The Flesh Is Made Symbol: an Interpretive Account of Contemporary Bodily &Nbsp; Performance Art

Laurie A. Meamber, George Mason University
Alladi Venkatesh, University of California, Irvine
[ to cite ]:
Laurie A. Meamber and Alladi Venkatesh (1999) ,"The Flesh Is Made Symbol: an Interpretive Account of Contemporary Bodily &Nbsp; Performance Art", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 190-194.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 190-194


Laurie A. Meamber, George Mason University

Alladi Venkatesh, University of California, Irvine


It has been argued that the conditions associated with postmodernity (Frat and Venkatesh 1995) characterize the everyday lives of consumers to some degree. From the thematization of social space and the aestheticization of the market, to the fragmentation of products in the marketplace, and to the notion of identity and its relationship to the body, numerous scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences have sought to understand the ways in which the circumstances of life in postmodernity impact consumers.

Art provides one way of understanding consumers and consumer culture (Brown 1998; Holbrook and Grayson 1986; Schroeder 1997a, 1997b). Artists are able to react to the realities of life and also to influence consumers’ conceptualizations and experiences of the same. Today, art is (re)turning to the body as a site for exploration of the conditions of contemporary consumer culture, providing insights on consumers’ relationships with their bodies.

This study focuses on an examination of selected current (Western) artistic performance art that uses the body. This interpretive account of selected performances and interviews with artists and audience members is in no way exhaustive of the subject of art and the body; however, the discussion will encompass notable interests of contemporary artists as they embody the contradictions inherent in the negotiation of the body.

This paper will contribute to the growing literature on the body in consumer research (Joy and Venkatesh 994; Thompson and Hirschman 1995; Velliquette, Murray and Creyer 1998). Unlike its predecessors, the study focuses on the way in which current performance art that deals with the body contributes to our understanding of consumers and consumer culture. It became evident to us when speaking with, observing and listing to the informants (including the performance artists, the cultural theorists witnessing the events, and the consumers of these artistic experiences), and in reading recent art texts (e.g., Schneider 1997), that the body has become a central subject of art in Western cultures in recent times. Although it can be argued that art has always been concerned with the body (Mirzoeff 1995), we believe the production and consumption of the body in art has taken on a focus that differs from the work of previous ages. As an important symbol in art, the body acts as the interface between corporeality, and social, cultural, philosophical, and ideological meanings in an age marked by experimentation with previously held notions of physical and social determinism.

The body is central to consumer culture (Joy and Venkatesh 1994). The body is a site of multiple representations and acts as the basic element by which we understand and represent the world. While in the social sciences, the ascendance of the mind as the privileged term in the mind/body split has shaped our thoughts and discourse, it is the body which underscores individuals relationships with the world.


We, as individuals are subject to a corporal existence. That is, as human beings, we experience our lives through the body. In addition, societies have utilized the body as a site of control for individual and group conduct (Joy and Venkatesh 1994). It is through the use of the body as a symbol that societies come to create the mechanisms which control.

It has been art, as symbol, that expressed as well as contributed greatly to the individual and collective meanings of the body. In the development and expansion of the project of modernity, the body held a central place, and it was through art (among other fields) that these ideas were expressed. For example, German sculpture in the 1930s served to produce the perfect Aryan as both a model for Germans as individuals (i.e., males and mothers/wives to produce/nurture such males) and as a metaphor of strength and power for German society (Mirzoeff 1995). In short, the body is the boundary concept between systems of meaningCorganic/natural and technological/cultural (Balsamo 1995). These systems of meaning orient the ways in which we understand the world (Venkatesh, Meamber and Frat 1997).

Turing to a brief history of (performance/performing) art, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the body was highlighted as a consumable object, in work using women’s bodies as live brushes by (male) artists. By the 1960s attention had turned to deconstructing the binary oppositions of artist/performer, and spectator/object with the inclusion of consumer bodies as participants in the production of art (Mueller 1994). In the 1970s and 1980s, with the growth of popular culture, art began to question itself and the consumer of art in new ways, exploring the role of disengaged artist, and the spectator in a mediated world (Schneider 1997). Art in the 1990s is continuing with all of these themes and building upon them. The body in (performance) art of the 1990s is physical, raw, and unmediated or completely mediated through virtual reality technologies (Moser, with MacLeod, eds. 1996). These artistic choices foreground issues which reflect and impact the ways in which body is being discussed, debated and reconceptualized in the current period.


