Some artists are acclaimed for having excelled in the movement they are associated with, or for elevating that movement in the eyes of the public. Others become textbook material for having entirely redefined the notion of art itself and what constitutes an artwork. Marina Abramović is one of the latter.
Throughout the past five decades, the self-described grandmother of performance art has subverted artistic dogma, subjected her body to performative experimentation, shifted boundaries and torn down walls (as well as walked them). Just a week ago the art world mourned the loss of Ulay, Abramović’s celebrated partner and artistic trailblazer. Moreover, this year marks the tenth anniversary from the most popular and publicized amongst Abramović’s performances: The Artist Is Present. There could hardly be a better occasion to look back at her long and prolific career and reflect on her lasting legacy.
Born in Yugoslavia to a family of war heroes, Abramović started out when the art world was seeking escape from the materiality of painting and sculpture. The twentieth century was hardly a steady period for the arts. Just like traditional music theory came under attack from Schönberg’s dodecaphony and later from Cage’s conceptual approach, conventional artforms were being dismissed as expressions of ‘commodity art’. The stage was set for the emergence of a disruptive new avantgarde: performance art. In a career spanning half a century, Marina Abramović has been at the center of that revolution and has addressed the role of the audience in construing and constructing the artwork, the physical limits of the body and the troubles of her own identity. If the aim was to transcend the materiality to which art seemed so inextricably anchored, she most utterly succeeded. You don’t get to buy a Marina Abramović the way you can buy a Warhol or a Modigliani.
That this wasn’t going to be like anything museumgoers had seen before was clear from the very beginning. Starting in 1973, Abramović held a series of performances called Rhythm, in which almost all of her body of meanings was taking shape.
In Rhythm 10, Abramović explored the theme of rituality and the body by reproducing a traditional Russian game. In the artist’s own words, “I switch on the first cassette recorder. I take the knife and plunge it, as fast as I can, into the flesh between the outstretched fingers of my left hand. After each cut, I change to a different knife. Once all the knives have been used, I rewind the tape. I listen to the recording of the first performance. I pick up the knives in the same sequence, adhere to the same rhythm and cut myself in the same places. In this performance, the mistakes of the past and those of the present are synchronous.”
In Rhythm 5, Abramović passed out unconscious while sitting within a burning five-pointed communist star, a symbol of the strict culture she was brought up into and the harsh discipline her detached mother subjected her to as a child. The artist’s mother embodied coldness and distance, and Abramović’s early work is laden with displays of discipline, sacrifice and mortification, possibly in search of an almost eschatological extrication from the power-figure of the parent and of a medium to resignify the suffering she had endured. After all, extreme physical challenges have always emblematized a door to the subconscious, or to an enhanced form of consciousness.
And finally, there’s the theme of the relationship with the audience, possibly the central feature not just of Abramović’s work, but of the totality of performance art. This particular theme has taken different shapes in the artist’s various performances, sometimes as a proxy for relationality in general, other times as an investigation into otherness. Only two aspects have almost consistently been present: the role of the audience as part of the artwork itself and the unwavering commitment of Abramović to elicit an authentic reaction from it.
In Rhythm 0, the artist laid 72 objects on a table. The items included a rose, perfume, wine and more dangerous devices such as a knife, a gun and a bullet. The audience was invited to utilize them as they pleased by a label stating:
There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.
Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am).
As recounted by the artist, what ensued was a horror show lasting six entire hours. Some audience members went as far as to cut Abramović on her neck with the knife. One even loaded the gun and handed it to the artist, eager to find out whether she would shoot herself. When the gallerist declared the end of the performance, Abramović started walking around the space, naked and wounded, to collect the reactions of the public, but that turned out to be unfeasible as none of the audience members seemed willing to confront her about the revealing spectacle that had just taken place.
