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COUNTER-PARTS: A study of physical transgression and embodiment in Performance Art 

"A performance should be as thin as an onion skin. An audience should see through you.”

(Cerio 1996 quoted in Green).


 The transgressive nature of performance is delineated by the site of material existence in physical form. In order to canvas the terrains of our bodies, there needs to be a total understanding of the material that mediates the spectrum of performance. Transgression, defined as a departure from a rationalised state, mobilises the dichotomy of mind and body by utilising the human vessel as a conduit that bridges liberated self expression with physical inhibitions and functions endowed to each of us. The transgressive nature of performance is attributed to the focalisation of one’s body through the lens of Foucauldian and Bahktin’s discourse. With reference to performance epistemologies unique to women and people of colour, I argue the mechanisms of body and mind work in tandem, and not in polarity, to navigate bodily comportment in this art medium to its maxim.

Fleshed Thoughts

Through the concept of the ‘carnivalesque’ Bahktin claims that a return to lowly orders, prominently expressed through the earthiness of one’s body through orifices and nether regions are at the forefront of the most succinct performance art (1984). The notion of carnival excess as the purest strain of performance is espoused in Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, a live piece that features the scantily clad bodies of men and women alike writhing against a myriad of materials and meats in what is defined as a ‘confrontation of cultural taboos and repressed desires’. Apart from the obvious homage to lowbrow desires of the world, evidenced in the gyrating pop music which played in tandem with the performance and the incorporation of raw meats; the overload of sensory execution in the close proximity of the subjects and their material marks the pronounced effect of Schneemann’s piece in suspending the spiritual or the ideal. Meat Joy’s mimicry of reality corresponds with Bahktin’s definition of grotesque realism, a celebration of the lower body in thought and materiality, “multiple, bulging, over or undersized.” (1984). This is implicated not only in the nude form of her and her fellow performers, but in the merging of all bodily forms dead or alive, blurring the line between the erotic and the comic in the touching, sniffing, and consuming of certain parts. 

I would like to argue, however, that Bahktin’s thesis of the Carnivalesque does not require forfeiting of the mind, but rather, imbues a joyous ambiguity in the birth and renewal of life (1984).  The piece functions as a reclamation of physical geography; mutilating aspects of feminine form that have been co-opted and sexualised in male-dominated art. There is no subject just as there is no prop - the sausage links and bare breasts undergo near-identical motions without a narrative trajectory, congruent in the cyclical exchange of the event being enacted and the spectators who become part of the rite. The tensions between mind and body become mobilised in Meat Joy through its counterculture claim - despite being hailed a reinterpretation of feminist discourse, there is no definitive train of thought or meaning which the spectators were expected to pinpoint. At certain intervals of the performance, some male performers slung the bodies of their naked female counterparts on their shoulders, parading them to the audience. The fact that no reasoning is provided for doing so mirrors Bahktin’s ideology of thwarting rationale in order to return to it. Performing as ritual in Meat Joy thus becomes the embodiment of the Carnival; reinvigorating the masses through the streamlined necessities and enjoyments of the body to deconstruct thought of its process. 

Of Other Spaces: Skin I Live In 

Another integral avant-garde piece which illustrates the vitality of mind and body can be found in Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Meters, which involves Huan sitting naked in a dirty 12 square feet wide latrine while basted in a mixture of honey and fish oil, attracting swarms of insects that preyed on his body for hours on end. Held in the midst of Beijing’s summer, the performance concluded with him washing the substances and dead bugs off himself in a nearby creek. Despite its critical acclaim, it was deemed, for obvious reasons, transgressively risque by the public. Huan proposes the body as the true locus of identity as a site that extends past conventional modes of existing, or being. 

“The way which I come to know society and society comes to know me...I found a leg from a mannequin on the street. Just one leg, a woman’s leg. I took it to my studio, and experimented with taping the prosthetic leg to my body. That was the first performance experience for me. The body is the first language for me. The body is immediate. In the toilet [12 Square Meters] I can feel the flies biting me--that’s why I use the body. Everything seemed to vanish, at sight, and I could feel my life leave me in the distance,” (1999).

 Huan assumes the role of a temporal host for the hour he spends in the latrine, dropping in and out of consciousness as his body becomes ravaged by insects. This holds pertinence as a potent example of Foucault’s heterotopia, evidenced by the multiplicity of teeming life in a layering of spaces, but moreover, in the vulnerability of opening and closing which makes such spaces penetrable (1986). All locations become public, serving as the template of which others can create and feed off of. The latrine is to Huan what Huan’s vessel is to the flies. 12 Square Meters quite literally becomes a heterotopic space bisected by mind and body as he performs in a designated location with an existing purpose, and co-opts the latrine, and moreover, his body, as the site of consumption for the microcosms of life at play. By doing so, Huan surrenders both physical and mental to the act of the performance; balancing on the threshold of several geographies of existence, from the flies to himself, to the live bacteria of the latrine, becoming the heterotopia that is manifested in otherwise incompatible sites. 

