The Audience’s Body and the Constitution of the Body Art Performance

Tomaž Krpič

Author’s intention is to explain the role of the body of the body art performer and the body of the spectator in the constitution of the body art performances. In order to do this, he uses Nick Crossley’s concept reflexive body techniques, Georg H. Mead’s concept general other, and Alfred Schutz concept event in/on the body as the basic theoretical framework. Author makes a minor revision of Crossley’s reflexive body techniques, emphasising its possible inductiveness, which refers to indirect influence of reflex body techniques, used by one person, to another person. He believes that the body art performer by applying certain unpleasant, repulsive or disgusting, i. e. shocking reflexive body techniques on the surface of the body invokes a psychosomatic event in the bodies of the spectators. Only by experiencing such an event, the spectator is capable of deep contemplation of the body art performance.






A significant amount of sociological literature, published during the last decade, indicates various theoretical and methodological interests in body modifications from people’s everyday life to art and religion as well (Balsamo 1998; Benson 1999; Crossly 2004a; 2004b; 2005; Davis 1995; 2002; DeMello 2000; Featherstone 2000a; Frank 2003; Fraser & Valentine 2006; Gill et al. 2005; Gržinić 2002; Jeffreys 2000; Jones 1996; Monaghan 1999; 2001; Negrin 2002; Pitts 1999; 2000; 2003; Selecl 1998; Siebers 2000). A part of the literature on body modification focuses on the strategies of body modifications as an essential element of the body art performances. A lot has been said lately about the body art performers and their bodies, expressing great interests in aesthetic, social, cultural and political role or religious mission of the body art performers. Yet, it seems that one aspect of the body art performances remains mostly intact and thus neglected in the works of cultural sociologist, art historians and art critics. Only now or than, ‘a scent’ of a concept ‘audience of the body art performance’ and any serious reflections of its potential influence on the body art performers during the body art performances, i.e. when the body modification actually takes its place on the stage, or any other way, can be found. Not a single book on the body art performance exists where the audience would be in the forefront of the researcher’s interests.




It is easy to understand why researchers put so little effort in solving the puzzle of the influence audience may have on the constitution of the body art performance. Firstly, most of the researchers do not find it very important, because people, while being present at the body art performance, stand quietly and mostly they do not do anything. Usually they are not invited to take an active part during the body art performance. They come to watch, but not to act. And even when spectators are invited to join body art performers during the body art performance, their role is usually highly prescribed in advance. Even when the individuals from the audience are allowed to do whatever they want to, the structure of the body art performance effectively limits their actions. Sometimes the material configuration of the body art performance does not afford the audience to do anything beyond the body art performer’s intentions, which are certainly almost never followed by the idea to harm her. Sometimes the body art performer counts on maturity of the audience, common sense or predominant social and cultural standards of what is appropriate behaviour in a certain society. Although it is not entirely accurate to say that spectators do not affect the body art performance as social and cultural phenomenon, it would be wrong to claim that the audience of the body art performances, in general, plays a creative role.




Why, than, should we bother with the question of the relationship between the body art performers and the audience of the body art performances? Should not be better than, if the reactions of the audience of the body art performances to mainly unpleasant practices of the body art performers, especially if they are truly so unimportant, simply be ignored? Paradoxically, the argument for acceptance of the audience of body art performance, as a relevant element of its explanation, is the position of human body in the configuration of the body art performance. But it is not the body of the artist, despite of its self-evident relevance in this particular case, which I would like to emphasise. If B. S. Turner is right claiming that sociology as a social science of interaction in general, and sociology of the body in particular, should be grounded in embodiment in the context of interaction and reciprocity (Turner 1996, p. 26), than the body of the audience of the body art performance should acquire our full attention.



The intention of this article is to address the question what is the role of the audience’s body in the constitution of the body art performances. In this respect, I give the following definition of the body art performance: The body art performance is a phenomenon where body art performers produce an event on the body, using different, repulsive reflexive body techniques, with intention to induct shocking event in the bodies of the spectators.



Reflexive body techniques




It was M. Mauss who drew attention of the sociologists and anthropologist to the techniques of the body, and defined them as »…the ways in which from society to society men know how to use their bodies.« (Mauss 1973, p. 70). Mauss, by addressing the body techniques also as habitus, underlining the influence of education, propriety, fashion, prestige and other elements of culture and society on its formation. Yet, habitus is not only culturally determinated; it has historical dimensions as well. Mellor and Shilling elaborate, in their book Re-Forming the Body, three stages of historical transformation of the body: medieval body, modern protestant body, and modern baroque body (Mellor and Shiling 1997, p. 35-63). In this respect A. Giddens (1991) talks of the body as a project of formation of individuality and its reinforcement, closely related to the notion of modernity. The body becomes a project of an individual, i.e. her embodiment (Shilling 1993, p. 4-8). Embodiment is a complex lifelong process during which the body of an individual, as early as in the childhood, is a subject to culturally defined, socially allowed or coerced body techniques, which final result should be a certain physical capital of the body (Bourdieu 1978; Shilling 1993, p. 127-149; 1999, p. 88-92), but in fact, it is never really finished. A part of the process of embodiment is also body modification. According to M. Featherstone body modification refers to all sorts of practices, for example piercing, tattooing, branding, cutting, binding, cosmetic surgery or inserting implants with intention to alter the appearance and form of the body. Anorexia, bodybuilding and fasting/overeating can also be understood as instruments for transforming the surface and the shape of the body. The body can be modified also by applying various prostheses and technological systems in order to be extended and supplemented (Featherstone 2000b, p. 1).