Your body is not itself. Nor, shuld I add, is mine. It is under siege from the pharmaceutical, aerobic, dietetic, liposuctive, calorie-controlled, cybernetic world of postmodernism...After the scandal over Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1988 exhibition, the rise of new technologies of medical imaging of the body, and the dissolution of many of the norms of sexualized identity, the body question continues to gain urgency. Indeed, at all times of social uncertainty, the body question continues to gain urgency...In a world where change has become the norm, it seems inevitable that the body must change as well. Yet there is a sense, articulated by Benjamin, that if the body changes, then everything has been transformed. The body is at once the final point of resistance to the global imperatives of postmodernism and the first to be affected by them. (Mirzoeff 1995: 1)

As Mirzoeff (1995) states, the body is implicated in the conditions of postmodernity and yet resists them. Venkatesh, Meamber and Frat (1997) discuss the ideas that in the construction of discourses and practices which constitute a history of the present, consumers are seeking reassurance that their physicality is still intact. The ways in which the body was portrayed, used and commented upon by the artists in this study, very much reflected and resisted the issues in consumers’ everyday lives in contemporary consumer culture. The findings can be grouped into four themes: materiality/immateriality, presence/absence, permanence/impermanence, and personal/social.


In order to approach the topic of art and the body, a researcher may examine pieces of art or the production and reception of the artwork. This study attempts to do both, using long-interviews with artists producing the work, and reactions to the pieces of art by consumers and others, including cultural theorists and social scientists (termed "scholars"). The text for this study was collected over a period of nine months in 1995-1996 in Denmark. Copenhagen was designated the Cultural Capital of Europe during 1996 and thus, there were a number of workshops and performances associated with art, and more specifically on art and the body drawing upon artists and art from around the world. Data were collected via recorded discussions (both individual and panel) with artists and others as part of these workshops and performances. The audiotapes were transcribed and data analysis proceeded according the principles of grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin 1990).

Coding involved the process of breaking down data into discrete parts, and then examining, conceptualizing, and reconfiguring these parts into new forms. The three stages of coding: open, axial, and selective, represented a progression from elemental categories and properties to a high level of abstraction in the form of a story line, in this case the emergence of four themes.



The first emergent theme of materiality/immateriality is very much related to the on-going discussion of technology and the role of the body versus mind (Moser with MacLeod, eds. 1996). Whilst modernist logic separated mind/body and privileged the first term, it is only with the development of technology that the irrelevance of the body begins to threaten (or at the very least alter) consumers’ relationships with the body. In the absence of technology which can physically change our relationships to our bodies, as Turkle (1995) argues, our bodies are no longer confined to one physical space, but can be said to be fragmented, dispersed throughout the web of cyberspace. This theme very muchrelates to the notion of the "repressed" body in Balsamo’s (1995) schematic representation of cyberbodies. The repressed body is oriented to eliminating the cultural body, and becoming neutral. Today, there exists examples of art which attempt to become "immaterial" as well as those which strive to become "material" showcasing the tension between embracing the body and distancing oneself from it.

First, the immaterial nature of the body is a theme found in many discussions on the body in art (Foster, ed. 1996). This idea was also prominent in the current study. Consider the work of an Italian theatre/performance company, as expressed by the actor/director after a performance of his vision of "Hamlet":

