Performance Art

Joseph Beuys. 
How to Explain Art to a Dead Hare. 1965

Picture of the artist.
Form: The artist, with a dead bunny. Smeared with felt, fat and grease. or, alternately, honey and gold leaf.

Iconography: "The bridge between the earthly and spiritual realms is represented in Beuys' work more often by animals, which he thought of as "figures that pass freely from one level of existence to another." In many cultures animals are guardian spirits for shamans, companions on their celestial journeys. Beuys often used animals in his actions, bringing them along, so to speak, on his own journeys. He carried a dead hare in several early performances, shared the stage with a spectral white horse in the action Titus/Iphigenia (1969),  and most famously, spent a week in a gallery space with a coyote in I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), an action described as a "dialogue" with the animal. All of these performances suggest the shaman's special affinity with animals: he can understand their language, share their particular abilities, even transform himself into one of them. Beuys identified personally with several animals, most notably the hare. He always carried a rabbit's foot or tuft of rabbit fur as a talisman,and jokingly cited the pointed shape of his ears as proof of his close relationship to the creature. He also had an affinity for the stag, an animal with deep ties to Germanic legend and northern myth; he sometimes referred to himself as "stagleader. And in the multiple A Party for Animals (1969), he simply declared himself to be an animal by including his own name--along with those of the
elk, wolf, beaver, horse, stork, and many others--on the list of the party's "active members." For Beuys, maintaining a close relationship with animals was crucial for him so that he could learn from what he believed was their superior intelligence (intuition)." (By Joan Rothfuss,
What we see in this piece is Beuys communicating with his favorite animal, the rabbit, while covered with felt and fat. However, what we can not be sure about is the particular iconography of Beuys using a dead hare, rather than a living one. Is he perhaps trying to say that a dead rabbit understands art better than a living person? Perhaps. In fact, according to an essay by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "Some conceptual artists do away with the art object by becoming the art object. Live performance provides a perfect place to express ideas directly to an audience. German artist Joseph Beuys believed passionately that art should change the way people think. To that end, he staged dramatic, usually shocking presentations. His How to Explain Picture to a Dead Hare was a performance in several parts. First, he covered his head in honey and gold leaf. Then, Beuys picked up a dead hare and walked it around an exhibition of his paintings and drawings. Finally, sitting on a stool, he explained his works to the hare. The artist explained, "even in death a hare has more sensitivity and instinctive understanding than some men with their stubborn rationality." (

Context: He was in world war one, and was shot down. He was burnt over 70% of his body and had been wrapped in fat and felt to help him heal. When he got better, he decided he would make art that was all about peace.....or, more in depth, is a biography by Joan Rothfuss, Walker art curator..."Joseph Beuys was born in 1921 in Krefeld, a city in  northwestern Germany near the Dutch border. He grew up in the nearby towns of Kleve and Rindern, the only child in a middle class, strongly Catholic family. During his youth he pursued dual interests in the natural sciences and art, and he chose a career in medicine. In 1940 he joined the military, volunteering in order to avoid the draft. He was trained as an aircraft radio operator and combat pilot, and during his years of active duty he was seriously wounded numerous times. At the end of the war he was held in a British prisoner-of-war camp for several months, and returned to Kleve in 1945. 
Coming to terms with his involvement in the war was a long process and figures, at least obliquely, in much of his artwork. Beuys often said that his interest in fat and felt as sculptural materials grew out of a wartime experience--a plane crash in the Crimea, after which he was rescued by nomadic Tartars who rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to heal and warm his body. While the story appears to have little grounding in real events (Beuys himself downplayed its importance in a 1980 interview), its poetics are strong enough to have made the story one of the most enduring aspects of his mythic biography. On his return from the war Beuys abandoned his plans for a career in medicine and enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy of Art to study sculpture. He graduated in 1952, and during the next years focused on drawing--he produced thousands during the 1950s alone--and reading, ranging freely through philosophy, science, poetry, literature, and the occult. He married in 1959 and two years later, at the age of 40, was appointed to a professorship at his alma mater. During the early 1960s, Düsseldorf developed into an important center for contemporary art and Beuys became acquainted with the experimental work of artists such as Nam June Paik and the Fluxus group, whose public "concerts" brought a new fluidity to the boundaries between literature, music, visual art, performance, and everyday life. Their ideas were a catalyst for Beuys' own performances, which he called "actions," and his evolving ideas about how art could play a wider role in society. He began to publicly exhibit his large-scale sculptures, small objects, drawings, and room installations. He also created numerous actions and began making editioned objects and prints called multiples. (


Joseph Beuys. 
I Like America and America Likes Me. 1974
Form: The artist, wrapped in felt and holding a cane. Inside a gallery space with a wild coyote. This type of performance art is known as an 'action'.

