“Once, Picasso was asked what his painting meant. He said, ‘Do you ever know what the birds are singing? You don’t. But you listen to them anyway.’ So, sometimes with art, it is important just to look.”
Towards the late 1950’s, Abstract expressionism began losing impetus, and many artists across the world, especially in America and Europe, embraced performance art. In that context, Marina Abramovic’s work is typical of the ritualistic strain in the 1960’s performance art, and very often involves putting herself in grave danger and performing lengthy, harmful routine that result in her being burnt or cut, or enduring some privation.
Her work might be interpreted as having displaced art from traditional media, as she moved it straight onto her body.
Marina Abramovic was born on November, 30, 1946 in Belgrade, the capital of what was than Yugoslavia to an affluent family with politically active parents. Vojin and Danica Abramovic were Yugoslav partisans during World War II, and continue their engagement in General Tito’s communist party.
They were awarded high positions in the public sector for their contribution during the war; her mother became head of the Museum of Art and the Revolution in Belgrade, and her father worked with state security and was in the Marshal’s elite guard.
Marina’s relations with her mother were always fought. Her mother took strict control of eighteens-years-old Marina and her younger brother Velimir; under her mother’s strict supervision, she experienced life as difficult and cold. Although her mother was traditional, difficult and sometimes violent, she supported her daughter’s interest in art, encouraging her to express herself creatively through drawing and painting and at twelve was given her own studio at home.
Body Art & The Rhythm Series
Marina studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, from 1965 to 1970; during this period her earlier figurative expressions became increasingly abstract. During her further studies at Krsto Hegedusic’s studio and at Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, from 1970 to 1973, she began to use her body as a tool in her art, creating performative art pieces, creating sound installations, but moving towards works that directly involved the body.
In this period Abramovic spent most of her time at the SKC, Studentski Kulturni Centar, a cultural center in Belgrade, where she met young conceptual artists such as Rasa Popovic, Nesa Paripovic and Rasa Teodosijevic.
In 1973, Abramovic met the artist Joseph Beuys in Edinburgh and later that year at the Cultural Center in Belgrade. His happenings made a strong impression on Marina and greatly influenced her work. The same year, she enacted the performance piece Rhythm 10 at Vila Borghese, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Rome.
This piece is the first of the five performances in The Rhythm Series, in which she explored the limits of her body and consciousness.
On the Rhythm 10, she used a series of 20 knives to stab at the spaces between her outstretched fingers. In the process, every time she pierced her skin, she used another knife from those carefully laid out in front of her.
Halfway through, she began to play a recording of the first-half of the hour long performance, using the rhythmic beat of the knives striking the floor, and her hand, to repeat the movements, cutting herself at the same time.
She understood that drawing on the audience’s energy drove her performance, which was marked in this piece, and this aspect became an important concept informing much of her later work.
Viewing both performance and art as reaching beyond the realm of awareness, Marina has created performances in which she sleeps or becomes drugged into unconsciousness to examine this aspect of life; she used performance to push her mental and physical limits beyond consciousness.
For instance, in Rhythm 5, 1974, she created a star shape with wood shavings covered in gasoline and lit the wood on fire. After cutting her hair and nails and than dropping them into the fire, she lay down within the burning star, a symbol of Communism in Yugoslavia, as well as a symbol of the occult.
During this performance, audience members realized her clothes were on fire and she had lost her consciousness due to the lack of oxygen they pulled her out, and the performance was ended.
Pushing the limits further, in the performance piece entitled Rhythm 0, with a description reading ‘During this period I take full responsibility’ and ‘I am the object’ Marina invited participants to use any of 72 objects on her body in any way, they desired, completely giving up control.
Those 72 objects included a feather, pen, saw, lipsticks, book, band-aid, rose, salt, gun, paint, bullet, scissors etc. The audience divided itself into those who tried to protect her wiping away her tears, and those who sought to harm Abramovic, holding the loaded gun to her head, and.
Eventually, after she stood motionless for six hours, the protective audience participants insisted the performance be stopped, seeing that others were becoming extremely violent.
This piece was an example of Abramovic’s belief that confronting exhaustion and physical pain was important in making a person absolutely present and aware of her/his self. The work is also reflected her intention to include the spectators in the process; her interest in performance art was to transform both the performer and the audience, as the participants in the show.
She said that the inspiration for such work came from both her experience of growing up under Tito’s Communist dictatorship, and of her relationship with her mother. Her work in Yugoslavia was much about rebellion, not against just the family structure but the social structure and the structure of the system there; she was trying to overcome these kinds of limits.
1975 and on
These pioneering works were created at the time when performance art was still a new emerging art form in Europe, and she had little knowledge of performance being outside Yugoslavia.
In 1975, in Amsterdam, Abramovic met the German-born artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, known as Ulay. He was a son of a Nazi soldier, born in 1943, in a bomb shelter in Solingen, an industrial city in Westphalia, Germany.
By fifteen, he had been orphaned, and was fending for himself. Marina met him on November, 30th in 1975 in Amsterdam and their chemistry was immediate. According to her words, when she back to Belgrade, she got so lovesick that she couldn’t move or talk.
At the time, she was married to a former fellow-student from the Belgrade Academy of Fine Arts, but it was an oddly slack union; both spouses still lived with their parents. A few months later, Marina ran away in Amsterdam, at twenty-nine, to rejoin Ulay, her soul mate.
