What to Make of Marina Abramović, the Godmother of Performance Art

Is her body of work art, magic, theater or masochism?

Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, Performance, 3 months, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 2010 (© 2016 Marina Abramovic Archives. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery / (ARS), New York)

Museums usually prohibit visitors from touching artwork—let alone sanction sticking pins in an artist, cutting off her clothes or gashing her neck with a knife as part of a show.

But that’s precisely what some audience members did to Marina Abramović during her iconic 1974 work, Rhythm O, which turned out to be a frightening experiment in crowd psychology. Performed in a Naples, Italy, gallery, Abramović placed 72 objects on a table, including pins, needles, a hammer, carving knife, bullet and a gun. She invited viewers to do whatever they desired with any of the items, giving the public six hours of complete physical control over her. As gallery instructions explained, the artist was the object. At one point, someone loaded the pistol and placed it in Abramovic’s hand, moving it to her clavicle and touching the trigger. 

When the show finally ended, according to her upcoming memoir, Walk Through Walls, a battered Abramović staggered to her hotel room, looking “like hell,” half-naked and bleeding—“feeling more alone than [she’d] felt for a long time.” But, as she tells readers, Rhythm 0 encapsulates the next four decades of her work: to stage the universal fear we all have of suffering and mortality to “liberate” herself and the audience, using “their energy” to push her body as far as possible.

Wall Through Walls traces Marina’s life, from her young childhood under Tito’s regime in post-WWII Yugoslavia to her collaboration with fashion house Givenchy for its 2015 runway show in New York, the city she now calls home. Born in 1946, Abramović started as a painter at Belgrade’s Academy of Fine Arts, but had a deeper interest in more conceptual work. Marina proposed her first solo performance, Come Wash With Me, to the Belgrade Youth Center in 1969, where she planned to install laundry sinks, inviting visitors to remove their clothes so she could wash, dry, and iron them. The Center rejected the idea, but she kept at it—her official foray into performance art, a series of audio installations in the early 1970s.

While the book covers matters that have been well-trodden, Abramović offers some insider-anecdotes that readers should relish finding (spoiler: controlling urination is an issue when Abramović plans pieces).  The memoir’s most powerful moments come when Abramvoic shares the most intimate details of the romantic heartaches she’s endured. Marina pulls no punches about the men she’s loved and the artist feels feels more present than ever.

Hailed as a pioneer, Marina is often called the grandmother of performance art.. “She has been hugely influential,” says Stephan Aquiné chief curator of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  “One of her greatest influences is that she’s revealed how time transforms simple gestures into profoundly meaningful and stirring events.” It’s one thing to do a certain action for a few minutes, he explains. But when Marina sustains or repeats an activity for a long period, her endurance changes the relationship between the artist and the viewer into something more visceral and intense.  

It’s a medium, though, that can feel theatrical and affected, especially for those already skeptical about contemporary art to begin with. Inside the art world, critic Jerry Saltz has called Abramović’s pieces “borderline masochistic.”  On occasion, Marina herself has blurred the line between her work and other dramatic displays of stamina. In the 2012 documentary, The Artist is Present, her gallerist, Sean Kelly kiboshes a joint-performance idea that David Blaine has proposed to Marina for her MoMA retrospective. Blaine, Kelly explains, is too pedestrian. He traffics in magic— whereas she inhabits the highest echelons of the art world. But Abramovic’s regard for Blaine— who is often called an endurance artist— raises the question: why do Abramović’s feats of strength get the high art imprimatur? After all, Blaine subjects himself to extreme mental and physical duress, when say, he’s “buried alive” in a plexiglass coffin for a week or encased in a block of ice for 63 hours. Marina laid naked on a cross, made of ice blocks, in one of her performances.

