The human body has inspired artists throughout the ages – traditionally the body was often used to explore allegory, beauty and sexuality but in the twentieth century there was a significant shift in both how the body was perceived, and how it was used to create art. Use of the body, frequently the artist’s own body, as a medium is often associated with performance art. Performance art came to prominence in the 1960s and can be seen as a branch of conceptual art. Conceptual artists think beyond the use of traditional media and explore ideas in whatever materials or form is appropriate.

Bruce Nauman, ‘Changing Light Corridor with Rooms’ 1971
Bruce Nauman
Changing Light Corridor with Rooms 1971
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021
Gilbert & George, ‘Light Headed’ 1991
Gilbert & George
Light Headed 1991
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Gilbert & George
Charles Ray, ‘Plank Piece I-II’ 1973
Charles Ray
Plank Piece I-II 1973
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Charles Ray
Francesca Woodman, ‘Space², Providence, Rhode Island’ 1976
Francesca Woodman
Space², Providence, Rhode Island 1976
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© and courtesy Charles Woodman / Estate of Francesca Woodman and DACS, 2021
Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Derrick Cross’ 1983
Robert Mapplethorpe
Derrick Cross 1983
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

An important influence on the emergence of performance were the photographs of the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock making his so-called ‘action paintings’, taken in 1950 by the photographer Hans Namuth. Pollock, with his canvas laying on his studio floor, dripped and poured household paint onto the surface. Throughout the 1950s artists such as Yves Klein continued to experiment with the application of paint, blurring the lines between painting and performance.

In his Anthropometries paintings 1960 Klein used the human body as a paint brush when naked women, smeared in paint, where pulled across large canvases creating abstract tracings of the human form. The element of performance in the creation of these works was further enhanced through an audience of spectators dressed in formal dinner-wear. While Klein, was known for developing new techniques and attitudes to art, others, such as those associated with Fluxus, had more overtly political agendas.

Klein was one of the few European artists to have an important exhibition in the USA during the 1960s. The USA was generally indifferent to European art during this period, which was dominated by figures such as Klein and the German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys was highly influential in the development performance art, making a significant impact with his ‘actions’ in Europe from 1963 onwards. His actions were expressions of the pain of human existence, man’s relationship to nature and complex social and political issues. I Like America and America Likes Me 1974, one of his most famous actions, was formative for the reception of German avant-garde art in the USA, enhancing Beuys’ status and that of his contemporaries such as Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer.

The ‘action’ began as soon as the artist landed in the USA, when he was wrapped in felt in New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, and driven in an ambulance to René Block’s Manhattan gallery. He spent three days in the gallery space with a coyote before being driven straight back to the airport and flown home. The coyote is significant because it is sacred to Native Americans, representing an aspect of the country’s past which Beuys felt affection for. Each day of the ‘action’, he made two piles of the current Wall Street Journal. These would be duly torn or urinated on by the coyote – his statement on contemporary USA. Two works in the ARTISTROOMS collection Coyote I 1980 and Coyote II 1980 reference items used in the action including a felt blanket and newspapers set in the room where the action took place. Beuys would often use felt in his actions and sculptures because of the materials insulating properties, which are integral to the meaning of the work. Beuys would also have a suit tailor made for him from felt, which he would use for the earlier performance Action the Dead Mouse / Isolation Unit 1970. Felt Suit 1970, one of Beuys’ many multiples, evokes the image of the artist almost as if a self portrait, despite the absence of the body.

Prior to Beuys’ performance, the younger American artist Bruce Nauman was establishing himself as an early pioneer of performance art in the USA. Nauman used video and photography in works such as the Art Make-Up films 1967-8 and Self-Portrait as a Fountain 1966-7. In Self-Portrait as a Fountain, Nauman, investigates the role of the artist, making reference to Marcel Duchamp, using his body to physically replicate the sculpture Fountain 1917 replica 1964. In Art Make-Up 1967-8 Nauman used his body to mask and erase his own identity through the application of different coloured make-up associating himself as actor taking on different guises and mutations. During the same period of the Art Make-Up films, Nauman also created his first corridor installation Performance Corridor 1968. Subsequent installations such as Changing Light Corridors with Rooms 1971 would similarly create claustrophobic and enclosed spaces. In these works Nauman transforms us into active participants who are nevertheless controlled and manipulated by his reconstruction of the gallery’s layout ehansing our own physical experience and spacial awareness.

While Nauman was investigating the role of the artist and various physiological states Gilbert & George were presenting themselves as sculptures at art schools and galleries in London. Dressed in suits, with their faces painted in metallic silver and gold they mimed and performed music-hall songs, making minimal robotic movements for up to eight hours. 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. Performance pieces were recorded in photography, film and video, and these eventually became the primary means by which their performances reached a wider public. Like Beuys, Gilbert & George’s appearance would become an integral part of their work.

Charles Ray was similarly thinking of sculpture as an activity rather than object when he created early photographic works such as Plank Piece I & II 1973 . In this photographic documentation of Ray, he is pinned against a wall with a plank of wood. Ray creates a minimal, graphic image that is at once humorous and unsettling. In Ray’s later works such as Oh Charley, Charley, Charley… 1992 he creates casts from his own body where the lifeless bodies allude to a sense of play in the artist’s absence.

The physical absence of the artist’s body is apparent in the work of Richard Long, who often creates art by walking in the landscape. The formative work A Line Made by Walking 1967 was created when Long was on his way home and he stopped in a field in Wiltshire. He then walked backwards and forwards until the flattened turf caught the sunlight and became visible as a line. Long photographed this work, recording his physical interventions within the landscape which underplay his own presence in the work.

Francesca Woodman similarly created works which question the presence of the body while indicating a sense of life. A prolonged exposure technique creates a spectral blur of Woodman’s body giving her a ghostly presence in works such as Space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 1975-8. Woodman’s work often captured her in isolation, in dilapidated interiors, where her body is partially absent or obscured. She is both present and absent – her identity removed by the obscuring of her features.

The artist Martin Creed is not the performer in Work No. 837 (Sick Film) 2007, instead a series of young men and women walk on screen and vomit; Creed is exploring the human body and its processes. Much of Creed’s work is normally devoid of emotional content but in this case, the extremes the participants are pushed to, enhanced by the retching and choking, conjures discomfort in the spectator. As well as Sick Film Creed also made similarly minimal films, which focused on basic human functions such as defecation and sexual intercourse – in each of these films the body is set against a stark and sterile background to focus our attention on these basic and yet highly private human functions.

Creed’s work provokes an emotive response because we are familiar with these basic functions – our memory of similar experiences can be distressing or negative. The American sound and video installation artist Bill Viola’s work is often emotional in a classical sense, recalling medieval or renaissance painting. The two works by Viola in ARTIST ROOMS: Four Hands 2001 and Catherine’s Room 2001 are from a series known as The Passions, which explores human emotions, inspired by early European devotional paintings. The bodies in these works perform rituals and gestures that accompany emotional states and relate to the cycles of nature.

Just as Viola uses fragmented body parts in works such as Four Handsconcentrating the viewer on single body part or gesture the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe often zoomed in on single area once stating “I zero in on the body part that I consider the most perfect part in that particular model”. In the work Derrick Cross 1983 the body’s core fills the frame. The arch of the body suggests movement while the draped fabric around the waist enhances the sense of performance and sculpture. Mapplethorpe, like Viola, also takes his inspiration from classical and renaissance art, however, emotion is overridden by the bodies’ physical perfection.

The partial and fragmented body parts in Douglas Gordon’s A Divided Self I & II1996 belong to the artist himself but this is not evident at first glance. The work consists of two screens; both showing two arms struggling with one another which appear to belong to two different people: one is hairy and the other, hairless. The fact that both arms belong to the artist illustrates a personal identity conflict. Gordon frequently uses his own body in his artwork often wrestling, constraining and disfiguring himself, manipulating his body making his audience aware of their own fugitive subjectivity, questioning how we give meaning to our experience of things and our relationship to ourselves.