Gettare il corpo nella lotta
Intertwining discourses: a visual history of bodies
by Alicja Khatchikian

Resistance was conceptualized only in terms of negotiation. Nevertheless […] resistance is not solely
a negotiation but a creative process. To create and recreate, to transform the situation, to participate actively in
the process, that is to resist
M. Foucault


Self Portrait c.1927

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Untitled [Dont Kiss me Im in Training], c. 1927


Costumed in boxer shorts, wrist guards, and a leotard inscribed with hearts and the admonition “I am training don’t kiss me”, Claude Cahun balances weights bearing the names of the comic heroes Totor and Popol in her lap, starring at the camera in a manner that accentuates signs of hyper-femininity: paste-on nipples, painted-on lips, and lacquered-down spit curls. “Training for what?” — she prompts us to ask.

Cahun’s self-portrait leaves the viewer in a certain uncomfortable position: we are stumped; we struggle with our inner desire to know who the subject we are looking at is. There is perhaps no question that her identity was and remains an enigma in itself, yet Cahun herself never struggled for that: not only she was a woman, but also a lesbian, an intellectual, an artist, an activist, and a Jews during the 1930s. All these aspects merged within her body in a constant flow rather than in a linear and univocal identity. Posthumously discovered and largely unknown to the wider public till recent times, Cahun’s self-portraits cannot be considered as mere narcissistic products of an eccentric ego (cf. Krauss 1976). Beyond that image, a woman is in fact intimately speaking through the camera about herself and the multiple shapes of her body. It is a confession to an onlooker eye — a statement of resistance towards the idiosyncrasies of her society, her culture, and her time. It is power to provoke.

Far from being what now commonly labeled as performance art1, Cahun’s artwork nonetheless stems from the same ground that later women and feminist artists such as Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, Gina Pane, and the Guerrilla Girls, among the others, investigated. By questioning the means and purposes of artistic expression and by criticizing the separation between art and social life, the unconventional, experimental acts, and radical art-political manifestos paved the way for performance art. Starting from the 1960s, an increasing number of female artists actively involved themselves into art practices that inevitably carried out their condition of women along with their art critical, political and social concerns. Their bodies thus became a visual territory for intervention: from space of repression to space of expression, the body found particular immediate voice in the potential of performance as one of “the most radical form of art-making” (Goldberg 2004: 15).

02 - Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963.

Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963. Photograph: Erró


Culture and nature

This provocative, often self-disruptive, body/self, as American art historian and critic Amelia Jones defined, acted as a hinge between nature and culture with all of its discursive and non-discursive racial, sexual, gender, and class identifications (Jones 1998: 13). Aesthetics became a primary political domain, whereby artists embraced the potential of art for radical engagement.

Similar shifts were indeed mirrored in social science and cultural theory: a younger generation of women scholars began to question the masculine orthodoxies in the field of social anthropology, both in ethnographies and literature. An important distinction between sex as a biological given and gender as a culturally variable began to take place: divisions of labor and different roles assigned on the basis of gender were no longer accepted as biologically inevitable and a redefinition of sex and gender, nature and culture, was therefore needed.

As one of the early proponents of feminist anthropology, Sherry Ortner proposed an explanatory model for gender asymmetry based on the premise that the subordination of women is universal — a “pan-cultural fact” (Ortner 1974). Drawing from Levi-Strauss’ structuralism, Ortner explained male hegemony in terms of culture over nature: whereas women are endowed with the natural power of creation, men would control the production of culture, that is, “the process of generating and sustaining systems of meaningful forms (symbols, artifacts, etc.) by means of which humanity transcends the givens of natural existence, bends them to its purposes, controls them in its interest” (Ortner 1974: 77-78). Theorists like Eleanor Leacock (1981) and Gayle Rubin (1975) have argued against this myth of the male dominance, claiming that universal male dominance is not a fact but a production of masculine culture itself, despite the constant restatement that women have always been subservient to men.

