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Because Our Bodies Are Temples

Performance art remains somewhat in the margins of the artworld. It seems that many people consciously shy away from performance art, especially when it involves using the body as a site for expression. They keep it at a distance, and consider it a foreign or freakish practice.

Some find it strange that Keith Boadwee squirted streams of paint from his anus ("Untitled [Purple Squirt]," 1995) to create a painting parodying the abstract expressionists. Others have been terrified at seeing photographs of Ana Mendieta's performance wherein she pulled down her pants, painted her backside with blood, and leaned over a table ("Rape Scene," 1973).

Most people spend their lives avoiding uncomfortable situations and pain, and are forced to face their deepest anxieties when viewing performance art that acts out and challenges cultural taboos. This work not only includes viewers more immediately, than, say, a painting, but also implicates them as voyeurs.

For as long as performance art has been practiced, it has had run-ins with the law - gallery performances abruptly stopped by police, naked artists hand-cuffed and escorted to jail. Unlike so many artforms that have been challenged by postmodern critics for their effectiveness, performance art maintains its avant-garde character even though it has been practiced for over 40 years.

As early as 1918 Oskar Schlemmer had claimed the body to be the new artistic medium, but it was 40 years later in Austria that the Viennese Actionists truly started to explore the idea through acts of self-mutilation, self-torture and self-degradation. By acting out castrations, cutting themselves, smearing feces over their skin and drinking their own urine, the Viennese Actionists forced viewers to consider the absurd actions of a barbaric, war-mongering human race, and to contemplate normal behavior and identity as social constructions. In 1968 Gunter Brus fled Berlin in order to avoid a six-month prison sentence for his piece "Art and Revolution," for which the state had charged him with degrading state symbols because he had masturbated in public while singing the Austrian national anthem. In 1971 Marc Stelarch hung from meat hooks pierced into his skin over a New York City street in order to experience the sensation of flying. And in 1994, the National Endowment for the Arts was criticized for granting funds to artist Ron Athey, whose performance "4 Scenes in a Harsh Life" told the history of his depression and his battle with AIDS through having his body pierced, scarred, cut and jabbed with needles. Even though Athey was harming no one but himself, and viewers could choose whether to participate or not, many people were critical and scared of his harming himself, even as a means for cathartic healing.

A more drastic response came in the form of censorship concerning Kerry Weber's performance at the 2001 SAIC 4-D Extravaganza last December. While SAIC's responsibility as an educational institution complicates the censorship, and it may very well have been the result of a legitimate health or security concern, the fact indelibly remains that the process of self-mutilation in body art is still taboo.

In our cynical, desensitized world there are few sights or artworks that stop us short in our tracks and elicit such dramatic responses as fascination or repulsion. Body art demands if not our understanding, then at least our attention. Mention Orlan, the artist who has her face and body surgically reconstructed according to female beauty ideals established by master artists throughout history (e.g., Botticelli's "Venus," Leonardo's "Mona Lisa") and you will most likely get an emphatic response of either complete respect or complete disgust. Anyone who has seen but a few minutes of Bob Flanagan's sadomasochistic performances, acted out as a means to control and overcome the pain of cystic fibrosis, undoubtedly cringed when they saw him nail his penis to a board, but felt overwhelmed with empathy at the same time.

The issues that body artists deal with have become increasingly varied since the 1960s, covering the spectrum - psychological, social, gender-related, religious, and political - as have the methods of manipulation they employ. There are too many to cover or even touch on in this space. But throughout the history of performance and body art mutilation has played a key role.

Body art in the fine art context becomes more prevalent as nonconformist practices like tattooing, piercing and scarification become more commonplace. As more people are open about and acknowledging of self-mutilation, self-torture and sadomasochism as means for psychological control and physical catharsis in our increasingly numbing modernized world, it is somewhat perplexing that Kerry Weber's piece would be considered so problematic.

Many critics over the years have condemned body artists for being obscene, exploitative, graphic and disturbing, but that discomfort is part of the point. Whether self-mutilation is simulated, as in the work of many of the Viennese Actionists (most famously in the castration performance of 1969 by Rudolf Schwarzkogler), or if it is real, like when Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm in "Shoot" (1971), the act is shocking for it violates a fundamental value-to not hurt oneself. But many such artists, using their own bodies as sites for expression, are working in metaphors. By hurting themselves physically they are acknowledging and controlling what's much more painful - mental anguish. Tattoos, piercings and cuts scab over and heal. The pain they cause is temporary, but the anxiety of living in a world that often seems to not care about you - that kind of pain is permanent.

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