“Fluxus can be lots of fun when the boys let you on their boat, sometimes they throw you off the boat. . . . if you don’t wear underpants or show your pussy you get pushed over the side.” – Carol Schneeman (1990: 93)
This essay will analyse and compare the way in which female artists associated with the 1960’s Fluxus movement used their bodies in conceptual art and performance. There will be an exploration into the various ways in which the artists have applied and presented their bodies and the potential motives behind them doing so, taking into consideration whether their work reflected the second-wave feminist movement that was occurring at the time.
Fluxus was an international and interdisciplinary collective of artists, musicians, and philosophers that aimed to dissolve the boundaries between art and life and promote the upheaval of oppressive sociopolitical systems through their philosophy and art practices (Terpenkas, 2017: 1). However, due to the unavoidable connotations the female form traditionally has with sexuality, controversy could often occur when solo pieces by female artists were performed with their bodies at the forefront of the art. In true Fluxus form, female artists found avenues for questioning these connotations through their work. Many female artists associated with the Fluxus movement started to use their bodies to play with this context and intentionally or not, they brought light to various feminist subjects.
A relevant example is Vagina Painting (1965) by the pioneering video-artist, Shigeko Kubota (1937-2005). The Japanese artist presented a number of performance-works as a respected participant of New York Fluxus events during the 1960s. In this performance, from a crouched position, Kubota painted calligraphic marks with red paint on a large horizontal surface of white paper with the aid of a paintbrush affixed to the crotch of her underwear (Figure 1).
1.Shigeko Kubota, Vagina Painting (1965): https://www.moma.org/collection/works/126778
The act she performed was both evocative and critical of Action Painting; a term coined by influential art-critic Harold Rosenberg based on ‘an approach to painting that emphasised the physical act of painting as an essential part of the finished work’ according to a definition by TATE. By using her female anatomy as means of creating art, Kubota feminised the hyper-masculine, phallus-as-paintbrush effect that Abstract Expressionist/Action painters like Jackson Pollock created (Figure 2). Her performance also suggested a reaction to Yves Klein’s widely celebrated Anthropometry (1960), where nude women were used as ‘living paintbrushes’ (Schnieder, 2013: 38). The red paint used in Vagina Painting is reminiscent of menstrual blood, juxtaposing the ejaculatory motion of Pollock’s paintings and the sexual tone of Klein’s Anthropometry. This is supported by the description from Kristine Stiles’ essay within In the Spirit of Fluxus that Kubota “redefined Action Painting according to the codes of female anatomy” (Stiles, 1993). However, the piece may have also been a reference to the practice of lower-class geishas, who sometimes used a “trick for entertaining customers, called hanadensha (literally translated as “flower train”) in which a geisha uses her vulva in various actions, including drawing calligraphy with a brush in her vagina” (Yoshimoto, 2005: 182).
2. Jackson Pollock, White Light (1954): https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79481?artist_id=4675&locale=en&sov_referrer=artist
Vagina Painting was presented as part of Perpetual Fluxfest, at Cinematheque in New York on July 4th, 1965. Critics in Japan ignored most avant-garde art, and were particularly unaccepting of female artists, so as a consequence Kubota moved to New York where she was immediately accepted into the Fluxus community, joining artists like George Maciunas and John Cage. Vagina Painting (performed exactly one year after her arrival in New York and on North America’s Independence Day) could be Kubota literally ‘marking’ her own independence from the gender barriers she experienced in Japan (Yoshimoto, 2005: 179). The piece had been widely associated with political feminist art, however, this was due to a misinterpretation made by the aforementioned Kristine Stiles after a phone conversation with Kubota. During the conversation the artist mentioned her Fluxus colleagues ‘hated’ the piece, but did not specify if these colleagues were male or why the hated it. This may have led art historians such as Schneider to acquire feminist conclusions about the piece (Yoshimoto, 2005: 181). Kubota herself did not publicly or explicitly express if she considered the work feminist or not, for example in an interview with Phong Bui, she stated “people like it because it has a strong connection to Feminist Art, which is okay. But I didn’t really pay attention to what people thought about my work at the time” (Brookyln Rail, 2007).
