Performance Art in the 1970s

| Anne Marsh
 + Jabiluka UO2 Bonita Ely, 1979. Preston Performance Festival, Pit space and Canberra..

Performance Art in the 1970s

Performance Art In The 1970s | Anne Marsh

ART and Australia, Autumn Issue 1989, Volume 26, Number 3

As in Europe and the USA performance art came about in Australia during the late 1960s and 1970s. The perfor­mance or event itself was considered the artistic ex­perience and often required participation by the viewer. It also encompassed 'living sculpture' in which people are the medium and pose as if statues in an exhibition. Documentation of these ev­ents usually took place at various stages during a per­formance. Most of the artists associated with performance have now moved on to other concerns.

In 1969 Christo wrapped-up Little Bay, a stretch of Sydney coastline; Stelarc pre­sented his first installation event at the Hamilton Art Gallery in Victoria; and Donald Brook delivered the second Power Lecture, titled 'Flight from the Object'.1

For Brook the process and the ideas rep­resented or generated by the work were the work. Brook's theory did not place undue necessity on an art object, nor valorise spec­tacle in any way. In 1969 Brook commended Christo when he said that the wrapping of Little Bay was '... probably the most important event in Australian art for years'.2 Brook maintained an ethical threshold when he considered what was possible or viable as a work of art and was not supportive of actions which inflicted vio­lence, either physically or psychologically on audience or artist. Discussing Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy's film Idea Demonstrations, which documented acts of biting, cutting, res­training and other potentially injurious activity, Brook argued that:

One might well inquire whether the artistic doctrines of aesthetic disinterestedness and ''physical distance' have crippled us, or whether we are secretly grateful for the opportunity to operate Roman appetites under an eighteenth-century rationalistic licence.3

In 1975 Brook was one of the major pro­tagonists to withdraw support from Stelarc's proposed suspension event at the Experimen­tal Art Foundation in Adelaide. As a result the event was cancelled and Stelarc's inaugural flight was rescheduled at the Maki Gallery in Tokyo (Event for stretched skin 7, 1976). The extreme acts of the body artists tested the limits of acceptability, even on the radical teleologi­cal scale of Brook's theory.4

In 'Flight from the Object' Brook gave an example of a group of teenage girls who attempted to draw a chalk line from Amster­dam to the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. This 'trans-institutional' model of experimentation resulted in the girls spending '... most of their time in England locked up at Bow Street.5 In 1970, Ian Milliss presented a similar work on a smaller scale titled Walk along this line during the Transfield exhibition at Bonython's Gallery in Sydney. The 'par­ticipating' spectator was invited to navigate a ten-foot stretch of masking tape placed so close to the gallery wall that the task became difficult. As Graeme Sturgeon has noted, the idea was that: 'in experiencing the work the viewer/ participant was thus made aware of his own body and sense of balance'.6

Donald Brook's theory of experimentation was part of a wider shift, evident in the mediums artists chose to employ and their preferred methods of presentation. Rosalind Krauss has named this shift the 'expanded field of sculpture' which incorporated land art, installation, process work, art povera, concep­tual art, documentation, performance, and artists' video, film and books.7 The shifting con­cerns for physical and psychological space, different approaches to time, and explicitly political strategies, which sought to dislodge the autonomy of the art object, contributed to the development of performance art in the 1970s.

The autonomy of Clement Greenberg's con­cept of the avant-garde was challenged by a process oriented art which sought to close the gap between art and life. Ian Milliss, writing about the 'new artist' in the catalogue for the 'Object and Idea' exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1973, criticised the cult of the 'artist as hero' and the role of 'official culture'.8 Milliss was convinced by a utopian concept of liberation which would break ... the monopoly of "artists" over "creativity" and "culture"', and make it possible for ... people to create real history and real change from their own personal experience'.9 Mike Parr was fuelled with a similar political moti­vation in 1975 when he said:

We must complete the break with the art gallery system, the bullshit of Modernism, bullshit art criticism ... As radical artists, we must amplify the death rattle of so ­called Modern art.10

Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy ran the first 'artists' space' in Sydney from 1970-72.11 lnhibodress was a venue where experimental and non-object based work could be presented by young Australian artists, and it also accom­modated the exhibition of 'non-bulk' docu­mentation shows of works by avant-garde artists in Europe and America. Parr and Kennedy presented their Idea Demonstrations as performances at lnhibodress during 1971 and 1972. Kennedy's performance which involved putting ' ... steel clips on to a bare chest ... and squeezing them off, until the flesh is lacerated and too sore to continue the work',12 was similar to many of Parr's works involving self-inflicted pain. The 'moral' and 'political' implications of Kennedy's unsuccessful attempt to pierce the skin on Parr's arm in the event Let a friend bite into your shoulder ... until blood appears were debated in the press by Terry Smith and Donald Brook.13

Artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s were in the process of re-thinking the position of the subject in the world, through existential and phenomenological frameworks. Allen Leepa, writing in the anthology The New Art in 1966, noted that: 'Art is caught up in this shift in man's evaluation of himself and his role in the world'.14 Writing for the Australian magazine Other Voices in 1970, Margaret Plant noted the relevance of Merleau-Ponty's book the Phenomenology of Perception (first English translation, 1962) and Anton Ehrenzweig's psychoanalytic reading of art outlined in The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing, 1953, and The Hidden Order of Art, 1968.

A psychoanalytic interpretation of the split between art and life, evident in much early per­formance art, was also informed by the writings of Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization, 1955) and Norman O. Brown (Life Against Death, 1959 and Love's Body, 1966).

Throughout the 1970s the concern to close the gap between art and life persisted amongst younger artists. In performance art the desire to provide an 'immediate' or 'authentic' experience between artist and audience was often claimed. Rituals involving catharsis for artist and/or audience were part of this need to grapple with the 'real'. Artists interpreted the art/life disjunction in various ways and devised different approaches and techniques to gener­ate a discourse.

Brian Finemore charted the course between Dada and the 1970s in his introduction to the 'Object and Idea' exhibition. However, he did not mention the activities of Barry Humphries who organised two Dada exhibitions in Mel­bourne (1952 and 1953) and presented events like the re-enactment of the abduction of 'Miss Peteroff', a political satire, at Sydney Univer­sity in 1954.15

Nor did Finemore mention the pursuits of the Annandale Imitation Realists (Mike Brown, Colin Lanceley, Ross Crothall) in the 1960s;16 or Martin Sharp, Gary Shead and Mike Brown's involvement with Oz magazine, which caused a public outcry because of its '... overt sexual themes'.17 Oz magazine faced several law suits and was banned on numerous occasions for obscenity: in 1964 Martin Sharp received a gaol sentence for his graphic drawings and the editors were fined;18 the last gaol sentence against an Oz member was repealed in 1971.19 The course of Dada in Australia was not written about in detail before the exhibition 'Irrever­ent Sculpture', at Monash University Gallery in 1982. Margaret Plant wrote about the episodic activity of Dada propagated by Humphries in the late 1950s, and juxtaposed the works of the Annandale Imitation Realists and a younger group of artists working in the late 1960s and 1970s: Ti Parks, Aleks Danko, Les Kossatz and Clive Murray White. Barry Humphries exhibited a range of Dada works from his illustrious career as a visual artist.

Artists associated with lnhibodress designed a programme to put themselves in touch with an international avant-garde.20 Other artists were less aware or perhaps devalued the importance of such a link. Perhaps to some it was just a joke. Collaborations between artists, musicians, acrobats and musclemen resulted in productions which were more humorous, reliant on wit rather than wrath. 'The Joe Bonomo Story' at Watters Gallery in 1972 was an art jamboree with works by Vivienne Binns, Tim Burns, Aleks Danko, Mitch Johnson, lmants Tillers, Alex Tzannes, and most notably Paul Graham and his team of strongmen.21

Group colour technique was an event designed by lmants Tillers, where people would be painted or rather paint themselves as Tillers called the moves from the sidelines.22 During the Opening leg show bizarre, a col­laboration between Kevin Mortensen, Mike Brown and Russell Dreever, at Pinacotheca in 1973, ballroom dancers wore animal masks, a doctor continually bandaged another masked figure and dancing girls paraded within the gallery, which had been compartmentalised by the artists using corrugated iron sheets. Mortensen wore a large white headdress with cages constructed over both ears, each housing a congregation of white moths.

