Body Fluids in Art: Blood

Body Tracks

Feature Image: Anna Mendieta, Body Tracks, 1982 via The Cultural Broker

Blood exists in stark contrast to itself; it is both a symbol of life and death, innocence and massacre. It is powerful, energetic, shocking, and violent. Its use in art creates powerful works that pull the viewer in while simultaneously sprouting feelings of pain, disgust, and shock. Blood’s appearance in art is long and abundant. Its appearance in the form of red paint has its roots in ancient depictions of hunting and religious iconography. From Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son to Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, blood in art is no new concept. Despite its common occurrence in art, there tends to be a divide between these artworks and those that forgo the use of red paint in favor of using real blood. While depictions of blood in any form can cause disgust or discomfort, there tends to be a bigger shock factor when artists use blood from their own veins or from an animal.

Gentileschi Artemisia,  Judith Beheading Holofernes Naples
Gentileschi Artemisia,  Judith Beheading Holofernes Naples via Wikipedia

Hermann Nitsch, Blood Picture (1962)

Hermann Nitsch was a founding member of Viennese Actionism, an art form that focuses on ritualistic performances that often include blood, animal entrails, and self-torture. As a result, Nitsch's works, both performance and visual, utilize quite a bit of blood. His work Blood Picture is one of the first paintings he created using blood. For this work, Nitsch wetted and poured blood onto a cloth that was then attached to canvas. The resulting piece is brownish-red, with three distinct squares traveling down its center. Nitsch's works are filled with blood splatter and often feel reminiscent of horror films like “Carrie” or “Midsommer” (but with more blood). This is particularly true of his controversial work Dark Mofo (2017), a three-hour performance piece that featured a bull carcass being torn apart and white-tunicked (or nude) performers who were blindfolded, strapped to crosses, and forced to drink blood, water, and milk. He views his use of blood as a purifying act not only for himself but for his viewers as well. 

Gina Pane, Action Psyche (1974)

Action Psyche was a performance piece captured by a series of photos that featured Gina Pane standing in front of a mirror and cutting herself with a razor in two locations. Before making her cuts, Pane took red lipstick and outlined her face in the mirror. Then she cut herself below her eyebrows and wrapped a bandage around her head, covering her eyes. Two red spots leak through the bandage as Pane moves her hands around her face and reaches out to the audience with open palms. She then removed the bandage and suckled her own breast. After this, she made the second cut, which occurred around her belly button, creating a cross around her navel. Self-mutilation was a common theme in Pane’s works and was often seen as an act of protest and sacrifice. For Action, Psyche Pane forced her viewers to become voyeurs and flipped the script on the male gaze by setting up the conditions of their watching herself. Action Psyche also references religion and the Virgin Mary through the cross and suckling of Pane's own breast. In this way, Pane may be rejecting the popular religious concept of the submissive and pure woman through aggressive violence.  

Gina Pane, Action Psyche via Richard Saltoun
Gina Pane, Action Psyche via Richard Saltoun

Ana Mendieta, Body Tracks (1982)

Ana Mendieta’s Body Tracks began with the sound of beating drums, after which Mendieta walked purposefully through the room, ignoring her audience, to a bowl of animal blood and tempera. She coated her hands in the paint and then walked up to one of three white sheets that were secured to the wall. Reaching her arms up above her head, Mendieta pushed her red hand prints into the paper and then dragged her hands down, leaving behind two smeared handprints. She repeated this action two more times and then exited the gallery leaving her viewers to meditate on the imprints the artist left behind. The work has been interpreted in a variety of ways, from a stance against violence inflicted on women to a form of representing the female body. The work was recreated by artist Nancy Spero nine years later.

Marc Quinn, Self (1991-2011)

Self is a self-portrait and bust of Marc Quinn that is made from his own blood. A cast was made of Quinn’s head which was then filled with ten pints of his own blood and frozen. The frozen face was then mounted in a clear Perspex box and kept refrigerated to maintain the shape. The work was made during a time when Quinn was struggling with alcoholism; the work's dependency on electricity to survive reflected the artist's own struggle with dependency. Quinn recreated this work every five years from 1991 to 2011 to show how he is changing and aging. The resulting five busts all look a little different as deeper lines appear around the artist's face. Each version of Self feels almost peaceful; Quinn’s eyes are closed, and a slight smile appears in most of the busts. The work also presents what could be the most accurate self-portrait because it includes the individual’s own DNA. Both the outside and inside of the artist are present. 

Marc Quinn, Self via My Modern Met
Marc Quinn, Self via My Modern Met

Franko B, I’m Not Your Babe (1996)

I’m Not Your Babe is a mesmerizing and alarming performance. It features Franko B standing, naked for a half hour bleeding from wounds inside each of his elbows. His body is a sickly white/gray color and stands in stark contrast to the bright red blood that streams from his veins and pools on the floor around his feet. Franko B stands with his arms slightly stretched in front of him as a “mute body-object.” As time continues Franko assumes a kneeling position and then lays down as the blood loss affects his ability to stand and stay conscious. Franko B’s unnaturally colored body falls into the realm of the uncanny valley and adds to the discomfort of the video. Knowing that the artist is still alive after the performance does little to assuage the feeling of death and fear that emanates from the film. For Franko B, this work was an act of cleansing indicative of historical narratives surrounding purification through bloodletting.  

Tameka Norris, Untitled (2012-2015)

Tameka Norris first performed this work at “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art,” an exhibit that was the first to display a comprehensive grouping of performance art by black artists. In this untitled work, Norris, dressed in red coveralls, ran a knife through a lemon and cut her tongue. She then pressed her body to the gallery wall and, sticking her tongue out, let a mixture of her blood and saliva run down the clean white walls. She then dragged her tongue across the wall, creating a long line of body fluids. Once she reached the end of the wall, she then crouched down and created a second long trail underneath the first. After creating this second line, she stood, removed her red coveralls, stared silently out at the audience, and then walked out of the gallery in nothing but underwear. The two rows of her saliva and blood create a kind of landscape that disrupts the spotless gallery and leaves behind the impression of a body that has experienced pain. In this work, Norris’s body becomes both her tool and medium. On the radical presence website, Norris shares that this work “critiques the invisibility of blackness in cultural forms built upon the appropriation of black cultural expression and idioms.” 

Tameka Norris, Untitled (performance still), Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012
Tameka Norris, Untitled (performance still), Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012, via Mousse Magazine

In some cases, blood has even been utilized by those without access to art supplies. Artist Elito Circa is an example of this. Growing up in a low-income household, Circa could not afford art supplies but found that using his blood to draw and paint worked well for him. Blood is so common in artistic pursuits, yet it continues to cause shock and disgust in viewers. Blood's ability to symbolize contrasting concepts and its ever-present, life-giving importance results in a wide range of meanings and purposes across artworks that utilize this fluid. These works often feel violent and sacrificial, as artists share what blood symbolizes for them. From self-portraits to purification, blood has been and will likely continue to be used with compelling gravity by provocatively innovative artists.  

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