Marina Abramović has spent over three decades using performance art as a means to achieve heightened consciousness, transcendence and self-transformation. The woman knows no bounds.
She is the self-proclaimed Grandmother of Performance Art. She has worked tirelessly within the genre, creating pieces that are just as much endurance tests as they are art. She sacrifices her body for the sake of her mind with her early work leaving her burned and beaten, unconscious and almost dead. Her life has been spent exploring the limits of the body and the possibilities of the mind, and her contribution to the conceptual art movement has been monumental. The most riveting element of her work is the silent dialogue she encourages between the audience and herself, the performer. In involving the onlookers she not only tests her own limits but also theirs. Her work is highly emotional, it is visceral. While she burns herself physically she’s burning herself into your mind. (And just for reference’s sake: Thomas Lips involves her burning a pentagram into her belly.)
In 2010 the Museum of Modern Art housed a retrospective of her work entitled The Artist is Present, the largest exhibit of performance art in the museum’s history, that featured reenactments of her works along with photographs, videos, sound pieces, installations, and her work with long time collaborator Uwe Laysiepan, Ulay for short. Within this retrospective was a piece of performance art that changed everything for Marina; it boosted her popularity far beyond what it had ever been and opened up her philosophy to the younger generation. For this 736 hour piece Marina sat quietly in the museum’s alcove as audience members were invited to come sit across from her. No speaking, no sound, just you and Marina, existing. Incredibly moving for the participants, a new interest in performance art spread. The internet was abuzz with Marina’s work; the Tumblr Marina Made Me Cry and Facebook group Sitting with Marina were created. One participant sat with her for over a day, much to the chagrin of those in line, but that was the deal, everyone had as long as they pleased.
We spoke to a few friends who had the chance to go and sit with Marina. Each one described it as a strange but moving experience. Marina was in a sort of trance — she acknowledged you and there was the feeling of a silent discussion, but she wasn’t really there. We decided to get online and see if others shared this feeling that Marina was elsewhere and lo and behold the New York Times journalist Arthur C Danto wrote,
“At this point, something striking took place. Marina leaned her head back at a slight angle, and to one side. She fixed her eyes on me without — so it seemed — any longer seeing me. It was as if she had entered another state. I was outside her gaze. Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain. She was luminous without being incandescent. She had gone into what she had often spoken of as a “performance mode.” For me at least, it was a shamanic trance — her ability to enter such a state is one of her gifts as a performer. It is what enables her to go through the physical ordeals of some of her famous performances. I felt indeed as if this was the essence of performance in her case, often with the added element of physical danger.”
It is easy to overlook the endurance aspect of a piece like this. Sitting still for prolonged periods of time is pure hell. Muscle cramps set in and begin to burn, anxiety begs you to shift in your seat, your legs scream to be used. But Marina is no stranger to denying her body’s demands. Growing up in Serbia to two military parents, as a child Marina was used to strict rules and harsh consequences. At 18 when her father left her mother adopted a full force military strategy with the children — and disobedience was not an option. Marina steadfastly followed her mother’s commands, even obeying a 10pm curfew until the age of 29. And it’s a good thing her mother wasn’t privy to what went on before 10. After completing a graduate program at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, SR Croatia she began teaching in Novi Sad while tending to her budding performance art career on her off time. From 1973-1975 Marina performed her Rhythm Series which looked to explore pain and power, ritual and gesture, life and death.
Rhythm 10 in 1973 was her first performance piece. An investigation into ritual and gesture Marina set up with 20 knives and 2 tape recorders. She would press record and begin playing the Russian bravery test, The Knife Game. If you aren’t familiar, it’s when a person lays their hand flat on a table, fingers spread and grips a knife by the handle, touching the tip to the table space between the outstretched fingers, one space after another, as fast as possible. Not for the faint of heart, this is neither an easy or safe game to play. But Marina already knew that. She would start slamming the knife tip into the table between her fingers, stopping only when she got cut. Each cut would mean a new knife, once all twenty knives had been used she would press STOP on the tape recorder. The tape now possessed a recording of her pain; every sound she made when the steel cut into her skin was there. And so she would rewind and hit PLAY. As the tape rolled she would attempt to repeat all the same movements, cuts and all, in an effort to merge the past and present. This performance marked the beginning of Marina’s long journey of pain and endurance, as she began to explore the mental and physical limitations of her body. When discussing this first performance she notes the peculiar state of consciousness she entered, “Once you enter into the performance state you can push your body to do things you absolutely could never normally do.”
