Performance Art: Nick Cave, Oliver Herring, & Marina Abramovic

For this class we looked at artists who make art through performance: art that is created through actions performed by the artist or the participation of the audience. This is a different type of art than we usually do and it requires a lot of participation and being ok with looking or feeling silly. These are also great activities to do at home where you can have space to move around and a lot of different household materials to use in fun new ways.

Our first artist is Nick Cave who was born in Missouri in 1959. His most well known work — Soundsuits — are at the intersection of fashion design, sculpture, and performance art. Cave originally made his Soundsuits as metaphorical suits of armor originally made in response to racial violence and police brutality against Black people in America.

The suits obscure the performer — you can’t tell their gender or race so instead of evaluating the performer based on those things you can only evaluate the performance and the shapes, sounds, and colors made by the suits. Cave exhibits his suits in museums, but the best way to experience them is to see them moving. Watch the videos below to see how the Soundsuits move and how they sound.

Cave makes the suits out of raffia, beads, sequins, twigs, fur, fabric, and sometimes other found objects like the tops seen below.

For our Nick Cave activity we made our own Soundsuits using the noisiest materials we had at the Art Center! They could make a cape or a dress, bracelets, necklaces, hats/headpieces — anything they wanted to make noise! The base for many of their pieces was emergency blankets which are fun to watch and to hear when dancing around in them. We also gave them things like bells, tin foil, beads, pie tins, and string. After they finished their suits we turned on some African drum music and danced and moved and made noise.

This was a great activity where the students got to be loud and crazy and express themselves through dance and movement instead of sitting and painting or drawing — which are also great activities, but this was a nice way to break it up.

Our next artist is Oliver Herring who was born in Germany in 1964 and now works in New York City. Herring is an experimental artist who does sculpture, stop-motion video, performance pieces with strangers off the street, and, as we focused on in this class, TASK Parties. These Task Parties can happen anywhere and with anything but they all have a similar infrastructure: they happen in a designated area, there are a variety of props and materials, and the participants agree to follow the rules. The rules are:

1. to write down a task on a piece of paper and add it to the TASK bin

2. to choose a random task from the bin and interpret it any which way you want using the materials given to you.

3. when you finish a task write a new task, choose a new task, and continue!

You can watch this video to see a TASK party in action. The participatory nature and open-ended interpretation of the tasks means there are endless opportunities and outcomes for every task. The tasks can be art based, interactions with other people, performances, or group projects. The things one task creates can be recycled for another task so the materials can be reused again and again.

For our task party we went into our Workshop room where we have cardboard, fabric, ribbon, paper, buttons, pipe cleaners, glue, tape, etc. — the perfect place for a task party. Then we just followed the rules and had fun! It was a little chaotic and very messy so if you do this be prepared for a big clean up at the end. But every kid got to create and do so many different things and they got to work on interpretation and creatively solving a problem.

Our last activity was a little bit different because instead of having a third artist we talked about the performance art of 3 different artists and then had the students do their own performance art talent show.

Janine Antoni is a contemporary performance artist who uses her body to create her artwork. In her piece Gnaw she used her teeth to carve and shape large blocks of chocolate and lard.


In another piece called Lick and Lather she made 7 molds of her face from chocolate and 7 from soap and then licked the chocolate ones and washed the soap ones to alter them.

Tehching Hsieh, called the master of performance art, did five one-year performances to make his art a part of living his life. In one of those performances he tied himself to his friend Linda Montano with an eight foot rope for an entire year.

Art/Life: One Year Performance, 1983–84

They could not untie themselves, had to stay in the same room as the other and were also not allowed to touch each other.

Another one-year performance was called Time Clock Piece, in which Hsieh punched a time clock every hour on the hour. This meant he could never be away from his time clock for more than an hour and he could never sleep for more than an hour at a time. He also took a picture of himself punching his card every time.

Over the entire year, 8760 time clock punches, Hsieh was only late on 133 because he slept through his alarm! Below is the video he made of the photos he took every time he punched the clock.

Marina Abromivic’s work explores the limits of the body and the mind as well as the relationship between the performer and the audience. Many of her pieces early in her career were done with her partner Ulay Layspien.

In her piece Rest Energy she had Ulay pullback on a bow with a real arrow pointing at her heart. They each had microphones over their hearts so the audience could hear them beating faster and faster as the performance became more intense. It lasted for 4 minutes and 10 seconds but Abromovic said “I tell you it [felt like] forever. So, it was really a performance about complete and total trust.”

Rest Energy

Another piece by Abromovic was The Great Wall Walk where she and her partner Ulay started on opposite ends of the Great Wall of China with the intention to meet in the middle and get married.

However, it took eight years to get permission to do the walk from the Chinese government and by that time their relationship had deteriorated so they decided instead to meet in the middle and then break up and go their separate ways as artists. They didn’t see or talk to each other for 30 years after.

These last three artists make radically different art through performance. We wanted to give the students a taste for how varied and imaginative performance art can be — and how often it is linked to every day life.

For the talent show we let them use whatever materials they wanted and allowed them to work in groups (though we decided in the future we would rather have them work alone so they thought more individually about what they personally wanted to do) and do whatever they wanted to.

We had someone make a mask and walk around making scary noises, we had a dance performed by three students tied together, we had audience participation in building block towers and much more!

Performance art can feel embarrassing or scary but creating an accepting space that allowed the students to make art in whatever way they choose and treating it like a real performance helped the students be respectful of each other’s artistic choices and show their own creativity.

We are a 501c3 non-profit in Provo, Utah. Our goal is to make art accessible and inspire a lifelong love of art and creativity for children in our community.