The transformative power of performance art in the work of Marina Abramović
Yes, Marina Abramović is a witch, her eyes are dark abysses that swallow you whole, reflect all of you and threaten to love you even if you don’t. More importantly she is a performance artist who has devoted her entire life to her art, and who has gone from being seen as an insane, marginal performer to achieving worldwide fame. She is a charmer and an intellectual, who likes to laugh and cook and be surrounded by creative people.
There have been many things written about the Serbian-born performance artist—at least since she became renowned; her performances always draw a flurry of comments, ranging from ecstatic praises to angry commentators who lash at Abramović, mostly because there is one thing that seems to revolt the minds of some reviewers like nothing else can: categorizing performance art as “art”.
Similarly to the regular exclamations of “how can this be called art?’” that one can hear in contemporary art exhibitions around the world (or in pseudo-intellectual discussions), the work of Marina Abramović is surrounded by a cloud of uncertainty, and uneasiness at putting her artistic endeavors into the neat box of art.
But, if we could strip away all the frustrations and anger and conservatism that surround the above-mentioned question, it would be a very valid and interesting one: what is performance art and can it be called Art?
Her performance pieces are not beautiful paintings, nor are they carefully crafted sculptures, sensitive installation of objects, deeply touching films, or meticulous drawings that evoke worlds that never were. Her performances are more provocative than cubist art, more daring than surrealist creations, uglier in their evocation of life than impressionist pictures, and less predictable than modern theatre. They don’t have the melodic coherence of music, the feel-good aftertaste of Hollywood-processed art, or even the despairing but grand emotion that dramatic art pieces can arouse in us.
So what are Marina Abramović’s performances?
Raw moments of life that confront us with our fears, experiments with human boundaries, brutal reflections on the relationships between people (especially the male-female dynamics). Marina Abramović uses her body and her psyche as a canvas through which everything is possible, and in this performance state that often resembles a trance-like mode of functioning, she deals with pain—her own and her audience’s—, violence, but also love, in a fearless way. She transcends her ordinary condition to become the interpreter of our human possibilities, she goes to extremes to remind us how important it is that we choose our own destinies. She is a seer and a Cassandra, while carrying the vivid flame of hope: that humans can be true to themselves, can love and be loved, can be present in their own lives like Abramović was for her audience in the show aptly entitled The Artist Is Present (MoMA, 2010).
It may seem scary to some that Abramović’s art often consists in using an apparent emptiness. Few props, just her body, just her presence. In the above-mentioned show at MoMA, she stayed sitting on a chair for 8 hours a day, staring right into the eyes of each person who came to sit in front of her. Modern society hates this stillness, this idea that we can be doing nothing. People can hardly sit in silence for a few minutes without growing uncomfortable anymore, reaching for their phones to compulsively check their social media profiles, desperate to exist in the eyes of an imagined “them” in which we dream to dissolve our individuality, to become “us” even as we try to show are uniqueness as proof of our worth for social inclusion.
In The Artist Is Present, Marina Abramović sat for 736 hours on the same chair over the course of 3 months, silent and barely moving at all, but so present. Like the Daoist concept of wu wei (无谓) emphasizes, she embraced action through inaction. Wu wei literally means ‘non doing’, but what ‘non doing’ means is in fact closer to ‘natural doing’: it means doing the action that corresponds to the flow of life, that will not disrupt but deepen the experience of living. And that is exactly what Marina Abramović did in that performance.
People who attended the performance were often moved to tears by this simple act of being looked at, truly seen, and being given this strong energy that the artist extracts from the depth of her presence. For that, she prepared both physically and spiritually, for giving oneself unconditionally to accepting the humanity in each and every person is no small task.
That is what Marina Abramović does in her performances. She gives herself, time after time, to a creative moment—a reaction that is unique every single time—, thanks to a state of mind of total commitment to the present, to life. She often plans a mise-en-scène or a general course of action, sometimes in elaborate detail, but the rest fully depends on the way things unfold.
So is this art?
I’ll answer yes, because it is a transcendence of the ordinary through a medium that is visual and sensory, and it is made with an intention to convey an emotional landscape; it is a creative expression of the self, and is extraordinary enough in its realization and its intent that you and I would not have the idea and/or the drive to do it.
But ultimately, does this definition really matter? Not so much, I think, and there will always be those who will spend hours trying to persuade someone else of what is art and what isn’t, even though I’d consider that if it feels like art to you, then it is.
Marina Abramović is not an enigma, nor is she an idol that one should worship, but some people may want to convince us of that, both so that they can project an oversized need for veneration and/or desire to release a (small) part of their own frustrations onto someone who worked her whole life, and is judged guilty of one day being deemed a celebrity by a society which in its schizophrenia both loves to produce celebrities and loves to hate them.
