A Brief Survey of Incredibly Shocking Performance Art Pieces


By now you’ve probably heard the news that in the next few weeks artist Marni Kotak plans to give birth at Bushwick’s Microscope Gallery in front of a live audience. Whether you’re a fan of the unabashed concept or skeptical if the audience alone warrants this being called art, certainly it has grabbed your attention. Suddenly, this usually private, explicitly corporeal physical ordeal/bodily function/miracle has turned into a public spectacle. How could you look away? It’s not the first time that a performance artist has incorporated a shock element into their work. Sometimes, the results have been amazing and mind-freeing. Sometimes, not so much. Let’s take a look at some of the physically daring, sexually risque, disturbingly disgusting, and potentially deadly performances.

When Marina Abramović first performed Rhythm 5 in 1974, she leapt into a petroleum-drenched star as part of a purification ritual, and lost consciousness inside from the lack of oxygen. Obscured by the smoke, she wasn’t noticed by the audience for some time, until the flames got dangerously close. On this near-accidental-self-immolation, Abramović has commented: “I was very angry because I understood there is a physical limit: when you lose consciousness you can’t be present; you can’t perform.”

GG Allin’s self-mutilating, teeth-smashing, audience-attacking, shit-eating, and otherwise eye-brow-raising antics have transgressed punk rock into pure performance. As a climax to his career, he vowed to commit suicide on stage, but his plans were thwarted by a heroin overdose in 1993, so he didn’t. Performance artist Alberto Greco really did.

Aliza Shvarts made the news when, as a Yale art student, she reportedly self-induced several miscarriages as a performance art project that she meant to be a catalyst for discussion on elevating and de-commodifying art. Allegedly, she injected herself with a needle-less, sperm-filled syringe on a monthly basis and self-administered abortifacient drugs, right around her menstrual cycle — so, the true reason for bleeding and status of attempted pregnancy would remain “ambiguous.” She later recanted the project as fictional, after pressure from the school.

Zhu Yu’s revolting Eating People was also later claimed to be fake. Whether or not he really ate a cooked dead baby that he stole from a medical school in these photographs that were displayed at the Shanghai International Arts Festival in 2000, we think that the actual work is just a tad too disturbing. (Here it is uncensored. You’ve been warned.) Skeptical experts claim that it’s all duck and doll parts.

Iraqi-American artist Waffa Bilal became bionic for his piece 3rdi when he had a camera implanted to the back of his head. It constantly transmitted photographs to his website and served to comment on the nature of surveillance.

Though the complications from the life-long performance piece’s extensive surgeries ultimately lead to Lady Jaye’s death, her partner Genesis P-Orridge lives on to continue the project as one identical half of two people attempting to become truly whole.

Vito Acconci’s 1972 work Seedbed wasn’t visually graphic, but it shocked many that the quirky performance artist could be heard masturbating eight hours a day for three weeks beneath a ramp in New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, murmuring, “You’re pushing your cunt down on my mouth” and the like… over loudspeaker through the entire gallery.

Russia’s now-infamous art provocateurs Voina had crashed a grocery store to protest food shortages, and while the rest of the group distracted and blockaded the cashiers and security guards, one lady performed the delightfully absurdist, descriptively entitled piece How to Snatch a Chicken: A Tale of How One Cunt fed the Whole of the Group Voina and escaped the store with the raw chicken corpse stuffed, well… Here’s the NSFW documentation, if you can’t figure it out.

NYC legend Kembra Pfahler (best known as the lead singer of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black) appeared in No Wave filmmaker Richard Kern’s The Sewing Circle. She had her vagina sewed. It was done very stylishly.

In 1970, renowned artist Chris Burden had his assistant shoot his left arm from five meters away. This was for a work called Shoot. Those crazy ’70s, amirite?

Though his adorably bulbous, satirical sculptures adorn public plazas and metro stations, most people (especially the author of this post) have trouble forgiving Tom Otterness for adopting a dog and shooting it to death on film in his early days. He is still apologizing for it, yet… This seems to be the most disturbing piece mentioned in our survey. What do you think?