Performance art is a variety of modern art. The term has been employed in many different contexts, but generally speaking, it refers to art that is active and ephemeral rather than static and permanent. Such art engages the audience directly and includes the artist or some representation of the artist. Performance art is generally distinct from conventional theater. The term itself was coined in the 1960s, but the roots of the movement date back to the turn of the last century.
This type of art is meant to evoke very strong feelings on the part of audience members. Performance art is the art of experience and sensation. Art of this nature cannot easily be reproduced. A recording may capture the image and sound of the experience but will not capture the full sensory and emotional impact of an effective piece of art.
The idea of art that is both fleeting and meant to evoke a powerful impression dates back to the iconoclastic futurists and constructivists who worked in the years before the First World War. Inspired by the whirlwind pace of technological change, these artists often worked in ephemeral media. They employed unconventional techniques to elicit reactions from their audience.
Russian futurists, for instance, would interact directly with their audiences during performances. These interactions mixed scripted and unscripted elements. They were meant to evoke a variety of strong reactions, not all of them pleasant. For example, at a time when street hooligans were known to throw cups of scalding tea on passersby, Russian futurists would appear to do the same thing. Only at the last minute would the audience realize that their teacups were full of leaves without water.
Memories of this era of artistic exploration informed a new generation of iconoclastic artists in the 1960s. These artists, such as Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol, intentionally broke artistic conventions and organized performances often meant to shock their audiences. They began to employ their own bodies and those of their audiences as part of the artistic process, a trend that has remained closely associated with the genre of performance art.
Performance art remains a popular and sometimes controversial genre. Artists have modified or injured their own bodies as part of the artistic process. The genre often remains focused on raising awareness of social or political issues as seen in the work of Chinese artist Zhang Huan, known for disturbing performance art with political overtones.
Less political and provocative versions of the style focus more on simple entertainment. The popular neo-futurists of Chicago are one example of this offshoot of the performance art movement. Their work is participatory and absurd but aims at evoking laughter rather than darker emotions.