Despite what the title of the piece suggests, the gravity of Vagina Painting pulls towards the process of creation being displayed publicly and towards the theatrical performance of Kubota using her body to create. This implies a departure from traditional painting where the emphasis leans towards the aesthetic of the final image rather than the actions of creating it. Despite the importance of process in Action Painting, the piece also varies from the work of other action painters of the era such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Klein who all presented their pieces finished on canvas, in a gallery. The public nature of the performance suggested Kubota’s confidence in both expressing femininity and exposing her process in front of an audience, contrary to some of her male predecessors in active painting who kept their creative process private. However, this is not the case with artist Yves Klein, who had given public performances of his Anthropometry paintings dressed in a tuxedo as a conductor with a small orchestra (Figure 3).
“Fluxus transformed art from an object of aesthetic contemplation to a gesture of political action.” – Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art in Time
3. Yves Klein, Anthropometry (1960): https://zeynepkinli.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/825/
This idea of private vs. public use of body by Kubota is comparable to that of Cut Piece (1964) by fellow Japanese Fluxus artist Yoko Ono (1933-present). This work, first staged on July 20th, 1964 at Yamaichi Concert Hall, Kyoto was where Ono invited the audience to approach her and cut away her clothing, so it gradually fell away from her body as she remained passive and zen-like (Figure 4). During the performance Ono’s posture (legs folded underneath so that the body rests on the shins) can be deemed evocative of the polite Japanese sitting position seiza, which is assumed in formal or respectable environments. Therefore, similarly to Kubota, Ono also reflects elements of her Japanese heritage in her work, knowingly or not, despite the polarised social-class references (Kubota allures to lower-class geishas). Requesting participation from the audience, Ono grants them the opportunity to reverse their conventional passive role as a spectator to experience that of an active performer. This notion reflects the statement “a fusion between art and reality” from George Macinuas’ Fluxus Manifesto well and supports Cut Piece as a significant work within the Fluxus art movement.
4. Yoko Ono, Cut Piece (1964): https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/yoko-ono-cut-piece-1964
The piece has been performed on multiple occasions since 1964, having been reprised in Tokyo, New York and London. Inclusive to the most recent 2003 performance of the piece in Paris, Ono used a printed statement reading “Cut Piece is my hope for world peace” (Bracewell, 2003) suggesting that her intent for the performance was to initiate in the audience a pacifist ideology. With its self-sacrificial nature and the way in which Ono performs in a seated, passive manner, Cut Piece draws parallels with the non-violent displays of Indian pacifist Gandhi, echoing her comment on world peace (Yoshimoto, 2005: 101).
Similarly to Kubota’s Vagina Painting, Ono’s Cut Piece can also be associated with feminist art. Within the performance, Ono proceeds to challenge the audience’s neutral relationship with the art object of the female body. This form, in the historical context of classical art once served as a ‘neutral’ and anonymous subject for artists to freely mould, paint and draw, but is now presented by Ono in a way which could negatively implicate the audience member as they initiate the act of unveiling her body (Phelan, 2012). Art historians have considered Cut Piece as a prototype for feminist performance art however, this could be a limiting interpretation of Ono’s work as it turns the piece into a literalisation of ‘undressing’ as violence to the female body (Bryan-Wilson, 2003: 103). An example of this limitation can be derived from the American art historian Thomas Crow, who expressed in his book The Rise of the Sixties (page 133) that Cut Piece “acutely pinpoints (at the very point when modern feminist activism was emerging) the political question of women’s physical vulnerability as mediated by regimes of vision”. In this quote, Crow is confining Ono’s body to the representation of all female bodies and suggests that she as female art object represents all females as objects.