Kevin Mortensen is primarily a sculptor; however he has presented what he terms 'animated sculpture' since 1972, when he installed himself in The seagull salesman, his goods and visitors, or figures of identification at Pinacotheca. The elaborate title was one of the clues to suggest that the work was about the artist and his wares, and the way in which he tries to hawk them. Mortensen deliberately tried to avoid classificiltion and insisted that his aim was to establish a contradictory method which would defy categorical criticism.23

In 1973 Mortensen collaborated with John Davis in an untitled installation performance during the Spring Festival, at St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne. Over a ten-day period Morten­sen appeared in goat's head regalia during church services. Davis and Mortensen had installed a range of 'prayer mats' and animal heads on small columns around the baptismal font, and lit the area with candles and small oil lamps.

The local press interpreted the event as a satanic ritual, although Mortensen notes that many churchgoers simply accepted his presence. He appeared to become part of the 'normal' congregation as others occupying his pew passed along the prayer books and collection plate.24

Mortensen was interested in Zen Buddhism, especially in the story-telling mode of passing on knowledge. The delicatessen, presented at the Mildura Sculpture Triennial in 1975, fore­grounded this type of narrative, again in a rather bizarre way. A small shop, empty apart from a service counter, was rented in the town. As the Triennial progressed Mortensen hung a few whimsical, sculptural carcases above the counter, and a single loaf of bread appeared in the window. Eddie Rosser, an actor, collabo­rated with Mortensen to bring the shop tableaux to life. Supposedly the original shop­keeper, who had owned the shop during World War II, Rosser recounted vivid mem­ories of his family, and experiences in a con­centration camp. The shop-keeper appeared punctually everyday and went about prepar­ing the shop for business. However, no visible progress was ever made. The dream event was stuck in memory and never really shifted from an imaginary frame.

Rosser started to frequent the shop before the exhibition opened, and continued to make occasional visits for several months afterwards. Whether the event was 'art' or the life of some deluded character thus remained a mystery; although the presence of a conscientious art audience would have consolidated the event's status as art for many.

Ritual elements in performance art often evoked quasi-religious imagery. Graeme Stur­geon, writing about Stelarc's suspensions (dated from 1976) and Ken Unsworth's Sculp­ture as ritual, 1975, said:

The artist once more assumes the role of the witchdoc­tor, healing his society through a process of catharsis.25

Max Kozloff, writing about body art in 1975, compared the self-imposed strictures of the body artist, which required '... a deadening of (the body's) instincts and needs', to the prac­tice of various theological disciplines and rituals.26 The flagellation of the self evident in works by Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Mike Parr and Stelarc reflect a rather ancient con­struct according to Kozloff, a kind of guilt/ punishment nexus familiar to young Catholics. In psychoanalytic terms the valorisation of self-­inflicted pain emphasises an aggressive tension within the subject, where the death instinct is prioritised.

The picture of pain and gloom did not affect all artists: those who did not use humour explicitly often pursued a conceptual approach which made a joke out of art whilst it infuri­ated the audience. Neil Evans's performance Wait for two hours, presented for the Harald Szeeman in Australia exhibition in 1971, and later Graeme Davis's What do you expect?, presented at the George Paton Gallery in 1980, both employed the same idea, and managed to irritate an audience gathered to 'see' an event that never occurred. The performances were simply the exchange of an idea, the audience either 'waited' or 'expected'. These works demonstrate quite clearly why Donald Brook's 'trans-institutional' mode of experimen­tation was unpopular in the art world: at times there was nothing to see. 

Surveying performance art in the 1970s it becomes clear that few women artists were involved before the late seventies. Jill Orr presented her first public performance titled Before then, after now, during the 'Self Images Show' at La Trobe University in 1977. In 1978 she performed Response during the Mildura Sculpture Triennial. Bonita Ely, another sculp­tor working with performance art, presented Jabiluka UO2 at the Preston Performance Festival, Pitspace 1979. Lyndal Jones, who came to performance art from a background in conventional theatre, produced a multi­media theatre 'happening' in the La Mama car­park in 1977, and in 1978 she started to present her familiar slide projections and narrative events. 

