The Art of Idolatry: Violent Expressions of the Spiritual in Contemporary Performance Art

Article excerpt

THE traditional Western conception of religious art includes paintings, sculpture, and prints of beautiful Madonnas, biblical scenes, and devotional images. In the twenty-first century manifestations of the spiritual in art have significantly changed. Artists' materials no longer consist of just paint and clay but incorporate every available substance including bodily fluids. Artworks encompass everything from religious paintings done in the artist's own blood to installations creating entire sacred spaces, performance art where sacrificial rituals are enacted, body mutilations as an aesthetic form of mortification, and earthworks designed to inspire nature worship.

Ironically, many of the contemporary forms of sacred art embody religious prohibitions on image worship found throughout biblical literature. Sometimes these are intentional acts of blasphemy to provoke controversy; more often they are authentic attempts by artists to reclaim the spiritual in their lives. These aesthetic expressions have been assimilated into popular culture in the current popularity of tattooing, piercing, branding, and body modifications. These unconventional forms of the sacred manifested in art and adopted into popular culture have provoked censorship on many levels of society. Essentially, they challenge the fundamental values and religious monotheism of Western culture.

Performance Art and Performance Artists

A phenomenon in contemporary art is taking place in which highly ritualized and often violent actions by visual artists are classified under the aesthetic genre of performance art. For most of us who are unfamiliar with the avant-garde art world, performance art signifies the theater arts such as ballet, modern dance, musicals, dramas, etc., and are performed by actors and dancers. Although it entails many of the characteristics of theater arts, performance art evolved specifically in the context of visual art and from an entirely different historical position. The origins of contemporary performance art extend back to the Italian Futurist artists of the early 1900s when Filippo Marinetti, a member of this group, performed an evening of special events in Trieste, Italy in 1910. Six years later this was followed by a series of performances by the Dadaists in Zurich. Most of the events were nihilistic in character and reflected the horror of the recent war in Europe. Many of the same concerns and actions reemerged in the late fifties and were referred to as Live-Action, Painters Events, Body Art, and Happenings. Many of the Happenings were multimedia events and incorporated live sound, projected images, and body movement. (1) In the late sixties and early seventies, performance art became accepted as a medium of artistic expression in its own right, incorporating traditional forms of painting and sculpture, theater, photography, music, dance, technology, politics, and popular culture. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there are many distinct varieties of performance art, and although they elude specific categorization, there are environmental, media, technology, body, feminist, and ritual performance artists from every continent. The focus in this essay is on contemporary performance art that encompasses a variety of highly ritualized violent self-mutilations as expressions of the spiritual. Although this may seem like a very specialized genre, there are literally hundreds of artists whose artistic medium consists of the flesh and blood of their own body.

Performance artist Chris Burden did not paint or sculpt a crucifixion; in 1974 in a work titled "Trans-Fixed," he had himself crucified to a car. In the 1970s, Burden's art performances also included having himself shot with a gun, punctured, burned, and run over by a car. Burden's body became the ultimate sculptural material, the ultimate object. Artist Gina Pane does art performances that consist of self-inflicted cuts to her body, including her face. …