Crossley’s concept reflexive body techniques can be recognized as a bridge between embodiment and social agency. Crossley ‘embarked’ on the quest for suitable expression with which he could critically addresses and advances Mauss’ body techniques, already in his book The Social Body, using an expression reflexive embodiment (Crossly 2001, p. 140-160). Despite the fact that Crossley grants Mauss with an estimation that his theoretical innovation is far reaching, he is partially critical to the concept of the body techniques for not being sensitive enough for dual nature of the body. In Crosley’s opinion, Mauss gives priority to ‘having a body’ over ‘being a body’. Beside that the cognitive elements in Mauss’ work, unlike social and corporeal, are severely undeveloped, still waiting for someone to work on them. In order to develop further Mauss’ concept, Crossley proposes to sociologists of the body to adopt slightly revised concept of the body techniques. Reflexive body techniques are defined as »…those body techniques whose primarily purpose is to work back upon the body, so as to modify, maintain or thematize it in some way.«(Crossley 2005, p. 9). As it will be shown in the last section of the article, it is of great importance that Crossley put forward the possibility of two embodied agents involved in application of a certain reflexive body techniques, although body of only one of them is a subject of a certain reflexive body techniques (Crossley 2004b; 2005).




The reflexive body techniques take place in any area of people’s life, though their distribution is far from being even (see Crossley 2005, p. 18-31). Modern art is certainly not an exemption. Some forms of modern art, for example contemporary dance, to a high degree depend upon the body and its alteration. A relationship between artist and her artwork is a relation between her body and physical world that encircling her. It is a process during which the artist reshapes reality in accordance with aesthetic criterions. The artist body can thus be used as an instrument or a tool. R. Arenheim, in his now already classical work Art and Visual Perception, ascribes instrumental character to the body, depicting the state of ‘having a body’: »A dancer has a body of flash and blood, whose physical weight is controlled by physical forces.« (Arenheim 1974, p. 403). Yet Arenheim was short in restraining his thought about the artist and her body to its instrumental character. The illustration of contemporary dance points out that the artist is not only in a possession of her body. She is the body. And nowhere the centrality and the significance of such body modifications are so obvious and of such a crucial dimension and importance like in the case of body art performance. It is an artistic phenomenon where the body of an artist is manipulated, reshaped, and altered in such a way that it literarily becames an artwork itself.










The Aesthetic of Shock[1]




Body art performance, as an artistic expression, for the first time appeared some time in 1960s, though it came to its full realisation during 1970s. Since then body art performance gradually evolved in a serious form of (post)modern art, gaining international respect and place in many galleries and artistic domains. Body art performer’s intention is to produce a unique artistic interpretation of text, pictures, and/or sounds. The course of the body art performance can never entirely be known in advance, despite the fact that body art performers usually provide its general structure in advance. There is always enough room for the body art performer’s improvisation during the progression of the body art performance, although the body art performers may spend considerable amount of time in preparation before they actually present the body art performance in front of a live audience. Consequently, the body art performance should thus be resistant to any iteration or mechanical reproduction. What is indeed reproduced every time the body art performer repeats certain body art performance is only its general pattern. Radical uniqueness of the body art performance brings some bizarre consequences. Firstly, artwork of the body art performance, whose temporal and spatial existence is limited to a particular time and place, can rarely be part of an exhibited art collection in an art gallery.[2] Since geography of place is in most cases irrelevant for the nature and content of the body art performances, the status of the art galleries in modern art and societies is thus put under the question. Secondly, modern art has been longing for the auratic character of an artwork, which was lost due to the development of means for mechanical reproduction of the artwork, for quite some time (Benjamin 1990). For many art critics, art historians and curators, the body art performance represents the victorious return of the auratic art (Zurbrugg 1999; Siebers 2000, p. 217).




On the other hand, it seems that the ‘reincarnation’ of the genuine artistic expression costs the body art what is inherent to any art form: its aesthetic dimension. The body art performers are prone to believe that their work cannot be perceived in terms of aesthetics, for their intentions are not to produce a piece of art at all. Saint Orlan thus believes her flash is her medium of expression, her final goal reincarnation, and not at all some quest for improvement of her beauty (O’Bryan 1997). Instead of aesthetic dimension of the body art performance they like to stress its social and political mission. Amelia Jones thus recognizes two basic components of body art performance. Firstly, body art performance tries to reshape relationship between subject and object, between ego and the other. Secondly, it opens subjectivity to particularism, which in addition leads to interpretation of meanings and cultural values of a particular society (Jones 2002, p. 34).




The ambition of body art performers is not to achieve amusement, to educate or perhaps to cultivate the audience. On the contrary, the boy art performers tend to play the role of provocateurs. Jože Slak - Đoka, Slovenian body art performer, depicting the nature of his happenings in the quotation below:




»I like doing things, which appears to be a disgrace. A disgrace for those who watch and a disgrace for those who make the performances. A painful feeling…«




Since the intention of the body art performers is to scandalise[3], or at least to excite the public (opinion), their expectations during the body art performances are to shock the audience of the body art performance. When people show their disagreement with the body art performers’ work, then the body art performers feel disappointed and misunderstand, for they see their own work as something really harmless. Not only do they not accept acts of disagreement of majority of people, they indicate them as an act of incomprehension, which rises from lack of understanding of basic principles of the body art performances. Disappointment is even bigger due to the fact that the body art performers sincerely believe that their behaviour on the stage is a benefit to the society, a sort of bad conscience, and that they exercise one of the basic function of art: integration of society (Payne Hatcher 1999, p. 113).[4] However, that does not mean, in addition, that body art performers try to avoid direct contact with people, as one of body art performers’ intentions is to cross the gap between art and everyday life (Stiles 1996). A part of the body art performance movement has actually moved their actions to the streets with the purpose of being closer to average people.




Another substantial characteristic of the body art performance is its spatial and temporal limitation (Siebers 2000). Body art performances are not made for frequent repetitions or mechanical reproductions. They should not, by the same token, last for ages, as classical works of art do. Once a particular body art performance is done, finished, it literally vanishes as an artwork. What remains is perhaps a pile of photographs, documentary films, or, most likely, videos. What, in fact, remains once the body art performances of Stelarc, Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Henry Chopin, Ivo Tabar, Fakir Musafar, Eclipse, Ron Athey and others are finished, are the ‘dismantled’ elements of the artwork: artist’s body and some technical means, necessary for the execution of the body art performance. The artwork is literally deconstructed. Spatial and temporal limitation of the artwork of the body art performance in connection with body transitoriness, and thus uniqueness of individual existence, form a sort of an autographic object (see Douglas 1996).




