The Artist as a Medium

The Artist as a Medium


Marina Abramovic and the Subversion of Common Practice

Marina Abramović, now seventy years old, is a Yugoslavian born performance artist. Both of her parents were Yugoslav Partisans during World War II who later became national heroes. They were then given positions in the post-war Yugoslavian government.1 Because of their demanding jobs, Marina was mostly raised by her grandparents. Her grandmother was very religious, which later reflected Marina’s “spirituality” as a performer. When her parents became more present, Marina had to abide by the rules of her very militant mother. In the 2012 documentary, The Artist is Present, she explains that her mother used to wake her up in the middle of the night to make her bed because she was a messy sleeper. She had a strict curfew of 10 PM. Every performance that Marina participated in had to be done before her curfew. She lived at home until she was twenty-nine years old, with the same 10:00 p.m. curfew, surviving in her double life.

Marina describes that there are three extensions of herself, as a person and as a performer.2 She explains that these extensions derive from her upbringing in Yugoslavia. The first extension is Marina, the product of two partisan parents, two war heroes. Her extremely strict background made her somewhat of a perfectionist. She strived to be the best but the form in which she decided to express this was not one her parents supported. When her mother found out what she was doing in the name of art, she threw a glass ash tray at her head.3

The second sense of self stems from her early childhood, during which she never received enough love or affection from her mother. She also refers to this as bullshit Marina.4 Because of this, Marina was very vulnerable and always very disappointed. She describes herself as extraordinarily ugly with an adult nose in a child’s face, pimples, flat feet, and thick glasses.5 She didn’t believe in herself, however she believes that vulnerability channels creativity and sparks ideas in which enables you to grow as an artist. She wanted to create a trust between her and the public, not just between her and the people she was close to. There was a conviction that came from this. She always has and continues to have perseverance that rarely falters. Marina Abramović never took no for an answer.6 “I’m so happy I didn’t give up” she most commonly says in her interviews to ensure and remind herself that her hard work built the career and life she has today.

The third Marina is the spiritual Marina. She claims this is her favorite extension of herself which is influenced heavily by her religious grandmother. This sense of spiritual wisdom allowed her to go beyond what she thought, and what everyone else thought, was possible. Her performances activate all three senses of self, pushing emotional, physical, and mental limits alike.

From early on in Abramović’s performance career, she surpasses boundaries. She did performances unlike any that had been seen before. She honed in on the importance of an audience, a concern which she perfectly portrays in Rhythm 0, a six-hour performance that she did at the Galleria Studio Morra in Naples. This is the piece that absolutely made me fall in love with Marina AbramovićShe put seventy-two objects out on a table ranging from a rose, grapes, and feathers to chains, razors, knives, a gun, and a bullet. She wanted to test the audience’s humanity. For the first time, the people had everything to do with the trajectory of her performance. Abramović was an object. The audience, the performers. For six hours, the spectators were allowed to do whatever they wanted to her. It started with kindness and love and ended with animosity and hatred. People cut her skin, drank her blood, and placed a loaded gun in her hand, facing it towards her. She was testing the theory that evil still remains in humanity when rules and restraints are taken away. She was right. I don’t think Abramović would have had the same impact with this piece without the dramatic way of going about it. She is known for her shocking and blunt content which forces the audience to feel and confront controversial or negative feelings. Rhythm 0 is a performance people love and hate, which will continue to be a common theme.

All of her solo work tested limits. Limits involving the power of the audience, the safety of the performer, and the separation created between audience and performer. She also wanted to test her body limits and her mental and emotional limits. Some of her more famous pieces include Rhythm 5 (Student Cultural Center, Belgrade, 1974)which is where she set a giant star, representing the star of communism, on fire while throwing her nails and hair into the flames.7 She then stepped inside and remained there until she lost consciousness. Abramović was constantly challenging core assumptions about art. She was changing this definition with every performance she made, which is again why there were people who loved her and hated her. Why she received so much praise and so much criticism. She wasn’t necessarily challenging a particular thing all of the time, she was challenging what the definition of art was, which is something that some still can’t wrap their heads around.

I don’t think it’s possible to fully appreciate Abramović without speaking about her relationship with Ulay, as a lover and as a performance partner. They met when she was twenty-nine, after being invited to perform on a Dutch television show. They immediately fell madly in love. For the next twelve years, Abramović and Ulay continued to push limits, using their own bodies as the main materials of their art form, and consistently going outside of the box of what art was expected to be. They did performances like sitting across from each other for eight hours a day, sixteen days straight (Nightsea Crossing, 1981-1987), slapping each other in the face until they could no longer stand it (which was a piece that used the body as an instrument) (Light/Dark, 1977); and standing naked, very closely across from each other in an exit so people were forced to touch their naked bodies (Imponderabilia, 1977). Those passing through the entrance were also forced to choose who they wanted to face, Abramović or Ulay.