03 - Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. Video (black and white, sound), 6-09 min

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975

Marriage as the most basic form of gift exchange insured by a set of trading rules and taboos (incest first of all) was put at the core of social relationships by the structuralist approach: the idea of women as exchange goods situated their oppression in the realm of society, not in that of biology (Rubin 1975: 177). From this perspective, the whole kinship system is seen as a structure denying women’s right to choose their own destiny, whereby women oppression is not the source of social organization but the product of it and the institution of “family” the manifestation of an artificial division of labor basically aimed to insure heterosexual marriage.

Nevertheless, one should consider that Lévi-Straussian assumptions on the universal human need to transcend nature historically stem from the eighteenth-century European thought and its preoccupation for the ideological polemic between nature and culture (Mac Cormack 1980). Perhaps less concerned with formulating final answers, women in anthropology most importantly prompted to reevaluate women as distinct cultural actors in society as well as within a discipline that had itself been dominated by men’s accounts on other men’s lives. As Rita Astuti importantly highlighted, “the distinction between sex and gender, while clearly pertaining to the western tradition and a product of a specific ‘discursive practice’, captures a different version of the same ‘universal existential conundrum’: the unresolved tension between what, in the nature of human beings, is processual and transformable and what is instead fixed and unchangeable” (Astuti 1998: 27-28).


Body and mind

Intrinsic to this body/self and its broader context, we found another debated dichotomy — that between mind and body. Starting from the idea of being-in-the-world as a whole perceiving body-mind where the Cartesian dualism is being eliminated, the phenomenological approach advocated by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty undoubtedly re-activated in Western philosophy the primacy of perception and embodied experience.

The Foucauldian conceptualization of the body is then perhaps what better grasps the complex nature of embodiment: Foucault’s understanding of power as a relational, productive, agent and masked force accounts for a body that is continuously individually shaped (e.g. through the technologies of the self) and collectively produced at the same time. Provocative art like body art and performance historically arose from the resistance against those mechanisms and strove to “re-humanise” the body by making its masks sometimes grotesquely explicit. However, despite stemming from the same debated soil, performance never aimed at describing phenomenological theories; differently, artists embodied their discourses in order to present something that was at once part and product of an alternative thinking and creative process. From this standpoint, performance artworks do not merely represent an archive of the image of manhood and womanhood through time but they embody the visual history of those bodies, whereby also women finally spoke their condition without the lens of representation.

04 - Mattiacci e Mendieta

(left) Eliseo Mattiacci, Rifarsi, Galleria Alexandre Iolas, Milano, 1973. Photograph: Claudio
Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972

05 - Margot Pilz, The White Cell Project, 1983-1985

Margot Pilz, The White Cell Project, 1983-1985

The debate over male dominance within the art world and art system indeed represented only one shade of a broader hegemonic spectrum. An essential step was then taken during the 1980s, when new protagonists made their way to the scene: non-western, non-white, and differently-educated artists finally became visible and spoke out their social and cultural experiences. The psychological aspect increasingly left the space for the social one and artists started to present themselves as members of a certain ethnic community and/or a specific gender or sexual category (Carlson 2004: 177).


Different kinds of difference

Even though the universality of male and female was put on doubt by the acknowledgment of cultural realities, the discussion initially remained a solely Western feminists’ prerogative. Starting from the late 1980s, white feminists had to increasingly face what they had silently left out: the weight of race and racism – and its interconnected systems of oppressions – within the complexities and diversities of the female experience2 (hooks 1984). Non-European and black feminists started pointing out how the experience of being black women could not be understood in terms of “being black” and “being female” separately but, rather, in how different systems of power intersect and co-produce unequal realities and social experiences.

Intersectionality thus became a key concept in feminist post-colonial studies, directly tackling the interconnections between different systems of oppression, domination and discrimination. If some fundamental steps forward have been done — first of all, a shift away from the idea of a single gender system towards the acknowledgment that different gender systems are created contextually and biographically and that multiple discourses on gender exist — a problem seems nonetheless to remain unsolved: “the notion of the individual has not altered, and nor has the conception of the relationship between the individual/subject and the social” (Moore 1994: 56).

