Artists in Action; Leaving Behind Its Underground Past, Performance Art Is Now Coming out in the Open

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Byline: COLIN GLEADELL

LAST month it was wagging its tail in municipal galleries in Birmingham and Bristol. This month it takes its bow in London with a series of events at the South London Gallery in Peckham and at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. And next March it will be officially sanctioned at Tate Modern.

Performance art, associated in the history books with underground art movements and "alternative" venues of the Sixties and Seventies, is back. But instead of being a sideshow, it is taking centre stage.

Described by art historian Rose Lee Goldberg as "live art by artists", performance art is a kind of hybrid of theatre, fine art, dance and music.

Frequently, it has provided an anarchic escape route for artists to break away from the more formal disciplines of their practice.

But because it is "live", it dies as soon as the performance is over, leaving only traces - photographs, props, memories, descriptions - the stuff from which myths and legends have been created.

Exhibitions of past performance art therefore consist of these traces. The Whitechapel Art Gallery, however, is bringing history to life in its A Short History of Performance, a weeklong event in which artists recreate their performances from the Sixties and Seventies heyday.

Among those contributing is controversial Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch, performing elements of previous works. Since the early Sixties, Nitsch has been conducting ritualistic performances, intended to have a cathartic effect on human sensibilities, that entail the slaughter, evisceration and crucifixion of cows and sheep, drenching himself and his assistants in blood to the sound of "scream choirs". Nitsch's first performance in Britain, in 1966, was cut short by police. By 1997, he had become a cult figure for a new generation of artists. The shock appeal of his work, which represents one thread that runs through performance art, attracted the attention of a new generation of artists, and in 1997 Nitsch was invited to hold an exhibition of his blood-splattered paintings at an artists-run space in Hoxton.

Also on the menu at the Whitechapel is British artist Stuart Brisley. In his youth, Brisley performed acts of endurance for up to 10 days at a time, as he explored the condition of the individual in society. Now in his late sixties, Brisley will perform Beneath Dignity (1977), an edited 40 minutes of claustrophobic interaction with water and paint in a confined space.

American artist Carolee Schneeman's work represents a feminist agenda within the free-love culture of the Sixties. She will re-enact Meat Joy (1964), a 75-minute-long performance of semi-naked male and female bodies rolling around the floor in a stew of paint, red meat, fish and chickens.

Recently, in response to the increasing use of the body in art, and the voguish tendency by artists using video and photography to become their own subject matter, performance art has become almost mainstream. …