Simone Aaberg Kærn was born in 1969 in Copenhagen, Denmark. As an artist, she has been particularly interested in female fighter pilots. Over the past decade, Kærn has worked with aerial flight as a theme in a series of video works, installations, and performances. Kærn's flight to Kabul was an artistic act of defiance. "With this act I re-conquer the sky," she says. "The sky has to be free. One is supposed to be able to send one's dreams against it and fly through it." By educating viewers about the rich history of female fighter pilots and the complexity of airspace during periods of conflict, Kærn's flight becomes an artistic means to examine existing political issues.
Kærn's principal idea in her art is to join existing structures of power and then influence them by her own presence. She combines performance and conceptual art to include not only physical space, but also the human activity that goes on within it. She moves beyond the typical artist's medium of canvas and paints to create an artistic "idea," free from the confines of the gallery.
The photos that follow feature the works of other performance and conceptual artists who, like Simone Kærn, incorporate political themes and goals into their work.
Credit: Simone Aaberg Kærn
Born in 1921 in Krefeld, Germany, Joseph Beuys is one of the twentieth century's most influential conceptual artists. During World War II, Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe, or German Air Force. After the war and for the remainder of his life, his artwork reflected on his military experience and his process of accepting his participation in the war. To Beuys -- who once famously declared, "To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom" -- debate, dialogue, and instruction were all part of an expanded definition of art. Active in politics, Beuys helped found numerous activist groups and political parties, among them the Green Party, in 1979. In 1972, he was fired from his teaching post at his alma mater, the Dusseldorf Academy of Art, for admitting more than 50 students who had not been accepted to the university to his class.
Beuys began his project "7,000 Oaks" in 1982 at Documenta 7, an international art exhibit in Kassel, Germany. Over the next five years and with the support and input of various community councils and citizen's initiatives, Beuys and others planted 7,000 trees of various types throughout the city of Kassel. Each tree was accompanied by a basalt stele (tablet) as a marker, its solid stone both a juxtaposition to the changing, organic matter of the tree and a symbolic affirmation of the ability of oppositional qualities to coexist peacefully. Bueys's son, Wenzel, would complete the project in January 1987, on the first anniversary of his father's death.
Credit: AP Photo/Carl Eberth
Michael Dowling is the artistic director for Medicine Wheel Productions in South Boston, Massachusetts. He continually produces public works of art that serve and inspire the community on many levels.
The "Medicine Wheel" was originally designed in 1992 to honor the earth. It evolved into 36 shrines on 36 pedestals with offerings, vigils, and processionals to earth, fire, water, and air. The pedestals are arranged in a circle and represent the forever-evolving wheel of life. The Medicine Wheel is used as a sacred ceremonial space. The circle with no beginning or end is a way of honoring the connections of all life through prayer, dance, song and ritual. It offers a solemn, secure, sacred space for prayer and meditation. Dowling's vision inspired the non-profit arts production organization, Medicine Wheel Production, as well as the Medicine Wheel Youth Group.
Credit: AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki
Cai Guo-Qiang, born in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China, lives and works in New York. His work is both scholarly and politically charged. As an artist, Cai draws on a wide variety of materials, symbols, narratives, and traditions, including elements of feng shui, Chinese medicine and philosophy, images of dragons and tigers, roller coasters, computers, vending machines, and gunpowder. Accomplished in a variety of media, Cai began using gunpowder in his work to foster spontaneity and to confront the controlled artistic tradition and social climate in China. Since September 11th he has reflected upon his use of explosives both as metaphor and material. "Why is it important," Cai asks, "to make these violent explosions beautiful? Because the artist, like an alchemist, has the ability to transform certain energies, using poison against poison, using dirt and getting gold."
In 1989, Cai Guo-Qiang began his "Extraterrestrials" series -- a group of works that were conceptualized and designed to be seen from outer space, i.e., by entities not of this earth. As part of this series, in 1992 he embarked upon a grand cartographic and socially collaborative endeavor in China's Gobi desert, called "Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10." In a symbolic re-mapping of geographic, cultural, social, and political territories, Cai temporarily extended the physical trajectory of the Great Wall by lighting a series of gunpowder fuses in the desert landscape of Jiayuguan, China.