It is safe to assume that the most important element of the body art performance is the body. Although body art performance cannot be reduced solely to the human body, its implications for the constitution of the body art performance, not only as an artistic form, but also as a cultural and social phenomenon, is enormous. Crossley’s reconsideration of Mauss’s concept of body techniques can be seen as a fruitful theoretical frame to take a new look on the body art performance. Crossley makes a map, on the base of a small-scale research, of some 40 reflexive body techniques: from ‘washed hands’ to ‘use of steroids for bodybuilding purposes’. Then he distributes the scale into three zones: core zone, intermediate zone, and marginal zone. The boundaries of each zone are not exactly drawn and are, up to some degree, arbitrarily set. The last zone is especially interesting for our purposes. The marginal zone consists of some dozen reflexive body techniques, for example genital piercing, steroids use, tattooing and so on, which essential characteristic is that people rarely decide to use them (Crossley 2005, p. 19-20). Although Crossley’s list of reflexive body techniques of the marginal zone is far from being complete, some similarities with body techniques used in body art performances are evident. Most significant property is their similarity in frequency of their use, albeit that body reflexive body techniques of the body art performances are all the more bizarre and eccentric.




Reflexive body techniques applied in body art performances are usually highly refined and mostly unpleasant, sometimes even repulsive body practices. Most of reflexive body techniques of the body art performance are ‘borrowed’ from ancient times or primitive cultures (see Klesse 1999). Due to the lack of knowledge and high technology, the members of primitive or pre-modern cultures are ‘forced to invent’ complex reflexive body techniques used in (religious) rituals in order to practice incorporeal richness of their own culture. Piercing, cutting, hanging from the hooks, puking, wearing a breast band or itiburi, flagellation, painting with one's own blood, using the body as a canvas, having sexual intercourse with animals, eating excretes, and so on, are only some of the body art performers’ favourite reflexive body techniques. But some of reflexive body techniques are typically modern, for instance Stelarc’s Event for Three Hands, Orlan’s The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan, or Tabar’sIntubation-Fibrilation. What makes the difference is highly sophisticated technical and surgical equipment necessary for maintaining these body art performances. Consistent use of science and technology in a radical restructuration of embodiment, shifting body art performer’s interests from ‘being a body’ towards ‘having a body’ (Mellor and Shilling 1997, p. 49). In this respect Stelarc even speaks about the body as something obsolete.




Mellor and Shilling’s recognition of influence of technology and science on ‘shrinking’ of biological body to its instrumental role, get well along with an interesting detail, revealed when the body art performers are asked to describe the role of their body in their work. Marko Kovačič, a Slovenian body art performer, claims that his relationship with his body is strictly rational and emphasising an instrumental character of the body:




»You need an actor, just to perform the idea. It is the simplest way to do it and, at the same time, expenses are lower, if you don’t need an extra crew. But I have never been obsessed with my body, although I consider it well trained, as I have been engaged in exercising, so that the body is not entirely a mystery to me«.




It is some sort of a paradox, that for the body art performer her body is a tool, an instrument with which the body art performers express their aesthetic, social, and political visions, although she as a whole, and not only her body, is an art work. Yet, not every part of the body has the same meaning and importance in the eyes of the body art performer. The most intriguing element of the body, the element that the body art performer find most relevant to question, is actually the most obvious and observable: the skin (see Murray 2002). For an average individual, the skin is the limit between the individual’s inner body and the outer world. It is where an event on the surface of the human body takes place. When Kira O’Reilly systematically makes cuts all over her body, she actually produces a happening on the surface of her body. And when Ron Athey uses surgical clips to hide his genitals in skin's folds, he also does the same (see Figure 1). Both artists do something with their bodies in order to communicate with their surrounding, i.e. with the live audience.


Figure 1: Ron Athey performing Four Sins in a Harsh Life in Gallery Kapelica, November 16th 1996 (foto: Sandra Sajovic)












The skin is an element whose alteration allows an event on the body[5] of body art performer. Certain reflexive body techniques violate the closed, smooth, and impenetrable surface of the artist’s body, creating what Bakhtin (1984) addresses as a grotesque body. The body art performance opens the surface of the body and thus displays the inner features of the body. The surgical openings of Saint Orlan’s body »demonstrates that the skin is the corporeal lining which connect and separate the interior and the exterior.« (O’Bryan 1997). The transgression is twofold: from outside to inside and vice versa. Firstly, the gaze of the spectator does not stop at the surface of the body art performance’s skin. It enters the body of the body art performer through cuts and punctures she makes. Secondly, the fluidity of blood runs in the opposite direction. According to S. Fraser and K. Valentine »the fluidity of blood can also be recognized as central to the material production of body modification practice and discourse« (Fraser and Valentine 2006, p. 97). There are four main ways in which blood is important for practitioners of BDSM (bondage and domination, dominance and submission and sadomasochism): they use it as a vehicle for meanings, though it can be its generator at the same time; it may represent their identity and their essential uniqueness; they may claim ownership over the blood, and as a material presence, as an co-constitutive element of BDSM as well. A fifth element can be added: bleeding is used as a ritual purification of community (Girard 1972). Though Fraser and Valentine do not speak about the body art performance, they are after another phenomenon, the interpretation of the BDSM, their findings nevertheless fit very well into the explanation frame of the body art performance as both phenomena share a great portion of unpleasant and repulsive reflexive body techniques.[6]




By puncturing or otherwise affecting their skin, and thus directly entering the body, the body art performers create, not only an event on the body, but also an event in the body. The latter refers, not to the space below the skin, but to a carnal knowing, feelings and emotions. Carnal knowing is a term coined by M. Miles (1992, p. 9) to emphasise the relative importance of the knowledge gained through the body in relation to the different practice of embodiment. The body ‘provides’ its owner with the simplest, directly acquired knowledge, which is gained through the senses of an individual in every day life experiences. Pain, for instance, is such an experience of carnal knowing. The body art performers shock their audience by using certain unpleasant and repulsive reflexive body techniques, and, at least in the ayes of the spectators, it seems that they are in great pain. Bob Flanagan, an American body art performer, known also as a ‘Super-masochist’, describes the state achieved during the body art performance as:




»(…) a runner’s high where your brains releases endorphins (a natural pain relief which is like heroin) to combat the pain. (…) And if you add a sexual experience you have a double high. There are people, who are just ‘sensation junkies’, that what’s they crave. « (Meiners 1999, 28).






