- Unlimited Action: The Performance of Extremity in the 1970s by Dominic Johnson
The bodies we inhabit are contested sites of inquiry. Their porous flesh and armored materiality serve as vessels for political, cultural, and polemical meaning-making, rendering them at once vectors of power relations and sources of resistance. For decades, performance studies has been investigating the nuances of these power dynamics by pursuing a central question: What can a racialized, sexualized, and gendered body do? Scholar and performance artist Dominic Johnson’s Unlimited Action: The Performance of Extremity in the 1970s reflects his ongoing commitment to animating this question with discernible passion and care. By considering how performance, both cultural and quotidian, challenges larger structural inequalities, Unlimited Action is in conversation with scholarship that has been asking similar questions for decades, including The Explicit Body in Performance (1997) by Rebecca Schneider, Body Art/Performing the Subject (1998) by Amelia Jones, Hold It against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (2013) by Jennifer Doyle, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (2014) by Amber Jamilla Musser, and Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance (2015) by Uri McMillan, to name a few.
Unlimited Action assumes that all actions are intrinsically subjected to a set of legal, economic, or social limits. At the same time, inspired by philosopher Georges Bataille, Unlimited Action considers limits to be imposed only to be violated or surpassed (15). Johnson’s book therefore examines actions, predominantly in the 1970s, that defied conventional aesthetics through a mode he terms “the performance of extremity,” or the use of physical or emotional discomfort, obscenity, and criminality “to an extent that harasses the artist, us and the category of art” (7). Unlimited Action argues that contemporary critics, who often disregarded the work, could not have fully “captured” extreme performance actions precisely because they went beyond the limits of social acceptability, propriety, and legibility. Influenced by the early twentieth-century European avant-garde as well as the experimental projects of the 1960s, performances of extremity intertwined aesthetic and quotidian realms, positing the inextricability of art and life. While tending to such intertwinement, performances of extremity not only challenged conventional aesthetic practice, they also exposed, expanded, or reimagined imposed social, cultural, and political limits. Extremity therefore served as the artists’ means of resistance to traditional art-making in the postwar era.
Johnson’s study brings to light less researched European and British performance artists from the 1970s, including Kerry Trengove, Ulay, COUM Transmissions, Anne Bean, the Kipper Kids, and Stephen Cripps, whose work was often illegible to and discredited by critics. Although every performance is placed within a specific historical, cultural, and political context and juxtaposed with other well-known performances of the time, Unlimited Action is not a chronological survey but rather a collection of curated case studies. Informed by critical theory, cultural studies, and performance studies, and enriched by archival ephemera, each chapter reaffirms the historical and cultural importance of performance centered around endurance, injury, or duress.
The first chapter explores the significance of the physical and psychological endurance and manual labor in Trengove’s An Eight Day Passage (1977). In his analysis of Trengove’s action, which consisted of digging a hole in the gallery floors and walls for eight days, Johnson claims that by appropriating endurance and manual labor in the gallery setting, Trengove resituated art as coterminous with life rather than contained by aesthetic or commercial frames. Along the same lines, chapter 2 is dedicated to Ulay’s There is a Criminal Touch to Art (1976), a performance of extremity in which the artist stole a nineteenth-century painting considered Germany’s “national treasure” from a highly secured museum. Johnson argues that the criminal element of this action, and “the national insult” it provoked (62), had a twofold effect: Ulay placed in question his German identity in the postwar period, while expanding the formal parameters of the aesthetic. The first two chapters also explore the accusation [End Page 120] that machoism, tied to physical endurance and criminality...