Arts·Art 101

5 artists who went to extremes with their bodies and put themselves at risk for their art

From deliberate exposure to Chernobyl's radiation to using plastic surgery to look like famous paintings.

From deliberate exposure to Chernobyl's radiation to using plastic surgery to look like famous paintings

5 artists who went to extremes with their bodies and put themselves at risk for their art

2 years ago
Duration 5:16
From deliberate exposure to Chernobyl's radiation to using plastic surgery to look like famous paintings.

Art is a dangerous game. It's not all Bob Ross. In the right hands, it's a blood sport. And today on Art 101, I'm here to tell you about a bunch of times that artists put their bodies at risk and lived to tell the tale.

Art's always been obsessed by the body, from the Apollo Belvedere to Kim Kardashian's outfit at the Met gala. But artists have also used their own body as a tool or a medium — sometimes putting it in actual real danger.

Take Canadian artist Taras Polataiko, who was born in the Ukraine in the 1960s. He moved to Canada, but in the 1990s he went back to Chernobyl, the site of the nuclear power plant that had a tragic accident in 1986. There, he intentionally experienced ambient irradiation — in other words, standing way too close to the site.

When Polataiko got back to Saskatoon, he had some of his blood withdrawn and he placed it in a nickel-plated bathtub hung from the ceiling (lid on, so people couldn't be affected by any radiation). The work, installed in 1996, was called Cradle.

A nickle-plated bathtub full of CanadianUkrainian artist Taras Polataiko's radioactive blood from deliberate exposure to Chernobyl's radiation. (CBC Archives)

Why put yourself in harm's way? Polataiko was making a comment on the decades-long effects of the Chernobyl disaster and how defenceless our bodies can be against danger at that scale.

Sometimes artists want to challenge the limits of their own bodies, like Chris Burden, an American performance artist
working in the 1970s. He did a lot to unsettle our ideas about the body — things like having his hands nailed to the hood of a Volkswagen in 1974 in a performance called Trans-Fixed that referenced the crucifixion but pulling it into sharp focus in a new way, literally stopping viewers cold and making them think about the physical pain and suffering that's part of the image.

American performance artist Chris Burden's 1974 performance Trans-Fixed. (Magnolia Pictures)

But Burden's probably best-known art work came years before that, in his performance Shoot in 1971, when he had a friend shoot him in the arm — for real — with a gun. He was only supposed to get grazed, but when you get your friend to shoot you, sometimes things go wrong, and the bullet went straight through Burden's arm. Yes, I have so many questions too, but Burden was asking his own: about responsibility, about the limits people will go to for art, as well as about violence that we see on the news every day and how it can fall into our blind spot.

American performance artist Chris Burden in his 1972 work Shoot where he had a friend shoot him in the arm — for real. (Magnolia Pictures)

It's not always so dire, but art can be really pretty graphic. French artist Orlan has made a kind of queasy career out of using her own body, going through various real plastic surgeries in the 1990s to change her appearance and transform her into the kind of idealized women we've seen in famous works of art. So in a work called The Reincarnation of Sainte-Orlan, she set out to have Botticelli's Venus's chin, Mona Lisa's forehead ... and the list goes on. The operating room became Orlan's medium, her tools and her studio in these very intentional surgical interventions that were also performances and artworks.

And artists continue to use their own bodies in risky ways, to comment or even to protest. You may have heard recently about Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who was recently on trial in France for arson, but setting bank windows on fire in Paris in 2017 was only the most recent of his more startling performances. In 2012, after members of the band Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison for their performance in a Moscow cathedral, Pavlensky sewed his own lips shut in an apparent act of solidarity and defiance. There's debate about works like Pavlensky's: when you create such a dangerous performance with your own body, is it a spectacle? Is it effective or just horrific?

Sometimes it's a little bit of both.

French artist Orlan who sculpts her own face with plastic surgery. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

And it can be a bit more fun and less ... painful? In 1996, Toronto artist Jubal Brown did a bit of gastronomic performance about modern art. He deliberately ingested foods of specific primary colours and then went to major art galleries to intentionally puke on famous paintings. He was making a comment on the banality — or the boringness — he saw in modern art, specifically those works that make it into the canon and into major art institutions.

Listen, it's not everybody's jam. Hurting yourself deliberately, or even putting yourself at risk, is not something I endorse or recommend. And in fact, I strongly insist you not re-create, expand upon or otherwise mess with your highly valuable physical vessel in order to make any art at all.

But the next time you're looking at a piece of abstract art with your uncle, and he thinks it's a little less than exciting, you can regale him with tales of artists who put their lives at risk to express themselves. 

See you next time for less blood and gore on Art 101!


Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.

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