Iconography: " Beuys' actions were often described as intimate, autobiographical, politically charged, and intense. Actions would typically last 45 minutes to nine hours, and though his actions were not rehearsed, Beuys often created a score or "partitur" (as opposed to a script) in which he would plan the objects that would be used and the sequence of the performance. Beuys viewed each action as a new version of a basic theme and an attempt to make his philosophy more comprehensible. He also believed that the less literal the performances were, the easier it would be for the audience members to translate his message into their own lives. Beuys traveled to the United States in 1974 and performed an action entitled I like America and America Likes Me at the René Block Gallery in New York. The action actually began at Kennedy Airport, where friends wrapped him in felt and transported him to the gallery in an ambulance. Beuys then spent several days in a room with only a felt blanket, a flashlight, a cane that looked like a shepherd's staff, copies of the Wall Street Journal (which were delivered daily), and a live coyote. His choice of employing a coyote was perhaps an acknowledgment of an animal that holds great spiritual significance for Native Americans, or a commentary on a country that  through its Western expansion had become "lost"America." (By Joan Rothfuss, This is a good explanation for what happened, that the viewer could see, but the meaning for Beuys went much deeper. He was German-born, and had a hard time with America and how America treated him as an artist and its' wildlife. In an essay written by David Levi Strauss, this ambivalence is studied in greater detail, "By most accounts, the American audiences for Beuys's public dialogues in January1974 (arranged by Ronald Feldman) also didn't quite know how to take Beuys. His reputation for provocation and controversy had preceded him, but the substance of his teachings had not, so much of the time of these meetings was taken up by the most preliminary clarification of terms. When the dialogues did break through to more substantive exchange, the audiences often seemed caught on the horns of a particularly (though not exclusively) American dilemma: How can we embrace Beuys's idealism (which is akin to our own) without denying its profound opposition to the materialism which also defines us. For his part, Beuys was equally ambivalent about America. As his influence spread in Europe, he continually declined invitations to come to the U.S. or show in the U.S., saying he would not come as long as the U.S. remained in Vietnam. When he finally did come in 1974, he tried to engage Americans in two very different kinds of dialogue. Four months after his largely unsuccessful public dialogues and lectures on his Energy Plan for the Western Man in New York, Minneapolis, and Chicago, Beuys performed his first and only aktion in America, and this second contact was fittingly traumatic. You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted. (8) For three days in May of 1974, Joseph Beuys lived and communicated with a coyote in a small room in the newly-opened Rene Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway in New York. Though actually witnessed by only a handful of people, this action, I Like America and America Likes Me, awakened the interest and curiosity of many who heard about it, far and wide. Along with Beuys's golden-flaked honeyed head in How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), and the glowing white horse and cymbals of Iphigenie/Titus Andronicus (1969), images of  the Coyote action are among the most resilient and generative images to come out of  Beuys's performance work. Caroline Tisdall, author of the book documenting the Coyote action, has elsewhere written, "The represented environment must effect the modern consciousness originally, archetypically and beyond the times." (9) Perhaps more than any other, Beuys's American action was projected "beyond the times." Fifteen years after the act and three years after Beuys's death is perhaps a good time to make an inquiry into the further meanings of the Coyote action, and to reconsider its significance.
 Coyote in America
Coyote, ululating on the hill, 
 is it my fire that distresses you so? 
 Or the memories of long ago
when you were a man roaming the hills. (10)
Native American Coyote tales speak of a time long ago "when animals were people" and everyone communicate with each other. Though there are many different kinds of Coyote tales, varying from place to place and people to people, they flow from a common, ancient source and represent "one of man's earliest attempts to make articulate the movement of the Spirit." (11) 
 The Coyote of the Coyote tales is primarily a transformer, an agent of change
 bringing order to chaos and chaos to order. He is "the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries." (12) In much of Western North America he fills the role of Culture Hero and Trickster, found in virtually all traditional societies. He is an American Zeus, Prometheus, Orpheus, and Hermes all rolled into one: mating to create the human race, inventing death, stealing fire to give to humans, shapeshifter, androgyne, messenger and guide to the Underworld. In whatever guise, Coyote makes things happen. In contrast to the virtuous gods and heroes of some other traditions, the Coyote of Coyote tales is by turns greedy, lecherous, deceitful, vain, jealous, and gullible. The poet Gary Snyder has pointed out the "Rabelaisian-Dadaist overtones" of the Coyote tales. (13) It is typical of Native American thought that comic indirection paradoxically indicates the way of right action. There is more than a little Coyote in Buster Keaton. During Sacred Time, the time of Creation, Coyote taught humans how to survive, and the incredible survival of the coyote, both mythologically and biologically, continues to be one of the great American mysteries...The Coyote action was performed in the shadow of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, on a postcard of which Beuys inscribed the names "Cosmos" and  "Damian" in one of his multiples (made the same year as the Coyote action), as a comment on the commercialization of allopathy and as an homage to the greatest physician in the history of Europe, Paracelsus, who was born the year after Columbus "discovered America," and assassinated 48 years later by men in the employ of irate druggists and doctors. Legend has it that Paracelsus was captured by the Tartars while in Russia and was schooled in their shamanic healing arts. Beuys's intentions in the Coyote action were primarily therapeutic. Using shamanic techniques appropriate to the coyote, his own characteristic tools, and a widely syncretic symbolic language, he engaged the coyote in a dialogue to get to "the  psychological trauma point of the United States' energy constellation"; namely, the schism between native intelligence and European mechanistic, materialistic, and positivistic values. This is the dialogue he tried and failed to have with people in his Energy Plan for the Western Man tour earlier that year. In turning to the coyote, he moved from verbal language to the language of action. The conceptual simplicity of the Coyote action--"a man in a room with a coyote"--combines with its semiotic complexity to allow entrances and readings at many different levels."
(David Levi Strauss from his recent book between dog & wolf, Essays on Art and Politics, pubished by Autonomedia, Brooklyn, NY, 1999

