Scream until your voice cracks. Dance until the point of exhaustion. Be present until you can’t stand it anymore.
These are the principles of performance artist Marina Abramović: to seek out strange, new experiences and engage them with every sense. Her art is radical, ruthless, and uncomfortable. Again and again she casts herself into extreme situations – scratching herself with a razor blade in the stomach, whipping herself to the point of unconsciousness, laying naked on an ice block. Most would find any one of these exercises exhausting, but each of Abramović’s uncompromising performances seems only to bring more energy to the now 73-year-old artist.
So how is she able to withstand it all?, How can she be radical without being destructive, explore ‘the other’ without losing herself? Suffer without turning into a victim? What does it mean to constantly give everything in art, love and life? And is there a secret to Abramović’s incredible energy, unwavering presence and enduring happiness? To find out, we’re delving into her 50 year-long career in performance art.
Life as a Performance: The Abramović Method
“In the Abramović method, we must free ourselves from phones, computers and watches, immerse ourselves in a new experience to get in touch with the here and now.”
Marina Abramović was born in Belgrade in 1946 as the daughter of Serbian partisans. She spent her childhood in the shadow of the stormy marriage of her parents, who enjoyed heroic status in Tito’s Yugoslavia, and was occasionally in the care of her grandmother, who introduced her to church rituals and religious practices. To escape the difficult reality of her childhood, Abramović began to read, write and paint. At nineteen, she began studying painting in Belgrade, but turned her attention to concept and performance art soon after graduating. Her medium became herself – her body, which would lead her to the limits of what she could endure.
During her time in Belgrade, Abramović conceived her first series of performances created to transcend “painful feelings…all sorts of bad childhood experiences that we put in a box because they hurt so badly”. This initial performance series revealed the thematic underpinnings of her art which endure today.
Pain and Losing Control: Her Early Work
In her first performance in Edinburgh in 1973, titled ‘Rhythm 10,’ Abramović sat at a plain table in a gallery at the age of 26. On the table was a series of knives of various sizes. Abramović began the performance by taking a knife in her right hand and spreading the fingers of her left. With her left hand on a sheet of white paper, the artist began to rhythmically plunge the knife between her fingers. That she would hurt herself was inevitable, and was, in fact, the point of the exercise. After a short while, the paper was covered in blood.
Only a year later, the young artist once again shocked audiences with ‘Rhythm 5’, another performance bent on the experience of extreme bodily pain. In ‘Rhythm 5’, Abramović, using a large petroleum-drenched star lit on fire at the start of the performance, cut her toenails, fingernails and hair before throwing them into the fire. Each piece of bodily material sets off a spurt of flames. To conclude the performance, Abramović launched her entire body into the star, quickly fainting from lack of oxygen. As the fire began to touch her legs, two spectators stepped in to remove her from danger and so concluded the performance.
The following year, the city of Naples saw the debut of Rhythm 0, one of Abramović ’s best-known performances. In this performance, she assigned herself a passive role while the public reflexively became a participating force. Abramović placed 72 objects on a table that onlookers were allowed to use in any way they chose. Some objects were designed to give pleasure, others pain. Included among the 72 items was a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, and a gun loaded with a single bullet. For six hours the artist allowed the audience to inflict what they chose upon her body. The performance was designed to test how vulnerable and also how aggressive a human subject could become when excused from all repercussions. By the end of the performance, her body had been stripped, cut, and devalued. Abramović described herself at this moment as the “Madonna, mother, and whore.”
“It’s not about suffering,” says Abramović of her work. “It’s about understanding and overcoming your own fears.” To consciously face danger and pain, to inflict suffering upon oneself, to overcome one’s fears…for Abramović, this leads to a moment of ultimate euphoria “If you have survived everything, the joy is indescribable.”
Love, Symbiosis and Disintegration: Relationship and Collaboration with Ulay
In 1975 Abramović met the German artist Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen, b.1943) in Amsterdam. A year later, she divorced her husband, relocated to Amsterdam and became Ulay’s partner and collaborator. For twelve years, the two artists enjoyed a symbiotic relationship of love and creation.
In one of their first dual performances, the two artists ran into each other, naked, repeatedly, with growing force. The sounds that their naked bodies made upon collision was recorded on tape. The performance intended to mix male and female energy into a third component which they called “that self”.
“The Other: Rest Energy” (1980).
In their infamous 1980 performance titled “Rest Energy,” Abramovic and Ulay balanced each other on opposite sides of a drawn bow and arrow. Microphones recorded their accelerating heartbeats for onlookers at the exhibit.
“The idea came about very simply because we both have a birthday on the same day, on 30th November. We are shooters,” said Ulay later in an interview. “We wanted to express traumatic fears in relationships between a man and a woman. Sometimes quite extremely”.
“The Lovers” (The Great Wall Walk, 1988).
After twelve years together, the couple parted. Their love had lost its elasticity, had cooled over the years. From their breakup emerged their last joint performance: “Lovers”. In the seminal performance piece, each walked the Great Wall of China, starting from opposite ends and meeting in the middle. After 2,500 kilometers and three months – having been separated the whole time – they met. The walk, the reunion and the separation were recorded on film and released as “The Lovers (The Great Wall Walk)”.
“Balkan Baroque” and the 1997 Venice Biennial
Between 1995 and 2005, Marina Abramović broke new ground with her solo performances. Her themes were now her cultural, ideological and spiritual rootings in the Balkans.
In 1997, Abramović participated in the 47th Venice Biennale, where she represented Serbia and Montenegro in the Yugoslavian Pavilion. After a conflict with the Montenegrin Minister of Culture, Abramovic decided to perform her piece “Balkan Baroque” in the Italian Pavilion. Over four days she scraped pieces of meat, some of which were still saturated with blood, for six hours each. During, she sang death songs from her homeland. “Balkan Baroque” earned Abramović the 1997 Golden Lion for “Best Artist”.
2011 Onward in New York
Since 2011 Marina Abramović has lived in New York. Her contemporary performances have been more prudent, but no less radical.
In her 2010 piece “The Artist Is Present,” Abramović sat in New York’s MoMA for three months, silent and motionless. Visitors were invited to sit across from the artist for as long as they liked, the only rule being that they could not touch or speak to Abramović. Over the course of the performance, she sat face to face with 1,675 visitors, including Ulay, who showed up unexpectedly on opening night. Reportedly, it was the first time the two had seen each other since their breakup more than twenty years prior. Several participants started to cry, including Abramović herself at times. The purpose of the performance was to open up space for the artist and members of the public to be vulnerable and to be witnessed in their vulnerability.
The Goal is Not to Suffer
With all these criss-crossing paths between pain and joy, love and loss, what then does Abramović consider life to be about? “Discipline, self-control, concentration,” says the artist, and “getting involved.” According to her, technology has broken us, robbed us of our concentration. For Abramović, it all depends on understanding what it means to be truly present and alone.
As for the artist’s lasting capacity for energy, presence and happiness, in the end her secret lies in a philosophical wisdom. In fear, in the face of one’s own finitude, man comes face to face with himself. Only those who know fear can recognize themselves. Self-knowledge is the precursor for joy.