Tag Archives: Performance Art

Art Student Resorts to Carrying Around a Mattress to Draw Attention to her Ignored Rape


Emma Sulkowicz is walking around Columbia University campus with a mattress on her back. She’s an art student there, and Carry That Weight is a performance piece. What looks, without context, kinda funny (I immediately thought of this guy), is a actually a highly charged protest piece. The mattress carries the extra weight of Sulkowicz’s injustice and suffering.

Emma Sulkowicz says she was raped in her own dorm room bed by a classmate. Since then, she’s spent a substantial amount of time at her University trying to convince staff and peers that it actually happened to her, and that her rapist therefore deserves to be punished for his crime. Instead of expelling the rapist and allowing Sulkowicz to move on her with life the best she can, Columbia University totally ignored Sulkowicz, along with two other students at Columbia University who have reported the same assault. Their claims were swept under the rug and the alleged rapist is still allowed to roam freely on the campus as though nothing ever happened. Columbia University dealt with the allegations so flippantly, that in April Sulkowicz and 22 other students filed a  federal Title IX complaint filed against the University for mishandling sexual-assault cases.

In short: Sulkowicz lives in constant fear of harassment, because the man that raped her could be queuing up behind her to buy a can of Coke between classes. He could also walk into her room and rape her again. What’s really problematic – obviously apart from the act of the rape itself, and the high chance that it could happen again – are the lengths that Sulkowicz is now going to, to try bring her rapist to justice. It’s similar to charities having to resort to celebrity-endorsed social media campaigns to raise some money for people of dying of a disease. People are only going to give a shit if it comes up in their news feeds.

Sulkowicz has committed to carrying around a twin-size dorm mattress everywhere she goes on campus, to classes and appointments, for as long as her rapist it allowed to attend Columbia University. “I was raped in my own dorm bed, and since then that space has become fraught for me,” she says in a video about the piece published by the Columbia Spectator. “And I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then.”

Women are afraid of speaking out in case nobody believes them. We assure them that if they do, then justice will ensue. Emma Sulkowicz, as well as carrying the burden of being raped, is now carrying a fucking mattress around so that someone will listen to her. What kind of message does this performance deliver to women around the world? This performance should never have to had to happen. Rape victims will keep their mouths shut. They’ll carry the weight on their backs too. Columbia University: Listen to Emma Sulkowicz. Take her allegations seriously. Take that mattress off her back before she cripples under the weight.

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(Re)staging in performance work- Marina Abramovic, Gina Pane and Valie Export by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

The issue of re-staging artworks critically examines how the construction of modernism, as an ideological system of power and sexual division, can be reexamined, readjusted and reinterpreted. The re-enacting of performances actively engages with the politics of representation and the potential for a more flexible framework of theoretical interpretation, “at its best, the return to the live via complex modes of re-enactment, re-staging, reiteration, might be seen to be sparked by (and eliciting of) openness and hope, by way of presenting new possibilities of intervention and by activating fresh ways of thinking, making, being in the world.”[1] Furthermore, re-enactment locates itself back to the social, cultural and political viewpoint of its origins- creating a clear correlation with the theorizations of that period. Above all, a process of including and reworking past styles is imperative to women artists due to the concept of what Catherine de Zegher calls an ‘elliptical traverse.’ This active structure radically critiques the institutional structure of classification, exploring ommitances and fissures in the dominant history of modernism and delving into an “artistic experience that is folded into visibility, as into dough.”[2]

Griselda Pollock argues that there is an intrinsic ideology bound up with the system of representation, a structure of sexism that actively perpetuates a gender hierarchy that overtly excludes women. Pollock states, “Women have not been omitted through forgetfulness or mere prejudice […] what we can learn about the world and its peoples is ideologically patterned in conformity with the social order within which it is produced.”[3] The concept of the representational figure of Artist was signified as male, heterosexual and white, located in the formative and actively creative site of the studio. This notion of individual genius was unleashed against a depiction of twentieth-century art practices based on a structure of innovation and progression, defined by modernist critics such as Clement Greenburg and epitomized in Alfred Barr’s infamous formalist diagram of styles and movements:

It also refers to a representation of twentieth-century art practices which select some as significant (advancing, avant-garde), while marginalizing others as residual, reactionary or historically irrelevant. Modernist criticism and art history have become the shaping and ‘selective’ tradition of and for twentieth century culture in the west.[4]

During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, this dominant paradigm of modernism in artistic practice began to be deconstructed on many levels. An analysis of the politics of representation emerged alongside social upheavals such as youth movements, national independence movements, anti-war activism and black consciousness movements. Pollock further states that the emancipatory effect of the Women’s Liberation Movement and feminist practices had an enormous impact on the visual arts.[5] In addition, Laura Cottingham adds that fundamental issues concerning abortion, birth control prohibitions, discrimination against women and sexism were contested during the unfolding of second wave feminism as a mass political movement.[6] The position of the female body in patriarchal structures was relegated as subordinate, yet, women artists were beginning to be encouraged to reclaim their own image and to seek new modes of artistic representation, “feminist consciousness allowed women artists to see how completely the representational circulation of the female body before 1970 had existed on the level of spectacle, metaphor, fetish, object, property, vessel, caricature, and symbol.”[7] The female body, previously represented as nude and passive, part of the material of the canvas through the active and expressive brushstrokes of many male masters of modernism,[8] was reclaimed and asserted as a direct mode of expression, “many of the artistic processes that have incorporated the artist’s body are really about transcending it, getting outside of the corporal limitations of the human frame, challenging the ideological frames that regulate the movement of bodies in space.”[9]   Although there were male artists such as Paul McCarthy and Richard Long using their bodies in their work during this period, the female body had an additional layer of meaning through its status as muse and model, as “hundreds of years of art history attended to the depiction, idealization and fetishization of the female form.”[10]

Performance art emerged as an alternative medium, a celebration of previously taboo subjects such as sexual desire and the boundaries of the female body with often emotional or intimate material. [11] Body-orientated practices were often seen as a liberating tool, which could powerfully commentate on gender and sexuality, “it is more open, without an overwhelming history, without prescribed materials, or matters of content.”[12] It could be argued that artists incorporating the body as “a shifting and unstable site”[13] anticipated Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity as a role that is performed, rather than biologically determined. [14]It is important to highlight that these theorizations were not yet developed in this period; yet, as we elliptically traverse back with a retrospective glance at these emerging forms, our contemporary critical awareness could both enrich past performances and emphasize their subversive and deconstructive nature.

The Belgrade-born artist Marina Abramovic is widely known for her series of performances in the 1970s in which she purposely subjected herself to physical pain. Abramovic, the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art”[15] has also become a key figure in the politics of re-staging performance work, re-enacting both her own works and works by other artists. In 2005 Marina Abramovic re-enacted six major 1970s performance art works at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.  Through this exhibition Abramovic aimed to expose a model for re-performance that both respected the past and opened up possibilities for reinterpretation. Abramovic’s conviction contested Peggy Phelan’s argument performance is non-reproductive:

Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance.[16]

Contrarily, Abramovic argued for performance’s ability to endure and to inspire new audiences by redoing and preserving work. Kaja Silverman states that the key is not to keep the past unchanged but “to transform and not to reproduce.” [17] Abramovic introduced the concept of a performance ‘score’, that is to say, a certain set of guidelines that re-performances must follow: to ask the artist for permission, pay the artist for copyright, perform a new interpretation and display the original documentary material such as photographs or videos. [18]The undertaking must be approached with thorough research and understanding, [19] yet this open structure works on non-hierarchal and open level. A concentration on two of these re-performances by female artistic practioners, Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969) and Gina Pane’s The Conditioning (1973), engages with the politics of representation contested during their creation.

