In the beginning there was painting or sculpture depicting the mortification of another person - that is, art in which the subject is mortification, of the sort with which Western culture is tiresomely replete. Some patron would commission from some artist an image from the Calendar of Suffering Saints and would receive the image of a tortured individual stretched in exquisite pain across a Baroque, Renaissance or Gothic background, abandoning his body to arrows, fire, spears or ropes.
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Later, mainly in the 20th century, came the work of art that is itself mortification - not mortification of another, but rather the bodily mortification of the artist himself, or of his image, as it were. After the mental and visual residues of the major wars, with their masses of dead and crippled, after the death of God and the death of his priests, certain artists took upon themselves the burden of guilt, the burden of the horror, and became both priests and scapegoats.
The great fracture in the texture of history and humanity in the 20th century endowed the art of mortification, and indeed the art of the body, with cultural and social changes. For example, women claimed ownership of their bodies and souls, and therefore it is not surprising to find, among the most prominent and important artists of the body, women who are fighting for control of their bodies with determined and painful abandon.
These artists derived nourishment from what is referred to as absolute theater, like Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty. They made use of accessible media - photography and video - to immortalize the fleeting quality of the disintegration of the body for the sake of eternity. What might be called - depending on the observer - the lowest depth of body art was plumbed by the Actionism group of artists in ultra-conservative Vienna in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps it was due to a combination of the Catholic tradition and the sense of guilt in the German culture sphere, but in any case the outburst of bodily violence in art rocked the foundations of Austrian society and its establishment. They violated secrets, displayed the body publicly and wallowed in self-destruction.
For example, the late Austrian performance artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler mutilated his own body. He exhibited his own head, as if severed from his body, lying on a pale cushion like the head of John the Baptist. His eyes are tightly wrapped in bandages and his head tied up with black string like a package. His mouth is plugged with gauze, as though his tongue had been plucked out, and it looks as if someone has drilled into the covering of bandages until blood runs out from inside them and stains their whiteness. He had his naked body imprisoned in bandages in the fetal position; his head entirely wrapped, like a mummy, with black electrical wires dangling from his pinched, sewn flesh, from between the bandages. Legend has it that he died in a performance in which he castrated himself, but the truth is that he died after falling from a window at the age of 29 .
Schwarzkogler's countrywoman, artist Valie Export, led a man, tied to a rope like a dog, through the streets of Vienna, tying him to a pole when she went into a post office. She built a small puppet theater, affixed it to her breasts and allowed people in the street to grope her through the tiny curtain.
At Vienna University, another Austrian artist, Gunter Brus, covered his body with his own excrement, drank his urine, masturbated while singing the national anthem, vomited and was arrested and later sentenced to six months in prison. The bloody solo performances of Hermann Nitsch became grandiose spectacles in which he re-enacted the Passion of Christ, his crucifixion and so on. He poured buckets of blood and corpses of slaughtered animals collected at abattoirs over the innocent, pure blond bodies of young people of both sexes offered up as sacrifices to the sounds of youth bands and village bells.
The Viennese Actionist artists had a tremendous influence on American performance and on performance and body artists in Europe, most notably Marina Abramovic. In a beautiful and chilling picture, the young Abramovic lies on her back on a floor of rough wooden planks and on top of her lies a perfect and horrifying human skeleton, pressed up against her flesh and paralleling every part of her naked body. In "Rhythm 5," she lay like a witch being burnt at the stake in a fire shaped like a satanic star until she lost consciousness.
In "Rhythm 0" she abandoned herself for six hours to the members of the audience to do with her as they liked, with the help of various objects she provided: knives, rifles, whips, roses with their thorns, lipstick. She aroused the bestial in them, the submerged evil, and they tore her clothing, aimed a loaded pistol at her head, pricked her belly with thorns and smeared her breasts with lipstick. At the end of the six hours Abramovic stood up, and the audience fled in fear.
In 1976, in Amsterdam, Abramovic met Ulay, a performance artist who became her partner, and from then until their separation on the Great Wall of China, their lives were an art of total trust and constant probing of limits. Such, for example, was "Breathing In, Breathing Out," in which they breathed into each other's mouth until they fainted. Or when they stood like two nude statues on either side of a small opening and let the masses press between them in order to squash their bodes and separate them.
In the retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, young artists "reperformed" Abramovic's historic performances as though they were Oral Law. Upon herself she imposed the most stringent mortification of all in abandoning her soul to the many: For the duration of three months, from morning till evening, she sat in silence before the visitors. In a color picture from 2010, Abramovic is seen dressed in white, swinging a lamb against the backdrop of the former Yugoslavia, her native land, as though transferring sin from her own body to that of a scapegoat.
In a video work shown at the current exhibition of contemporary art from Japan at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa, Yoko Ono is seen facing the audience. Ono's young body in one screening is replaced by her 70-year-old body in a parallel one. People come one by one and cut off pieces of the dress she is wearing, until she is left naked. The real difference is in her facial expression.