Credit: Masanobu Moriyama
Born in 1943 in Warsaw, Poland, Krzysztof Wodiczko has lived half his life behind the Iron Curtain and the other half in the United States and Canada. Wodiczko's signature art generally involves the large-scale, short-term projection of an image onto the facade of a public monument or building. By reclaiming these sites, however ephemerally, as sites of public discourse about power, violence, alienation, and human rights, Wodiczko challenges traditional conceptions about the function of public space and the meaning of historical memory.
Early in his career, Wodiczko utilized normal slide projectors to project images onto the walls of art galleries, incorporating the particular architecture of each venue into his design. After moving to the West in the 1980s, his work evolved and became ever larger in scale, employing more powerful projectors that were stationed in flatbed trucks or scaffolds. To date, Wodiczko's works have been executed in more than a dozen countries and have included a three-piece corporate suit projected onto the Bank of Montreal Tower in Halifax, Nova Scotia (1981), and a Swastika onto the South African Embassy in London (1985).
In 2001, Wodiczko presented the CECUT Project. Female maquiladora (factory) workers in Tijuana were invited to wear a camera and microphone and speak about the conditions in which they live. The women's testimonies focused on a variety of issues, including work-related abuse, sexual abuse, family disintegration, alcoholism, and domestic violence. Wodiczko projected the testimonies in a public plaza on the facade of the Omnimax Theater at the Centro Cultural Theater of Tijuana.
Credit: Krzysztof Wodiczko
Shirin Neshat has gained critical acclaim for her iconoclastic depictions of Middle Eastern Muslim women. Born in Qazvin, Iran, in 1957, Neshat moved to California when she was 17 to join family members there. After finishing high school, Neshat attended art school at the University of California, Berkeley. In the meantime, the revolution in Iran transformed the political landscape of her native country and prevented Neshat from returning there for more than a decade. When she did go back to visit her family in 1990, Neshat's experience there engendered a dramatic shift in her work as an artist, and she began a formal exploration of the complex roles occupied by contemporary Iranian women.
Between 1993 and 1997, Neshat produced her groundbreaking collection WOMEN OF ALLAH, a series of large photographs which she designed and directed. She covered her hands, feet, and face with poems or religious text written in Farsi calligraphy. (Not a trained photographer, Neshat hired Larry Barns, Kyong Park, and others to take the photographs.) Many of the texts that appear on her body are fragments of poetry by Forough Farokhzad and Tahereh Saffarazdeh, Iranian female poets who wrote about female sexuality and desire; others are religious writings by women expressing a longing to join Iran's Islamic Revolution. At once intimate and confrontational, Neshat's photographs destabilize stereotypical assumptions about Iranian women as repressed and passive, and dramatize the ongoing conflict between tradition and modernity as experienced by the women of Iran.
Credit: Shirin Neshat
Guardians of Revolution (Women of Allah series)
B&W RC print & ink (photo taken by Cynthia Preston)
Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York
Born in Cuba, Coco Fusco is one of today's best-known performance artists. Fusco's work is primarily concerned with themes of gender, race, migration, cultural colonization, and death. In 1992, on the fifth centennial of Christopher Columbus's first voyage to North America, Fusco collaborated with Guillermo Gómez-Peña in a traveling performance called "Undiscovered Amerindians." Dressed in outrageous costumes (Gómez-Peña wore a wrester's facemask and an Aztec-style breastplate, while Fusco donned a grass skirt, leapard skin bra and athletic sneakers), the pair spent numerous days at various museums around the world locked inside a golden cage, on display to the public. Inside the cage, they performed "traditional" daily rituals which ranged from sewing voodoo dolls to watching television and working on laptop computers. For a fee, Fusco danced to rap music, and both artists were available to pose with visitors for Polaroid photographs.
Cusco and Gómez-Peña intended their performance as a satirical comment on the notion of discovery and as a reference to Columbus's act of taking two Arawak Indians back to the Spanish court, where one was put on display. However, many modern-day spectators of "Undiscovered Amerindians" believed Fusco and Gómez-Peña were real indigenous people. Cusco and Gómez-Peña captured their spectators' reactions on film, which they later interwove with ethnographic footage from the 1930s in a documentary of their experience. According to Fusco, she and Gómez-Peña aimed to conduct a "reverse ethnography . . . Our cage became a blank screen onto which audiences projected their fantasies of who and what we are. As we assumed the stereotypical role of the domesticated savage, many audience members felt entitled to assume the role of colonizer, only to find themselves uncomfortable with the implications of the game."
Credit: Coco Fusco