and simple way to introduce performance art to kids, whether in the classroom or at home.

Out into the world
Performance artist Sarah Sanders gives a ‘how to’ for a text peformance in the first of her six Textile Tryout activities for kids.

Art and performance
Taking Bruce Nauman’s work as inspiration, this activity will get kids creating their own performance based on movement and pattern.  

Related glossary terms

Types of performance:
Time-based media, video art, live art, art intervention, happening, body art, interactive art

Groups and movements:
Action painters, actionism, fluxus, conceptual art, feminist art, Gutai, dadaneo-dada