10 Contemporary Performance Artists You Should Know


With Performa 11 in full swing through November 21, it seems like the perfect time to introduce you to some of performance art’s most important contemporaries and intriguing up-and-comers, as well as a few of our personal favorites. At the very least, we promise to show you that Marina Abramović isn’t the only performing artist in the world, and it’s not all about shocking antics and bodily fluids. We’re going to mix it up and roundup interdisciplinary art folk, who lean on everything from film to Twitter to perform, giving you ample ways to appreciate their work. Onward!

Terence Koh

Chinese-Canadian artist Terence Koh creates curious conceptual zines and gorgeous monochromatic mixed media work, all imbued with a sense of humor, ritualism, and a luminous aura of white. His Internet presence is like a little gallery of experiences. (See: 100 Sentimental Images of My Cat, all of them … meditative, isn’t it?) For his first solo show at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York City, Koh crawled on his knees around an eight-foot tall mound of rock salt for 25 days, as a minimalist rite. We hope to see more.

Wafaa Bilal

Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal made headlines for his year-long 3rdi project by surgically mounting a live-feed camera to the back of his head to comment on surveillance. For the performance …and Counting, he had his back “carved” with 5,000 red ink dots to represent American casualties in the Iraq war, and tattooed 100,000 dots for “unidentified and forgotten Iraqi victims,” only visible in ultraviolet light. For Domestic Tension, Bilal lived in a gallery space for a month while observers viewed him from a webcam and remotely fired a paintball gun at him. Yes, his themes are political and his tactics are heavy, but so is war.

Francis Alÿs

Belgian artist Francis Alÿs moves mountains. Really. For Faith Moves Mountains (2002), Alÿs and 500 volunteers had shoveled a giant sand dune in the Ventanilla District outside of Lima, Peru, moving an actual geographical location a few inches. His performance work centers on the concept of paseos — “walks that resist the subjection of common space.” He has walked and trailed green paint over the armistice border in Jerusalem, and pushed a giant block of ice through the city for nine hours until it had melted to nothing. He currently works in Mexico City and exhibits internationally.

Laurel Nakadate

Breakthrough artist Laurel Nakadate is most often slumped into the “video artist” category, but we’d argue that writhing in strange men’s homes, recording a daily cry, and miming what a sexy Tokyo love hotel romp with her boyfriend would look like (sans actual now ex-boyfriend) is just performance art with the camera on. For her latest effort, she joins cross-over artist James Franco, to perform an Ouija board seance for Tennessee Williams, amongst other things.

Hennessy Youngman

From Philly, Hennessy Youngman (Real name: Jayson Musson)’s ongoing ART THOUGHTZ YouTube series is hilarious and enlightening and hard to describe and has to be experienced. It’s conceptually comedic performance, viral style. Watch as he demonstrates that Relational Aesthetics art, with “strangers in some kind of convivial happening in antiseptic confines of an art institution,” is just like “getting drunk in a bar, having a one night stand and contracting herpes.” If you think this is more insightful than some of your MFA lectures, you’re in luck: He now does this live. Hooray!

Jess Dobkin

In your face, from the theatrical angle: Hailing from Toronto, avant-garde venue regular Jess Dobkin performs, curates, awes, and sparkles. Her explicit humor-infused art uses the body as a medium and takes plenty liberty with it. Die laughing with the vagina clown car. Ponder love with the nipple cabaret as “two boobs become puppets, negotiating the complexities of their relationship in a silent movie inspired puppet show.” Unclench your inhibitions.

Nate Hill

Brooklyn’s Nate Hill has a performance art ego that reincarnates often. His oeuvre has grown more complex, from public access rogue taxidermy shows to public service: He helped you purge your house of you ex’s stuff as the Death Bear and allowed you to pummel him with your fists as the Punch Me Panda. Currently, he’s focusing on Internet-based performance that warps the notions of racism by comforting viewers with discomforting Internet entities through fake product sites and social media. We’re watching you, Nate.

Michael Smith

Performance artist Michael Smith’s character Baby IKKI personifies all that is regressive, frustrated, curious, and … gurgly. It’s not a man in a diaper with sunglasses, it’s an ageless, genderless, confused spiritual entity that makes its audience laugh uneasily, warbling through reality for the last thirty years, his mission still unclear. He did make it out to Burning Man though for A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, of course.

Man Bartlett

Serving as a tether between our daily Internet communication and “the real world,” interdisciplinary artist Man Bartlett has taken upon himself the vast task of regurgitating reality into a series of 140 character tweets as a performative action. He has spent 24 hours at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City, asking people where they’re going and where they’ve been, and live-tweeting their answers. He has spent 24 hours repeating “what the Internet said.” His practice is ritualistic, physically trying, and in step with the times.

Mireille Astore

Beirut-expat Mireille Astore is an artist, poet, and art scholar, currently exhibiting and working on a PhD. Her most famous work, Tampa, was dedicated to Afghan refugees attempting to seek asylum in Australia in 2001. Performing daily in a 10:1 scaled version of their ship on the shores of Bondi in Sydney, Astore ritualistically photographed her observers and uploaded the shots onto the Internet, “waiting for her release.” We hope that she continues to “ask what it is to be human,” and expands the online element of her practice for greater accessibility by a bigger audience. That’s really this blogger’s personal wish for all of the artists aforementioned.

Consider this an open thread: Who is your favorite contemporary performance artist?