06 - Renée Cox, Baby Back, from the “American Family” series, 2001

Renée Cox, Baby Back, from the “American Family” series, 2001

07 - Neshat and Las Yesuas

(left) Shirin Neshat, Untitled, 1996. Photograph: Kyong Park
Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis, Las dos Fridas, 1989. Photograph: Pedro Marinello


Working with different means including performance, as well as video and photography, artists like Shirin Neshat, Adrian Piper, Renée Cox, Coco Fusco, Guillermo Gomez-Peña and, among the many others, the Chilean artist collective Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis gave voice to their multiple conditions not as merely non-European and non-white, but also as active agents in their colonialized, racist, misogynist, homophobic and discriminating cultures. In other words, by enacting their inequality and performing their social truths, these artists started a process of self-investigation that profoundly tackled public issues of colonialization, memory and ethnocentrism also within the field of art.

Contemporary discontinuities

Stemming from the personal, the everyday life, performance holds in itself the power to intertwine different discourses, individual biography and collective history, the personal and the public, in a language that can be individually perceived and collectively elaborated. On the other hand, anthropology’s overwhelming preoccupation with cultural differences and its traditional (sometimes static) understanding of analytical categories has sometimes revealed its shortcomings in conceiving gender and identity in their relation to the flux of culture.

Throughout the three waves of feminist anthropology significant changes and developments within the field have nonetheless been done. First of all, women’s voices were finally included in ethnography. Secondly, the notions of sex and gender, both of which had previously been used interchangeably, were separated and gender embraced both male and female, the cultural construction of these categories, and the relationship between them. Critical insights from non-Western scholars further highlighted how the notion and perception of gender varies from culture to culture, hence prompting the rupture of broad generalizations. Inherent dichotomies such as male/female, body/mind, work/home were widely discussed within the second wave. Starting from the end of the 1980s, theory’s third wave began: contemporary feminist anthropologists no longer focused solely on the issue of gender asymmetry but they acknowledged fundamental differences through categories such as class, race, and ethnicity and started to question the notion of difference and normalcy itself.

By the end of the 20th century, processes and theories of globalization presented another challenge to gender relationships, whereby “local” was often associated with tradition, static and feminine and global to masculine, mobile and development (Freeman 2001). Almost thirty years after Ortner’s publication (1974), Carla Freeman importantly tackled the “globalized consciousness” of the 21st century arguing that “not only has globalization theory been gendered masculine but the very process defining globalization itself – the spatial reorganization of production across national borders and a vast acceleration in the global circulation of capital, goods, labor, and ideas, all of which have generally been traced in their contemporary form to economic and political shifts in the 1970s – are implicitly ascribed a masculine gender” (Freeman 2001: 1008). A feminist reconceptualization of globalization would thus imply an understanding of local forms of globalization not merely as effects but also as constitutive ingredients in global changes (ibid.: 1013).

08 - Yingmei Duan, Happy Yingmei, performance and sound installation, Hayward Gallery, London, 2011-2012.

Yingmei Duan, Happy Yingmei, performance and sound installation, Hayward Gallery, London, 2011/2012
Photograph: Alexander Newton

160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000 2000 Santiago Sierra born 1966 Presented by the Latin American Acquisitions Committee, with funds provided by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2004

160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000 2000 Santiago Sierra born 1966 Presented by the Latin American Acquisitions Committee, with funds provided by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2004

Santiago Serra, 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People, El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo, Salamanca, Spain, 2000


As an art that “enacts or performs or instantiates the embodiment and intertwining of self and other” (Jones 1998: 38; italics in origin), body and performance spoke about, discussed and confronted with these theories through a set of practices and techniques that undoubtedly differ from those of anthropology as a social science. Nevertheless, a line between the two has here been traced in order to highlight their intertwined and mirroring discourses: a conception of performance not as mere communication but as an act of resistance and critical activity lies at the core of this discussion, whereby resistance and complicity simultaneously represent forms of individual agency and inter-subjectivity.

