Preeminent performance artist Marina Abramović has explored physicality, its limitations and potential, in collaboration with her audience, since the ’70s. Beginning with her early Rhythm pieces and continuing into the present day, Abramović examines pain and endurance, violence and eroticism, myth and religion, and the body and mind through performance.
In one of Abramović’s most well-known performance pieces, 1974’s Rhythm 0, she cast herself as the passive object. Abramović arranged 72 objects on a gallery table, items intended to evoke sensation, on a table, with these instructions: “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. During this period, I take full responsibility.” The objects ranged from those commonly associated with pleasure and femininity, such as flowers and perfume, to objects associated with pain and, arguably, masculinity, such as a hammer and nails, an ax, and, notably, a gun loaded with a single bullet. Throughout Rhythm 0‘s duration, an objectified Abramović allowed the audience to act on her, to create art with herself as the incarnate art object.
In retrospect, Abramović described her Rhythm O experience: “The experience I learned was that…if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed… I felt really violated: they cut 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 public. Everyone ran away, escaping an actual confrontation.”
Another noteworthy Abramović performance is The Lips of Thomas. First performed in 1976, The Lips of Thomas heavily references both religion and communism; at its premiere, it similarly transformed the passive audience into actors. Abramović begins this performance with sticky, transubstantiated reverence, consuming more than two pounds of honey and a liter of wine. After whipping herself to numbness, she carves a five-pointed star into her stomach with a razor blade. Abramović then lays on a crucifix fashioned from blocks of ice, with a heater positioned over her stomach. As the star’s bleeding is hastened by warmth, the rest of her body begins to freeze. At the 1975 premiere, the audience was unable to watch — or allow — for more than half an hour. After 30 minutes, members of the audience retrieved Abramović from the crucifix and carried her off set. The two subsequent performances, in 1983 and 2005 have lasted significantly longer; in 2005, at the Guggenheim, the performance lasted for a full seven hours.
In Abramović’s performances, she is subject and object, creator and medium.
Any attempt to casually sum up Abramović’s lengthy, continuing career would be an exercise in futility. But, during her career, the self-described “grandmother of performance art” has done the following things — among a plethora of others — in service of her art: ingested unprescribed medication to invoke seizures or catatonia; played with knives; achieved an unconscious state in the center of a star-shaped petroleum fire; walked for 90 days and over 1,250 miles, to the middle of the Great Wall of China to break up with her lover; starved herself for twelve days after 9/11 to test her endurance; exchanged roles with a prostitute; and created performance, video and installation art that comments on everything from Balkan culture and myth and communism to eroticism, devotion and dispossession.
Abramović’s art — particularly her ongoing devotion to her craft — serves as a testament to discipline, desire, and endurance, tenets that inform her entire body of work.
Video excerpted from The Star, 1999: [bubblecast id=287896 thumbnail=475×375 player=475×375]
Stills from The Onion, 1996: