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In the flesh: considering female bodies in feminist performance art

By Georgia Brown

Disclaimer: Please note the following article contains reference to bodily mutilation and self–harm

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989  © courtesy

The Guerilla Girls candidly ask us: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” As you consider this, you might find it troubling to acknowledge how many education syllabuses only inform students about the misrepresentation of women in literature and theatre. However, the Guerrilla Girls’ work brings to light a dismissal of patriarchy that also tarnishes female identity within the art world. As I read that “85% of the nudes are female”, I begin to doubt many of my experiences admiring the aestheticisation of the female body in Renaissance art. I feel an impending sense of oppressive realisation that “less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women”, tarnishing my gaze. Concealing their identity behind primate masks, the terms ‘guerrilla’ and ‘gorilla’ collide in a performative punch. Their work is explicit and resonates with the often outrageous, always political nature of feminist performance art.

The Guerrilla Girls’ exposé of the corrupt gender and ethnic bias within our politically charged culture led me to discover more Live Art, composed by particular female artists who work with their physical body as the medium for their political stage. In performative acts that show the cutting of flesh, the bruising of skin and the evocative use of blood, these female artists pull apart their own flesh in order to attack female misrepresentation in the cultural sphere. Looking specifically at the work of performance artists Marina Abramović, Kira O’Reilly and ORLAN, it can be seen how these artists manipulate and destruct the female body. Comparing their work with debates around issues that impinge on agency of the body, such as genital mutilation, I can’t help but question the extent to which self-harm ignites conversations about ownership of the body. Does self-mutilation for art exploit the privilege that many women in less economically developed countries lack?

I am also astounded by these women’s fearless nature towards bodily thresholds. For example, in O’Reilly’s 2009 performance of Stair Falling, she proceeded to free-fall down flights of stairs for four hours a day, over seventeen days. I begin to question how far these female artists must go to achieve equally established cultural recognition, in comparison to their male counterparts. The turn of the twenty-first centry has seen an influx in the way artists are “inserting their bodies, identities and, more specifically, their skin into these polemics” (Bouchard), so we must ask the question: is this the extent women must go to in order to shock and excite audiences?

The women who dig skin deep for art

Since the 1970s, Marina Abramović has been active in sacrificial work that displaces traditional art mediums. Her Rhythm Series (1973-1974) worked with materials that reject traditional control over authorship and thrive off unpredictability. Her infamous performance piece, Rhythm 0 (1974) saw Abramović become a subject of sacrifice as she offered her body to her audience. In welcoming audience members to manipulate Abramović’s body, the responses ranged from politely passive to absurdly aggressive. These acts greatly tested the artist’s mental capacity, her endurance of fear and her bodily capacity to endure pain. The performance declares Abramović’s nude body as both a site of destruction and pleasure at the hands of an entitled audience. In giving her audience entitlement to do whatever they please with the objects, the performance mimics masculine ownership over subordinate femininity. This illuminates Abramović’s empowering capacity to decide who can claim ownership over herself. Not quite convinced of the extent that Abramović digs skin deep? An audience member using a razor blade to slash Abramović’s neck then attempted to drink her blood. This highlights the barbaric truths behind feminist performance art, that has become integral to the imposition of art onto political reality:

Theatre is fake. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. – Marina Abramović (2010)

Contributing to this notion of performance art becoming a reality, ORLAN’s Art and Prostitution exhibition (1977) is an interesting display that questions the exploitation of her own, sexualised body. ORLAN invited three, male gallery dealers to participate in sexual intercourse with her for the purpose of the exhibition, with the intention to “stain the sheets of [her] trousseau to exhibit them” (O’Bryan, 2005). Afraid of exposure, the dealers declined, but nevertheless OLRAN’s intentions demonstrate her willingness to publicise her promiscuity, “politicising the male-dominated business of art” (O’Bryan, 2005). By exhibiting the sheets, despite the lack of sexual activity, ORLAN exposes a reality for women and presents this as an artwork. This illuminates the capacity for performance art to blur the boundaries between performance and reality.

Similarly, Kira O’Reilly’s artistic self-harm in front of an audience has become the new locus of feminist concern, where agency is interrogated and spectatorship is convoluted into voyeurism. O’Reilly’s performance piece Succour is by far one of the most disturbing Live Art performances I have discovered amongst my research. For this piece, O’Reilly creates a grid on her naked body with surgical tape and proceeds to make hundreds of incisions in her own flesh with a scalpel. This convolution of a nip-and-tuck, “offers a sustained and rigorous exploration of the boundaries of bodies, and indeed the movement or permeability of ‘what bodies “are” (Curtis, 2018).

Through their work, these women have provided an ignition of feminist discourse within the performative art world. A discourse as that seeks to dismantle the masculine gaze which has sexualised female bodies and oppressed subordinate women in society for centuries. It is evident that in the cutting of flesh, self-inflicted syncope and endurance of mentality presented within these works, feminist art has somewhat overcome the patriarchal restrictions that once defined their worth. Women are transgressing from simply being idealised depictions of bodies within art to suit a masculine gaze, as we now see female bodies becoming direct sites of creativity. Despite this, the Guerrilla Girls asked if women have to be naked to be recognised in museums. Must we now consider the use of self-harm by female artists to understand how far they must go to achieve recognition within the art world?

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