It seems, looking at the body art performance, that the pain inflicted by the body art performers upon themselves by the use of specific reflexive body techniques should be one of the most important events in the body. Paradoxically, only minor part of the body art performers ‘enjoy’ the pain and can thus be labelled as masochist. In fact the body art performance is not about pain in the body of the body art performer. The pain is actually located somewhere else. If the aim of the body art performers’ artistic activity is to shock the audience of the body art performance, then it is safe to assume, that the feeling of pain as an event in the body must occurred in the body of an average spectator. If this is true, and I sincerely believe it is, than the body of an average spectator counts and it is worth of our attention. All we have to do is to unveil the logic of its appearance in the phenomenon of the body art performance.





The Audience and the Body Art Performance


Cultural sociologists, art historians and art critics share a great interest in the body art performers and their artistic expressions, yet it seems they know little about the audience’s perception of the body art performances and their possible influence on the body art performers, whether during the body art performance or in general. They only rarely speak about the audience of the body art performance, and when they do, they usually reduce the role of the audience of the body art performance to inactive and non-creative group of spectators. Such an attitude, as we can see in the previous section of the article, is in one way expected and accepted, but on the other hand up to some degree not entirely correct. S. Benson, referring to M. Merleau-Ponty’sPhenomenology of Perception (1962), states that the performances, generally speaking, have effects not only on the performers, but on the spectators of the performances too, watching the (body art) performance »whether in sympathy, detachment or repulsion« (Benson 1999, p. 131). There exist, of course, the performance beyond the relationship between the body art performer and her audience, yet it is not necessarily a public expression of artistic will. It is essential for the body art performance to be executed in front of a live audience; this is in public, not in privacy. So, this can be seen as an additional element, which speaks in favour of tight relation between the artists and their audience and a base for our curiosity in making an investigation of this relationship.


The body art performance as authentic and genuine expression of art, must at least thrill, if not shock the audience. For the audience of the body art performance, shocked while watching, for example Slovenian body art performer Ive Tabar, how he made a hole through his knee with a surgical drill, the only sensible reaction is to sit calmly until the performance is over, or immediately leave the room. The spectators watch the body art performance from close distance. They invest their time to be present at the spectacle, and since they do not just have their bodies, they are their bodies too; their bodies are present at the body art performance too. Though the ascertainment is perhaps banal or trivial, the consequence for the interpretation of the body art performance is not. If we accept the fact that the audience of the body art performance is an important element of the body art performance, and that they affect, of course only up to some degree or in a certain way, the behaviour of the body art performer on the stage, then we should look closely the role of the body of an average spectator. However, what is insufficient in terms of analyse of the body art performances is the lack of a model, where the notion of the audience of the body performance would be accepted as a relevant element of the body art performance. Such a model should also allow making an explanation of the mechanism through which the body art performer forms their relationship with the audience.


As I already established, a few sentences after Crossley’s definition of the reflexive body techniques was given at the beginning of the article, it is noteworthy that the reflexive body techniques are not only strictly directly reflexive. The action of a person oriented towards her body does not necessary affect only her body. Even more. The exercise of a particular reflexive body technique performed by one person can affect and leave traces on the other person’s body. Yet, when it comes to the body art performance the reflexive body techniques get twofold dimension. Firstly, the body art performer, by using reflexive body techniques characteristic for the body art, directly affects his body, above all by opening the surface/skin of his or her body. Beyond any doubt, the body art performer, for example super-masochist Bob Flanagan, may produce, and in many times he or she certainly does, an event in the body. Regardless of that, we shall never leave out, that the essential thing for the body art performance is to establish an event on the body. No matter how much the art performer may suffer or feel any other feelings or emotions, without producing an event on the body she cannot make a contact with the live audience. Secondly, the body art performer by applying specific reflexive body techniques indirectly affects the body of the spectator. The body of the spectator reacts on what is going on the stage during the body art performance. So, not only that the reflexive body techniques can be used by one person to affect another person’s body, they can be used also to affect person’s own body with clear intention to affect the body of another person. I will call this inductiveness of reflexive body techniques.


According to Crossley (2005, p. 13-15), reflexive body techniques have very important role in construction of reflexive sense of selfhood. In order to explain how an individual becomes an object for herself, Crossley refers to the work of G. H. Mead (1962), who proposes a model of dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘me’, and also to the work of M. Merleau-Ponty (1962), who compares the process of self objectification of an individual with watching herself in a mirror. As far as the body art performer is concerned, the reflexive body techniques used during the body art performance allow him or her to become an artistic object for her self. Nevertheless, he or she is not the only one who holds him or her ‘a mirror’. The audience of the body art performance is also a mirror in which actions of the body art performer reflect and acquire social and cultural meaning. In addition, Mead’s term the general other may be of some help here. Mead writes down, in his Mind, Self, and Society, that »The Organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may be called ‘the generalized other’« (Mead 1962, p. 154). A person, during symbolic interaction with other people, performing a dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘me’ in her mind, constructs abstract ‘images’ of community, culture or society. Images are a mixture of abstract generalisation of a person’s experiences, and various information about cultural and social phenomena beyond her personal reach. It is safe to assume that the audience of the body art performance serves as a general other for the body art performer. However, it is not only the audience of the body art performance, which can be understood to be in a position of general other. The same goes for the body art performers too, though the nature of audience as the general other is different from that of the body art performers. While the audience, in the eyes of the body art performers stand for the general other, the body art performers are mere a medium for representing general other. The body art performance stands for culture or society.


