Wonderful and Frightening: Performance Art


Karen Finley. Photo:PR

The passing of performance artist Carolee Schneemann a couple of days ago (RIP) prompted this pondering blog post.

I was considering her legacy: through the likes of Buzzcut Festival, Soho Theatre, artists like Gob Squad, Adrienne Truscott and theatre makers Scottee and Bryony Kimmings (whose work draws from performance art; but doesn’t sit explicitly within the genre) contemporary performance art gets a large audience, hungry for something confessional.


Marina and Ulay: Relation In Time,1977. 

How do we define performance art? Broadly speaking, it is external: it is located in and around the body. It lays bare (literally in many cases) our collective neuroses and anxieties. It provokes and challenges, as it holds up a mirror against our human fallibility.

At its laziest, though, it’s a series of haircuts creating empty, controversial spectacle for braying crowds. Nudity, inarticulate screaming and a lack of lucidity can give it bad press. See: Vulva, the Leigh Bowery spoof from Spaced; Vic and Bob parodies.




Photos: Channel 4 archives.

There is a reason good performance art endures. It speaks to a deeper truth about our lives, it deals in the finite. Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy from 1964 feels as fresh as ever. It’s the physicality, and the juxtaposition of live, writhing flesh with dead fish that makes it potent: all meat, to be displayed and consumed.



Text, flesh and props often interlock. As our bodily experiences are fluid, so, body fluids (and other kinds) can be deployed.

Karen Finley is a proponent of female rage, and she still provokes using toys, liquids, her naked form and furious poetry meditating on the active female body; violence,desire and representation. Even promoting from her latest work in the Trump era, Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known, she is outspoken and controversial, spitting out uncomfortable home truths.

Scottee is currently looking at gay, fat, working class masculinity in Fat Blokes (See Gareth’s superb post in Tempo House, where he addresses this in his interview) something which has been previously sidelined in favour of beautiful, gym- honed and middle class figures.

Unfix Festival, in Glasgow at the end of March, is an ecological performance art festival which sits alone, as its main thrust is political and societal issues which affect us all. The artistic director Paul Michael Henry told me he was tired of festivals which were billed as “community minded, when they’re clearly money- oriented”, and operates a pay what you can scheme. If only more artists had as much integrity and honesty.

I’m not finished…

… I’m finished!

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