Abramovic’s re-performance of Gina Pane’s The Conditioning took place on the fourth night of the Seven Easy Pieces event.  Abramovic, like Pane, lay fully clothed on an iron bed-like structure heated by the fire of fifteen tall candles. There is an interval of approximately 10cm between the fire and the bed, the tips of the flames nearly reaching her body. Abramovic extended the original to seven hours, yet, after the first thirty minutes of Pane’s performance her only activity was slowly wringing her hands, “needless to say, the pain started right away and was very difficult to dominate.”[20] Pane presented her body as artistic material in this performance, “I feel I succeeded in making the public understand right off that my body is my artistic material.”[21] Kathy O’Dell argues that the specific way the body is positioned reflects the structure of contract, “particularly the consideration phase of contract proceedings, during which benefits or detriments are clarified.”[22] Furthermore, in contract negotiations, what is being exchanged or considered is often the human body or its services and in the modern period, she states that money and the human body became interchangeable.  She cites Walter Benn Michale’s who describes how masochistic performance “personifies modernity in that it thrives on the tension between owning and being owned.”[23] The symbolic site of the bed can be discussed in psychoanalytical terms:

the bed serves as a compelling metaphor for the oedipal scenario in part because the father’s role in the oedipal scenario is that of claiming territorial rights- particularly sexual rights- over the mother, and because the site most symbolically invested with sexuality is the bed. Lacan argues that the father’s figure’s extension of territorial rights over the mother figure constitutes the “law of the father.[24]




This notion of territorial rights can be linked to Pollock’s argument on Marxist theories of production, consumption, distribution and exchange in highlighting the value of the object. Pollock cites Raymond Williams who states, “What seems to me very striking is that nearly all forms of contemporary critical theory are theories of consumption. That is to say, that they are concerned with understanding an object in such a way that it can be profitably and correctly consumed.”[25] Amelia Jones pushes this idea further, linking the use of the artist’s body to contemporary issues of globalization by stating that it can addresses, “this voracious commodification, and, in particular, the marketing of the artist (via the artists’ body) as commodity fetish.”[26] Therefore, through this reference to production, consumption and the contract, the body becomes a catalytic signifier for engagement with modernist capitalist regimes, “this, I believe, was Pane’s mission: to demonstrate not only the role of the body in social relations but also the ways in which the body can become more effective as a tool for change.”[27]

Both Pane and Abramovic’s performances evoke the sensation of touch, Kathy O’Dell argues that the participatory aspect of touch is sensory and active, questioning gendered systems of looking at the female body.[28] Furthermore, the pain endured by Pane can be understood as a metaphor for the “oppressive level of institutional and political domination in the 1970s”[29] seen in the political turmoil of the Vietnam War. Therefore, this performance is tied directly to the political climate, “‘in the end, it was a bed that served the needs of others rather than her own in the psycholegalistic terminology of territorial rights.”[30] By lying down once again on Pane’s bed, it could be argued that Abramovic is engaging with the political dimension of the piece in order to address contemporary issues. After all, as Kathy O’Dell states, “in being disturbed, we ask questions. In being moved, we seek answers.”[31]

The correlation to masochistic pain also evokes Abramovic’s own 1970s performances in which she often injured herself by incising the skin or cutting her hand with sharp knives, pushing her body to the limits of what is physically and mentally bearable. It has been argued that this subjection to self-torment for women performance artists work to assert control over what happens to their own bodies. [32]In her 1974 piece Rhythm O, Abramovic invited spectators to use any of the seventy-two objects she had arrayed on a table next to her whilst she promised to remain completely passive for six hours. The objects included a feather, a scapel, a gun and bullet. Before long, her skin has been cut, her clothes cut and a spectator had placed the gun against her forehead.[33]This work explored the dynamics of violence, pain and self-destruction whilst allowing the spectators to become co-creators of the work in which her passivity and silence becomes an active and radical gesture, “you made yourself submissive, you made yourself passive. You said, you can do whatever you want to me. You were overcoming by submission, controlling by being vulnerable.”[34]On a similar vein, Rhythm 10, in which Abramovic plunged a knife rapidly and rhythmically between the fingers of her outstretched hand, amplifying the ways in which women often engage in self-sabotage, “from foot binding, to obsessive dieting, diverse cultural energy has been dedicated to deforming women’s bodies, often with women’s own almost masochistic consent.”[35] It has been argued that the transformative power of unrehearsed enactment offered an opportunity to depict the pain of patriarchy and women’s agency alongside, “the shared mortality of the human body, the ability to survive pain, and the persistence of ritual form.”[36] By re-performing Pane’s work addressing similar notions of pain, the rhythm of repetition evokes Abramovic’s slicing knife and becomes ritualized; insisting on the power of both previous works and the meaning they project, persisting on the importance of reassessment.

