Whether it’s done for the press or for personal growth, performance art can get out of hand. From graphic sexual acts to life-threatening violence, the most extreme examples tend to escape the art world and horrify the public at large. Here are 10 of the most notorious.
10. ‘100. Aktion’ by Hermann Kitsch (1998)
Part of the Vienna Actionist movement, Hermann Nitsch’s works are often bloody and deliberately shocking. Under the banner of his Orgiastic Mysteries Theatre, he’s enacted scenes of animal sacrifice and human torture, among other earthly delights. But his magnum opus was his six-day play of 1998. All of his earlier works were merely preparation.
‘100. Aktion’ (note: the above video is not this piece, but should give you a good idea of his art) was held at his own private castle, with its sprawling grounds, sweeping vineyards, and underground tunnels. Although 100 actors were involved, the “genuinely occurring events” of the play were “performed” by the audience (500-1,000 guests). As well as the actors, there were 180 musicians—including an orchestra, brass bands, and tavern bands—playing a specially composed 1,595-page score. A belfry housing five church bells was also built for the play.
Supplies included 13,000 liters of wine (“to produce the intoxicated, unbridled joy demanded by the score”), 10,000 roses, 1,000 liters of blood, as well as dead pigs and sheep, 60 stretchers, over 10,000 meters of canvas (for the “painting actions” of the second day), and 5,000 torches for the night-time parades. There were also two military tanks brought in for the fifth day.
But the shock value of the piece was not just the excess. Three live bulls were also slaughtered in the play—one each on the first, third, and fifth days. The idea was to reveal what is hidden. Sourced from an abattoir, they would have been killed anyway. As Nitsch put it, “society killed the animals … not me.” In fact, this was the point of the six-day play, to lay bare the facts of existence—”from the sublimest feelings of happiness and ecstasy … to the deepest abysses, revulsion, the bestial destructive rage of the darkest inner urges.” (The six-day duration alludes to the Christian Creation.)
It wasn’t all symbolism, though. Asked why participants were sometimes bound and blindfolded, Nitsch simply replied that he likes it.
9. ‘Solo Kristos’ by Sebastian Horsley (2000)
Sebastian Horsley was a painter with a problem: he could only paint what he experienced for himself. At least, that’s how he rationalized his decision to get nailed to a cross in the Philippines; he wanted to paint the Crucifixion.
To get the experience, he traveled to the village of San Pedro Cutud, where for Holy Week each year young men are crucified with nails through the hands and feet. They’re not being punished or killed; it’s their way of feeling closer to God.
Horsley wasn’t the first foreigner to seek out crucifixion for himself. In fact, locals had already banned foreigners from participating after a Japanese man sold footage of his own crucifixion as sadomasochistic pornography. However, after much persuading—and a bribe—Horsley was allowed a relatively low-key session, to be documented by a photographer friend.
It didn’t end well. Passing out from the pain, he slumped forward, breaking the straps around his wrists and arms meant to support his weight and minimize damage from the nails. The platform supporting his feet had also fallen off. Horsley plummeted to the ground as villagers ran away screaming. It was, he said later, an act of a God he didn’t believe in.
Adding insult to injury was the reaction back home. Not only was the British press characteristically cruel, with headlines like “Art Freak Crucifies Himself”, but the art world was also dismissive.
8. ‘Dinner – Eating People’ by Zhu Yu (2000)
Chinese artist Zhu Yu, like Feng Boyi and Ai Weiwei, set out to shock as a political statement. ‘Dinner – Eating People’ was a series of photos showing Zhu procuring, cooking, and eating a six-month-old human fetus, all with a look of indifference.
The photos are gruesome however you look at them but while the fetus is real, it’s by no means fresh. You can see it’s soaked in formalin. Even after cooking, he only pretended to bite it.
Once flushed out to the web, however, the photos lost all their context. People saw them as evidence of: a baby-eating trend that caused the coronavirus pandemic; a clandestine Taiwanese fetus kitchen; legalized aborted-fetus-eating in China; and so on. Apparently pleased with the results of his “experiment”, Zhu went on two years later to video himself negotiating with a prostitute to let him impregnate her, then to get an abortion so he could feed the fetus to a dog, which he appears to do later in the film.