I will start by not telling you my biography because biographies are not quite exciting, because our work is completely against biography. Our work is a work that fights reality, and there is nothing more real than a biography. There is nothing more deluding than a biography...The way, the path of Amleto is a path of getting out of the body, a trying out, being autistic, to be born, a sexual rebirth... The research about Amleto is autistic research, the research of a void, that prepares its own rebirth and the rebirth of a language, a private language...So the body instead of being a linguistic body, becomes itself a linguistic, a body very close to the concept of an animal, the animal that is itself body, a complete body, the animal that thinks of itself as whole body. The animal, that because of this, has a very intimate relation to the earth, the prophetic connection, calling the actor to the presence on stage. The body becomes immediately efficient, as it is immediately deficient, a dog on the stage. A dog is exact on the stage, because it has a conscience, beyond the language, of what is happening, the scene on the stage, it’s an animal that means knowledge. The body liberated of the language becomes the pure communicative, the zero degree of communication, it becomes a paradox. In relation to the audience, it becomes superficial by a scheme of communication with the public because the scheme at the bottom of the language is the aria of what is possible to communicate, and beyond that there is not another reality. (Actor/Director, male, Italy, Body and Ritual Manipulation, Copenhagen, Denmark, November 19, 1995)

At the other extreme of the material/immaterial dialectic is the work of artists that attempts to express the material nature of life. For example, one artist interviewed in this study calls himself a "knife-wielding performance artist" and performs stylized performance art pieces centered around body piercings.

My performance techniques are not intended to be viewed as proper piercing or cutting demonstration, nor are they to be taken literally as spiritual rituals. I see the current interest in tribal and cultural rituals as a scream for grounding by their participants, for a more organic aesthetic to balance a complicated inner-city life. As deep and meaningful as I can get about my theater of pain, it is also apparent that feats of the body hold a certain sideshow, even burlesque, appeal. (Excerpt from Body and Ritual Manipulation Program Notes, performance artist, male, U.S.A., Copenhagen, Denmark, November 17-19, 1995: 14)

A consumer commented on his reaction to the performance in the following passage:

In my view, the body is so important today because we are all of a sudden, we can realize that the scientific society is based on a pathetic anxiety of death, or to put it another way, it seems to me that what science is, is exactly a way by which you can avoid feeling the pain. I (remember) some of the shows on salmons, they die in one week having mated, and why are they studying these salmons? In order to know something about human death. It was so obvious n that show that (this) was the stakes of science. So if...pain...if what we are experiencing is how science is not a good way of dealing with pain, it’s not a good way of dealing with suffering because it is not dealing with it, it is only trying to do way with it, then we need other strategies and pain might be exactly one of the strategies so that is another possibility. (Consumer, male, Body and Ritual Manipulation, Copenhagen, Denmark, November 19, 1995)

In witnessing this work, the artists and consumers experience the physical properties of their flesh, the pain, the blood of material existence. As the consumer above observes, science tries to control pain, physical and psychological. It is precisely the need to experience physical sensation that is driving art and inspiring consumers to experience the feeling of their physical bodies as one scholar in the audience notes:

This is a very unintense world we live in, an elevator music universe, and nobody experiences anything with intensity. That is the nature of our crisis....we draw upon pain, we draw upon pleasure, and we elevate these to the situation where they become more centrally part of our theatre, of our art, of our experience in life. This is done on a personal level...This is what, theatre and art have to help us to focus and intensify our experience and to get out of the elevator world. (Scholar, Body and Ritual Manipulation, Copenhagen, Denmark, November 19, 1995)

The materiality/immateriality duality in our culture is not new, but is (re-) establishing itself at this time in the discourse on the body and in art. Performances often juxtapose opposites, such as the "immaterial" material body of Hamlet, with the piercing of the flesh to experience pain and thus overcome an "immaterial" feeling. Contemporary art is examining of the effects of immaterial society through the embodiment of immateriality as well as with the rejection of these forces through the creation of performances which are material in orientation. The proponents of body art, such as a former advertising executive, now "shaman and master piercer" (and reluctant "artist’) interviewed in this study, report that the customized body offers a feeling of control over one’s life.

Cyberculture certainly is a site of oppositionsCit does in some sense offers individual experience and input. However, as noted in Venkatesh, Meamber and Frat (1997), the present heralds a consumer space which may allow for contributions from consumers under the guise of freedom, but power rests in the hands of the marketers. With this in mind, the interesting question becomes: how do consumers reconcile their urge for physicality (not only in terms of body art, but also in relation to cosmetic surgery and physical fitness among other practices) with the non-physicality of cyberspace? While scientists investigate whether the essence of a human lies in the mind, genes or the linkage between the two (Cole 1997), and body parts become commercialized (Wallace 1992)Cis it true that the location of the subject is (or soon will be) independent of the physical body? Commenting further on these questions are the three other themes of art uncovered in this study. The first of these three deals with the body’s presence/absence, and is related to the discussion and experience of identity associated with the "disappearing" body in Balsamo’s (1995) framework; that is, the experience of the body in a technologically mediated society.


