The following is an article which speaks about the basics of what and how Performance Art came to be and mainly focuses on the works of the icon “Marina Abramovic” BEFORE her collaboration with Ulay, and the rest which will be further briefed into the Part 2 of this article.
I was lying sleepless in bed on a regular school night awaiting the forthcoming deary morning I was going to have when I decided to listen to the podcast “Crash On My Couch” by the YouTube creators Will Darbyshire and Arden Rose where I was first introduced to the concept of this Avant Garde type of art and the briefest of overviews on the most acclaimed of Abramovic’s pieces.
The genre of Performance art encompasses an artist and a live audience where the medium is the body and art can be interpreted in the actions of the artists and is like an energy dialogue between the audience and performer. It gained prominence in the 60’s as a challenge to paintings. Performance as the name suggests involves action which is often a statement made against social, political, traditional, religious rules and laws made by the society and it radically challenges them through these alternative art pieces. It is a form of Avant Garde art which is rather experimental, radical, or unorthodox in nature and usually challenges the norm and pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable. I will paraphrase one of the pioneers of performance art Marina Abramovic, ” That’s the difference between performance and acting, in the first there is a knife and your blood and the latter there is ketchup and you don’t cut yourself and then it’s a fail.” which was what really appealed to the audience.
It has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Following World War II, performance emerged as a useful way for artists to explore philosophical and psychological questions about human existence. Unlike painting and sculpture it would force one to interact with a living human who could feel the pain and cold just like them. Most of the times it is fascinating as it displays the mundane activities of human life as art to criticize and it forces us to see the issue in horrifying ways and sometimes makes us laugh at the idiocy and ridiculousness of our lives.
Now, when I first heard about Marina and saw her performances, that was the time I knew I wanted to write this. There are many other artists in the genre that are worth mentioning and have greatly shaped what we know today as Performance but, we’ll be talking here about Marina.
Marina Abramovic is Yugoslavian, born in the year 1946. She was raised in a household of strict military discipline, her parents were soldiers in the Second World War and came back as national heroes. This had a great impact on her art pieces later on. As a child her mother would beat her, Marina once mentioned that she would be woken up in the middle of the night if she wasn’t sleeping properly or her bed was too messy. She had a curfew of 10 till the age of 29… “All the performances in Yugoslavia I did before 10 o’clock in the evening because I had to be home then. It’s completely insane, but all of my cutting myself, whipping myself, burning myself, almost losing my life in the firestar, everything was done before 10 in the evening.” On the contrary to receiving no love from her parents, there was her grandmother who she stayed with when she was young. Her grandmother’s firm faith in religion resulted in her going to church very often and she remarks on how these two polar dynamics shaped her.
She’d taken an early interest in art in the form of painting. During the war once she found herself painting when 12 military planes flew over her head, she went to the military base and asked them to use the planes because she wanted to paint the sky and that day she had an epiphany as an artist, she realized she could make art with her surroundings, with herself and she never painted after that.
The BEFORE Ulay Era: [1973-1975]
RHYTHM 10, 1973-
Duration: 1 Hour.
The first performance art piece was performed at a festival in Edinburgh. Her early performances were focused on sound installations. She’d lain a white sheet of paper with 20 knives of different sizes and a tape recorder to record the sounds. She played the Russian Game of rhythmic knife jabs between the stretched fingers of one’s hand. She would pick up a different knife each time she’d cut herself until the last one, then she replayed the tape while again trying to jab the knives the exact same way she did before with the help of the sounds, trying to replicate the cuts and jabs. It was to experiment the state of consciousness of a performer while trying to to replicate the mistakes and a merger of the past and the present. This was when she realized how the audiences energy fueled her performance.
RHYTHM 5, 1974-
Duration: 1 1/2 Hours.
Here, Marina made a five-pointed star with wood chips soaked in almost 100 liters of petrol and set it on fire. She proceeded to cut her hair and finger nails and threw them on the points of star in the burning fire. The star was a symbol of communism in Yugoslavia, she then went and lay in the middle of the star with the head, hands and legs pointing towards each ends of the star. But the flames had already consumed all the available oxygen inside and she quickly fell unconscious and was only taken out after the spectators realized her cloth caught on fire and that she wouldn’t move. This taught her that her body had physical limits and later on we can see how all her pieces are about pushing and extending these limits. She later says, “I was very angry because I understood there is a physical limit: when you lose consciousness you can’t be present; you can’t perform.”
RHYTHM 2, 1974-
Duration: 6 Hours.
Taking inspiration from her previous performance and inability to perform while unconscious, Marina sought to perform by using her body irrespective of whether it was with or without consciousness. This was a piece in which her loss of control over body was planned. There were two pills (hence the name Rhythm 2) that she would ingest. The first medication used for patients of catatonia and schizophrenia. It resulted in a seizure of her muscles, so she had no control physically or psychologically but still had an active mind. The second one was given to schizophrenic patients to calm them down, once again she lost control over her body but this time also her own sense of identity. The piece ended after a total of six hours after the medication wore off.
RHYTHM 4, 1974-
Duration: 45 Mins.
In this particular piece, Marina walked into a room alone and naked with a high-power industrial fan in the center. She would slowly approach the fan until her mouth was inches away and try to breathe in as much air as possible, trying to test her lung capacity and pushing herself until she lost consciousness. Although, seeing as to how the audience intervened in the last one (Rhythm 5) and carried her away, this performance was viewed on a monitor in another room by the audience and the camera man sent for the museum staff only a few minutes after she fell unconscious.
RHYTHM 0, 1974- (the most iconic of her pieces)
Duration: 6 Hours.
The most well-known performance art pieces is Rhythm 0. Unlike her previous performances, this one tested the relationship between the audience and the performer where the audience played an active part if not the most important. The piece was about how soon and what the public can do when a person displays himself as an object and takes full responsibility of their actions on him. At the beginning there was a sign that displayed that she was the object and in front of her was a table lain with 72 objects, which could induce pain or pleasure. Some of which included a rose, olive oil, perfume, condom, feather, honey, scalpel, scissors and even a gun with a single bullet, all for the audience to use on her as they pleased.
In the start the audience was shy and mostly decorated her and changed her position but quite quickly the atmosphere became violent. Someone cut away her clothes, they drew on her and wrote on her with lipstick, wove a thorn necklace of the roses around her neck. One of them made cuts on her neck and drank blood from it. Slowly a protective group in the audience formed, one man loaded the gun and put it in her hand in a way that was aimed at her and was working his way around the trigger when fights broke around and yet, Marina stayed true to her performance. Six hours later when her piece ended she started walking towards the audience and she describes that the audience started running away from her, that they couldn’t face the reality of what they had done and that she was a real, felling human just like them. She says, “What I learned was that … if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you. … I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.” This was a very horrifying experiment which revealed the dark nature of humans and what one can do if there aren’t any laws in place.
Other astonishing of Abramovic’s pieces were performed after 1975 in collaboration with fellow performance artist and lover Ulay, which I’ll be writing about in another Part of the article.
Until then, what are your thought on performance art and the artworks of Abramovic? Is inflicting such pain on oneself for the sake of art something one can be okay with?
Leave your thoughts in the comments and do like this if you like it! Have a nice day! xoxo