Peephole for the People

Finally, I would like to consider Annie Sprinkle’s role in juggling the semantics of sex and performance. Kristeva posits that the ‘abject’ disturbs the order and balance of society (Philips 2014), which foregrounds the fear of the ‘other’ or the ‘unknown’. Kristeva’s ideology is pertinent in further dissecting Foucault and Bahktin’s theories of Performance art, particularly through the scope of women. To consider the trajectory of the abject, the deconstruction of subject and object is required to penetrate another realm of order (Phillips 2014). Female artists become a direct espousal of the abject in its debasement of conventionality in doing or being, inflicting agency onto the vessel of their own bodies, oftentimes to cross the threshold into the ordered world of entrance or event-ness of performance. Sex worker turned sex ecologist Annie Sprinkle demonstrates the amorphous reality of creating in her body through different facets of being. The presentation of the female body in Sprinkle’s work becomes an entity in itself through the limits and machinations of performing sex from both an erotic and an avant garde position, hinging between two in order to relegate meaning. Striff posits that the binary is more of an amalgamation that results in her post porn, postfeminist, and post postmodern expression - a defusing of two warring oppositions - “.. to unsettle the familiar opposition.. She is neither artist nor whore but artist and whore,” (1993). Sprinkle’s work dismantles the ideology that the binaries of the feminine mind and body are dictated by irreparable difference. Lewd displays cannot be received as a critical piece of art, and since the female body is the canvas of performance art; overt display of sexual veracity cannot veer into the realm of pornography. To politicise Sprinkle’s works would be to challenge that very paradigm; it refuses to be packaged into separate entities but rather argue that the two are indeed interchangeable in the persona she adopts out of her own agency. Agency, argued by Williams, is located in the possibility of repetition or variation (1993), actualising selfhood through repetition of performance.

 Legend of the Ancient Sacred Prostitute is a critical piece in which Sprinkle absorbs the desires in her line of work in its duality - she utilises a dildo and a vibrator to circulate her sexual energy with the audience, who goad her on with rattles while she builds up to an orgasm. The devices become an extension of her embodied self, relating purpose in its multifaceted use. She cultivates the base pleasure of sexual gratification while reorienting the audience in their participation of the act, allowing them a part in the performance which circles through the same motions until climax is attained. Subverting the repetitions of her own desires and allowing it to manifest throughout the performance space and her sex device situates Sprinkle in the abject, collapsing the realm of archaic divide before entering into the what Kristeva coins as the entrance of the symbolic order (Philips 2014); the opening of her physical entrance in the orgasming of the exposed orifice. This ruptures the idea that Sprinkle’s cannot wield her body without simultaneously catering to the fetishistic or the highbrow avant-garde scene; becoming abject as neither subject or object but agent over both.

Albeit the fact that the body has long been established as a departure from the mind, the terrains of our bodies bridge the gaps in performance. The transgressive nature of performance is delineated by the site of material existence — our bodies. Transgression, in its departure from a rationalised state, mobilises the dichotomy of mind and body by moving the human vessel towards liberated self expression. Through the lens of Foucault and Bahktin’s theories in analysing the limits of the interior/exterior divide, I conclude that these mechanisms work in tandem, and not in polarity, to navigate bodily comportment in human performance art to its maxim.

Reference List 


Bakhtin, Michail Michajlovič, and Hélène Iswolsky. Rabelais And His World. Indiana University Press, 1984.

Foucault, Michel, and Jay Miskowiec. "Of Other Spaces". Diacritics, vol 16, no. 1, 1986, p. 22. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/464648. Accessed 15 Nov 2019.

Green, Gaye Leigh. "The Return Of The Body: Performance Art And Art Education". Art Education, vol 52, no. 1, 1999, p. 6. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3193779. Accessed 15 Nov 2019.

Huan, Zhang et al. "Performing Bodies: Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, And Performance Art In China". Art Journal, vol 58, no. 2, 1999, p. 60. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/777949.

Schneemann, Carole. Meat Joy. Judson Dance Theatre, New York, 1963.

Striff, Erin. "Bodies Of Evidence: Feminist Performance Art". Critical Survey, vol 9, no. 1, 1997, pp. 1-19. JSTOR, doi:10.3167/001115797782484628.

Williams, L. (1993). A Provoking Agent: The Pornography and Performance Art of Annie Sprinkle. Social Text, (37), p.117.

Zhang Huan – “To Add a Meter to an Anonymous Mountain”, 1995, chromogenic print, 114.3 x 165.7 cm. (45 x 65 1/4 in.), edition of 15 

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