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arts

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Performance Art  
 
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The Fluxus Group

The Fluxus group, in particular, is known for exploring everyday life as art, often through symbolically rich rituals. Geoffrey Hendricks created several key works in 1971, including Flux Divorce. In this piece, Hendricks and his wife Bici Forbes affirmed their gayness by literally dividing their property. Their marriage certificate, double bed, love seat, and wardrobe cabinet were each carefully cut in half with scissors, ax, and paper cutter. Barbed wire entangled with other objects formed a barrier dividing their house.

Like many gay men, Hendricks married and fathered children in an attempt to lead a heterosexual life. This pretense is the subject of Body/Hair (1971), in which Hendricks shaved his entire body in a piece symbolizing rebirth and the shedding of pretense.

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Hendricks' work of the 1970s reflects the transition of gay male identity in the post-Stonewall era, when queer people began more openly expressing their sexual identities.

The 1980s

The expression of queer content intensified in the 1980s with the founding of several important performance spaces. WOW Café and P.S. 122 in New York City provided an open atmosphere in which queer artists could tell their stories as performance art began to center on autobiographical narrative.

Responding to the heterosexist bias of the dominant culture, queer artists offered their own versions of the coming-of-age story, the love story, and stories of loss and mourning, the last spurred by the onslaught of AIDS.

While some artists included other media such as dance and video, the predominant approach featured the spoken word as a major element.

Holly Hughes and Tim Miller

This minimal style of performance remained prevalent throughout the 1990s, as artists such as Holly Hughes and Tim Miller explored the complexities of contemporary queer life.

In Clit Notes (1994), Hughes discussed her suburban Michigan childhood and her father's disappointment with her sexuality. In her text, Hughes balances wit and pathos as she weaves an analogy between her father's finding he has cancer in one kidney with finding that one of his two daughters is a lesbian. Losing one, she concludes, will not kill him.

Tim Miller similarly juggles levity and gravity as a means of connecting with an audience. In My Queer Body (1994), the audience is taken on a journey through time with Miller's body as a kind of map. The events related from his life each revolve around a certain part of his body, such as his forehead injured in a car accident after his first date with a boy in high school.

As Miller bares his soul, he also bares his body. For a portion of most performances, Miller appears nude. Both vulnerable and startling, his naked body seems a testament of facts behind the words he speaks, an undeniable presence before the audience.

Both Miller and Hughes create a special bond with their audience. By evoking common experiences (first dates, disappointed parents), they attempt to bridge the barriers imposed by sexuality, race, and gender. Through this commonality, they seek to create a safe space where difficult, painful, or subversive ideas may be broached.

The NEA Controversy

The taboo content of lesbian and gay desire, incest, and rape brought performance art into the limelight of controversy. In 1989, Hughes and Miller (along with John Fleck and Karen Finley) were awarded artist fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for their work in performance. These fellowships were subsequently revoked because of political pressure from the conservative religious right.

A national debate ensued over free speech and governmental arts funding. The artists (christened the NEA 4) sued the government for reinstatement of the funds and received a settlement in 1993. However, the Clinton administration appealed the favorable court decision, wishing to let stand a "decency clause" that Congress had required be observed by recipients of NEA grants. In 1998, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the decency clause.

Recent Queer Performance Art

Queer performance art in the 1990s and the first years of the new century has remained focused on issues of identity, race, and gender. Autobiographical monologue continues in the work of artists such as Justin Chin and Marga Gomez, who both delve into the intricacies of bicultural life. Their work is peppered with numerous pop culture references.

Mel Andringa (and a cadre of collaborators called The Drawing Legion) filters his own biography through the lives of famous artists such as Michelangelo, Jackson Pollock, and Grant Wood. His performances are part confessional and part art history lesson.

Andringa often creates a large scale painting in the course of a performance, as he presents facts that connect the lives of earlier artists with his own life. These "performed" paintings resemble works created by the artists being discussed but are often made from fragile materials such as water or chalk. The transient nature of these "masterpieces" comments powerfully on the lives of under-recognized artists and queer people in general.

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