7. ‘Seedbed’ by Vito Acconci (1972)
Every Wednesday and Saturday for three whole weeks, visitors to the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo would be forgiven for thinking there was nothing going on. Room A was entirely empty. But as they descended the ramp into the room, Vito Acconci’s ‘Seedbed’ began.
“You’re pushing … down on my mouth,” came his voice from the speakers. “I’m pressing my eyes into your hair.”
Hidden beneath their feet, inside the ramp, the artist repeatedly masturbated. He used the sound of their movements to fuel his sexual fantasies, which he narrated into a microphone. Increasingly breathless (and graphic), he would climax with words like “I’ve done this for you, I’ve done this with you, I’ve done this to you…” Then he’d start again with the next person.
The Met Museum has called it “a seminal work.” According to them, the point was to “create an intimate connection between artist and audience, even as they remained invisible to one another.” Also… it was the ’70s.
6. ‘Resonate/Obliterate’ by Ron They (2011)
Ron Athey’s 50th birthday celebration was bound to be bloody. This is the queer performance artist known for self-mutilation and blood-letting. Drawing on his Pentecostal childhood and HIV-positive status, his work has involved scarifying, branding, stapling, penetrating, and hooking. As he puts it, he always plays “either with flesh or with fluid or blood” in his work.
And his 50th birthday was no different. Titled ‘Resonate/Obliterate’, the piece saw him doing yoga inside a glass box, naked but for a long blonde wig attached to his scalp using pins. Moving in time to a “futuristic soundtrack,” he aggressively brushed the fake hair. Then, piling it up high to reveal his face, he removed the pins, blood flowing out, “like Christ in a crown of thorns.”
Finally, Athey spread lubricant over his body, mixing with the blood, “plunged his fist into his rectum, and … triumphantly began to laugh.” After the show he got his blood sugar back up with some birthday cake.
5. ‘Untitled’ by Aliza Shvarts (2008)
Yale art student Aliza Shvarts gained instant notoriety in 2008 when news of her untitled senior thesis leaked off campus into the press. Using semen from donors (or “fabricators” as she called them), she repeatedly artificially inseminated herself between the ninth and fifteenth days of her menstrual cycles for a year. Then, on the twenty-eighth day of each cycle, she took herbal drugs to abort pregnancy. Although she was never sure she was actually pregnant, she experienced cramps and heavy bleeding as a result.
Collecting this blood, she planned a sculptural installation as part of her work; but once the Washington Post got wind of the story Yale entered damage control. The university banned the sculpture and lied to the press, claiming Shvarts had hoaxed the whole thing. She had, they said, never inseminated herself for the piece. Shvarts denied their denial and the story went viral online.
In retrospect she noted how, in the absence of any tangible elements (the sculpture, video, photos etc.), “the piece only exists as a narrative circulation.” As for the point of her artwork, it was meant to “open questions of material and discursive reproduction.” That it most certainly did.
4. ‘Untitled’ by Lai Thi Dieu Ha (2011)
Hanoi artist Lai Thi Dieu Ha gained notoriety for her performances exploring sexuality and taboos in Vietnam. As she put it, her work is “about the control of the government, cultural censorship.” In the Vietnamese press she’s the one who causes shock (gay soc).
In ‘Fly Up’ (Bay Len), she stripped naked and covered herself in glue and blue feathers before performing avian movements. This piece culminated with the release of a live bird from her mouth.
But it was her next work that drew the most attention. In this untitled piece, she took hot irons to a mass of pig bladders then rubbed them over her arms, legs, and face. She then pressed the irons against her arms, attaching the bladders and blistering her skin before peeling off the burned parts.
3. ‘Shoot’ by Chris Burden (1971)
Chris Burden was adamantly anti-war—specifically when it came to Vietnam. As a performance artist, he expressed his solidarity with victims through shocking acts of violence directed against himself. Examples include crucifixion to a Volkswagen Beetle, getting kicked down two flights of stairs, and confinement to a school locker with a bottle above to drink from and a bottle below to pee in. He also had an audience stick him with pins.