At the very least, Marina’s art sits somewhere, as one Atlantic writer put it, “at the juncture of theater, spirituality and masochism.” Some examples from her prolific career: Abramović carved a five-pointed star in her stomach with a razor blade for Thomas Lips. She crawled around a gallery floor with a large python in Three. She sat naked before an audience and brushed her hair to the point of pain, yanking out clumps for Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful

And of course, in what many consider her greatest accomplishment, she sat on a wooden chair for 700 hours, over the course of three months, silent, staring at visitors, one-by-one in The Artist Is Present. The show brought over 750,000 visitors to MoMa and moved many viewers literally to tears. There’s even a tumblr, Marina Abramović Made Me Cry. A cognitive neuroscientist at New York University, Suzanne Dikker, was so intrigued by the phenomenon, she collaborated with Abramović on a research project called, “Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze.” Two people, wearing portable EEG headsets, stare at each other for 30 minutes (much like the show), so Dikker can measure where their brainwaves synchronize.

In the last decade or so, Abramović has drifted more mainstream, seen by her critics as a sellout for trying to cash in her notoriety. It’s somewhat of a Catch-22. Her recent work lacks the blood and nudity that helped make her an edgier upstart, but Abramović “the brand” is certainly more pervasive in popular culture. Her 2002 performance, The House with the Ocean View (my personal favorite from her oeuvre), was meticulously parodied, ten months later, on “Sex and the City”. Carrie Bradshaw visits a gallery where an artist is living on a raised platform; the only egress is a set of knife-runged ladders. Like Marina, the artist isn’t talking or eating for 16 days, in an attempt to change her own “energy field,” that of the room and possibly even that of the world (Marina’s performance lasted for 12 and her memoir never mentions The House with the Ocean View is about “the world”).

Solidifying her ubiquitous status, in 2013, Jay Z adapted The Artist Is Present for his music video, “Picasso Baby.” Filmed in a typical white-box Chelsea gallery, the artist and rapper dance, staring intently at one another. In exchange for her material, Jay Z apparently agreed to a make a donation to her institute in Hudson, New York, where she plans to teach the “Abramović method.” She describes the method in her Ted Talk as heightening people’s consciousness and ability to live in the moment—what everyone else calls mindfulness.

Branislav Jakovljevic, a professor of performance theory at Stanford’s department of theater and performance studies sees a stark difference between theater and art such as Marina’s. He explains that theater is representational but Abramović is profoundly presentational. “What you see is actually happening,” he says. “There are no illusions or questions about how she’s doing something.” Also, Abramović’s audiences participate by submitting themselves to whatever might happen, he says, much in the way that she does. An intense illustration, even for Marina: in Rhythm 5, the artist lay inside a flaming wooden star and lost consciousness as the fire consumed the oxygen around her head. It was a viewer who pulled her to safety. 

“Masochism involves unconsciously motivated pain and suffering,” explains Dr. Robert Glick, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and former director of the university’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.  “Therefore,” he says, “not everything that involves suffering is masochism.” Yes, Marina Abramović inflicts pain on herself— but as a form of deliberate communication and impact on her audience. Glick likens Marina Abramović’s activities to people who participate in hunger strikes as a form of protest. Marina spends months or years planning her performances and he points out, that’s speaks to a form of creative ambition more than a masochistic drive.

In fact, there’s a poignant scene in her memoir, where her relationship with Ulay (“the godfather of performance art,” Marina’s professional and life partner of 12 years), is woefully deteriorating. During a fight, Ulay hits her face for the first time— in “real life”— as opposed to during a performance piece, such as Light/Dark, where the two traded violent slaps for 20 minutes. And for Marina, the life/art boundary had been irrevocably breached. 

Her autobiography probably won’t change anybody’s mind on the power of performance art. People who find her efforts or the whole genre alienating and contrived will likely feel the same after Walk Through Walls. But for those who believe her grueling approach makes her a visionary, the memoir reveals a sensitive, steadfast — at times, surprisingly banal— woman, who can push her body and mind past all our levels of fear and exhaustion in the name of art.

Jacoba Urist is an art and culture writer in New York.


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