Abramovic’s re-enactment of Valie Export’s Genital Panic (1969) showed how reinterpretation could change the nature of the work through altered audience perception. Valie Export originally performed Genital Panic in an underground pornographic cinema in Munich. The cinema setting was alternative space for a performance, creating a shift away from gallery-based exhibition spaces. This negation of the commodified gallery system was rooted in a desire to reach an audience beyond the traditional patronage structure.  Therefore, performance art also addressed the conventional relationship upheld between art and its audience, “it implies an active relationship between performer and audience which can render the activity and experience more collective and social, more immediate, communicative and also open-ended.”[37]Export walked through the auditorium slowly through the rows wearing jeans with a triangular cutout in the public area, with her “crotch and the [the audience’s] nose on the same level.”[38] It is argued that Export aimed to expose issues surrounding the male gaze by placing a real physical female body in front of the consuming customers. This confrontation of the voyeuristic male gaze is said to actively anticipate Laura Mulvey’s critical argument in the infamous essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. [39]Export confirmed the notion of panic involved in the spectacle, stating that “people in the back of the cinema got up and fled the situation, because they were afraid I would come up to them as well.”[40]

However, this performance is associated with an iconic photograph rather than any specific documentation of the event, “Genital panic is a great contradiction because she also made the photograph in her studio and there are lots of different images of that poster.”[41] The problem of documentation is particularly apparent as many pieces from the 1970s were not recorded and there only remains, as Abramovic states, “testimonies, bad photographs, small texts, some people saw something, extremely small audiences.”[42] Often, complex works are often reduced to singular photographic images that represent the performance and future generations will only experience the work through these images. [43] Documentation of performance was often seen as inadequate in conveying the immediacy of the work, with some artists stating that an integral part of a performance was that it disappeared. [44] This belief meant that many artists actively refused, “to create anything permanent was a way of attempting to thwart the system and to stay loyal to performance’s supposed ‘irreproducibility.’”[45] It is argued that Abramovic was aware of this potential problem and instead:

works within the basic premise of the performance; that is, rather than attempting to replicate all the particular elements of the original event, which was, after all, entirely dependent on the circumstances of a certain time, space and personality, Abramovic distils something of the conformation at the core of Export’s work.[46]

Abramovic contends that the value of the experience is more powerful than the photograph or documentation, ‘I have a very strong idea about what 21st-century art should be: art without an object. The object is definitely an obstacle between artists and the audience. Objects have to be removed.”[47] Therefore, another dimension to repeating performance work is the dissemination of art object,the artwork is no longer viewed as a static object with a single, prescribed signification that is communicated un-problematically and without default from the maker to an alert, knowledgeable, universalized viewer.”[48]

Abramovic’s re-performance ensures Export’s work does not slip into invisibility or a simple reduction to a singular photographic image. An engagement with both Pane and Export’s work contents traditional notions of originality, bound up in the concept of individual art maker as genius, “the meaning of the work can’t flow if the originality of the work is seen as holy […] Everything is built around the idea of the ego, and this prevents the work from having a proper life. The ego is not an obstacle to the real experience of art.”[49] Abramovic poses a challenge to the conventional understanding of performance art as an irreproducible product of a specific artist, relying instead on the meaning at the core of the work “the ego has become almost an object for the audience and the public. Sometimes you go to an exhibition and you look at the name, not the work.”[50]

