Asia-Pacific’s 7 most shocking performance art pieces

Art Radar profiles 7 of the most shocking performance art pieces from Asia-Pacific.

From body modification to gory spectacles, artists all over the world have always pushed the envelope when it comes to performance art. Art Radar spotlights 7 of the most shocking art performances from Asia-Pacific since the turn of the millennium.

Stelarc, portrait with the 'Third Ear'. Image from

Stelarc, portrait with the ‘Third Ear’, 2007, image from

Stelarc – The Third Ear

Stelarc, born in Cyprus in 1946 as Stelios Arcadiou, is an Australian performance artist. His work focuses on extending the physical and sensory capabilities of the human body. Taking his concept of the human body as obsolete as a starting point, Stelarc has used a variety of tools to explore alternate, intimate and involuntary interfaces with the body, including medical instruments, prosthetics, robotics, Virtual Reality systems, the Internet and biotechnology.

Watch a video of Stelarc’s ‘Third Ear’ on

The Third Ear project centres around the notion of the prosthetic and sees, according to the artist,

the prosthesis not as a sign of lack, but as a symptom of excess. Rather than replacing a missing or malfunctioning part of the body, these interfaces and devices augment or amplify the body’s form and functions.

The project was initiated during Stelarc’s residency in the Art Department of Curtain University of Technology in Perth in 1997. The artist sought the advice of experts from the Anatomy and Human Biology Department of the University of Western Australia. In 1999, he presented the project at a monthly gathering of consulting surgeons at the Grand Round, John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford University. In 2007, Stelarc finally had the extra ear grafted onto his left forearm. The construction process involved a number of procedures, over approximately 8-10 months, including techniques from cosmetic, reconstructive and orthopedic surgery. The ear was created in the lab from cells, but originally conceived as carved from cartilage harvested from the rib cage. In the next step of the project, Stelarc planned to implant a microphone into the extra ear that would be then connected to the Internet. The ear would allow others from all over the world to listen to what it picks up.

Watch a video by The Guardian on Pyotr Pavlensky’s ‘Fixation’ on

Pyotr Pavlensky – Fixation

Pyotr Pavlensky was born in Leningrad in 1984. He received his education from the Saint Petersburg State Art and Industry Academy and the Pro Arte Foundation’s programme, which promotes contemporary culture. He established the online magazine Politicheskaya Propaganda and works with actions and performances in public space that involve the human body.

In 2012, Pavlensky sewed his mouth up and stood in front of the Kazansky Cathedral in St. Petersburg in protest against the arrest of Pussy Riot, and lay naked in barbed wire to protest against harsh laws in front of the City Parliament of St. Petersburg in 2013.

On 10 November 2013, he staged another of his shocking performances, entitled Fixation, in Moscow. Naked, he sat down in front of the Lenin’s Masoleum on the Red Square and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones. His action coincided with the annual Russian Police Day. His work was his response to Russia’s descent into a “police state”. The artist stated:

The performance can be seen as a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society. As the government turns the country into one big prison, stealing from the people and using the money to grow and enrich the police apparatus and other repressive structures, society is allowing this, and forgetting its numerical advantage, is bringing the triumph of the police state closer by its inaction.

The artist was arrested for his performance.

Watch a part of the ‘Beijing Swings’ documentary on Zhu Yu’s ‘Eating People’ on

Zhu Yu – Eating People

Zhu Yu (b. 1970) is a performance artist living and working in Beijing. He graduated from the Affiliated High School of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1991. He is often seen as the most controversial and criticised artist in China. His contemporary performance art, which often involves the human body, raises questions about moral agendas, investigating the area of tension between morals and established law. His provocative art has been the subject of fierce protests and investigations. He is associated with the “shock art” movement and was included in the group of practitioners of the “Cadaver School“, a term coined by France-based Chinese art critic Fei Dawei in 2001.

His work Eating People (2000) was the most famous and controversial piece of the series entitled “Infatuation on Injuries”. The work was first shown in the exhibition “Fuck Off” organised by Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi in Shanghai in 2000. The work consisted of a series of photographs of the artist cooking and eating what was alleged to be a human foetus. The artist claimed that the babies in his work were stolen from a local medical school. His shocking performance was also shown as part of the documentary Beijing Swings broadcast on Channel 4 in 2003. In a 2003 article on the BBC, the artist was quoted as saying:

No religion forbids cannibalism. Nor can I find any law which prevents us from eating people. I took advantage of the space between morality and the law and based my work on it.

The artist, who is a Christian, also claimed that religion plays a major role in his art practice.

Watch an interview with Wafaa Bilal about ’3rdi’ on

Wafaa Bilal – 3rdi

Wafaa Bilal (b. 1966) is an Iraq-born American artist. He is a former Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is currently Associate Arts Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is known internationally for his online performative and interactive works that provoke dialogue about international politics and internal dynamics. His work 3rdi (2010-2011) continues on his artistic practice’s concern with the communication of public and private information to an audience so that it may be retold and distributed. The artist says about his work:

The stories I tell are political dramas, which unfold through my past experience and into the present where they interact with the currency of media as the dialectic of aesthetic pleasure and pain. Through various layers of distribution and interpretation, pictures are drawn using interactive models established through the stories’ (technological) framework where they are revealed and shared. With an audience locked in participation, my story may be retold.

3rdi, says Bilal, is “a platform for the telling and retelling of another story.” For the project, the artist, through a surgical procedure, had a camera temporarily implanted into the back of his head. The device would capture an image per minute of his daily life in a spontaneous and objective manner. The images would then be transmitted instantaneously 24 hours a day to a website for public consumption. The project relates to the artist’s need to re-capture his past, in relation to his journey from Iraq to the United States many years ago when he left many places, people and memories behind and did not take any images of them with himself. The camera is a way to capture those images that have slipped away in a non-confrontational, objective way without his personal intervention. The project is a statement on surveillance, the mundane and the things we leave behind.