In the piece for which he’s best known, ‘Shoot’, he had a friend shoot him at close range with a rifle. Although at a gallery, only a few guests were present—all friends of the artist. But the moment was captured on Super-8 film. In the footage we see and hear the gun fire, the victim stumble forward, and the shell hit the ground.
The gun was off target. The bullet was only supposed to graze his arm but instead it passed right through—forcing Burden and co to make a hasty trip to the hospital and leave staff in disbelief at the reason. Although he might not have thought so at the time, it was actually kind of better for the piece that it caused a real wound. After all, the intention was to challenge America’s desensitization to violence.
2. ‘Ham Cybele – Century Banquet’ by Ham Cybele (2012)
For a brief period on April 8, 2012, one tweet cut through the noise:
“[Please retweet] I am offering my male genitals (full penis, testes, scrotum) as a meal for 100,000 yen … Will prepare and cook as the buyer requests, at his chosen location.”
It went on to reassure readers of the quality of the meat—22 years old and free of disease, dysfunction, or hormone treatment. This was no bot. The tweeter was Tokyo artist Ham Cybele (HC) and this was a serious offer. In the past they’d had their nipples removed. The idea for this “testicle banquet” was to raise awareness of “asexual” (non-binary) rights. And while some tried to get the grisly meal canceled, it wasn’t against the law. Cannibalism is legal in Japan—just as it is in all US states except Idaho.
Five days after the tweet, five diners split the bill between them and, listening to a piano recital, watched HC sautée their own penis, testicles, and scrotum with button mushrooms and parsley. Having signed a waiver freeing the artist of any responsibility for adverse reactions, the diners tucked in. The verdict? Rubbery and tasteless. But that wasn’t the point.
1. ‘Rhythm 0’ by Marina Abramovic (1974)
Marina Abramovic’s ‘Rhythm 0’ gets the top spot on this list not because she went too far as the artist but, uniquely, that the public went too far as her audience. In fact, she was more shocked than anyone.
This could not be said of her earlier ‘Rhythm’ pieces. In ‘Rhythm 10’, for instance, she performed the old gangster party trick of rapidly stabbing a knife between her fingers on a table, not stopping until she had cut herself twenty times. In ‘Rhythm 5’, she leapt onto a flaming star-shaped platform, losing consciousness due to lack of oxygen, and had to be rescued by audience members. Then in Rhythms 2 and 4 she lost consciousness again, this time on purpose—first with drugs then with hyperventilation.
‘Rhythm 0’ was a different beast entirely. When the audience entered the space, they found Abramovic stood passively by a long table on which she had arranged 72 objects. Some were for pleasure (perfume, grapes, wine) and some were for pain (whip, needle, razor blades), while others were ambiguous or neutral (newspaper, paint, lipstick). Some objects, like the Band Aid, implicitly invited injuries. But the most shocking objects were the bullet and gun. The written instructions were simple: “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility”
Abramovic’s work was all about testing her limits, but here she was testing her audience. She wanted to see how far they would go. At first they were playful. But they became more aggressive. “It was six hours of real horror,” she recalled. Someone cut her clothes. Someone stuck thorns in her belly.
Another picked up a knife and cut her close to her neck, drinking the blood before applying the Band Aid. Someone even picked her up, by now half naked, and carried her round the room. Dumping her on the table, they stabbed the knife into the wood between her legs. Eventually, someone loaded the gun and aimed it at her head. They “put in my hand,” she remembered, “[to] see if I were pressing it, her hand against my hand, if I would resist.”
As with some of her other works, it took someone else to stop the piece for her. When the gallerist entered and said it was finished, Abramovic came to as if from a trance. Naked and bleeding with tears in her eyes, she walked through the audience and they all ran away; “literally [ran] out of the door.” When she returned to her hotel room that evening and looked at herself in the mirror, she saw a “really big piece of white hair.”