Body art or art of the body has a long history, which is neither continuous nor linear. In its current meaning, it designates a movement in contemporary art that appeared in the 1960’s, using the body as matter or medium of expression for the production of works, being frequently associated to the happenings and performances. Opposed to the western tradition that granted art the role of transfiguring the organic truth of the body, body art is not a new form of representation of the body or on the body, as found throughout the history of art. Taking the artist's body as support for the accomplishment of interventions, body art exhibits the body in all states of lesion, exalting the lacerated body, the mutilated meat, producing visions generally associated with violence, with suffering and decomposition. Blood, sweat, sperm, saliva and other corporal fluids that are used in the art works, bring to light the materiality of the body, acting as support for gestures or scenes that sometimes assume the form of sacrifices or of rituals. Tattoos, piercings, scarifications, deformations, wounds, are produced, either in a private place and then published through films, videos or pictures, or in public, what radically demonstrates the theatrical nature of this art of the body.
Considering the declarations of its artists, their work, and the critical texts that make reference to this branch of the contemporary art, we can understand it as a reaction to an internationalized market and the emphasis of the relationship between art and technique. We can also notice, thanks to body art, the appearance of new social actors, blacks, women, homosexuals, generating a new semantics for the contemporary practices in the artistic use of the body. In this context, body art is a form of communication and the statement of an identity, a function that seems to traverse its long presence in the human experience.
Body art reedits certain practices also used by “primitive” societies, such as corporal paintings, tattoos and several inscriptions on the body, stretching back to a genealogy that recognizes the certainty of a beforeness of the decoration of the body, previous to all other forms of plastic representation.
We find the first uses of body art between sculptures and archaeological ornaments discovered in Egypt, in Greece, as well as fragments and objects of the ancient Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and Costa Rica. Considering that making art is a symbol that defines humanization, body was then the first canvas. Going further back in time, paintings, drawings and ornaments discovered in caves, indicate the presence of people that approximately 30.000 years ago intervened in their own bodies. In the same way, the tombs and sarcophaguses reveal that certain civilizations wore tattoos, piercings and sculpted their bodies, adorning them for thousands of years.
Everything indicates that the forms identified today as body art, appeared in the ancient world with the same main purpose: to express relatedness with some group and distinction from another, to question the individual's place in the universe and in the social plan and, in the cases of religious usage, to search for communication with life after death.
A glossary regarding the forms of body art allows relating the present and the past, the there and the here:
Body Painting: using different materials, it can represent the person's transformation into a spirit, into a work-of-art, into another gender. It can also express alliance and protection in initiation rituals, funerals and marriages, as we still witness in the henna paintings in the brides' hands in India.
Body Shaping: the shape of the human body can be altered, and many peoples, in several times, chose ways of modelling their own bodies, in order to make them agreeable with certain local beauty ideals; it is the case of the Japanese shoes that modify the form of the feet, of the necks stretched with rings and the current and common aesthetic surgeries. Practices of modelling the shape of the head go back 6.000 years ago and continued to take place, also in Europe, until the XIX century and today in some communities in South America.
Tattoo: the models and techniques used in tattoos, that consists of piercing the skin with a sharp instrument and insert ink pigments in the inferior layer of the epidermis, the dermis, vary considerably according to the many cultures where they are used to express different messages: they can represent rites of passage, hierarchical ranks, an alliance commitment, the mark of a punishment (think of the slaves marked by the owners or the prisoners marked with numbers at the concentration camps), a fashion ornament or a rebellion attitude. This multiplicity of meanings, besides the counterculture and the recently invented electronic form of tattooing, are an explanation for its current frequency in the young bodies of the West.
Scarification: While for some cultures the immaculate skin is a symbol of beauty, for others the flat skin indicates a body not yet ready or decorated. Scarification is made through the production of cuts and scars and also through the insertion of substances or objects that produce reliefs (elevations) in the skin’s surface. Today, a reference in this field would be the intervention experiences contemporary artist Orlan produces on herself, turning her own body into an actor and a character in the ritual surgeries she executes and endures.
Piercing has an ornamental function, by adding ornaments to the body or the face. More common in the ear, nose and lips, this kind of piercings, frequent today in the young population, were found in old Inca and Mayan graves and among people of Asia and the Mediterranean Sea. It also bears the sense of marking a passage, a transformation, a change of age or status and can, thus, be restricted to some people or some occasions. Besides these, other parts of the body they can also be pierced, including the genital organs, marking there a territorialization, according to some, and a mutilation, according to others.
Body art, as an identification mark, displays an expressive diversity of the manifestations of peoples, serving as inspiration and as rejection; marking cultural differences, they signal as each culture appropriates or refuses other cultures. In this manner, travellers of all times brought back to their home countries images of the people they found. Missionaries, pirates, conquerors and tourists absorbed, were amazed or recognized the presence and the role in each culture, of body art; anthropologists recognize this traffic of images reveals a lot of the observed people and of the way the other is observed.
In western visual arts, the influence of the visions brought from the Americas, Asia and Africa is undeniable, appearing not only in the great artists' works, like Picasso, but being also explored as illustrations of “sub-bodies” in the fairs and circuses of Europe and of the United States, mainly in the XIX century.
At the present time, the movement known as body art is preceded by pop art and minimalism, in a moment where the canons of the art are under suspicion. In this frame, to question the relationships between art and daily life, art and non art, author and spectator, is a duty for almost every line of contemporary art, in works that articulate different languages, such as dance, music, theatre, literature, sculpture, photography and films, as well as they use varied supports. Today, it seems impossible to call something a painting or a sculpture.
Body art states an explicit subjectivity, turning the artist into the centre of the work: its body and its creative act. It recovers the pioneering experiences of the surrealists and Dadaists, in what concerns using the artist's body as matter or support for the work, as well as taking inspiration from the Aktionism Viennese movement, represented by artists such as Herman Nisch, Otto Muhl, Rudolf Schwarkogler and Gunther Brus, that reclaimed for art the use of the matter and its mundanity.
It is also influenced by the theatre of the 1960’s, like the Japanese Nô, the Theatre of Cruelty by Artaud or the Living Theatre, as well as the Fluxus movement, an international net of artists, composers, writers and designers, whose characteristic was the production of a mixture of different artistic medias and discipline. Completing the context of appearance of the body art appears the interference of the work of Joseph Beuys, between 1960 and 1970.
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