Watch a video on Casey Jenkins’s ‘Casting Off My Womb’ on

Casey Jenkins – Casting Off My Womb

Casey Jenkins is an Australian performance artist and a ‘craftivist’, as she calls herself: an artist-activist that uses craft as a medium. She co-founded and runs a radical craft group, Craft Cartel, which aims to subvert and honour art techniques often disparaged as ‘women’s work’. Her practice is informed by feminist concerns and she has organised a variety of feminist initiatives in Australia and internationally. Jenkins is an active street artist and her work Cunt Fling-Up – crafted female genitalia attached to shoes flung over power lines in the same manner as gangs fling shoes – has appeared in the streets of New York, London, Paris and even on the Eiffel Tower and in the Vatican City’s Basilica.

Her latest project, Casting Off My Womb (2013), is a 28-day performance that was first performed at Darwin Visual Arts Association (DVAA) from October to November 2013. The artist, sitting on a wooden chest in the gallery space, knitted from wool lodged in her vaginal tunnel, one skein of wool each day for the length of the performance, corresponding to a full menstrual cycle. The passage of knitting was suspended from the ceiling on wire coat hangers as the knitting proceeded. With the passing of each day, the artist clicked on a manual calendar to mark the number of days until the piece would be ‘cast-off’. Jenkins wanted to address the negative reactions to the notions of the vulva and menstruation, reactions that are linked to misogyny and a patriarchal community. She explains the ideas behind the work thus:

In this piece I’m trying to draw the warped and misogynistic views about the vulva and menstruation into the open. I hope the dissonance between those views and the common warm or dismissive responses to knitting (also based on patriarchy-serving fallacies), will begin to break down both responses and the damaging ideas behind them, showing them to be absurd.

Watch a video of He Yunchang’s ‘One Metre of Democracy’ on

He Yunchang – One Metre of Democracy

He Yunchang (b.1967) is a performance artist living and working in Beijing. He is renowned for his performance art involving acts of physical endurance and, often, self-mutilation and injury. The artist has said about his work:

Artistic performance can be distinguished from everyday life only when it is given a certain intensity. … I want my work to move people.

He has hoisted himself – with two cuts on his upper arms dripping blood – upside down by a crane above the Liang River in Yunnan in a 90-minute performance called Dialogue With Water (1999). In 2009, he had a rib surgically removed as part of the One Rib body of work. For One Metre of Democracy (2010), the artist asked 25 people to vote in a secret ballot – in a satirical ‘Chinese democracy-style’ vote – to decide whether he should have a metre-long cut made down his body’s right side, from below his collarbone to his knee. Twelve against ten voted for the cut, with three abstentions. The artist, fully conscious, underwent a surgical operation with voters and cameraman as bystanders, and the performance was recorded in a series of photographs.

The artwork was conceived as a physical demonstration of “the tension between the individual and the state”, represented by the scalpel as well as the ballot box. He Yunchang’s works often appear as stunts, but are deeply analytical and referential works of art, combining existentialism, Chinese tradition and commentary on contemporary society. He Yunchang states:

I feel that China is a very complex society, one in which it is important to use your body and your intellect so you can stop and face its reality. Highlighting the body in this way, as separate, is also important because, historically Chinese people have not endowed the physical body with value, rather they have valued the spirit of the Chinese people, as a collective. Contemporary China is much more individual in its thinking, so it’s a pull between the two. By putting pressure on an idea about myself (my intellect) and my own body, I can make it into something much larger.

Watch an extract from the ‘Beijing Swings’ documentary on Sun Yuan and Peng Yu on

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu – Body Link

Sun Yuan (b. 1972) and Peng Yu (b. 1974) are two of China’s most controversial conceptual artists. They are renowned for working with extreme materials such as human fat tissue, live animals and baby cadavers. Their work deals with issues of perception, life and death, and the human condition. The artists, who are also married to each other, live and work in Beijing. Like Zhu Yu, the duo were part of the ‘shock art’ movement and were also included in the “Cadaver School” by Fei Dawei.

Body Link (2000) is a performance that took place at the “Fuck Off” exhibition in Shanghai in 2000. Both artists exsanguinated 100cc of blood from their own bodies and tranfused it to the corpse of Siamese twin babies, a medical sample. With their blood, the two artists seemed to want to give life to the corpse.

The artists performed the piece just after they decided to get married. The two conjoined twins, facing each other, had no way of hiding from or avoiding each other. In marriage, the two artists would also have to face each other everyday and walk through life together. They would become one. The work touched on notions of life and death, the human interconnection, a doubling of identity and corporeality, the idea of twinning as a “special kind of coming together,” as Peng Yu called it.

In Embodied Modernities: Corporeality, Representation, and Chinese Cultures, Ari Larissa Heinrich, Associate Professor of Modern Chinese Literature, Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at UC Berkeley, pointed out that the performance raised issues about the market traffic in body parts, the spread of HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C through the selling of blood by desperately poor people and the international ‘medical tourism’ of those seeking organ transplants. He goes on to say about the performance:

Here the union of the various bodies creates a self-contained universe of parents and children, self and other, consumer and consumed that, like Blood Merchant [‘Chronicle of a Blood Merchant’ (1995) by Yu Hua, a novel in which the main character sells his blood to improve the lives of himself and his family], succeeds in expressing a certain “ambivalence toward capitalist values,” but one that is significantly complicated by sexuality, east-west stereotypes, and the myth of the family.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia


Related Topics: Chinese artists, Australian artists, Iraqi artists, Russian artists, performance art, art and technology, art and science, feminist art, art and activism, art and the human body Related Posts:

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