Context: An excerpt from the same essay can be used to explain the context of what he was doing in the gallery with the coyote, "Upon arrival in the room with the coyote, Beuys began an orchestrated sequence of actions to be repeated over and over in the next three days. A triangle is struck three times to begin the sequence. This triangle that Beuys wears pendant around his neck is the alchemical sign for fire (dry, fiery, choleric warmth), which ancient glacial Eurasian shamans sorely needed. It is also a sign for the feminine element (earthy & mercurial) and for the creative intellect, and it is the Pythagorean symbol for wisdom. Striking its three sides three times, Beuys calls himself, Coyote, and the Audience to order. After the triangle is struck, a recording of loud turbine engine noise is played outside the enclosure, signifying "indetermined energy" and calling up a chaotic vitality. At this point, Beuys pulls on his gloves, reminiscent of the traditional bear-claw gloves worn by "master of animals" shamans such as those depicted on the walls of Tros Freres, and gets into his fur pelt/felt, wrapping it around himself so that he disappear into it with the flashlight. He then extends the crook of his staff out from the opening at the top of the felt wrap, as an energy conductor and receptor, antenna or lightning rod. The conical shape of the felt resembles a tipi, the nomadic shelter which migrated. from Siberia to North America with the hunters. Topped with the crooked staff, it also recalls both the stag and the shape of the lightning in Lightning with Stag in Its Glare (1958-85), and is a reference to the classic shamanic antlered mask, also going back to the caves of the Upper Paleolithic, as does Beuys's "Eurasian staff," the shamanic phallos (Coyote carried his around in a box on his back) and staff of the psychopomp--messenger and mediator. The felt enclosure doubles as a sweat lodge for Beuys, accumulating the heat necessary for transformation. Beuys bends at the waist and follows the movements of the coyote around the room, keeping the receptor/staff pointed in the coyote's direction at all times. When the beam of the flashlight is glimpsed from beneath the felt, we recognize the figure of the Hermit from the Tarot--an old man with a staff, holding a lighted lamp  half-hidden by t he great mantle which envelopes him. This card in the Tarot indicates wisdom, circumspection, and protection. It refers to the developed mind of man, the prudence and foresight of learning, and is thought by some to picture  Hermes, the Messenger, signifying active divine inspiration and "unexpected current." (21) Arthur Edward Waite gives the sense of the Hermit's lantern as "where I am, you also may be." (22) After awhile, Beuys emerges from the felt and walks to the edge of the room, marking the end of the sequence of gestures. There is a pile of straw, another piece of felt, and stacks of each day's Wall Street Journal in the room. Beuys sleeps on the coyote's straw; the coyote sleeps on Beuys's felt. The copies of the Wall Street Journal arrive each day from outside (like the engine noise) and enter the dialogue as evidence of the limits of materialist thinking." (David Levi Strauss from his recent book between dog & wolf, Essays on Art and Politics, pubished by Autonomedia, Brooklyn, NY, 1999

Chris Burden. Doorway to Heaven. 1973
Form: Performance piece involving metal wires inserted into the artists' chest.