Samira, a Ph.D. student, gets close to the point, when expressing the essential distinction between spectator and the body art performer:


»I have been thinking, why I do not do this, as for example Tina[7] does. I have been thinking for a long time, and now I believe that the only reason why I cannot expose myself like Tina is due to inability to develop a relationship towards myself, as I would be an object. I am more interested in the world around me, then in myself…«


The difference between the body art performer and the audience is thus also the difference made on the level of gaze: a gaze of the body art performer toward himself or herself and a gaze of the audience towards the other. The component that binds together the body art performance’s reflexive body techniques and the body art performers as general other of the audience is a shock. As it has already been exposed several times in the article, a shock is also an essential element in the constitution of the body art performance as an aesthetic, cultural and social phenomenon. A shock is a psychological condition of an individual, an experience of surprise, extreme horror or disgust, accompanied with a sudden and violent disturbance in emotions. B. Jaguaribe speaks about a similar thing, when she uses a term shock of the real referring to »specific representation in both writing narrative and visual imagery that unleash an intense, dramatic discharge that destabilized notions of reality itself.« (Jaguaribe 2005, p. 70). That every art is not a good representative of art that can shock the audience is well illustrated in L. Emery’s article Censorship in Contemporary Art Education. An image of crucified Christ can also be concerned as a very shocking image, yet its familiarity, i.e. its embedment in Christian religion and its everyday presence in the symbolic form of crucified, hides its ghastliness. In comparison to the crucifixion of Christ, the body art performance, for example Chris Burden’s crucifixion to a car in his Trans – Fixed, is certainly not something someone can come across in everyday life. Emery is correct when she makes a conclusion that what can make an artistic expression repulsive, disgusting and shocking to the audience is a hidden danger of impurity (Emery 2002, p. 7-8). Such a danger of impurity literarily breaks out, in the form of specific reflexive body techniques, during an average body art performance.


B. Baruch Blich’s observations about relationship between body and art relating production of aesthetic shock, when applied to the case of the body art performances, shows that reflexive body techniques used in the body art performance, work as:


» … a shocking series as the sexual elements stands for death, power aggression, beauty, sadness, etc., and they compel the viewer to reflect on his or her dreams, uncontrolled thoughts, desires, as if the stimuli presented are not fictional but constitute a realistic context.« (Baruch Blich, Available at:


Shock is a vehicle for arousing personal vision of an individual. Aleš, a regular visitor to the body art performances in gallery Kapelica, finds explanation for being such an admirer of Franco B.’s body art performances, during which the performer let his blood drip on the floor of the stage until he almost fainted away due to the loss of blood, in peculiar similarity of two events that occurred while he was young:


»I remember, when I was serving as a private in the army, when one careless orderly completely forgot about me, while I was donating blood, and I already became loosing consciousness. All of a suddenly some patterns appeared in my mind, which reminded me of something I had experienced in my youth, when my sister closed me in a box of a vacuum cleaner. On the interior side of the box there were the same patterns, and they appeared in my mind while I was loosing consciousness


Quotation taken from Baruch Blich’s article and Aleš’s narrative is interesting for our discussion because it opens a new perspective. I do not have space for going into details here, but constitution of the boy art performance can also be understood in terms of body language (see Argyle 1975, p. 290-295), where communication between both sides, the body art performer and his or her audience, is primarily visual. What is important here is to stress that inferential model of communication presupposes relatively high level of empathy as a precondition for successful communication (Sperber & Wilson 1986). According to E. Stotland (1969, p. 272) empathy »is an observer’s reacting emotionally because he perceives that another is experiencing or is about to experience an emotion.« A broader definition of empathy consist of five elements: empathy is a psychological condition of an individual; it is an individual anticipation of psychological condition of other; it is an individual identification with other; empathy is a cognitive process of appropriation of the role of other; empathy is a mediation of an individual’s emotions to the other (DeTurk 2001). Needless to say is that inductiveness of reflexive body techniques bases on the plausibility of the idea of empathy.


The body art performance, on the base what has been sad about inductiveness of reflexive body techniques, not only an art form, but also a cultural and social phenomenon, can be than exposed further in terms of empathic relationship. It seems that when speaking of the body art performance, the term empathy has been well chosen, as the distance between performer and audience is sometimes very narrow. In opposition to classical artwork, the body art performer needs to be present during her presentation. Sometimes the body art performers even allow individuals from the audience to make contact with them by touching them, or affect their bodies any other way. The most common reaction of those from the audience, who are ‘invited’ to share the body art performer’s experience, is hesitation (see, for instance, Abramović 1998), albeit there is some evidence of the body art performances where individuals from the audience ‘cross the line’ (Perlmutter 2000). People hesitate to take part in the body art performance even when their involvement is necessary for its realization, and despite the fact that the reflexive body techniques used in such a body art performance are harmless to the body art performer. In Yann Marussich’s body art performance Traversée, the body art performer were lying on a strip covered with thin layer of green oil with a steel-wire around his neck, which was fixed on the other end to the mechanism with which the artist was slowly dragged from one end of the gallery to another by the audience (see Figure 2-3). The performance ended when people dragged the artist to the end of the strip. It took little more than two hours before the body art performance finished, because people hesitate to roll up the steel wire, although, as a matter of fact, it would actually take less than fifteen minutes to do it. And when they actually take the opportunity to collaborate in the body art performance, they usually play a passive, in advance prescribed role, for example during the performance Intubation, when Ive Tabar had an assistant from the audience who handed him the surgical instruments needed for performing the intubation. But it is a rare occurrence when a person from the audience is willing to take an active role during the performance, except, maybe, when the body techniques used are pleasant. Oreet Ashery’s performance, for instance, includes a séance, during which a small group of people, up to twelve, one by one, develop a close relationship with the artist. It is up to the individual alone to choose how far the performance should go: either only to chat with the body art performer or to even have a sexual intercourse with her.[8]



Figure 2-3: Yann Marussich’s body art performance Traversée in Gallery Kapelica, May 31st 2006 (foto: Tomaž Krpič)




The empathic relationship developed during the body art performance goes in both directions; from performers to the audience, and vice versa. The body art performers have certain expectations from the audience. They anticipate certain openness from the spectator to their work of art (see Watson 2000), and most often, they expect attraction and repulsion of their artwork at the same time (Meiners 1999). Nevertheless, it is important to state that the body art performer’s empathy is essentially different to the empathy developed by the audience. The body art performer takes an active role during the body art performance, so his or her mind is primarily oriented towards the artwork, i.e. to his or her body and used reflexive body techniques, and less towards the audience. Although the body art performer, during the body art performance, is not necessary consciously aware of the audience’s presence, the empathic relationship towards the audience nevertheless plays an important role. Marko Kovačič, Slovenian body art performer, expresses his empathic relationship to the audience during the body art performance:



»It is about having an immediate contact with spectators, when people from a distance of one meter watch, how someone paste over his face with sellotape, so that they can clearly see his veins strain on his head. What is especially interesting are the feelings, when he feels that people become to feel fear after his face is half covered with sellotape, and one nostril too, so that he breathes rather with difficulty …«






Often, when the body art performance is presented outside galleries, people who come to an event by chance, and thus unexpectedly become part of the audience, watch out of pure curiosity. Only a small group of people can be considered as the body art performance fans. In the case of the gallery Kapelica, those who regularly visit openings number about fifty, maybe eighty people. Many of them, especially more senior, are professionally interested in the body art performance, e.g. art critics, art historians, and even journalists. Of course, some of them are also artists themselves. In fact, there are relatively few who actually fit as ideal spectators, i.e. someone who is not involved in the production of the body art performances and who is not professionally connected to the scene, yet he or she is fascinated with the body art performances and finds contemplative moments whilst taking part as a shocked spectator. This makes the body art performance as a cultural phenomenon predisposed to the artists and their artwork, and not as much to the audience. Inductiveness of the reflexive body techniques used in the body art performances cause an origin of loosely connected group of spectators with not very clear boundaries.




In comparison to the body art performers, spectators develop a different form of empathy. Audience’s empathic relationships are of two different kinds. Firstly, empathic feelings towards the body art performer, and secondly, empathic feelings among the spectators. During the performance, empathic feelings towards the body art performer prevail, while before the presentation starts, and after the performance is finished, spectators are engaged in a very close relationship, due to their relatively small number. Many of the spectators are friends, or have at least been acquaintances for a long time, so they do not hesitate in exchanging their ‘experiences’ they get whilst watching the body art performances. What is perhaps astonishing is the fact that an average spectator is aged between 20 and 25 years old. There are also many senior body art spectators, but almost every one is, somehow, professionally interested in the body art. But for both groups, it is significant that, in some way, they are ‘predetermined’ to be spectators of the body art performance, as many of them had similar life experiences to those the body art performers or they share the same perception of the world.




To an average spectator the body art performance looks a very painful event. The reflexive body techniques are unpleasant, disgusting and repulsive, and this makes one think the body art performers are in great pain. Despite the fact that this is not necessary the case, emphatic feelings of pain nevertheless appeared in the spectators’ mind and as such they are very important for the constitution of the body art performance. People, who are capable of imagining pleasant or painful feelings of others, react upon the situation with higher level of their own emotions, either positive or negative, in opposition to people, who believe that the observed one is in neutral emotional state. The person, who is able of empathic insight into another person, for whom she believes, justifiable or not, that he or she is in great pain, and if that person is also capable of placing herself in her imagination in the same position, than such a person’s feelings are intensified (Stotland 1969). As stated previously, an event in the spectator's body, inducted by the body art performer’s reflexive body techniques is what also makes the audience a relevant part of the body art performance. Individuals watching the body art performances may develop different emotional conditions. The body art performance leaves some individuals barely touched, whilst others are emotionally greatly affected. One possible explanation for this situation is that many of those who have been amongst the audience of the body art performances for quite a long time are not as easily shocked by a performer as they were the first time. Once an individual sees a few body art performances, he or she becomes acclimatised to the body art performer’s artistic agency. People tend to develop a psychological filter against things and processes that threaten their emotional balance.


Figure 4-5: Ive Tabar’s body art performance Acceptio in Modern Gallery and his audience (Ljubljana), December 20th 2005 (foto: Tomaž Krpič)











This brings us, once again, to W. Benjamin and his concept of aura. Benjamin, who understands a body as socially and culturally constructed sensorium, thinks about the connection between sensorial perception and the mind in terms of openness of the latter, even of its overflowing by sensorial data. For Benjamin, the aura of the individual was lost in the trenches of the First World War, when the body was dehumanised in its totality for the first time, not only by the destructive physical power of the war, but also by sensorial overloading. (Tester 1998, p. 18-24). So, not only that in the artistic form of the body art performance a scent of a long lost auratic character of art can be found, it is the accentuation of the artists body and use of specific reflexive body techniques, that reopened a question of the aura of an individual and his or her body. Inductiveness of unpleasant and repulsive reflexive body techniques, revoke an unpleasant event in the spectators’ bodies. Emotional responses, from uneasiness to disgust, in the body of the spectator of the body art performances can cause reaction in the individual’s parasympathetic nervous system, i.e. a reduction of heart beat and pressure in the artery, which may even end as syncope. Emotional disturbance in the spectators’ body, and not only the body art performance alone, to realize what Mateja, one of the regular spectators of the body art performances in gallery Kapelica expresses with her own words:




»The artists showed me, that my perception of the body was wrong. (…) It is vulnerable and fragile. I think it is endangered too. Not only mine, but the bodies of all of us. I have this feeling in my body while watching the performance… «










Some final remarks








There’s little doubt that the body art performance is one of the most controversial artistic expressions of (post)modern times. Beside that it draws our attention for several other reasons. Firstly, it is an excellent example of body modification, where the body art performers use different unpleasant, repulsive, even disgusting reflexive body techniques (according to Crossley they belong to the marginal zone) in order to produce scandal or at least to provoke live audience or public in general. Although the body art performance should never be reduced to merely specific reflexive body techniques, due to its political and socially critical mission, almost a complete identity between the body and the work of art nevertheless widely opens window of opportunity for the return of auratic character of the art. Secondly, the multidimensional study of phenomenon the body art performance reveals importance of the spectators in the process of its constitution. In order to unveil the logic of the constitution of the body art performance I developed further Crossley’s concept of reflexive body techniques. Inductiveness of the reflexive body techniques of the body art performance refers to possibility that certain reflexive body techniques whether used by one person or the other, not only directly affect the body of the first person, but indirectly also the body of the other person. In case of the body art performances a certain type of reflexive body techniques used during the body art performance as an event on the body of the body art performer in addition causes an event in the body of the spectator of the body art performance. As such, the body of a spectator, in its own will, take an active part in the production of the body art performance. It would be more than enough to say that the body alone is the origin of the body art performance, but it certainly is one of its crucial element.