A prominent event regarding the female form associated with the Fluxus movement was the classical cellist Charlotte Moorman’s (1933-1991) New York performance of Opera Sextronique (1967). The four-movement piece was a collaboration with Korean artist Nam June Paik where Moorman would perform various musical compositions topless, bottomless, and nude. Based on a description by experimental filmmaker Jud Yakult, the first movement was performed in the dark with Moorman wearing a blinking light bikini bra whilst performing Massenet’s Elegy. The second movement consisted of International Lullaby by Max Matthews where Moorman performed topless, wearing only a black skirt, various masks and bowing the cello with various objects (including a bouquet of flowers). In a 1980 video interview with Fred Stern, Moorman explains how audiences in previous European performances “either liked or didn’t like the piece, it didn’t bother them that I was half-nude”. Despite accepted prior performances, it was the second movement of Opera Sextronique that was interrupted by Moorman’s arrest by three police officers for her ‘indecent exposure’ – the remainder of the concert went unperformed. On the programme for the event, Paik questioned the “seriousness” of music as a classical art form and why sex themes in music are regarded so differently to that within art and literature. “Music history needs its D.H. Lawrence, its Sigmund Freud” (Figure 5). It was this event that delivered Moorman the famous title ‘The Topless Cellist’.
5. Charlotte Moorman/Nam June Paik, Opera Sextronique (1967): https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/womeninflux/
Moorman was imprisoned and put on trial for indecent exposure based on the New York State penal law that specifically prohibited the willful and lewd display of private parts in public spaces (Landras, 2017: 49). However, Paik was released the next day having not been found guilty, this was because the judge deemed it impossible for a composer to create “pornographic music”, yet Moorman was still tried for performing his score (Rothfuss, 2014: 190). Paik had previously used the male explicit body for his 1962 Young Penis Symphony, where ten men who were hidden from the audience behind a large piece of white paper stuck their penises through the paper one at a time (Figure 6). The performance was given in good humour, but it is possible that this good humour was extended to male artists and performers more generously than female ones (Schneider, 1997: 40) and it was this imbalance that created immense issues for working female artists.
6. Nam June Paik, Young Penis Symphony (1962): http://artistsspace.org/exhibitions/living-with-pop
The explicit body itself was not the problem as the naked female form has been in art for centuries (as discussed earlier with Ono’s Cut Piece), always having been allowed in the way it was framed, presented and policed by both conservative and avant-garde artists alike (Schneider, 1997: 40). What Moorman did differently was bringing nudity to a musical context where it had not been frequented before. In her interview with Stern, she describes how “one of the things that offended people the most was my classical background and a cellist being partially nude”. Even though presented in similar levels of undress, there is a staggering contrast between the reception of Opera Sextronique and Cut Piece. With one resulting in a major court case and the other with critical acclaim (Concannon, 2008: 92) it suggests the context of a performance plays a significant role in acquiring a positive response to body art.
In conclusion, the female artists studied in this essay reveal that their motives for creating art were all varied, for example, Ono’s world peace or Moorman’s sexual liberation of classical music. However, all of these art works have been historically associated with protofeminism and are regarded as significant events for fourth-wave feminism today despite the artists not inferring so at the time. Their bodies have both featured as tools for creating art and as subjects but artistic recognition seemed to be gifted more frequently to artists who use their bodies for visual art, for example, Ono and Kubota, but body art, in particular when featuring nudity, was dismissed within the classical music scene as per Moorman.
“How long can new music afford to be sixty years behind the times and still claim to be serious art?” – Nam June Paik
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Bracewell, Michael (2003) ‘Yoko Ono’. Frieze.com
Available at https://frieze.com/article/yoko-ono-0 Accessed 16/01/18
Bryan-Wilson, Julia (2003) ‘Remembering Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece’. Oxford University Press
Available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600448 Accessed 15/01/18
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Available at https://broklynrail.org/2007/09/art/kubota Accessed 15/01/18
Concannon, Kevin (2008) ‘Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece”: From Text to Performance and Back Again’. A Journal of Performance and Art, MIT Press
Available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/30135150 Accessed 17/01/18
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Yoshimoto, Midori (2005) ‘Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York’. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press