An optimistic reading of Foucault as advocated by Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (2003) might allow for a brighter perspective on the individual capability to become subject and take action: after all, by investigating the formation of self in relation to power, truth and subjectivity, Foucault “enabled us to visualize different kind of relations between practices that sought to know and manage human individuals and the emergence of conceptions of ourselves as subjects with certain capacities, rights and a human nature that can ground all sorts of demands for recognition” (Rabinow and Nikolas 2003: ix). Remarkably, this was not achieved by an exercise in philosophy or social theory but by “a meticulous investigation of particular practices, technologies, sites where power was articulated on bodies, where knowledge of human individuals became possible, and where souls were produced, reformed, and even, sometimes ‘liberated’” (ibid).

A closer look through performance history of bodies and individual biographies from an anthropological angle might thus reveal unexplored perspectives and possibilities for dialogue on both sides: while anthropology certainly has the tools to grasp reality in its broader sociocultural, political and historical frame, art holds the power and the skills to formulate, create, perhaps even anticipate, alternative understandings of reality that social science may have yet to conceive.



Definitions of performance art are various but all highlight the importance of the-here-and-now presence of an artist in front of an audience. I refer to performance as a form of visual art (not performing art) and I here use the term in a more embracing understanding, thus including performance documentation and recordings (stills from video and photography) and so-called “performed photography,” where the space of the document is the space of performance itself (Auslander 2006).
2“Feminists have not succeeded in creating a mass movement against sexual oppression because the very foundation of women’s liberation has, until now, not accounted for the complexity and diversity of female experience” (Hooks 1984).



Works cited

Astuti, Rita. 1998. “It’s a boy,” “it’s a girl!”: Reflections on Sex and Gender in Madagascar and Beyond. In Michael Lambrecht and Andrew Strathern, eds., Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from Africa and Melanesia, 29–52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Auslander, Philip.
2006. The Performativity of Performance Documentation. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 28 (3): 1–10.
Carlson, Marvin. 2004. Performance: A critical introduction. New York and London: Routledge.
Freeman, Carla. 2001. Is Local: Global as Feminine: Masculine? Rethinking the Gender of Globalization. Signs 26 (4): 1007–1037.
Goldberg, RoseLee.2004. Performance: Live Art Since the 60’s. New York: Thames & Hudson.
hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.
Jones, Amelia. 1998. Body Art/Performing the Subject. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Krauss, Rosalind. 1976. Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism. October 1: 50–64.
Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2002. From Biopower to Biopolitics. Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy (13): 99–113.
Leacock, Eleanor. 1981. Myths of Male Dominance. Collected Articles on Women Cross-Culturally. New York: Monthly Review Press
Mac Cormack, Carol P. 1980. Nature, Culture and Gender: A Critique. In Mac Carol Cormack and Marilyn Strathern, eds., Nature, Culture and Gender, 1–24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moore, Henrietta. 1994. Fantasies of Power and Fantasies of Identity: Gender, Race and Violence. In A Passion for difference, 49–70. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Ortner, Sherry. 1974. Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? In Michelle Rosaldo Zimbalist and Louise Lamphere, eds., Women, Culture and Society, 67–87. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Rabinow, Paul and Rose Nikolas
2003 Introduction: Foucault Today. In Paul Rabinow and Rose Nikolas, eds., The Essential Foucault: Selections from Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, vii– xxxv. New York: New Press.
Rubin, Gayle. 1975. The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ”Political Economy” of Sex. In Rayna R. Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women, 157–210.
New York and London: Monthly Press Review.



Alicja Khatchikian (b. 1988, Gorizia) is a cultural and visual anthropologist. She completed her MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna with a thesis on performance art. She is a member of the European Association of Social Anthropologists and has presented the outcomes of her researches in international conferences in UK (2013, 2014), Austria (2014) and Italy (2016). Her current research interests revolve around the intersections between ethnography and creative processes, material and visual culture.


Le fotografie qui presentate, nel rispetto del diritto d’autore, vengono riprodotte per finalità di critica e discussione ai sensi degli artt. 65 comma 2, 70 comma 1 bis e 101 comma 1 Legge 633/1941