Iconography: Chris Burden put long metal wires into his chest and had himself photographed with these wires protruding from his chest. His performance pieces are often compared to the stunts performed on the MTV show Jackass, in which young men perform asinine stunts which often result in pain and laughter, all because they can. However, it may also be said that he is part of the sub-culture known as the 'modern primitive', in which people engage in forms of piercing, tattooing, bloodletting and ancient shamanic rituals such as suspension in order to push their physical bodies to the limits of pain in order to achieve a higher level of spirituality. The argument against including him into this group is the fact that he chooses to display these rituals, there is no preparation nor meditation beforehand, and it would appear that there is a stronger argument for his work to be done for pure shock value. 

Context:" Quick, can you name the American artist who famously stuffed himself into his campus locker and remained there for seven days? If your answer is Chris Burden, then you know your modern artists. Burden pulled the locker stunt as his MFA thesis project and went on to stage many other similar conceptual/action art pieces (including shooting himself in the leg as a one-off performance piece) in the course of his long and colorful career. Burden belongs to a generation of earnest, loopy, brave, comical, and visionary artists who tried to change the way we look at art. In pursuit of this mission, Burden also created installations, one of which is included in "Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art, 1969-1996," the new exhibition at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. Burden's piece, titled The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, consists of 50,000 nickels with match tips glued to their faces lying in perfectly symmetrical rows on a platform just above the floor. It is a forceful image of order, power, and  industry which rises up to fill the space and overwhelm the viewer. Up close, the nickels seem small, the explosive capabilities of the match heads comical. Paradoxically, from further away, their combined energy is cold and sinister. Using multiple perspectives to get at meaning and altering the way a viewer interacts with a work is typical of installation art. You cannot simply stand a short distance from the image and size it up as with a conventional  medium like painting. To begin with, it is hard to know where to stand to really see the object. Instead, an installation requires that you cross the boundaries of a conventional art experience and become part of the work itself." (


Chris Burden. Shoot. 1975
Form: Artist, gun, bullet.

Iconography: If there were ever an argument for calling an artist a jackass, this would be it. According to an article on, "On November 19, 1971, 25-year-old performance artist Chris Burden had one friend shoot him in the arm at close range, while another filmed it. Burden made a few thousand off the sale of his accomplishment, simply titled, "Shoot." His resulting medical bills surpassed $84,000." However, though it may seem pointless, stupid and painful, there are many in the performance art genre whom see it as a valid and important form of self expression.

Context: According to a synopsis found at Electronic Arts Intermix, which has documented his work on film..." Chris Burden's provocative, often shocking conceptual performance pieces of the early 1970s retain their raw and confrontational force in these dramatic visual records, shot on Super-8, 16mm film, and half-inch video. Guided by the artist's candid, explanatory comments on both the works and the documentative process, these segments reveal the major themes of Burden's work -- the psychological experience of danger, pain, and physical risk, the aggressive abuse of the body as an art object, and the psychology of the artist/spectator relationship. This compilation is an historical document of one of the most extreme manifestations of 1970s conceptual performance art. Included are the infamous Shoot (1971), in which Burden allows himself to be shot in the arm." (


Chris Burden. Transfixed. 1974

Form: Chris Burden nailed himself to a Volkswagen Beetle and had other artists drive it around.

Iconography: "in a small garage to the Speedway Avenue I stood on the rear bumper of a people car. With the back on its tail lying, stretched I mean arms over the roof. Nails were driven by my palms into the roof of the car. The garage gate was opened and the car half from the garage was pushed onto the road. For two minutes with full number of revolutions constantly, the machine for me cried. After two minutes the engine was turned off and the car into the garage was pushed back. The gate was closed." (Chris Burden, Transfixed, Venice,California, 23. April1974) (
Chris Burden is again playing with the idea of mechanical objects, becoming a part of the object, literally, and trying to 'feel' through the object. Much in the same way in which Joseph Bueys had communed with the animal world , Chris Burden was communing with the mechanical world.

Context: The artist is using non-living, mechanical objects and trying to infuse them with his living, organic presence. To hear his own interpretation and context for this piece, please click the link beneath the photo of the work.