[1] Kapelica (The Chapel) is a small art gallery located in the centre of Ljubljana (the capital city of Slovenia), established in the beginning of 1990s. Before the World War II, the large room was designed and originally used as a place for liturgical practices for residents of the Apprentice Hostel, hence the name of the gallery. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kapelica gradually developed into a well-established art and cultural environment, where many authors have found an opportunity to display their projects to a small, but specific audience. My inquiry of the culture of the body art performance, based on a series of in-depth interviews with regular visitors of the body art performances and analyse of various visual material of the body art performances that take place in gallery Kapelica, has gained for me the necessary data on those actively involved in the body art performance, including the audience of the body art performances.

[2] The only sensible way to preserve an authentic body art performance for future generations is to make a film. Small wonder many body art performers broaden their interest to video art and video installations. But some artists treat it as a necessary evil, because it denies the fleeting quality of the body art performance (Michalak 1999, p. 16).

[3] Such activity has also a negative outcome in terms of acquisition of funding. Many times in the past the management of Kapelica was confronted with withdrawal of sponsorships or, which is even more inconvenient, with tensions and conflicts between them and the Ministry of Culture as the most relevant financial source.

[4] ‘Social activity’ of the body art performers goes well along with M. Douglas’ observation that »the human body is always treated as an image of society« (1970, p. 78; see also Douglas 1966, p. 142-143) and B. S Turner’s statement that »The dominant concerns and anxieties tend to be translated disturbed images of the body« (2003, p. 1; see also Turner 1996, p. 175). The body art performers believe they do to their bodies what is done to some segments of society (disabled person, minorities, and so on) or to the society in general (for instance decisions made by politics). Their body is a sort of a mirror they hold to the rest of society.

[5] Less known dichotomy ‘an event on (the surface of) the body / an event in the body’ was proposed, though its elaboration is only fragmental, by Alfred Schutz:

»The physical object ‘the Other’s body’, events occurring on this body, and his bodily movements are apprehended as expressing the Other’s ‘spiritual I’ towards those motivational meaning-context I am directed.« (Schutz 1982).

In his Collected Papers III: Studies in Phenomenological Philosophy (edited by I. Schutz, published posthumously), a collection of texts originally published between 1953 and 1955, Schutz gives an additional explanation:

»What I had in mind are events taking place on the ‘surface’ of the Other’s body such as blushing or smiling, but it would be erroneous (because transforming the body into a mere thing) to speak in such a case of asurface« (Schutz 1970, p. 27).

[6] According to Perlmutter (2000) the difference between sadomasochism and the body art performance is a difference between dullness and an attempt to make an intellectual explanation, where the body art performers try to achieve the height of awareness and learn about themselves.

[7] Samira is, together with Tina, a member of duo Eclips. Tina alone does all the performances, although they make all the preparations for their body art performances together, while Samira assist her, when necessary, during the action on the stage.

[8] Sometimes an audience, as general other, may also have an indirect (negative) influence on the body art performer and his or her work. For instance, Stelarc decided not to implant himself a third ear after too many of his fans ‘disagree’ with his intention (Murray 2002, 82).







Abramović, M. 1998, Artist Body: Performances 1969-1998, Charta, London.

Argyle, M. 1975, Bodily Communication, Routledge, London.

Arenheim, R. 1974, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Bakhtin, M. M. 1984, Rabelais and His World, Indiana University Press, IN.

Balsamo, A. 1998, ‘On the Cutting Edge: Cosmetic Surgery and the Technological Production of the Gendered Body’ in The Visual Cultural Reader, ed. N. Mirzoeff, Routledge, London & New York.

Baruch B. B., ‘Body Representation in Art and Photography’, [Online] Available at:

Benjamin, W. 1990, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Art and Theory, eds. Harrison & Wood, Blackwell: Oxford.

Benson, S. 1999, ‘The Body, Health and Eating Disorders’ in Identity and Difference, ed. K. Woodward, SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi; The Open University, Milton Keynes.

Bourdieu, P. 1978, ‘Sport and Social Class’, Social Science Information, vol. 17, no. 6, pp. 819-840.

Crossley, N. 2001, The Social Body: Habit, Identity, and Desire, SAGE, London.

Crossley, N. 2004a, ‘Fat is a Sociological Issue: Obesity Rates in Late Modern, 'Body-Conscious' Society’, Social Theory & Health, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 222-253.

Crossley, N. 2004b, ‘The Circuit Trainer's Habitus: Reflexive Body Techniques and the Sociality of the Workout’, Body & Society, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 37-69.

Crossley, N. 2005, ‘Mapping Reflexive Body Techniques: On the Body Modification and Maintenance’, Body and Society, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 1-35.

Davis, K. 1995, Reshaping the Female Body, Routledge, London.

Davis, K. 2002, ‘'A Dubious Equality': Men, Women and Cosmetic Surgery’, Body & Society, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 49-65.

DeMello, M. 2000, Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, Duke University Press, Durkham & London.

DeTurk, S. 2001, ‘Intercultural Empathy: Myth, Competency, or Possibility for Alliance Building’, Communication Education, vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 374-384.

Douglas, M. 1966/2006, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo, Routledge, London.

Douglas, M. 1970/1996, Natural Symbols: Exploration in Cosmology, Routledge, London & New York.

Douglas, M. 1994, ‘The genuine article’, in The Socialness of Things: Essays on the Socio-Semiotics of Objects, ed. S. H. Riggins, pp. 9-22, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin & New York.

Emery, L. 2002, ‘Censorship in Contemporary Art Education’, Journal of Art and Design Education, vol. 21, no. 5, pp. 5-13.

Featherstone, M. 2000a, Body Modification, SAGE Publications, London, Thousand, Oaks & New Delhi.