Marina Abramović is everything you want her to be, and yet she lives in her own world, far away from prying hands and eyes. She can expose her whole naked self to the hungry stares of an audience, and let her body be the prey to people’s violent instincts (such as in her performance entitled Rhythm 0, performed in 1974), yet she remains whole, full of an energy that seems intimately intertwined with her passion for life and art. A passion that has led her to make radical choices, as an expression of a deep intransigence: committing her life to Art.
Her life could thus be entitled: Always Real, or the ever-changing pursuit of the flow of life.
Marina Abramović on Rhythm 0 (performed in 1974)
To describe herself, Marina Abramović likes to draw a trifold portrait of herself, with 3 facets: the face of a soldier, the face of her vulnerable inner child, and the spiritual face. The media loves this story, easy to capture and relatively sensational—somewhat very fitting of the image of a mysterious elitist eccentric.
Journalists particularly appreciate that the extraordinary physical endurance she displays during her performances can be explained by the “military training” she received at home from her parents—and especially her mother—, both Yugoslav partisans during the Second World War who became war heroes. As a child, she used to stay hours sitting without moving, and she was oftentimes woken up during her sleep when her mother thought the little Marina was “sleeping too messy”, she recounts.
Marina Abramović on her roots and the education she received from her parents. Bonus footage from The Artist Is Present (Jeff Dupre and Matthew Akers, 2012)
Yet the myth of Marina the soldier becomes more dense when her aunt adds that she always had that capacity to endure, that she could stay still for hours when asked to, even though no threats had been uttered against her. So was the soldier already spiritual then, when she grounded herself deep in the present, deep within herself? Was she both rational and profoundly insane when she started threatening her physical integrity in her early performances? For there is no doubt she was rational too, in the spiritual way that made her know that ultimately her Art would not kill her, not if she lived it fully.
The only madness that I see in her work is that of embracing life in all its complex glory, opening her eyes to the atrocities that humans can turn to so readily; to open her eyes to a stranger sitting on a chair opposite her and give them unconditional love, like a benevolent priest that forgives, and, more importantly, does not judge. It is madness because it is everything our society has erected walls against, it is everything our social norms have attempted to protect us against: truly looking at human nature, and seeing—really seeing—that it is capable of everything, the best and the worst; and that it is our decision to make our lives follow the path we think reflects who we truly are.
All the ready-made answers (and so many are closer to lies than truths!) our politicians feed us are designed to soothe us into thinking that everything can be kept under control, that changes do not need to occur, and that there is nothing to fear. But that is everything that life is not: controllable, stiff and predictable. That does not mean life needs to be feared. Because once you accept it for what it is, you do not need to fear. Simply to live fully, time and again. And to me, that is what Marina Abramović embodies, in an art form that fits her like a glove—or more like snakeskin.
 In hilarious footage on Fox News, the show’s anchor talks of “[…]this exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where daring patrons squeeze through two live nude performers, alternating couples opposite and same-sex who stand in the narrow doorway of the new exhibit, which is by some Yougoslavian-born provocateur, as you listen to the sounds of this woman’s constant guttural moaning and screaming. That they say is art! And it’s at MoMa!” Archive clip from Fox News, as shown in the documentary The Artist Is Present (Jeff Dupre and Matthew Akers, 2012)
 In one of her performances, she spent 6 hours a day cleaning animal bones from the blood, reminding her audience of the wars and their atrocities, and that the shame and pain that come with wars cannot be so easily washed away.
 You can see more than 1000 portraits of people who sat opposite Marina Abramović on MoMA’s Flickr feed: https://www.flickr.com/photos/themuseumofmodernart/sets/72157623741486824/
 In The Artis Is Present (Jeff Dupre and Matthew Akers, 2012)
To go further:
– Trailer of The Artis Is Present (Jeff Dupre and Matthew Akers, 2012): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcmcEZxdlv4
– Original footage of the performance AAA AAA (1978) by Marina Abramović and Ulay (Marina’s romantic and artistic partner for 12 years): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAIfLnQ26JY
– Four of her performances from 1975-1976: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihDy3dD-iUg
– Interesting interview of Marina Abramović by The Ground Mag: http://www.thegroundmag.com/marina-abramovic-an-interview-with/
– Marina Abramović’s 2015 TED Talk, entitled “An art made of Trust, vulnerability and connection”: https://www.ted.com/talks/marina_abramovic_an_art_made_of_trust_vulnerability_and_connection?language=en
– Interview of Marina Abramović from 1990: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17BMY1yKc3A
– A presentation of Abramović’s 1975 Lips of Thomas performance, with video (not for the faint-hearted): http://www.li-ma.nl/site/catalogue/art/marina-abramovic/thomas-lips-1975/7215#
– Website of the Marina Abramović Institute: http://www.mai-hudson.org/