Philippa Cullen, who died prematurely in 1975, was the only woman to perform regu­larly at lnhibodress in the early seventies. Cullen worked in association with AZ Music and choreographed various dance works for solo performer (herself) and a small troupe, which often incorporated unskilled dancers. Cullen's troupe also performed in Martin Plaza, Sydney, during the early 1970s, and on the City Circle Line to an audience of commuters.28 

In the performance works by Ralph Eberlein and Jill Orr the myth of the Australian land­scape is reinscribed. Legend and Aboriginal myth played a centralised role: earth, fire and water were consistently used in rituals which celebrated an original primitivism associated with the land. The urge to get back to some original source of being, to uncover the unconscious in 'natural' processes, was at the core of much of this work. Jill Orr described the body as an immediate vehicle of expres­sion, ' ... a vehicle of energy, that can go unin­terfered with.'29 

In the 1980s the naive approach of artists celebrating the natural roots of human exis­tence, as an alternative to technological society, has been criticised. The idea of experiential difference, specifically the 'natural' difference of woman, has been perceived as a social structure rather than a natural essence by feminism. The celebration of 'primitivism' also fails to recognize that it too is a social dia­logue, a way of constructing reality. As Roland Barthes notes '... myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification and making contingency appear eternal'.30

In the 1970s, however, many artists thought that the body was an obvious site for the dia­logue about self and society, life and art. The use of the body tended to centralise the action and fix the audience's gaze; a polarisation between artist and viewer was thus empha­sised rather than a breaking down of the distance between the two. This viewing structure is made explicit in photographic documenta­tion where the body is framed as the central image and the spectator becomes framed as voyeur. Some artists working with their bod­ies have been successful in establishing a dis­course around narcissism. Urs Luthi, a Swiss artist, whose work was shown in the 1979 Biennale of Sydney, documents himself as a persona, an Other; playing on sexual identity the artist appears trans-sexual among other selves. Luthi's work enters a social discourse unlike the Self-transformations of Arnulf Rainer, an Austrian artist seen in the 1979 Sydney Bien­nale, or the recent works of Mike Parr, where images of the self are taken from photographic documentation of earlier performance actions and re-worked as drawings. Rainer and Parr are concerned exclusively with the self, the place of the ego. 

Although the self is represented as a split sub­ject in Parr's drawing installations the artist still seeks a reconciliation between self and Other, a confirmation of a united 'I', the one who exists. In 1983 Parr wrote that '... the fusion of signifier/signified is the insoluable sic rea­son for my work. It is, as a consequence, that I think of my installations or performances as real'.31 In the drawings Parr becomes the object of his own narcissism, interestingly, it is only the face that Parr considers, the eyes—as win­dows of the soul—are often closed to the gaze of the Other; there is no body represented. The fragmented and often tortured body is de­capitated, absent, apart from the face.

Some conceptual performance/installations have used film or video to record the work's process. The human body was used in a play­ful way in Aleks Danko's and Joan Grounds's time-lapse film We Should Call it a Living Room. An especially designed 'growing room' was constructed, complete with lounge room furniture, in Grounds's Balmain studio. The room and its contents were planted with grass by the artists, and the growing process was recorded. The lounge room setting anticipated occupation, perhaps by those who belonged to the furniture. Those who would be startled, perhaps, by the anarchy reigning within in­animate objects. As the room grew a naked woman took her place in one of the armchairs and as the credits appeared a group of simi­larly unclad men and women joined the 'organic' madness of a suburban interior. The film was first screened at the Sydney Film Fes­tival in 1975 and shown later that year in the Performance, Documents, Film, Video exhi­bition at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Australian performance art was celebrated by Robert Lindsay in the Relics and Rituals exhi­bition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1981 as a 'New Romanticism', representing a return to narrative, personal myth-making and mystification.32 This reading, which chooses to emphasise body art and ritual, is the most acceptable reading of performance art in the 1970s. My concern here has been to provide another reading which acknowledges the importance that humour, irony and wit played in the development of performance art in Aus­tralia. Contradictions, puns and jokes are, as Freud noted, more likely to show the slips of the unconscious.33 Centring the body and per­secuting the self in search of 'enlightenment' is an ancient plan; much of the 'new' art of the 1970s, which is evident in works by Tillers, Parks, Danko, Mortensen, Cullen, and Grounds, embarked on a more playful journey.


1. Reprinted in Bernard Smith (ed.), Concerning Contem­porary Art, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 16-34.

2. 'The Little Bay Affair', ART and Australia, December, 1969, p. 230.

