Whether breaking past the limitations of a material to create new forms, irreparably altering one’s own body, or appropriating objects so commonplace or bizarre that they redefine art as we know it, artists have long broken the rules and tested the limits of human endurance. We’ve assembled eight artworks that have gone to extremes, and, in some cases, defined some of the most progressive art movements of the 1970s to present.
ORLAN, The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan, 1990–1995
At the age of 15, French performance artist Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte took on the assumed name ORLAN, her first reinvention in an over-30-year career of transformations and fictional re-births. From 1990 to 1995, for The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan, the artist underwent nine plastic surgeries on her face to resemble the features of famous women in Western art history. ORLAN injected her brow to look like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503–1519), shaped her chin to evoke Botticelli’s Venus (1490), and altered the shape of her mouth as an homage to François Boucher’s The Rape of Europa (1732–1734). Dressed in Baroque-inspired gowns, the artist remained conscious throughout the operations. Her surgical transformations were photographed and filmed, often accompanied by music or poetry readings.
Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971
Conceptual artist Chris Burden realized the possibility of “dying for your art” when he allowed himself to be shot with a .22-caliber rifle at close range for his 1971 performance Shoot. In the 8-second video of the performance, Burden stands motionless while a friend standing 15 feet away levels a rifle before shooting the artist in the left shoulder. Burden pioneered the idea that physical risk, even near-death experiences, could be a form of artistic expression, an approach he continued in similarly extreme performances such as Transfixed (1974), in which he crucified himself on a Volkswagen Beetle, or the performance Five Day Locker Piece (1971), which involved Burden surviving inside of a school locker for five days.
Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008–2012
Dissident artist Ai Weiwei is known for working with artisans to take hand-craftsmanship to an unimaginable scale, such as with the 100 million individually painted porcelain sunflower seeds he displayed for the Tate Modern’s “The Unilever Series” in 2010 or the nearly 1,200 bikes he welded together and suspended for Forever Bicycle (2003) at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. At the 2013 Venice Art Biennale, the massive, rippling installation Straight (2008-2012) included 150 tons of mangled, broken rebar from buildings wrecked in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a disaster that killed nearly 70,00 people and left almost 19,000 missing. Ai’s team spent over two years straightening each of the 50,000 bars by hand for the final installation—a process the artist’s workers continued dutifully during his 81-day detainment by the Chinese government in 2011.
Marina Abramović, 512 Hours, 2014
A pioneer of performance art, Marina Abramović has spent her career creating live works that have brought not only herself but also her audience to physical and psychological extremes. For 512 Hours (2014), the artist invited 160 visitors at a time to join her in an empty gallery. After attendees exchanged their phones, watches, and personal items at the entrance for noise-blocking earphones, Abramović led them to the gallery. For eight hours a day, six days a week, for 64 days, she encouraged attendees to walk slowly, regard the blank walls, and be still. However simple Abramović’s setup of “doing nothing” was, many of the 60,000 people who participated recorded experiences of total transcendence, alienation, sadness, and elation, as well as bouts of uncontrollable sobbing and terror.
Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974
Video compilation including footage from Joseph Beuys's performance I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) via Vimeo.
German artist Joseph Beuys called his often-controversial performances “actions,” underscoring his beliefs that every person is an artist and art is a vital part of social life. His performance I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) began far from the confines of an art institution, with Beuys flying into New York’s JFK airport and then being wrapped in felt by friends and transported in an ambulance to the René Block Gallery. Eight hours at a time for the next three days, Beuys shared a room with little more than that felt blanket, a pair of gloves, a walking stick, copies of the Wall Street Journal delivered daily, and a live coyote. The coyote wavered between attacking the felt and urinating on the newspapers, but eventually grew amiable enough to allow a hug from Beuys, who at the conclusion of the three days was wrapped in the felt once more and returned to the airport. During the project, he succeeded in never touching American soil, as he had intended.
Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006
New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Head On (2006) consists of 99 life-like wolves barreling heedlessly across a room before crashing into a glass wall. The running wolves form a sweeping, suspended arc that abruptly crumples into a pile of their lifeless bodies. The work can be seen as a visual metaphor for the dangers of pack mentality, and the impulse to push forward without compromise or care. In fact, Head On was a meditation on a specific history of such reckless progress, namely East Germany’s construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, a move that would later prove futile when the wall fell in 1989.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1971
One of the seminal works of Land Art, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) is located on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Tired of the conventions of gallery-ready art, Smithson and contemporaries like Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, and James Turrell turned to nature for material—creating works from raw earth and natural light. In just six days, a local contractor hired by Smithson created a coil shape composed of salt crystals, mud, water, and black basalt rock, reaching 1500 feet into the lake. Appearing and disappearing as water levels fluctuate, Spiral Jetty—which can only be seen in its entirety from the air—is in constant conversation with the red-tinted lake it resides in.
Azuma Makoto, Shiki 1, 2014
Japanese botanical artist Azuma Makoto, whose career began in a Tokyo flower shop, places elaborate bouquets and bonsai trees in physical situations that could never exist in nature. In 2014, he teamed up with JP Aerospace to launch a white pine bonsai, suspended from a carbon fiber frame and surrounded by six GoPro cameras, into space. Freed of the tie between root and soil, Shiki 1 traveled 91,800 feet into the stratosphere, lifted by helium balloons. Its 100-minute journey left behind a trove of spectacular images that capture the seemingly impossible union of terrestrial and extraterrestrial, though the bonsai is forever lost.