Marina Abramović has been making history in performance art for the past 50 years. She is one of the most important performance artists in the world. Her works are intense and thought-provoking.
Performance art is an artwork or art exhibition created through actions executed by the artist or other participants.
Marina is best known for employing her own body as both the subject and the medium. Her work explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.
She was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale and in 2008, she was decorated with the Austrian Commander Cross for her contribution to art history.
Before I explore two of her most famous works, Rhythm 0 (1974) and The Artist is Present (2010), let’s see how Marina’s story began.
Marina Abramović: “It’s not about the body; it’s about the mind”
Marina held her first exhibition when she was 12. Her artwork was primarily paintings of her dreams.
Looking for something different, she became interested in painting car accidents. The young Marina would take a toy car, place it on the highway and wait for a big truck to smash the toy car. When that didn’t happen, Marina would return to her studio and paint the accident. But in her artistic vision, the toy car is the size of a big truck and is smashing the miniature truck as if to illustrate “the idea of the victory of innocence which you can’t actually destroy.”
One day, laying in the grass and looking up at the clear blue sky she saw twelve supersonic military aircrafts flying over with a loud boom. The planes flew by incredibly fast but despite that, they left a white drawing in the sky which slowly disappeared a few seconds later.
This was the moment when Marina had a spiritual revelation. She realized that she would never need a studio again because she could create art with everything the world provided. Fire, water, air and other elements replaced the brush, the paint and the canvas. She went to the military base near her hometown in Serbia and asked for twelve airplanes that she would use for her art. She was understandably refused and escorted out of the base.
When she first put her body in front of the audience, she understood that this was her medium. She became a performance artist.
Her main interest was to know how far she could push the energy of the body, how far she could go.
She soon came to the realization that the energy is limitless because it’s not about the body, but the mind. Our mind can push us to extremes we could never have imagined.
Marina Abramović’s most famous performance art is Rhythm 0 (1974)
If you wonder how far the audience can go if the performance artist doesn’t react, the answer lays in Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0.
Performed in 1974, in Naples, Italy, Rhythm 0 is an experiment.
The experiment consisted of Marina standing still for six hours. Next to her were 72 objects on a table and a note saying that she was an object too and that the visitors could do whatever they wanted since she was taking all responsibility for six hours. The visitors risked nothing, but she risked everything, including her life. The objects the visitors were invited to use on her were mostly harmless (a rose, feather, perfume, honey, bread, grapes, wine) but there were some very dangerous things like scissors, a scalpel, nails, a metal bar and a gun loaded with one bullet.
What was the audience about? What were the visitors going to do in this situation? They were also part of the performance.
How they reacted provides us with a bleak and stark insight into human psychology and morality.
Read what Thomas McEvilley, a distinguished art critic who was present at the experiment, wrote at the time:
It began tamely. Someone turned her around. Someone thrust her arms into the air. Someone touched her somewhat intimately. The Neapolitan night began to heat up. In the third hour, all her clothes were cut from her with razor blades. In the fourth hour, the same blades began to explore her skin. Her throat was slashed so someone could suck her blood. Various minor sexual assaults were carried out on her body. She was so committed to the piece that she would not have resisted rape or murder. Faced with her abdication of will, with its implied collapse of human psychology, a protective group began to define itself in the audience. When a loaded gun was thrust to Marina’s head and her own finger was being worked around the trigger, a fight broke out between the audience factions.
After the experiment was concluded six hours later, Marina began to act like a person again and the visitors left the gallery in a hurry almost ashamed. When she arrived at the hotel and looked into the mirror, she noticed a big chunk of her hair had turned white.
What is Rhythm 0 about?
It’s about how women are objectified by men and treated as such with severe consequences ranging from street harassment to cliché portrayals in advertising and films and workplace discrimination. I wonder, what would have happened to the artist had the artist been a man instead of a woman?
It’s about how, in the case of some people, having power over another person leads to cruelty. These individuals take pleasure in stripping the other person of self-respect and self-worth.
If this experiment showed anything is that given the chance, humanity is not as humane as we like to believe.
The artist is present (2010), a very emotional performance for the audience
Her 2010 performance art, The artist is present took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
For three months, Marina sat in the museum atrium across from an empty chair and invited visitors to occupy the chair and face her for as long as they desired.
It was a very demanding performance both physically and mentally: she sat in a chair six days a week, seven hours a day “engaging in mutual gaze” with visitors.
And there have been many visitors sitting in the chair, returning her gaze: close to 1400 with almost half a million in foot traffic.
Everyone agreed: it was the performance of the year.
Some visitors teared up, others smiled; some occupied the chair for a few minutes, others sat too long while a few, for an entire day.
What made this experience so emotional for the person sitting across Marina?
It wasn’t about Marina herself.
In her opinion, it was about people finally connecting with their inner self:
This enormous need for humans to actually have contact, how we are so alienated from each other, how society makes us really distant, we are texting each other messages without seeing each other and we just live around the corner from each other, so many stories of loneliness. And the people not just occupied the chair, there was no one second that the chair was ever empty. They start sleeping outside the museum, waiting for hours and hours, coming back. And what is happening there, I’m looking at you, you’re photographed, you’re filmed, you’re observed by everybody else in the atrium, so there’s nowhere to go but into yourself. The moment you really get into yourself, that moment bursting with emotion, with so much feelings, this is why so many people started to cry. Here I made a stage for the audience so they are able to do that.
Performance art is a live performance by definition.
This type of art doesn’t last, it’s immaterial.
It’s like the fleeting drawings made by airplanes in the sky that a young Marina observed while laying in the grass.
Can performance art break its time limitations?
Marina Abramović’s performance art can.
Her artwork stands the test of time because the artist holds a mirror in front of society reflecting the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.
Source: Marina Abramovic Institute
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