1974 saw the last three of this four part Rhythm series, each more dangerous than the last. In Rhythm 5 she drew a five point Communist star in gasoline, lit the flame and proceeded to cut her nails. She threw the trimmings into the fire, creating small bursts of light. Burning these small parts of herself was seen as a representation of physical and mental purification mixed with flaming political commentary. To complete the purification she’d need a lot more than just bits of nail, she needed her whole body. And so she leapt to the center of the star. The audience watched as she disappeared behind a wall of flame and smoke, unaware that the landing had left her unconscious. She lay there in a star of fire, the flames lapping at her clothes, hair and skin, there was little chance she’d live to perform again. But at the very last moment she was rescued, pulled from the fiery abyss, still unconscious. She woke with anger, furious that her body had betrayed her, indignant that physical limitations had stood in the way of her performance. Art was her higher power, her body came in at a distant second.
As a side note before we continue with the endurance tests and immense pain she put her body through, she also had something to say about the pain that women endure when it comes to beauty. The video below may have confused some of the public though, as many were outraged when she got breast implants after her breakup with Ulay. They considered her doing so an affront against their cause, but in an interview with the New York Times she explains, “I’m not a feminist by the way. I am just an artist.” She felt ugly, fat and unwanted — particularly after learning Ulay had knocked up his 25 year old translator — and the new tits were exactly what she needed. She credits them for changing her life by improving her self-esteem in a time of need. Why not use technology to your advantage?!
The series continued. Rhythm 2 brought medications into the mix. She took the frustration from her last piece and found a way to use it — and so she incorporated unconsciousness into the performance. This two part-er began with the administration of a pill used to treat catatonia. Once ingested into her healthy body she lost control and began seizing violently. She had no power over her body but her mind remained completely clear, she was able to observe. A few minutes later when the effect had passed she took another pill, this time for aggressive, depressed individuals. She was quickly immobilized by the strong chemicals; present bodily but stuck behind the fog in her mind she does not even have recollection of the lapsed time.
Finally, with the end of the year came the end of the series: Rhythm 0. This time the audience got a piece of the action. Marina set up a table with 72 objects next to a sign encouraging the onlookers to use the objects on her as they pleased without any fear of consequence or accountability. A rose, a feather, some honey. A whip, a scalpel, a gun. Some of the objects caused pleasure, others caused pain. Marina recounts the 6 hour experience saying that at first everyone was very timid — but as time passed, aggression set in. They cut her hair, ripped her clothes, stuck thorns in her stomach; a man pointed the loaded gun at her head until someone else took it from him. A condom was included in the spread but that man too was stopped by an another audience member before he could put it to use. And all the while, Marina endured. She felt violated, she felt intense pain, but she would never stop.
When 1976 hit Marina’s life changed. Her husband of 5 years had left and she had completed her first major performance art series. Her career was gaining momentum, and that’s when she met Ulay. A fellow performance artist, Ulay hailed from West Germany but had managed to find himself in Amsterdam about to being over a decade of exceedingly influential work with Marina. Their focus became ego and the issue of artistic identity. In order to play with these concepts they decided to fuse. Marina and Ulay took it upon themselves to form a collective being called “the other” which inhabited their “two-headed body.” This permeated every aspect of their lives. They dressed as twins, mirrored one another’s behaviors and nurtured a relationship of complete and total trust. As they worked to define this phantom identity, their own individual selves were buried deeper and deeper below. They performed as “the other,” always using their now combined body as the subject and medium. In Breathing In/Breathing Out they connected mouths, one inhaled the others exhale over and over until they both passed out on the floor, lungs filled with carbon dioxide.
The kind of relationship they created had no choice but to include the romantic piece of the puzzle. They worked to become one for their career and it obviously carried into the bedroom as well. The level of connection they must have forged is unimaginable to most and it’s safe to say that when tensions drove them apart, the pain associated with losing that closeness must have been lightyears past devastating. When it came time to break up there was no screaming and door slamming, no sobbing and pleading. No, these two jetted off to the Great Wall of China where Marina was positioned at the Yellow River end and Ulay at the Gobi Desert end. They then began the 2500 km walk to meet in the middle and say goodbye. The video of Ulay making a surprise visit on opening night of The Artist is Present is deeply emotional. Watch below.
Marina Abramović is an incredible woman. The strength that she possesses is extraordinary. The commitment she has to her work is extraordinary. The art that she creates is extraordinary. And yet if her next performance piece were to become an ordinary woman, she could do it in a heartbeat. Like a caricature she is so exaggerated and so limitless it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that she’s real. She managed to turn what she loved into what she is — her life is art and her art is life. She pioneered a movement that few understood, she took her art to mean challenge and worked to free herself of physical, mental and spiritual weakness in a way that only she could have survived. The strength of a warrior, the serenity of the Buddha, the quiet beauty of a goddess, there are truly few women as inspirational as she.
To learn more check out the HBO documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present