The significance of this controversial performance emerges not just as it relates to a Lord of the Flies or Stanford prison experiment scenario, but also in a much more profound and subtle respect. Marina Abramović was not just able to unmask and expose the public’s potential to unleash its most barbaric and dehumanizing instincts, when presented with the opportunity to do so. She also staged an uncompromising and irrefutable demonstration of identity-through-objectification, if we can resort to Sartrean terminology. Throughout the performance, audience members went through three distinct phases: firstly, they changed roles from observers to active participants in the creation of the artwork. Secondly, they started interacting with the artist-object as they saw fit, inflicting her/it with wounds, modifying her/its exterior (and eventually interior) appearance and treating her/it as an actual malleable object to be toyed with. Thirdly, when the performance was over, they left the scene preventing any further interaction with the artist-object because, as the show was declared concluded, they realized that the identity-through-objectification process had proceeded bidirectionally: they had changed the identity of the artist-object, but surely their actions had changed their own identity as well, leaving a mark that was hard to downplay.
The topos of the artist-audience relation was going to be explored in a much more controlled environment exactly thirty-six years later in The Artist Is Present. But in between 1974 and 2010 Abramović’s work evolved drastically, especially as an effect of her encounter in 1976 with Ulay, then a young German photographer known for his Polaroid works.
The relevance of Ulay is surely to be acknowledged even if one doesn’t take into account his collaboration with Abramović. Ulay was himself a pioneer in photography, performance and artistic identity. In 1976 he stole Hitler’s favorite painting from a museum in Berlin and took it to the house of a necessitous immigrant family, only to alert the authorities shortly thereafter. He even explored the notion of gender bender and androgyny before artists like David Bowie would make it popular and widely accepted as art.
But if his solo work was enough to make him an innovator and trendsetter, the decade of collaboration with his then-partner Abramović marked his (and her) affirmation as the most influential couple in the art world, not to mention the most trailblazing after Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Their relation works explored the notions of the ego and artistic identity. In performances where the body kept being pushed to its boundaries, the two artists produced dynamic displays of energy and interaction, where hierarchies appeared to be contested and redefined (Relation in Space) never resulting in the hegemony of one party. Trust, mutual dependence and relationality seemed to be established as the preconditions for sociality (Rest Energy), a sociality that is not easily achieved though, as its accomplishment can require struggle and even moments of agony (Breathing In/Breathing Out; AAA-AAA ). Even their very last collaborative work, despite marking the end of their romantic and artistic partnership, was an exploration of relationality. The couple had decided to walk from the opposite ends of the Chinese wall and get married as they met halfway through it, but when they finally obtained permission from the Chinese government (in 1988, that is, eight years after having requested it) their relationship had deteriorated, and ready to part ways they embarked on the audacious project (The Lovers) as a ceremony to officialize their farewell. Little did Abramović know that, more than twenty years after that dramatic breakup, she would find herself facing Ulay at MoMA during the finest moment of her whole career: The Artist Is Present.
In 2010, MoMA hosted an impressive retrospective of Marina Abramović’s work. The project occupied the whole sixth floor of the museum, with trained performers staging many of the artist’s past successes. Abramović was sitting on a chair in the museum’s atrium, and a sign reading
“Sit silently with the artist for a duration of you choosing”
invited attendees to join her in a staring contest orchestrated to thoroughly disconnect from the external world and be fully present. People would start crying, smiling, losing track of time, building an almost transcendental connection with the artist. For some participants, the performance was akin to a therapy session. They were transformed by it just as much as Abramović herself admits having been permanently changed by the way the project unfolded. The Artist Is Present is an achievement of paramount importance for Marina Abramović and for performance art not just because of the unprecedented media coverage it received, but because every single theme she had investigated in the previous four decades of artistic breakthroughs was there, condensed in an almost empty and totally motionless space where gazing at each other was the only permitted form of interaction.
Through displays of pain, passion and endurance, Marina Abramović has connected with audiences all around the world in the bluntest and most forthright ways imaginable. The public has responded in all sorts of manners: some bursting into tears, other laughing and few even engaging directly with the body of the performer. Abramović’s work can even be said to be self-referential. Most of her performances are, in fact, an investigation into the potential of performance as an artform to take down layers of inauthenticity, push boundaries and limitations and reach a state of full presence and connection. If that’s not redefining what constitutes art, probably nothing is.