L’Art au Corps

[mac] musée d'art contemporain de Marseille

Unfortunately, it seems that a comprehensive history of performance art and related genres in the United States, Europe, and Japan has yet to be synthesized into a single exhibition. “L’art au corps, le corps exposé de Man Ray à nos jours” (Art on the body: the body exposed, from Man Ray to the present) was presented as a historical exhibition focusing on art that uses the body itself as a medium, in particular works that emerged during the ’60s and ’70s. Intended to serve as a kind of tribute to the French journal ArTitudes and to its founder Francois Pluchart—who from 1971 to 1977 was a great supporter of body art—the show also attempted to include numerous works from the ’80s and ’90s with their roots in performance, Happenings, and body art. In not limiting itself to a definite historical period, however, the show at times fostered confusion about the meaning and objectives of works by as many as eighty artists. It tended to focus on the spectacular aspect of the works—most of which have lost none of their provocative, anti-establishment force—at the expense of a serious examination of their original social, political, or psychological contexts.

L’art au corps,” in fact, seemed to recapitulate the second part of “Hors Limites” (Out of bounds), presented at the Pompidou Center in 1994, which skipped the birth of the Happening in the United States and its connections with the Beat Generation. It chose instead to include such experimental works as Kazuo Shiraga’s feet-paintings, Klein’s Le Saut dans le vide (Leap into the void, 1960), Acconci’s Trademarks, 1970 , Nauman’s Henry Moore Bound to Fail, 1967–70, several works by Dennis Oppenheim, and Chris Burden’s Dead Man, 1972. It seemed, then, disproportionate to devote six rooms to the Viennese Actionists—Hermann Nitsch, Gunter Brus, Otto Mühl, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler—whose work was characterized by animal sacrifice, mutilation, and the display of blood and viscera, excrement, and foul odors. Perhaps this was an attempt to make a connection to the excesses in the work of Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley—represented here by relatively tame pieces: Spaghetti Man, 1993, and Colema Bench, 1992. The playful mockery characteristic of McCarthy and Kelley, as well as that of Robert Gober, who was also included in the show, situates their work in a register that could not be tackled here. Perhaps it would have been more effective to emphasize feminist works that had a strong impact on performance art, for example those of Valie Export, and Carolee Schneemann. Orlan’s Le baiser de l’Artiste (The artist’s kiss, 1976), and the photographs of her recent “aesthetic” surgeries, are situated on a much more narcissistic level. Subversive cross-dressing, however, was well-represented by Urs Luthi’s self-portraits and several works by Michel Journiac, among them Hommage à Freud, Constat critique d’une mythologie travestie (Homage to Freud, critical observation of a transvestite mythology, 1972–84).

Perhaps the strongest works were the six “actions” by Gina Pane documented in the show, all involving self-mutilation, whether by fire, in Nourriture/Actualités Télevisées/Feu, (Food/televised news/fire, 1971), a razor blade, in Psyché (Essai) [Psyche (attempt), 1974], or a thorn, in Action sentimentale (Sentimental action, 1973). These works were sacrificial in nature, a gift of the self and an act of love.

Anne Dagbert

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.