In addition to materiality/immateriality, the discussion of identity or presence in consumer culture (Gergen 1991; Thompson and Hirschman 1995) is a salient subject of exploration in art (Auslander 1992). According to postmodern identity theories (Gergen 1991), the individual embodies a conglomeration of discourses (i.e., fragmented or "saturated" self. While the individual may be free to choose from cultural narratives and identities to become somebody in the moment (of consumption) (F1rat and Venkatesh 1995; Turkle 1995), the notion of free will has come into question (Thompson and Hirschman 1995).

Maffesoli (1996/1998) contends that mass culture is splintering into fragmented tribal groupings, organized around language, brand names and bits of consumer culture, changing our view of social collectivities and established models of social life and politics. These are temporary identifications and identity becomes a play, especially in the realm of cyberspace. However, bodily "absence" or dispersion in cyberspace does not neutralizes oppression, as the implications of power are always present. After all, as Balsamo (1995) discusses in the context of databases, consumers’ identities are increasingly becoming public information which can be co-opted by marketers (Venkatesh, Meamber and Frat 1997). The discussion of the notion of body and presence/absence and power is a central subject of art as well. For example, a modern dancer works with the subject of identity and the body states:

Lately I have been working with the idea of the body as a container, holding memories and experiences and that every experience, there is a reflection of that...everything that I have been through to this moment, is, it is interesting all these people involved in work, that is a very literal way of saying it, but I think there are also physical and private stories inside each body...I mean, it’s been breaking down, it keeps breaking down, it gets affected by the environment, by our thoughts, by our feelings, and this is all kind of reflected in this kind of dance we do every day. I mean, the way I am holding myself now, the way I’m talking, you know, it’s all seen in our everyday dance, in the experiences we all have...For me, as a form to express and to express people I work with, I’m using the body as an instrument, yes, as art to create something, to say something. But at the same time this body, I mean, I can’t separate myself from my body and that is a big issue for me. You know, if somebody is a musician they can pick up their violin, and they play it, and they put it down, and they pick it up and they play more, but I mean, the fact that I am with this body every day, my image or I’m sick with this body or I make love with this body, you know, all the, how I perceive through my body, it’s complicated. Like if dancing is complex, and these issues are kind of interesting that go through the work. That there is not separation, that we can’t escape our bodies or that between art and life is quite mixed, because my instrument that I am working with also has to be used everyday, so there are several issues that I am interested in. (Dancer, female, Belgium (U.S.A.), Body and Ritual Manipulation, Copenhagen, Denmark, November 19, 1995)

The above dancer’s exploration of identity focuses upon the presence/absence nature of bodily identity as a result of socio-cultural narratives and personal experiences.


Related to the idea of presence/absence is permanence/impermanence of the body and of art. This theme relates to Balsamo’s (1995) notion of the "marked" body which signals that bodies are eminently cultural signs, bearing traces of cultural and history. Thus, there exists art which explores the permanence of "marked" bodies, such as dance which explores body distortion (rather than the perfect form) or the "diseased" body:

Again, our work comes from physical narrative, problems and tasks. So in that narrative, there’s problems in the body to represent, almost metaphors, I mean like, will or desire, or I can get from here to there and I have problems, I mean, that is one thing. I am definitely intrested in, not the perfect body. (Dancer, female, Belgium, Body and Ritual Manipulation, Copenhagen, Denmark, November 19, 1995)

If I wasn’t HIV-positive, I wouldn’t have gotten to this place, it is important in my aesthetics, in my art to do new things with the body, who I am is reflected in my aesthetics, it comes out. (Dancer, male, U.S.A., Body and Ritual Manipulation, Copenhagen, Denmark, November 19, 1995)

At the other extreme is work that explicitly plays with impermanence of the body in art. The work of a French performance artist observed in this study, puts the female body at the center of art. In her work she reverses the notions of nature and culture, as nature must be forced to adapt to highly specific body shapes found in art. Thus, for instance, she undergoes plastic surgery to make herself look like famous female figures in art, or to make herself look less "attractive," by putting cheek bone implants into her forehead. In addition to blurring the distinctions between natural/organic, and cultural/technological, she also makes her surgery a performance, or public event to be witnessed, which is the fourth theme of art and the body in the current period.


