The Well Dressed Performance Artist
By Philip Auslander
Discussions of performance art, particularly of work made since around 1970, often focus on the performer’s body as the primary medium at the artist’s disposal. This body was often exhibited to the audience, frequently naked. It was subjected to pain and duress and to tests of endurance. It was scarified or suspended, modified surgically or extended prosthetically. Sometimes, it was placed at the audience’s disposal, as in Yoko Ono’s well-known Cut Piece, first performed in 1964, in which she invited her audiences to cut off her clothing with scissors, or Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 (1974) in which audiences were permitted to act on Abramovic’s naked body with a variety of objects that included a gun, a feather, honey, and a saw.
Arguably, this emphasis on the performer’s corporeal presence directs attention away from other important elements of performance art. Looking at the standard history of the form as a whole beginning with the historical avant-gardes, it is clear that performance art has embraced the clothed body as much as the bare one. Costuming was crucial to performances conceived by Italian Futurists; Russian Constructivists; Dadaists in Zurich, Paris, and Berlin; Surrealists; members of the Bauhaus and the adherents of many other avant-garde movements whose goal was to render the human body abstract. It is also clear, however, that most of these performances were defined in relation to such conventional categories as theater, dance, and poetry readings. These performances sought to challenge and undermine traditional understandings of such genres, to be sure, but were nevertheless identified in recognizable terms. It is not until after World War II that forms of performance not readily assimilable to traditional categories emerged, including Happenings and Fluxus in the United States and Europe, the Gutai group in Japan, and others throughout the world. Events of this kind contributed to the definition of performance art as a form distinct from such traditional kinds of performance as theater and dance.
Paging through Michael Kirby’s book Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology (1965), I am struck at how important costumes were to many of these performances. There are the home-made looking cardboard firefighter’s hat in Red Grooms’s The Burning Building (1959); “the seated woman in white” (Pat Oldenburg) and “the man in silver” (Jim Dine) in Dine’s The Car Crash (1960); and the bizarre man draped in greenish brown mosquito netting in Claes Oldenburg’s Injun (1962), to name but a few. Although not included in the book, the wrapped figures waiting in Grand Central Station in Alan Kaprow’s Calling (1965) also come to mind. Even though these entities are described and identified by what they wear, there has been no sustained examination of the use of costume in Happenings or in performance art more generally.
Perhaps this is because definitions of performance art are frequently at pains not only to distinguish the form from theater, as I suggested, but also to position performance art against theater. Abramovic has been quoted as saying, “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theater.” (I wonder if Abramovic still feels this way after playing herself in The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, the highly theatrical production staged by Robert Wilson and discussed earlier in TAS by both Harry Weil and myself). To allow that costume has played a significant role in performance art might be to imply that it shares more with theater than many would like to admit.
That said, it is not at all the case that costuming necessarily involves character in the theatrical sense—putting on a costume does not always entail transforming oneself into a fictional entity. Costume can serve to problematize the performer’s corporeal presence just as much as the various revelations of and actions upon the body that have characterized performance art since the 1970s. Nell Andrews describes a photo of Sophie Taeuber dancing in a Dada costume of her own design in Zurich in 1916-17 by saying, “the image is both for and against a representation of the body.” This dichotomy can be extended to costuming in performance art generally. Costume can reveal the lines of the body, or it can distort the body, throw it off balance, radically transform the performer’s corporeality to the degree that it becomes difficult to imagine that an actual human being could inhabit the outfit.
Costume provides a common ground on which to consider connections among art forms—not just between performance art and theater or dance but also connections among these forms and such others as fashion design, catwalk performances, the extravagant costumes worn by some popular musicians, and the kinds of self-presentation that take place in club cultures. Costume has also provided a point of entry into performance for artists whose interests initially lay elsewhere. Leigh Bowery aspired to be a fashion designer but became well known for the outfits he designed for himself and wore in public. Pat Oleszko was originally a sculptor, but found her way into performance by treating her own body as a sculptural armature for building costumes. The work of these and many other artists could be said to define a subspecies of performance art in which costuming is primary rather than ancillary, and in which the performance may consist of little other than the costume itself and the wearing of it before an audience.
Tanaka's Stage Clothes (1957) was a performance in which Atsuko quickly switched among specially made outfits to explore themes of constraint and transformation.
Rebecca Horn is a German artist who belongs to the generation of performance and body artists that emerged in the early 1970s. Her early work focused on alterations and distortions of the body (her own and others’) through specially designed costumes like Arm Extensions (1968).
Born in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, Leigh Bowery moved to London to pursue a career as a fashion designer, though he ultimately became better known as a London club promoter and performer, a fixture on the New Romantic scene of the 1980s, appearing in outlandish costumes of his own design (several of which are visible in this video) and fronting a deliberately offensive music performance group called Minty.
Nick Cave is an artist, designer, and dancer best known for his Soundsuits, described on the website of the Jack Shainman Gallery as "sculptural forms based on the scale of his body. Soundsuits camouflage the body, masking and creating a seco"nd skin that conceals race, gender, and class, forcing the viewer to look without judgment.
Hussein Chalayan is a Turkish Cypriot fashion designer based in London. He is known for his provocative uses of both fashion design and the runway show as vehicles for innovation and provocation, exemplified by his 1998 show that featured models clothed in burkas of different lengths, beginning with a model nude except for a face mask and terminating with a model wearing a floor-length burka. He also designed a series of Transforming Dresses, computer-controlled garments that change autonomously. The first of these, seen in this video, transformed itself into five different dresses tracing five different eras in the history of fashion.
Kong Ning is a Chinese performance artist whose current work consists of costumes, particularly wedding dresses, made from breathing masks to draw attention to the poor quality of the air in Chinese cities.
Pyuupiru is a transgender Japanese artist who makes and performs in costumes that distort her body. The knitted costume depicted in the video is Earth from the series Planeteria (2003).
Pat Oleszko is of the same artistic generation as Horn, yet her sensibility is very different. Since the early 1970s, elaborate, often humorous and whimsical costumes, which she wears, have been Oleszko’s primary artform. In some cases, they are stand-alone works, while in others, Oleszko uses them in processions or theatrical performances.
Allan Kaprow, Calling (1965)
Atsuko Tanaka was a member of the Japanese Gutai Group. She is best known for her Electric Dress (1956), a wearable garment made up of live light bulbs now often exhibited as a sculpture meant to evoke the technological dynamism of postwar Osaka, her hometown.
Andrey Bartenev is a Russian artist, designer, and performance maker who emerged in the early 1990s. Like Bowery, he first came to notice on the club scene (in Moscow) and went on to represent Russia at the Venice Biennale in 2007. As can be seen from the first example in this video, his performances sometimes take the form of fashion shows.
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section. He writes frequently on performance and music.