performance art? PART ONE.

I find Performance art a very difficult thing. I find it ungraspable, indefinable, unsettled, uncertain, and incomprehensible. I simply find it impossible to pinpoint what it is and incorporates. Many different occurrences are classified under the title ‘performance art’. In general, performance art consists of actual and immediate actions of the body used as an artistic medium. But why? Is it to subvert traditional media such as painting and sculpture? Is it about the live event? Is it about the message? Is it a transcendental experience? Is it about the body? I don’t know. Mostly because performance artists tend to carry out their work in completely different ways. As part of a series, I will investigate different performance artist. I will kick off with Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0. 

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)

If you think nothing bad will happen when you place 72 objects on a table and invite people to do whatever they wished, think again. Marina Abramović (born 1946 in former Yugoslavia) placed a gun, a bullet, blue paint, a comb, a bell, a whip, lipstick, a pocket knife, a fork, perfume, a spoon, cotton, flowers, matches, a rose, a candle, a mirror, a drinking glass, a Polaroid camera, a feather, chains, nails, a needle, a safety pin, a hairpin, a brush, a bandage, red paint, white paint, scissors, a pen, a book, a sheet of white paper, a kitchen knife, a hammer, a saw, a piece of wood, an ax, a stick, a bone of lamb, a newspaper, bread, wine, honey, salt, sugar, soap, cake, a metal spear, a box of razor blades, a dish, a flute, Band Aid, alcohol, a medal, a coat, shoes, a chair, leather strings, yarn, a wire, sulphur, grapes, olive oil, water, a hat, a metal pipe, a rosemary branch, a scarf, a handkerchief, a scalpel, and an apple on a table and stood in front of it. She took responsibility for whatever would happen.

Sick, troublesome, severe and wrong things did happen. In fact, she was almost killed. That is how far people can go. Things escalated quickly. It started innocently with people moving her body. Gentily kissing her. Then some intimate touching started. Clothes got cut off, her throat slashed, her blood sucked out (what is wrong with people, seriously?!), the intimate touching got more intimate, a loaded gun was pointed at her head, and someone wrapped Abramović hand around the trigger. Luckily, someone intervened. 

When you read this, you probably ask yourself: Why? Why? Why? Why would people do this to her? Why is she willing to die for a simple piece of spectacle? What is the difference with theatre? Why is this art? Why would an art institution allow this to happen?

To the question why people would do this: watch the film the wave. Or it’s even simpler: group pressure. Abramović remembered people cowardly on the sidelines instructing others to do horrible things to her. Plus the art world might not feel as the “real” world. So perhaps people were not regarding Marina as a human being, but a simple object. She stood still the whole time so she looked like a puppet. Since she is so committed, she would have been willing to die for it. She did not want to die of course, she is interested in how far you can push the energy of the body. She wanted to explore what the audience would do in that kind of situation. 

A pioneer of performance art, Abramović began using her own body as the subject, object, and medium of her work in the early 1970s.” For her, performance art is a tool that she chooses for bringing herself to the moment. The stepping into a mental and physical construction in a specific time and place is what she defines as a performance. What happens during a performance is the exchange of energy between the artists and the public. The energy comes from the audience and translates through her; she filters it and lets it go back to the audience. Performance art is about the here and now of the body, at one point, present for the audience. She wants the audience to be with her in the moment, and the performance becomes life in and of itself. Her goal is to “open up the space and just at the moment of here and now, of nothing, there is no future and there is no past.”

This probably sounds a bit spiritual. I think that it also has something to do with her upbringing (just like us, mere mortals.) Her strict, abusive mother did not give her love and attention while she was growing up. She and Marina’s father were socialist rebels who after the revolt were well rewarded with a beautiful apartment and household staff. Her dad did love her, but he left her mother at one point of her life. She did not get enough attention from him as well. Her grandmother was extremely religious. Although they earned or got quite a lot of money, her mother forced Marina to wear the ugliest shoes, the utter most ugly clothes, and the ugliest glasses ever. Her mom did not approve of much, she did approve the idea of her daughter being an artist. Moreover, she was well connected in the Belgrade art scene. So if you add up: an abusive mother, socially an outsider, and a strict upbringing, you would not be surprised that she was looking for something she could stand out in. It seems that pain and endurance do not bother her as much as you would think.

Other interpretations of her work are from Roselee Goldberg. She understands Abramović’s art as an attempt to understand the ritualized pain of self-abuse and the disconnection between the body and the self. Goldberg considers the performances of Abramović as an exploration of passive aggressiveness between individuals. Thomas McEvilley discovered some relations between Abramović’s performances and ancient rituals and religion. She herself describes her work as energy vibrating between herself and her audience. Because the audience strictly needs Abramović as a person to feel this kind of vibrating exchange, he regards it as a shamanic performance.

To the question what the difference is between performance art and theatre, Abramović provides us with the answer:  “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”

This performance piece was executed in Studio Morra in Naples in 1974. Institutions in which Marina performs pieces in which she experiences pain are not limited to this one time. She never gave the responsibility to the audience again though. She has stated ‘the experience I drew from this work was that in your own performances you can go very far, but if you leave decisions to the public, you can be killed.’ Institutions in which this happened were The Tate, the Solomon Guggenheim, and The MoMA amongst others. So I don’t know why institutions allow this to happen, but heavy weights within the art world endorse it.

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