The personal/social theme constitutes the "laboring" body in Balsamo’s (1995) framework. What could be previously considered private rituals are now made public. The body becomes a tool for exploration of the social/private dialectic. the performer is actually able to make me, as an audience, to make me experience my body new, but then what is very important is that we don’t just see a personal cult, but much more the communicative idea behind it from the artist, the constructive idea of perceiving the body new. So otherwise, the audience mutates into a circle of voyeurs... (Consumer, male, Body and Ritual Manipulation, Copenhagen, Denmark, November 19, 1995)

It seems to me that many of these artists that we have been working with, a common denominator to these people are that they all take the point of departure in experience...they have experiences with a lot of suffering, so it’s not a question of the private or the public, but seeing these people as using their private lives as an example. In a way I should like to compare these performance artists to the classical, very classical, the ancient, where we had the hero, the Oedipus, the whoever of the classical tragedy, because in a way, these people, by being so generous, which I think is actually what’s at stake here is generosity, of sharing their personal lives with us, their personal suffering lives with us, these are the possibility of having some tools, giving us some tools to deal with sufferings. So in a way, they are heroes of a very ancient type because of their sufferance...they are very harsh lives, they are, so to speak "more than us" in the audience. If we allow ourselves to see more than our (pain)..., exactly because they are private, then all of a sudden the entire question of public/private disappears. So, if there is something #in it’ for the audience so to speak, it’s the possibility of catharsis, seeing how other people, having suffered a lot, can deal with their pain, have tools to deal with their pain, and so might we. So, I’d say, it’s an aesthetic of catharsis, trying to develop strategies of survival, and that needs a private dimension. (Scholar, male, Denmark, Body and Ritual Manipulation, Copenhagen, Denmark, November 19, 1995)

This bodily performance art is "personal" by the very fact that it uses the body, which is considered the realm of the private. However, as more and more personal art, such as the presentation of unclothed bodies, piercings, sexual fetishes, and other personal rituals become public,the boundaries of private/social are effaced. These explorations of the body are raising new questions about the boundaries of art, the boundaries of what constitutes the body. Art becomes a communicative device that allows us as humans to explore the changes in our culture.


As the above indicates, the body is a central theme in performance arts of the current age. Artists have varied reasons for using the body and various positions on the body as a subject of their work, but no matter the reason given and/or their position on the body, the body is a site of exploration and experimentation for artists and individuals today. The body is a point of reference for all humansCwe all have bodies and our bodies are the medium in which we sense and understand and experience the world. There is something immediate, present, non-mediated about art work that uses the body. It is something that everyone can relate to, audiences and artists alike. Work with the body also involves/transports/inspires consumers during their engagement with the art work or performance and perhaps afterwards. It is the personal, intimate nature of the body that connects performers and consumers together. Although the interaction with the art work or performer may be passive, in a metaphoric sense, the interaction is activeCit is involving, engaging because it is work that connects consumers with themselves, with other consumers, and with the artists and/or art object.

What appears to be happening today as the world is fragmenting is that our notion of the ourselves and the world is changing. We are experimenting with our bodies in private and in performance as a way to understand, explain, refashion our notion of our world. We are in need of a way to deal with the drives towards immateriality, absence, impermanence and privacy in our world and turn to the body in performance and visual art to help us by questioning these terms and their somotophobic opposites. Art in this period allows us to question (Joy 1997) and explore with a critical eye many possible answers about our bodies and our lives, rather than one absolute path. Whether or not we actively seek out arts consumption experiences or not, we, as consumer researchers, should be cognizant of how art adds to the discussion of our bodies, our identities, our communities.


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