9 Canonical Body Artists You Should Know

The main artistic medium of body art is the human body. Check out 9 body artists and their awesome works.

Jun 13, 2023By Anyla Kabashi, MA Semiotics, BA Art History



Body artists often make works about the relationship between the body and the mind. Through their body, they explore themes like suffering, pain, nudity, or shame. Body art also deals with gender, power, and identity. Body artists have often blurred the existing lines in the relationship between the artist and the audience. In recent years, many body artists have been experimenting with body implants and virtual bodies. Here are 9 body artists that you should know.


What is Body Art?

Marina Abramovic during The Artist is Present performance, 2010, via WSJ


The breadth of body art is wide: Body and face modifications have been around for a long time dating back to prehistoric times. Tattooing and face painting are old practices originating in the native cultures of New Zealand and North America. Mimes can also be considered a type of body art that originated in Ancient Greece. Performance art, also known as Body art, first appeared as a medium of its own in the middle of the 1960s, and then had a revival in the 1990s.


During the 1960s and 1970s, the Western world saw several social revolutions like the struggle for women’s equality. The perpetuation of idealizations of women’s bodies in Western art and the media, which men overwhelmingly generated, started being studied by artists and art historians. Feminist artists reclaimed their bodies and used new ways to represent them. Using their bodies in performance became a way for many artists to assert control.


By using their bodies artists connected their individual experiences with the shared human experience. A body artist’s performance, thus, functioned as a synecdoche to humanity and the challenges we face in finding common ground for our experiences. The body became a perfect tool to show that something personal was indeed political.

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1. Chris Burden

Shoot by Chris Burden, 1971, via Carnegie Museum of Art


​​Chris Burden cemented his place in art history with the work called Shoot. In a public exhibition in 1971, the controversial artist invited a friend to fire at him with a .22 rifle from a distance of 15 feet. The gunman was slightly off target, and the bullet entered Burden’s arm. This performance allowed the audience to witness a real example of what happens when someone gets shot. The desensitization of society to violence and the difference between seeing a terrible event live and on television were the main themes in this work.


2. Marina Abramović

Balkan Baroque by Marina Abramović, 1997, via Christie’s


In response to countless murders in the former Yugoslavia, Abramović composed Balkan Baroque. She spent four days washing each of these gory bones while sitting on top of 1,500 cow bones, wearing a white dress, surrounded by projected photographs of her and her parents. She sang some of her country’s folk songs and recorded an explanation of how to eliminate rats in the Balkans. Due to the scorching heat and foul stench in the basement chamber, the performance progression became visceral. She believed that the analogy between being unable to wash away all the blood and not being able to remove the disgrace of war had a universal application.


3. Yoko Ono

Cut Piece by Yoko Ono, 1964, via MoMA, New York


Yoko Ono was one of the pioneers of participatory art. Ono first performed her Cut Piece in Kyoto in 1964. Since then, she has performed it in Tokyo, New York, London, and, most recently, Paris in 2003. The involvement of others is fundamental to her work. Cut Piece depends on the audience’s willingness to understand and comply with the artist’s directions, or the rules she called the score. These rules defined the roles of participants.


Cut Piece had the artist sitting on a stage in her finest suit, holding a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience was directed to approach her one at a time, using the scissors to snip off a small piece of her garment which they were to keep. Some people cautiously approached her, snipping a tiny square of fabric from her skirt or sleeve. Others came boldly, slicing off the bra straps or the front of her clothing. In an interview with MoMA, Ono stated: When I do the Cut Piece, I get into a trance, and so I don’t feel too frightened.…We usually give something with a purpose…but I wanted to see what they would take….There was a long silence between one person coming up and the next person coming up. And I said it’s fantastic, beautiful music, you know? Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut! Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut! Beautiful poetry, actually.


4. Valie EXPORT

Body Configurations by Valie EXPORT, 1976, via MoMA, New York


This photograph shows a woman tracing the cityscape of Vienna with her body by bending her back to mimic the curb’s curve. The image overlaps with a thick red line that follows the shape emphasized by the position, making the relationship between the city and the body prominent. It is a part of the Körperkonfigurationen (Body Configurations) series, which Valie EXPORT began working on in the middle of the 1970s. The figures in the series accentuate the geometry of the city. The prints are highlighted by additions like the red line seen in the work above or black ink painted over silver gelatin prints. The artist’s body is depicted as something that contrasts the cityscape.


5. Gina Pane

Azione Sentimentale by Gina Pane, 1973, via MoMA, New York


Gina Pane is best known for her Azione pieces, in which she would execute a series of actions using her own body. These actions frequently demanded extreme physical endurance and pain tolerance. She encouraged the audience to empathize emotionally with what she was experiencing. She performed her actions privately, but they were precisely set and shot so that the viewer might sense the emotional depth of the piece even if they had not observed its making.


Azione Sentimentale is a complex, multilayered work that uses the visual language of ritual and religion to comment on pleasure, grief, and love between women. Pane performed this act in front of an all-women audience at Milan’s Galleria Diagramma. She entered the gallery wearing all white while holding red roses. She offered the roses to the audience and then took them back. She removed the thorns and stabbed her arm with them by neatly arranging them in a row. She then cut the palm of her hand with a razor blade. After which, she started giving the audience white roses stained by her bloodied palm. The juxtaposition of white and red, the blood, and the stigmata all mark sacrifice and allude to Christian theology.



Défiguration-Refiguration, Self-hybridations précolombienne no. 35 by ORLAN, 1998, via AWARE


ORLAN is a pioneer of what she considers Carnal Art. She poses intriguing concerns about consent, self-image, and beauty that foreshadow and inspire many current debates on transhumanism, utopian technology, and body modification. The methods ORLAN uses to draw the audience’s attention to her body, such as cameras, microscopes, and live feeds, are critical for the meaning of her works. ORLAN’s body is the main subject of her works. Her work explores the process of surgery rather than the end product of plastic surgery, making the altered body a place of public debate instead of a spectacle.


7. Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle

Ecosexuality by Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, 2008, via ArtCollaboration.co.uk


Annie Sprinkle has dealt with sex and love in various contexts, from the point of view of a sex worker and a porn actress to that of a performance artist. She and her partner Beth Stephens are pioneers of ecosexuality, a form of earth-loving sexual identity that declares that the Earth is our lover. Seeing nature as a lover suggests that a connection with the Earth is reciprocal, and as a result, ecosexuality holds people responsible for protecting the environment. This questions heteronormative notions and redefines concepts of gender, love, and sexuality.


Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle married Earth in 2008. The first marriage was followed by many more, including a white wedding to the snow, a purple wedding to the moon, and many more. The wedding guests joined Stephens and Sprinkle as they vowed to love, honor, and cherish many facets of the cosmos. Sprinkle and Stephens have authored vows for marrying the Earth, ecosexual manifestos, and directions for making love to the Earth called 25 Ways to Make Love to the Earth.


8. Herman Nitsch

The last supper drawing from The Orgies Mysteries Theatre by Herman Nitsch, 1983, via Nitsch Foundation


Herman Nitsch was a contemporary artist from Austria. His performances are theatrical and they incorporate different media. He focused on involving bodies in rituals and violence in order to explore life more holistically.


The Orgies Mysteries Theater was a 6-day performance held at a folk festival meant to celebrate humans. The work consisted of different artistic mediums and it was first performed in the 1950s.


9. Yayoi Kusama: Body Art Without the Artist’s Body

Infinity Mirror Rooms by Yayoi Kusama, 2011/2017, via Tate, London


Infinity Mirror Rooms is a series that Kusama started making in the 1960s. The artist has now produced over twenty of these rooms. Each Infinity Mirror Room is a pitch-black room entirely covered in mirrors. Kusama had previously decorated these rooms with lanterns, phalluses, and pumpkins. Today, little LED lights suspended from the ceiling flash repetitively to create pulsing electronic polka dots. The mirrors provide the impression of limitless space. The person experiencing the room becomes essential to the piece itself.


The artist’s body is not present, nevertheless, the work depends on the viewer’s body and physical presence to create meaning. The participant’s body doubles, triples, and quadruples in infinity. Thus, this work plays with the perception of the body and identity.

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By Anyla KabashiMA Semiotics, BA Art HistoryAnyla is passionate about exploring different artistic discourses and visual culture through history and philosophy. She holds a BA degree in Art History from the University of Zagreb and a MA in Semiotics from ELTE University.