3. 'Idea demonstrations: body art and "video freaks" in Sydney', Donald Brook, Studio International, June 1973, p. 269.

4. See Donald Brook, 'A New Theory of Art', British Jour­ nal of Aesthetics, 20/4, Autumn 1980, pp. 305-321 and 'A Transinstitutional Non-voluntary Modelling Theory of Art', Leonardo, 15/1, 1982, pp. 54-58.

5. Donald Brook, 'Flight from the Object', in Bernard Smith, op. cit., p. 29.

6. Graeme Sturgeon, The Development of Australian Sculpture, 1788-1975, Thames and Hudson, London, 1978, p. 227.

7. See Rosalind Krauss, 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field', in Hal Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture, Pluto, London, 1985, p.41.

8. Ian Milliss, 'New Artist?', 'Object and Idea', exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, 1973, pp. 6-7.

9. Ibid., p. 7.

10. Mike Parr, Pensees a la Carte, artist's broadsheet, 28 April, 197-5; as quoted in Bernice Murphy 'Some Recent Art in Adelaide', Project 18, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of NSW, 1977, p. 3, note 3.

11. Bernice Murphy, 'Alternative Space', Art Network, 6, Winter, 1982, p. 46. Although Murphy notes that there were other groups of artists collaborating around their common needs before lnhibodress, she never­theless cites the Parr/Kennedy project as the first model of an 'artist's space' in the 1970s.

12. Op. cit., Studio International, p. 271.

13. See Terry Smith, 'Live art's effects and defects', The Review, 17-23 June, 1972, p. 996; and Donald Brook, 'Idea demonstrations: body art and "video freaks" in Sydney', Studio International, June 1973, p. 269.

14. A. Leepa, 'Anti-Art and Criticism', in G. Ballcock (ed.), The New Art: A Critical Anthology, Dutton, New York, 1966, p. 144.

15. For information on Humphries's early work I am indebted to Neil Howe who made a copy of his unpub­lished manuscript A History of Australian Performance Art available for research purposes. Reviews of Dada plays and exhibitions can be found in the Melbourne University student newspaper Farrago, 29 July 1952 and 29 April 1953.

16. Elwyn Lynn discussed the relationship and differences between the Annandale Imitation Realists and the Australian Dadaists in his catalogue introduction to the A.I.R. exhibition at the (first) Museum of Modern Art of Australia in 1962.

17. See 'Cheers and a Bonfire as Oz 3 go Free', Sun-Herald, 7 November 1971, p. 3.

18. N. Howe, op. cit., p. 28.

19. Sun-Herald, op. cit.

20. Peter Kennedy, 'lnhibodress: Just for the Record', Art Network, 6, Winter, 1982, p. 50.

21. Julie Ewington, 'The Joe Bonomo Story -A Show of Strength', ART and Australia, January 1973, p. 240.

22. Ibid.

23. Graeme Sturgeon, 'Kevin Mortensen -Icons and Images', ART and Australia, September 1979, p. 71, note 2.

24. Taped interview with Kevin Mortensen, 3 October 1987.

25. Graeme Sturgeon, The Development of Australian Sculp­ ture 1788-1975, op. cit., p. 232.

26. M. Kozloff, 'Pygmalion Reversed', Artforum, November 1975, p. 36.

27. For a detailed analysis see J. Laplanche, Life and Death n Psychoanalysis (trans. J. Mehlman), John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1976.

28. For information on Philippa Cullen I am indebted to Barbara Hall who compiled information on female post­object artists for Donald Brook's proposed anthology Post-Object Book. The project was abandoned due to lack of funds.

29. Taped interview with Jill Orr, 24 June 1987.

30. R. Barthes, Mythologies, Paladin, Collins, London, 1973, 142 (first published in French, 1957, first English translation, 1972).

31. Mike Parr, artist's statement, in Young Blood, notes on art practice, Art Projects, Melbourne, 1983, p. 2.

32. Robert Lindsay, 'Relics and Rituals', reprinted in Paul Taylor (ed.), 'Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970- 1980', Art & Text, Melbourne, 1984, p. 108.

33. Sigmund Freud, 'Jokes and their Relation to the Uncon­ scious', 1905, The Standard Edition VIII, Hogarth, London, 1953. 

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