Everything you wanted to know about Performance art

Performance art can be described as a particular and fascinating genre that has been eliciting wonderful shows for decades. Influential artists such as Marina Abramović, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, and Joseph Beuys developed a clear timeline that showcases how far performance art has come and survived.
Turning to the actual definition of performance art, let us analyze it. What do we expect to be different from traditional art types such as painting or sculpture? How did it evolve until the 20th century?
These questions will help you to understand more about performance art, what it is all about, its historical background, and other notable artists.

performance art
July 08, 2024
Daryna Markova
contributor DOM Art Residence

What is Performance Art?

Performance art is believed to have come into focus in the twentieth century owing to the influences of Dada and Futurism movements that disregarded art tradition.
It transmogrified into a potent political and social forum, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when sitcoms as one of the television genres began to openly address issues to do with civil rights, liberal feminism, and anti-war protests, among others.
Performance art is different from more conventional forms of art like painting or sculpture in that it is not dominant or material, having to be defined by the time it is performed.
It contains elements mixed from art, theater, movement of body, music, and even recitation or poetry, which makes it a show that works on all the senses to provoke a response from the audience.

How Does it Differ from Traditional
Art Forms Such as Painting or Sculpture?

While traditional art forms like painting or sculpture focus on creating static, tangible objects that can be viewed at any time, performance art is inherently temporary and often site-specific:

  • Audience Interaction. Performance art is interactive, often sharing the formula between the artwork and the observer.

  • Artist’s Presence. In the case of the presented work, the artist is featured and actively participates; as a result, the artwork is tightly bonded with the performer.

  • Multidisciplinarity. As such, it tends to incorporate aspects of other art forms, thus offering a closely related but distinct sensation that defies categorization.

Examples to illustrate the Differences:

  • Performance Art. Marina Abramović’s "The Artist Is Present" took place in 2010, where Abramović simply sat down in front of a table in the museum and invited the viewers to sit across her, be silent, and look her in the eyes. The emphasis was placed on the participant and the psychological event, two aspects that cannot be transposed into another art form.

  • Traditional Art. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is a painting that can be watched with the same impression for the second, third, and tenth time in the Louvre museum, and no matter when it is done; the picture will always be the same rather boring in its prospect.

Why Did Performance Art Become Popular in the 20th Century?

The modernist period, beginning in the early part of the 20th century witnessed avant-garde movements such as Dadaism and Futurism that challenged conventional art forms.

Performance art was acknowledged as a new form of tangible objects, such as paintings and sculptures, that were created. In this manner, it shifted the interests of the artist or the spectator, not the result, and sought to inspire sensory immersion.

Performance art developed into a kind of artistic activism that allowed the artists to address the issues and challenges of the corresponding sociopolitical climate, including themes of gender, race, and justice.

The instantiation of post-modernist aesthetics within the context of performance art and the availability of new technologies such as photography and film helped to bring the meaning to a wider audience.

Performance art is closely tied to the speculation art movement, which began in the 1960s and distanced itself from the aesthetic approach. Another reason performance art fits perfectly well into the context of an art scene is that it focuses on the artists’ intentions as well as the actions and movements they execute.
When people's social norms regarding art and culture shifted, an interest in artistic works with meanings that stirred debate and ideas emerged.

It was in the late 1950s that Allan Kaprow of America formulated the term happenings to define a kind of feeling of performance-artistic. It saw the audience participating in the events commonly known as happenings. The process-oriented events focused on the concept that the process of construction was equally important as the construction itself.
Kaprow’s "18 Happenings in 6 Parts" (1959) is one of the earliest samples of this kind of performance, including texting and stage directions for performers, the audience, and other media means.

History of Performance Art

Early 20th Century: Avant-Garde Beginnings


It was in the early decades of the twentieth century that performance art began to be singled out as an artistic discipline within the avant-garde activities of European nations. Dada, which was a movement of art that originated in Zurich immediately after World War I, was quite instrumental in this.
Challenging the conventional traditions of art, performers such as Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara produced live performances. These breaches, frequently presented in cabarets and cafes, were free and full of jokes, paradoxes, and reflections on the political situation.

Body Art and Feminism

The concept popular in the 1970s was one of body art, with the human body as the canvas of choice. This period became significant for the questions of social justice and the appearance of the most important movement of the 20th century, feminism.
Female artists such as Carolee Schneemann and Ana Mendieta employed performance art to express situations concerning gender, sexual desire, and self. It includes Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), in which the artist comes out of a box and pulls a pornographic scripture out of her vagina as part of her performance art.
The Silueta Series (1973 - 1980) by Mendieta, where the performer made several outlines of her nude body in natural settings and then obliterated them.

A prime example of performance art is manifestation, whose history can be traced back to the early twentieth-century movement with great development throughout the decades.

Mid-20th Century: Expansion and Diversification

In the post-World War II period and the context of the global world, performance art was evolving and expanding more obviously in the United States of America and Western Europe. The concept of contextual information came into existence in the 1950s and 1960s because artists were in search of new forms of art that would allow them to escape the confinement of media forms.

