My take on performance art is…complicated. My better self has the same respect, the same esteem, for this art and these artists as I do for any art, any artist. My kneejerk self, though, tends to look at performance artists and wonder how much of what I’m seeing is simple self-indulgent exhibitionism? How much is provocative for provocation’s sake? I realize that’s far from open-minded, and not at all fair, but there it is, and that’s why I call it kneejerk. I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Conversely, for reasons that have nothing to do with me and everything to do with the artist, I feel none of those things when I see the work of Marina Abramović. Oh, my kneejerk self is still there, of course (he always is), but the grim and gritty reality of Abramović‘s work has jerked him fiercely and irreparably in another direction. Her work is provocative, naturally enough, arguably even exhibitionist. But instead of reacting to those things, I react to my reaction—which are usually dread and fear. Not of her performance itself, but of its implications, and the truths it forces me to confront. I walk away from Marina Abramović’s performances knowing things I’m not sure I wanted to know.
Marina Abramović was born on November 30, 1946 in Belgrade, Serbia. She was educated at that city’s Academy of Fine Arts, with her early work including painting, sculpture, even sound art, before helping to pioneer the performance art movement in the seventies. She’s been working mainly from New York for the past several decades.
A Marina Abramović performance is at best about discomfort, and at worst about physical danger and confrontation. She has been known to sit lock-still for eight or ten hours at a time, with an invitation to all the audience to silently and closely engage with her. She’s subjected herself to paralytics, amnesiotics, even catatonia-inducing drugs during performance, all in a quest to see how the audience and the artist act and react in the rawest of circumstances. She doesn’t blur the line between stage and spectator, she erases it—often with terrifying results.
Most notable, in that respect, was a piece Abramović performed in 1974, called Rhythm 0. Her part consisted of passively standing still for six hours. The active role was assigned to the audience, who were informed via signage that they were free to do anything they wanted to her or with her, without limits. To those ends she’d stocked a table with 72 items, some that could inflict pleasure, some pain, and a few, death.
Abramović says that the participation evolved, in a way that’s maddeningly predictable to any of us that fancy ourselves students of human behavior. She says that in the early hours they were playful, or respectful. They were servants of their better angels.
But better angels never last, do they? Within hours, Abramović says, the interplay became more aggressive, more harmful, doubtlessly dangerous. She was humiliated, threatened, dehumanized. She probably came closer to death than even she realizes.
By the end of the performance, you can see clearly from the photos, tears were streaming down her face. The same should have been true for any of the witnesses, or at least any that hadn’t already abrogated their humanity.
I suspect Marina Abramović prepared herself for the worst when she conceived Rhythm 0. But I wonder if she foresaw the final act. For when the six hours was up, when it was time for her to shed passivity, the audience not only lost their aggressiveness, they completely lost their nerve. They ran away, she says, none of them willing or able to confront a victim that was no longer prepared to be victimized.
And that’s why Marina Abramović scares the hell out of me. Because she travails to confirm a darkness that I’m not always willing to acknowledge. She makes me realize that when I’m at my most cynical about that human darkness, I’m probably also at my most accurate.
I can’t say that thrills me, but I recognize it’s probably necessary. For this I know I owe Marina Abramović a debt of gratitude.
Happy birthday, Marina. You scare the hell out of me, but that can only mean you’re doing exactly what you need to do.