Andy Warhol is not considered a tortured body artist, but when he photographed his injured body with its scars after having been shot by one of his groupies/haters, he made the defective beautiful and revealed himself in all his bodily and human vulnerability.
In his body work, Scottish artist Douglas Gordon distorts his own face with pieces of cellophane tape. His hairy arm and his shaven arm wrestle each other, like Jacob and Esau, and his foot treads on his hand. Space does not allow mention of all the body artists, including the punk artists and others.
However, it is worth ending this litany with a surprising acme of body art: late Italian artist Lucio Fontana's slashed canvases. In them he transforms his body, his skin, on the canvas and cuts it in a single stroke, leaving it simultaneously defective and perfect, like Christ's wound into which the apostle Thomas, Doubting Thomas - pokes his finger to see if it is real. His canvases contain the tension before the action and the tension after the action.
Victim and stormtrooper
There is an inherent prohibition of the body - its impurity, its nakedness, its abomination - in the DNA of Israeli art. There was a total prohibition on damaging the sanctity of the body, on imposing defects on it, in the first generations of local art, when the memory of the tortured body from the Holocaust was still fresh in the collective memory.
This applies from the era of the Ofakim Hadashim (New Horizons ) abstract expressionists, from around the time of the founding of the state to the Want of Matter artistic group of the 1960s, which was a product more of austerity than of real mortification.
Gradually, like pagans in a landscape from which the body was absent, local artists arose for whom the body or its image were part of their artistic activity, as well as artists who even dared to do damage to the perfection and sanctity of the body kept immaculate for the sake of the resurrection of the dead. One might start with the sculpture of Yigal Tumarkin, who transformed the armored bodies of men and women into corpses with their guts spilling out. However, these innards are weapons of various sorts that Tumarkin welded to a heroic body, making a single entity that is both victim and storm trooper.
In 1973 Motti Mizrachi limped on his crutches down the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem, bearing on his back a huge portrait of his bearded, Jesus-like face as a substitute for the Cross, as though hobbling toward his own and our own crucifixion after the War. In 1975 Gideon Gechtman, after undergoing heart surgery, filmed a "ceremony" that continued the surgical shaving of his body hair, an act in which there is purification from the illness. From the shaved hair he made brushes and brooms. The essence of the body symbolized by the blood is to be found in the work of Moshe Gershuni, in which his own body and the bodies of the soldiers he loved sometimes become holy and spiritual.
Furthermore, in beautiful black and white pictures from the start of the 1970s, Ellen Ginaton photographed her husband David Ginaton performing conceptual acts on his body: burying his head in the sand of Sinai; standing with his foot on a rock like an ascetic monk; performing day-to-day actions having bound a razor to his wrist in a suicidal manner.
In the works of Mirit Cohen, who later committed suicide, it is possible to feel the bodily and psychological tortures she inflicted on herself. The sculptures of broken glass she captured in exposed electrical wires are like the carapace of a body imposing constant tortures on itself, as are her engravings, which are like microscopic enlargements of the cells encompassing the skin and conducting electricity between them.
For her part, Sigalit Landau twirled a hula hoop around her naked hips on the city's rooftops - a hula hoop made of sharp and prickly barbed wire, thereby transforming amusement into pain and transforming a symbol of the American dream into torture. In one of Landau's sculptures that now hangs in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, "Big Crust," she poured hot molten sugar onto her body and hung this discarded human carapace from a high ceiling, allowing time and gravity to pull it down gradually as a prolonged torture of beauty.
The clumsy limbs of Tal Matzliach's orphaned dolls are made of strips of her own stained skin (photographed and cut in bands ), and these dolls arouse endless compassion and closeness. In Erez Israeli's Pieta-like "God Abounding in Mercy," his weeping mother plucks out feathers that were stuck with wax onto her son's body, ostensibly taken down from the Cross - a Crucifixion of Israeli existence, where sons are sent to their death. Similar to this in its painfulness is the authentic yellow star Israeli purchased on eBay and sewed onto his own reddening flesh over his nipple.
However, perhaps the ascetic pinnacle of Israeli bodily art is the painting of Moshe Kupferman, which reveals a skeleton beneath the flesh, after the body was mortified and tortured in the memory buried very deep within it, the memory of the Holocaust.
In the 21st century, as virtual traffic skims along the Internet like a plague, the art of mortification, body art, can expect a contagious future. Or maybe not. Perhaps the over-exposure, the loss of any discrimination between the important and the trivial, will transform it into an endless flicker of corrupt bizarreness in which all the snot noses participate for the sake of the snot noses. Whatever the case, truly great artists like Abramovic, Gechtman and Matzliach will always stand out above the turbid current, even in the era of viral traffic.