Viennese Actionism

Viennese Actionism is a world art movement associated with expressive installations. Artists used live people, white gauze, bandages, and paint, imitating blood in their works. By evoking fear and horror in the audience, the artist achieved a depth of soul that not every passerby could discover for himself.

Late 20th Century: Institutional Recognition and Global Expansion

Since the 1980s and up until the 1990s, performance art has been considered acceptable in art circles, with some major museums and galleries taking the art into their galleries and art collections. This period also saw the development of significant performance artists whose productions focused on social and political issues relevant to society.

Marina Abramović

The entirety and energy of performance art can be seen through Marina Abramović’s work, often considered the ‘grandmother of performance art’. Her works "Rhythm 0" (1974), where she staged herself as an object for the interaction of the spectators, and “The Artist is Present” (2010) – the silent performance in the Museum of Modern Art in New York lasted 736 hours. These are examples of how she investigated physical and metaphysical endurance.

Global Perspectives

Performance art also developed globally during the same time, with many artists from other cultures practicing the art form. The contemporary performance art of China can also be visualized through the works of artist Zhang Huan, who enacted "12 Square Meters" in 1994. During the show, he sat immobile, naked, with honey and fish oil smeared over his body inside a public toilet. The performance art of South Africa can also be visualized through the ID work of the artist Steven Cohen.

21st Century: Digital Age and New Frontiers

This is why the culture of performance art is persistently thriving by assimilating the global issues of the twenty-first century and technological advances. The use of the internet and social networks made it possible to create, record, and share performance art in different forms and implement real-life interaction with the audience.


Today, Cassils has conquered the culture in which artists allow their bodies to become the tools for addressing the issues of transformation, strength, and identity.
Other performances are, for example, "Becoming an Image" (2012), in which Cassils performs the physical labor of kneading and shaping clay in complete darkness except in intervals of bulbs being flashed. This makes the performance extreme in various senses.

Digital and Virtual Performances

New trends in technology have also led to concepts such as virtual and augmented reality performances. Street artists are changing the art, influencing societal culture, and taking advantage of the use of the Internet and technology to achieve a combined physical and digital perception.
Such new forms of gestural and physical performativity can thus be growing as a critical response to traditional discourses of presence as performance and corporeal subjectivity, thereby defining new possibilities for performance art.

Key Features of Performance Art

Performance art is characterized by several key features that distinguish it from other art forms:

  • Transience. The obscure and shifting nature of art performance is that it only exists at the time when it is being performed.

  • Interactivity. This is because performance art includes the viewers, directly eliciting their cooperation. This creates a clear line between the artist, the performer, and the spectator.

  • Body as Medium. The art form is the artist's body; it is the means through which the message and the sentiments being passed are conveyed.

  • Narrative and Symbolism. When it comes to performances, it is important to know that they often include storytelling and an allegorical meaning in their actions.

  • Multisensory Experience. Instead of focusing on a single genre, performance art combines elements of different art forms to construct a coherent scenography.

Famous Performance Artists

Some great luminaries have made performance art richer by expanding the confines of creative freedom and questioning socially acceptable norms of beauty. Here are profiles of some of the most renowned and impactful figures in the world of performance art.

Tania Bruguera

For instance, in 1997, Tania Bruguera created an untitled work that involved La Caida and other indigenous Cubans proclaiming to the artist that they would Roll in the dust if Spanish conquerors ever attempted to take them. For example, the action of eating dirt translated by Bruguera was interpreted by him as the couple twisting it into a ‘weapon of endurance’. Just as bare skin implies vulnerability, so does the readiness to give up one’s own life as a sacrifice. Bruguera also excoriated a lamb carcass on herself and used the rest of it to make a necklace.
In one scene, she consumes the earth prepared with water and salt, representing tears. She takes the delicacies for forty-five minutes. In the words of Edward Rubin, this tragic creation was demonstrated in Havana as a reference that freedom, liberty, and self-determination are not mere slogans envisioned by so many people in this world of ours, but rather, human rights are a necessity.

Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys was the artist whose work began with his three-hour performance during the opening of his first solo show. Beuys murmured into a hare’s severed head while the spectators watched through the windows. A honey mask and gold foil were put on the face of the artist. They now associate the hare with rebirth, the honey with the mind, and the gold as the source of wisdom and enlightenment in Beuys work.
It is interesting to note that in the year that Beuys died, his place as the ‘king of the new art’ was taken over by this besieged American-Austrian artist who created his most definitive sculpture. A steel reproduction of the popular inflatable toys is the antithesis of Boyce's work in every respect: on the one hand, it has a precise shape, it is not double-bottomed, and it has no ‘hidden’ meaning. Secondly, the rabbit is again within the upper strata of embrace art, which Beuys has always been against.

