Exploring Pain Through Performance

Artists have manifested physical pain through many different forms. Lately emerged performance art seems to differ from other disciplines as the medium through which we experience the other’s pain is the human body. What seems to make some performances impactful is that they include the audience in the process. Sometimes, it achieves it by asking them to cause pain to performers.

The Performance of O’Reilly 

“Untitled Action for Bomb Shelter Kuopio” (2003) by Kira O’Reilly, a UK-based artist, might be a notable example of this situation. During the performance, O’Reilly was alone in a room. The audience enters the room one by one, handed a sheet of paper (indicating a request to do something to the artist. However, the visitor could refuse the offer), plastic gloves, and a scalpel.

When the visitors enter the room, they confront the artist, sitting naked, in front of a television. This television also records the process as well as presenting it. In the end, O’Reilly asked viewers to hold her in their arms as in a pietà. 

Physical pain seems to have a central role in the performance; however, O’Reilly indicates that she aimed to visualize sexual, political, and social questions rather than just showing pain. She speaks about her own body, saying that, “this is the place I attempt to make art from; bodily utterances that then travel across an intimate space to you – the viewer; creating a possibility for something that is perhaps tender, or troubling, or astonishing – for both of us.”

6 May 2004 Yoyo Yogasmana (Indonesia) “Trial Performance”, from

Controlling other’s pain

Another example might be the “Trial Performance” from the Indonesian performance artist, Yoyo Yogasmana. Similar to O’Reilly, his work includes the performer’s physical pain by letting the audience tie and pull him as they wish. Thus, the audience can control how much pain they cause the artist.

With his performance, Yogasmana aims to explore how people feel and react when they see someone being hurt, especially by their own will and power. He indicates that the reactions of the audience during the performance vary in each country. For example, people in Indonesia are so concerned about making their living; therefore, they are less concerned about other people. It makes performing difficult for him in his homeland. Since the audience might pull so hard that they might even kill him.

Both artists open their bodies to the pain caused by the audience. They aim to relate to the audience by making them a part of the performance and leading them to various emotions and affections such as empathy, fear, apathy, or, perhaps, even pleasure.


Helge Meyer, “Empfindnis and Self-Inflicted Pain in Performance Art”, in Representations of Pain in Art and Visual Culture, ed. M.P.D Bella et al.(New York: Routledge, 2013).


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