The practice of re-staging performance works is undeniably crucial in engaging with issues surrounding the politics of representation. This cycle of retracing reputes the notion of masculine genius locked into a linear structure of constant innovation, progression and advancement. It questions what has been omitted from the dominant canon of modernist discourse whilst locating works within a social, cultural and political framework. Abramovic’s engagement with both Pane and Export validates the theoretical meaning of their works: the interruption of the male gaze, the female body as a site of passive looking, issues of pain and control, the commodification of the art object within the art institution and the assertion of female subjectivity and sexuality. Re-performance invites the spectators to re-experience the participatory aspects of these works, creating a level of meaning beyond the static two-dimensional photograph of documentation that could spur interrogation as to how far we have, or perhaps have not, advanced since their origins. Due to the lack of original documentation, with the emphasis placed on the ephemeral and transcendent qualities of performance, re-performance ensures that the practices of these women artists are not forgotten. It acknowledges the introduction of second wave feminist modes of producing and critiquing whilst reminding the spectator that the deconstruction of the terms representation, modernity and femininity are still valid even today.


marinagenital panic

[1] Amelia Jones, Perform, repeat, record: live art in history (Bristol: Intellect, 2012) p.13

[2] Catherine de Zegher cited in Mignon Nixon, ‘After Images’ in October, Vol.83 (The MIT Press: 1998) http://www.jstor.org/stable/779073  [Accessed 10/05/2013] p.121

[3] Griselda Pollock, Vision and difference: femininity, feminism and histories of art (London: Routledge, 2003) p.1

[4] Griselda Pollock, Framing feminism: art and the women’s movement 1970-85 (London: Pandora, 1987) p.103

[5] Pollock and Parker, ‘Framing Feminism’ p. xiii, preface

[6] Laura Cottingham, Seeing through the seventies: essays on feminism and art (Amsterdam: G + B International, c.2000) p.126

[7] Cottingham, p.126

[8] Carol Duncan, ‘Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting’, The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in the Critical Histories of Art (Cambridge University Press, 1993): 81-108 (originally published in Art Forum (1973)

[9] Cottingham, p.121

[10] Battista, p. 12

[11] Kathy Battista, Re-negotiating the body: feminist art in 1970s London (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013) p.53

[12] Pollock and Parker, ‘Framing Feminism’ p.45

[13] Battista, p.14

[14] Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (New York; London: Routledge, 2006.)

[15] Mary Richards, Marina Abramovic (London; New York: Routledge, 2010) p. 2

[16] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: the politics of performance (London: Routledge, 1993) p.146

[17] Battista, p. 33

[18] Richards, p.37

[19] Richards, p.61

[20] Kathy O’Dell Contract with the skin: masochism, performance art and the 1970s (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, c.1998) p.45

[21] O’Dell, p.45

[22] O’Dell, p.46

[23] O’Dell, p.46

[24] O’Dell, p.46

[25] Raymond Williams cited in Griselda Pollock, ‘Vision and Difference’ p. 4

[26] Battista, p.53

[27] O’Dell, p.49

[28] O’Dell, p.49

[29] O’Dell, p.50

[30] O’Dell, p.50

[31] O’Dell, p.xiv

[32] Uta Grosenick Women artists in the 20th and 21st century (Koln; London: Taschen, c2005) p.13

[33]RoseLee Goldberg Performance art: from Futurism to the present (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001) p.165

[34] Marina Abramovic, Marina Abramovic: artist body: performances 1969-1998 (Milano, Charta, c.1998) p.16

[35] Cornelia Butler WACK!: art and the feminist revolution (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007) p.345

[36] Butler, p.355

[37] Pollock and Parker, ‘Framing Feminism’ p.45

[38] Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.90

[39] Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.90

[40] Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.91

[41] Marina Abramovic cited in Amelia Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.99

[42] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.42

[43] Battista, p.149

[44] Battista, p. 148

[45] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.59

[46] Katy Deepwell in Marina Abramovic, ‘Artist Body’ p.38

[47] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.42

[48] Amelia Jones Performing the body/performing the text (London: Routledge, 1999) p.1

[49] Richards, p.33

[50] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.50

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SOLIPSIST by Andrew Huang

Directed by Andrew Thomas Huang

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