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono is a Japanese-born multimedia artist and musician, a well-known peace activist, and an integral contributor to modern art. Way before the time of her marriage to Lennon, she transferred to New York City in the latter half of the 1950s and was immediately accepted into the avant-garde art circle of the city.
To name a few, her friends were Cage, Christo, Maciunas, founder of Fluxus Maciunas, and his friend, artist Nam June Paik, who profoundly influenced her work. Yoko Ono’s work reflects the conceptual art movement.
Her early autopoietic works, like "Instructions for Paintings" (1961), where the audience is encouraged to draw artworks in their minds, further predicted her later interactive and performative pieces. Ono started gaining fame in the industry because of her work with Beatles member John Lennon, whom she wed in 1969.
Collectively, they pursued a handful of artworks that focused on music and performance art, with a focus on activism. Both 'Bed-Ins for Peace" and 'War Is Over! (If You Want It)" targeted bringing about change and increasing advocacy for peace at a time that was characterized by social revolution and wars.
One of Ono’s early masterpieces is "Cut Piece" or "Piece Ceremony" (1964), which was a performance where Ono stood on stage and tore her clothes apart using scissors and encouraged the spectators to do the same. This provocative piece dealt with the issues of trust and agency by portraying women as powerful figures while at the same time displaying emotions that are usually associated with weakness and subordination.

Wu Tsang

Wu Tsang is a contemporary, multi-disciplinary artist, filmmaker, and performer whose works are concerned with matters of identity, gender, and sexuality, as well as the role of cultural memory. In her three-decade career, Tsang focused on issues of identity and representation, undermining the hegemonic ethical discourse, and promoting the voices of multiculturalism.
One of Tsang’s famous productions is the documentary film "Wildness," which was released in 2012. This work reflects the tradition of queerness in contemporary nightlife at Silver Platter, an old bar in Los Angeles.
Tsang holds their creative practice in video installations and performances, which are largely focused on the politics of migration and mere presence in unfamiliar territory. Wu Tsang has been awarded multiple times for his innovative projects. In 2018 he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

Adrian Piper

Adrian Piper is a notable conceptualist artist, philosopher, and academician from America whose collection has tremendously assisted current art and critical discourse. Piper painted over the image of a black man she made up as a fictitious man to challenge race and gender representations in art.
Piper is a philosopher and scholar in contemporary society. Some well-known pieces of her work include "Passing for White, Passing for Black" (1992), which enriches cultural discourse on identity about power and privilege.


ORLAN is a French artist most known for her daring performances that address issues of identity, bodily alteration, and beauty standards. One of the most famous projects is "The Reincarnation of Saint ORLAN" (1990s-1993s). She had a series of plastic operations as part of a live performance to examine cultural ideals surrounding beauty and the feminine body.
ORLAN has garnered several awards during her career, and her work has been displayed in major institutions throughout the world, including Paris' Centre Pompidou and New York's Museum of Modern Art. She continues to develop and push boundaries, experimenting with new technology and materials to enhance her creative and philosophical concerns.


Cassils is a brilliant contemporary artist who is not limited to performance art but deals with quite complex issues such as gender, identity, and the body in his artworks. One of Cassils’ most famous series can be called an extended performance called "Becoming an Image" (2007).
Cassils employs their performance as an artistic practice where the human body becomes their primary artistic material, together with performance and the overcoming of physical strength.
Many of the topics that they explore contain violence, trauma, and the concept of resilience, and their artwork highlights concerns regarding marginalized embodiments, participations, and oppressions in popular culture.

Influence of Performance Art

Performance art is among the greatest forces that have impacted the art world, as it has surfaced to redefine the normal conventional structures of art. While other forms of performance art sell an object as art – a painting, a sculpture, or a photograph – performance art concerns itself with the experience and the moment.
In that sense, performances happen in the process, during a certain time, and viewers interact with the body of the artist and his or her presence actively in lo-tech, which means in contexts and places that are not galleries or museums.

The art became more easily accessible to the general public, and this has somehow helped to bridge the gap between the performer and the audience. Through performance art, people can start conversations, question issues around them, and thus bring about societal change.
Thus, through the discussion of prohibited topics and nihilistic perspectives alongside the instruction of unchanging hegemonic discourses, performance artists initiate reflection over critical cultural questions.

Performance art embodied broader social and cultural significance that conditioned a future for contemporary culture and society. It remains an influential movement in the most diverse areas of life, including the fine arts and theater, as well as the political scene and the media.
In this sense, performance art has contributed significantly to art activities and has influenced international contemporary art movements in the following ways: breaking conventions and establishing new paradigms through attacks on modernism’s formalist aesthetics, as well as challenging traditional formats and presentation methods.

Performance Art's Rise
to Academic Recognition

Performance art has also grown as an accepted form of art itself, and more institutions are offering classes and researching this media type. It came into being in its infancy in the early twentieth century, reshaped art forms even up to the present, and continues to give audiences unexpected experiences.
This way, we obtain a clearer comprehension of its history, its foremost elements, and the artist's ability to significantly impact the development of this highly original and, at the same time, highly influential type of art.