Ulay and Abramovic made art for twelve nomadic years, from 1976 to 1988, the two were artistic collaborations and lovers. Amsterdam was their base, but their home on the road, on Europe was a black Citroën van, which figured in their symbiotic work in performance of ideal couplehood.
They also lived in India’s Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and with Australian Aborigines, and spending some time in Sahara, Gobi and Thar deserts.
They performed their works in gallery spaces, mostly in Europe; some of their best known works included Imponderabilia, from 1977; it included a naked couple planted like caryatids on either side of a narrow doorway at the entrance to a gallery, they backs to a frame.
Everyone who entered had to sidle past them, deciding which body to face.
Also, Breathing in/ Breathing out, 1977, in which they inhaled and exhaled from each other mouths until they almost suffocated. The performance named Rest Energy, from 1980, a highly intense piece that revealed the fragility of the line between death and life; it was only four minutes and ten seconds long.
Ulay and Abramovic faced each other, aiming an arrow a tense bow, just inches from her heart. They placed small microphones on their chests in order to make audible their increasingly rapid heartbeats in response to the growing danger.
When Marina and Ulay decided to end their relationship, they embarked on their last performance on March, 30, 1988, The Lovers; the walking along the Great Wall of China. Abramovic walked from the Shanhai Pass at the wall’s east end, Ulay walked in a opposite direction, from the wall’s western end near the Gobi Desert. After ninety days, they met and reunion marked a definitive end to their romantic relationship, as well as the twelve-year long artistic collaboration.
Their union was much battered and repaired, though it ultimately couldn’t survive the demands of such intense proximity or a discrepancy in ambition.
Since that point, they have had very little contact with each other, both proceeding independently with their own artistic career.
Marina returned to independent work and making it both solo as well as with artistic collaborators. In this period, she worked increasingly with video and sculpture; Transitory Objects for Human and Non-Human Use, which comprise objects meant to incite audience interaction and participation.
Blood and Bones
During the 1990s as a respectable performance artist Marina Abramovic taught at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin, as well as Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Hamburg and at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Braunschweig in Germany.
In 1997, Abramovic was invited to represent Serbia and Montenegro at the Yugoslavian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. But, she broke off the collaboration after a conflict with the Montenegrin minister of culture. However, the performance piece Balkan Baroque was shown instead at the Italian pavilion, where it caused a stir.
She was awarded the Golden Lion prize for Best Artist of the Biennale.
The Balkan Baroque piece was created in response to the innumerable deaths that had taken place in the former Yugoslavia. In this performance, Marina spent four days, six hours a day, sitting on top of 1,500 cow bones in a white dress, washing each of these bloody bones, surrounded by projected images of her parents and herself.
The accompanying sound included her recorded description of methods used in Balkans for killing rats and her singing of her native folksongs. The performance progression was made visceral due to the fetid smell and unbearable heat of the basement room.
For the artist, it was not enough to simply recount the number of people lost in modern-day wars in Balkans. She aimed to remember the lives, hopes and efforts of individuals killed by carefully touching and cleaning ‘their’ physical blood and bones.
The comparison between the inability to scrub all the blood and the inability to erase the shame of was is a concept that Abramovic viewed as having universal reach.
Butcher Knives Ladder
In the early 1970s, while many artists made very little effort to capture, or document, their performances on video. They felt that the true performance could never be repeated.Marina Abramovic has since argued for the importance of continuing the life of performance art works through re-performance; the only real way to document a performance art piece is to re-perform the piece itself.
In 2002, in The House with the Ocean View, Abramovic spent twelve days in the Sean Kelly Gallery without speaking, eating and writing. Contained within three so called rooms built six feet off the ground, she slept, urinated, drank water, showered and gazed at the spectators wearing a differently colored outfit each day.
She could walk between the rooms, but the ladders leading to the floor had rungs made of butcher knives. In this performance, Marina ritualized the activities of daily life, focusing on the self and simplicity while eliminating all aspects of dialogue and narrative.
She stated that she saw this piece as an act of purification- for her, but also for any viewer who entered the space. Additionally, the piece was a shift from the masochism of her earlier works to performances that focus on ideas of presence and interaction, although there is still the element of danger (present in the butcher knives ladder).
One of the key figures of performance art, Marina Abramovic was part of the earliest experiments in this media, and nowadays, she is one of the few pioneers of the generation still creating and working in this field.
She has been, and continues to be, an essential influence for performance artists and contemporary art in general, making work over the last several decades, especially for works that challenge the mind and the limits of the body.
Abramovic’s feminism has always been a mythical rather than a political; her confrontation with the physical and self and the primary role given to the body, a female body have helped shape the direction of Feminist art in the second half of the 20th century, especially in the 1990’s.
In 2010 the MoMa in New York City held a wide-ranging retrospective of Abramovic’s work, The Artist is Present. From opening time to closing, eight to ten hours a day, and for seventy-seven days, she sat immobile at a bare wooden table, gazing into space. Members of the audience participated by sitting in a chair opposite Abramovic’s; her intention was emotional connection with anyone who wanted to look at her however long.
It was an experiment that had never been tried before; The Artist is Present is the longest durational work ever mounted in a museum.
In order to give new life to older performance work, both, hers and the works of others artists, Abramovic create the Marina Abramovic Institute for Preservation of Performance Art, opened in 2012, in Hudson, New York.
As a non-profit organization, the Institute supports teaching, preserving and founding performance art, ensuring legacy for performance art and for the ephemeral art itself.