Featherstone, M. 2000b, ‘Body Modification: Introduction’ in Body Modification, ed.M. Featherstone, SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi.

Frank, A. W. 2003, ‘Surgical Body Modification and Altruistic Individualism: A Case for Cyborg Ethic and Methods’, Qualitative Health Research, vol. 13, no. 10, pp. 1407-1418.

Fraser, S. & Valentine K. 2006, ‘'Making Blood Flow': Materializing Blood in Body Modification and Blood-borne Virus Prevention’, Body & Society, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 97-119.

Giddens, A. 1991, Modernity and Self-Identity, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Gill, R. et al. 2005, ‘Body Project and the Regulation of Normative Masculinity’,Body & Society, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 37-62.

Girard, R. 1972, Violence and the Sacred, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore & London.

Gržinić, M. (ed). 2002, Stelarc Maska and MKC, Ljubljana and Maribor.

Jeffreys, S. 2000, ‘'Body Art' and Social Status: Cutting, Tattooing and Piercing from a Feminist Prespective’, Feminism & Psychology, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 409-429.

Jaguaribe, B. 2005, ‘Realist Aesthetic in the Media and the Urban Experience’,Space and Culture, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 66-82.

Jones, A. 1996/2002, Body Art: Uprizarjanje subjekta, Maska & Študentska založba, Ljubljana.

Klesse, C. 1999, ‘'Modern Primitivism': Non-Mainstream Body Modification and Racialized Representation’, Body & Society, vol. 5, no. 2-3, pp. 15-38.

Mauss, M. 1973/1935, ‘Techniques of Body’, Economy and Society, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 70-88.

Mead, G. H. 1934/1962, Mind, Self, & Society, The University of Chichago Press, Chichago.

Meiners, E. 1999, ‘Sick & Twisted: Reading Revolting Research’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 12, no. 5, pp. 565-587.

Mellor, P. & Shilling, C. 1997, Re-forming the Body: Religion, Community and Modernity, Sage, London.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962/1945, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Michalak, K. 1999, ‘Performing Life, Living Art: Abramovic/Ulay and KwieKulik’,Afterimage, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 15-18.

Miles, M. 1992, Carnal Knowing, Burns and Oates, Tunbridge Wells & Kent.

Monaghan, L. 1999, ‘Creating 'The Perfect Body': A Variable Project’, Body & Society, vol. 5, no. 2-3, pp. 267-290.

Monaghan, L. 2001, Bodybuilding: Drugs and Risk, Routledge, London.

Murphy, R. 1994, ‘The Sociological Construction of Science Without Nature’,Sociology, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 957-974.

Murray, T. 2002, ‘Coda of the Paradox of Shed Skin: Stelarc 'and' the Philosophical Ping’ in Stelarc, ed. M. Gržinić, Maska & MKC, Maribor & Ljubljana.

Negrin, L. 2002, ‘Cosmetic Surgery and the Eclipse of Identity’, Body & Society,vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 21-42.

O'Bryan, J. 1997, ‘Saint Orlan Faces Reincarnation’, Art Journal, vol. 56, no. 4, pp. 50-56.

Orlan 1995, ‘‘I Do not Want to Look Like ...’’, Woman's Art Magazine, no. 64, pp. 5-10.

Payne Hatcher, E. 1999, Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art, Bergin & Garvey, Westport, Connecticut, London.

Perlmutter, D. 2000, ‘The Sacrificial Aesthetic: Blood Rituals from art to Murder’,Anthropoetics, vol. 5, no. 2, [Online] Available at:

Pitts, V. 1999, ‘Body Modification, Self-Mutilation and Agency in Media Accounts of a Subculture’, Body & Society, vol. 5, no. 2-3, pp. 291-303.

Pitts, V. 2000, ‘Visibly Queer: Body Technologies and Sexual Politics’, The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 443-463.

Pitts, V. 2003, In the Flash, Palgrave, New York.

Russell Hochschild, A. 1979, ‘Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 85, no. 3, pp. 551-575.

Schutz, A. 1970, Collected Papers III: Studies in Phenomenological Philosophy, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.

Schutz, A. 1982/1962, Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Boston & London.

Selecl, R. 1998, ‘Cut in the Body: From Clitoridectomy to Body Art’, New Formation, no. 35, pp. 28-42.

Shilling, C. 1993, The Body and Social Theory, Sage, London, Newbury Park, New Delhi.

Shilling, C. 1999, ‘The Body and Difference’ in Identity and Difference, ed. K. Woodward, SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi; The Open University, Milton Keynes.

Siebers, T. (ed) 2000a, The Body Aesthetic: From Fine Art to Body Modification, The University of Michigan Press, Michigan.

Siebers, T. 2000b, ‘New Art’ in The Body Aesthetic: From Fine Art to Body Modification, ed T. Siebers, The University of Michigan Press, Michigan.

Sperber, D. & Wilson D. 1986, Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Stiles, K. 1996, ‘Performance Art’ in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, eds. K. Stils, P. Seltz, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London.

Stotland, E. 1969, ‘Exploratory Investigation of Empathy’ in Advances in Experimental social Psychology, ed. L. Berkowitz, Academics Press, New York & London.

Tester, K. 1998, ‘Aura, Armour and the Body’, Body & Society, vol. 4, no. 1, pp.17-34.

Turner, B. S. 1992, Regulating Bodies: Essays in Medical Sociology, Routledge, London.

Turner, B. S. 1996, The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory, SAGE, London.

Turner, B. S. 2003, ‘Social Fluids: Metaphors and Meanings of Society’, Body & Society, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 1-10.

Zurbrugg, N. 1999, ‘Marinetti, Chopin, Stelarc and the Auratic Intensities of the Postmodern Techno-Body’, Body & Society, vol. 5, no. 2-3, pp. 93-115.

Watson, G. 2000, ‘Interview with Franko B.’, [Online] Available at: http://www.






About the Author :
Tomaž Krpič is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Cultural Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences and the Department of ethnological and cultural anthropology, Faculty of Arts, Ljubljana University.

The Beauty Shock, Winter 2006