The twelve years that they were together, they traveled frequently and performed whenever they had the chance. They became fairly famous in the performance art world this way. Abramović’s exhibit at the MoMa in 2010 focused primarily on the pieces that she performed with Ulay. When their relationship ended in 1988, they made it into a very physically and emotionally taxing and dramatic performance. They both started walking, from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and met in the middle. When they met, they hugged and said goodbye, then continuing on their journey toward the original starting point of the other.

When Abramović reflects publicly on her performance career, she rarely delves into detail about the time following her split from Ulay. People widely know Abramović for her intense background, the performances she did before Ulay, her performances with Ulay, and her exhibit at the MoMA in 2010. The twenty years leading up to the MoMA required a lot of rebuilding as an artist. It was in these years that she started to become more and more well known. She experienced what it was like to have money of her own. She explains that a lot of friends became enemies and a lot of enemies became friends in this time. Many critics that had raved about her for many years, now criticized her for being too weak, too mainstream, too capitalistic of her own success. She became her own brand. Her name was associated with a certain kind of art form. Even today you will year phrases like, “how Marina of you” or “that piece was very Marina.” She became famous enough to be under the public eye of people other than those in the art world. There have been many people that ask her how she dealt with such ridicule in these years and her answer is always somewhat the same: “I’m only angry at myself when I don’t give 120%. But if I give everything, you can criticize, you can ridicule, you can do anything, and it doesn’t touch me.”8

In The Artist Is Present, the 2010 MoMA exhibit, Abramović recreated all of her major pieces. She performed every day, six days a week, for three months. She had truly made it with this exhibition. People came all over the world and camped outside the MoMA for days to be able to see her. She summoned thirty young performance artists to recreate her pieces, while the center piece of her exhibit was a version of a piece she did with Ulay (Nightsea Crossing). She would sit across a table for eight hours a day, six days a week, for three months, while anyone could sit across from her, for however long they wanted. Marina would give the same expression and undivided attention to every person that sat across from her. There were some people who laughed, who cried, and some who were simply just curious. She believed that when people stared at her, they would begin to see themselves. The audience members were just as much of the performers as she was. She once explained that her audiences gave her the love and affection she did not get from her family. “Without the public, my performances wouldn’t exist because I am not motivated to perform alone. The public completes my work and has become the center of my world.”9 She was able to represent the significance of her entire career with The Artist is Present. She curated and put together this perfect exhibition, which she claims is one of the proudest moments of her career. The exhibition acted as a timeline throughout her life as a performer, which is something I so greatly wish I had seen. Her career was also representative of her real life. Her performances showed some of the most emotional and vulnerable aspects of her last 35 years. So much of her career was auto-biographical which I believe made her pieces so successful.

Even at sixty-three years old, Abramović’s age at the time of the MoMA retrospective, she was still testing her physical, mental, and emotional limits. People got to come and witness her magic first hand while being in a museum surrounded by the recreation of pieces that originally developed at some of the most beautiful and tumultuous times of her life. There were performers who were playing the role of the Marina under the strict rule of her parents until she was twenty-nine years old. There were performers who represented her and Ulay, throughout the most powerful and tragic love story of her lifetime. She is sometimes referred to the grandmother of performance art because she actively questioned what the meaning of art was and ultimately changed it. She did the impossible and she continues to do the impossible. It took her until she was fifty years old to be able pay her own phone bill, until she became successful in a monetary way. Abramović helped define and redefine what art is. She claims that the thing she misses the most is being asked, how is this art? She hated this question when she was younger but says she would now do anything to answer it again. The MoMA represented validation of what she had accomplished as an artist, but I don’t think this will stop her in pushing boundaries and questioning the definition of art. She was not aware of the drastic and lasting impact she would have in the art world. The doubt and the criticism towards her own art from her audiences and skeptics, although difficult to receive, are what helped motivate her growth as an artist and a person.

  1. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present. Dir. Matthew Akers & Jeff Dupre Perf. Marina Abramović. 2012. DVD.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Hattenstone, Simon. “‘I face so Much Jealousy’: Marina Abramović Talks Friends, Enemies and Fear.” The Guardian. October 22 2016.
  4. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present. Dir. Matthew Akers & Jeff Dupre Perf. Marina Abramović. 2012. DVD.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Beard, Alison. “An Interview with Marina Abramović.” Harvard Business Review. October 26, 2016.
  7. Marina Abramović: Rhythm 5. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection. 1998.
  8. Beard, Alison. “An Interview with Marina Abramović.” Harvard Business Review. October 26, 2016.
  9. Maria Popova. “Turning Trauam into Power: Marina Abramović on How Her Narrowing Childhood Became the Raw Material for Her Art.” Brain Pickings. November 11, 2016.
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