Marina Abramović: What Artist Must Be

Jamie Lew

Writer’s Comment: The hardest thing for me to overcome as an individual pursuing the title of “artist’’ is that there is very little to be said about the art of our present day—art that is being created by artists who are living, breathing, and struggling to pay their rent. In truth, it’s a lot easier to identify the revolutionary artists from the deranged weirdos after they have died and they can be looked upon from the perspective of fifty years later. The performance artist Marina Abramović is sixty-four (living, breathing, but probably not struggling to pay her rent anymore) and it has taken nearly forty years for her to get half the recognition she deserves and yet many still do not understand her work. She is thus the perfect topic for a UWP 102J research paper. At a certain point, this paper stopped being a class assignment and instead became my personal responsibility as a fellow artist, making it both the hardest and most significant paper I’ve ever written. This is my hope for the reader: to see beyond the “weird” and “crazy” of Marina Abramović and to see her instead as I do—one of the most significant artists of our time.

Instructor’s Comment: For UWP 102J, Writing in the Disciplines: Fine Arts, I assign a research paper (developed by my colleague, Janet Papale) that asks students to analyze an artist or artistic movement of special interest to them and show why the subject is significant—and why, ultimately, readers should care. Jamie takes us on a memorable journey through the major works of an unusual artist, skillfully interweaving description, insightful analysis, interpretation, and informative critical response to create a penetrating portrait that extends and enriches our understanding of art and performance art. Jamie’s precise, vivid style and lively topics engaged her classmates throughout the quarter. (Who knew that Lady Gaga’s performances can be linked to the traditions of 19th century German opera?) Now readers beyond our classroom can enjoy and learn from Jamie’s work.
—Cynthia Bates, University Writing Program

Marina Abramović has been brushing her hair for one hour. She holds a comb in one hand and a brush in the other, methodically untangling and tangling again her long, dark hair. Her stare is blank, a small wince at each knot. The scene is silent except for the sweeping strokes of brush upon hair, the simultaneous grazing across the scalp and the infinitely small noise of hair follicles breaking in two. Suddenly, she breaks her silence and declares in accented English, “Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful” (Biesenbach et al. 80). Marina Abramović, with her tangled hair and bleeding scalp, is a true artist; she performs in loyal servitude for her audience, and she bears the pain and solitude that they cannot.

Art Must be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful (1975) is one of Marina Abramović’s most memorable performances. The self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art” was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1946. She was born into the conflict and ideological polarities of World War II and grew up amongst both new ideas of freedom and the rigid, military expectations of her Partisan parents. Abramović began her studies in art at a young age and eventually attended Belgrade’s Academy of Fine Arts. In her late twenties, she became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of her oil paints and canvas and began experimenting in new art media. Abramović soon came to the realization that art could be made out of anything—even her own body—and thus began her career as a performance artist, determined to push herself to the physical and mental limits through a long-durational and challengingly self-mutilating art form (Biesenbach et al.).

Over the four decades of her career, Abramović’s performances have ranged from dramatic and frenzied to minimalistic and pensive. Her earliest works, entitled the Rhythm series, were performed for small gallery audiences. During these years, Abramović performed with the desire to rebel against her childhood restrictions and to free herself from limits. She intentionally stabbed and restabbed her own fingers in Rhythm 10, she lost consciousness in the center of a flaming star in Rhythm 5, and she consumed drugs and waited for their effects in Rhythm 2 (Biesenbach et al.). Her performances reflected her inner turmoil as a young, self-proclaimed artist. 

It is easy to forget the presence of the audience when describing Abramović’s earliest works. In contrast to her later performances, the Rhythm series has the air of an artist’s self-indulgence. The viewer could only assume that the performances were perversely liberating for Abramović, but no one could know for sure because it was always her pain, her body, and her liberation. But what could be gained from simple observation of Abramović’s performances? Could the audience experience liberation through Abramović’s art? Art critic James Westcott is doubtful. “It’s impossible to disentangle the narcissism from the public service in her work,” he states, “the diva from the high priestess” (Westcott, “I Have to be Like a Mountain”). 

In the majority of her Rhythm performances, Abramović needed the audience more than the audience needed her, and in this sense, Westcott is correct to describe her art as narcissistic. Nevertheless, these early performances are an essential chapter of Abramović’s work: before she could liberate her audience, the young Abramović needed the audience to liberate her. “In normal life,” she would later explain, “if I cut myself I cry like a baby because I’m totally emotional and vulnerable, and I don’t like pain. [But in a performance] the pain is not an issue” (Kennedy). The Rhythm series freed Abramović from her fears of pain, death, and the uncontrollable, but it is unlikely that the original viewers gained anything significant in return. 

Consider, however, Abramović’s performance of Rhythm 0, in which the audience assumed the active role and Abramović became the passive participant. Originally performed in 1974 in the Studio Morra of Naples, Italy, Rhythm 0 is one of Abramović’s most well known works. Seventy-two objects “for pain and pleasure” were set upon a table at the start of the performance. Over the duration of six hours, the audience members were allowed to utilize any of the objects upon Abramović’s body. Her original description of the work was simple: “I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility” (Biesenbach et al. 74).

Among the assortment of objects were a rose, a feather, red paint, a kitchen knife, and a gun with a single bullet. Initially, the audience responded to their unexpected authority with shy hesitancy and playfulness, painting and decorating Abramović’s body with the various objects. As the performance continued on, however, the audience’s intentions darkened into torture and violation. Soon, the audience had torn off her clothes and blood ran from a cut on her naked neck. One man brought a lit match to Abramović’s skin while another laid her upon the table and drove a knife between her spread-out legs. Finally, an audience member quietly picked up the gun, loaded the bullet, and held it to Abramović’s temple (Kennedy).

“This was the only performance where I was really ready to die,” Marina recalled in a 2005 interview with The New York Times. Before the trigger could be pulled, the gallery officials interrupted the performance, confiscated the gun, and a fight broke out amongst the officials and the audience members. After the scheduled six hours, the performance came to an end and Abramović finally reanimated her freshly defiled body. In that moment, the audience literally ran out of the gallery, fearful and ashamed of the acts that they had collectively committed (Biesenbach et al.).

The audience members had total control over the performance of Rhythm 0. Abramović’s passive instructions transformed her stoic body into a blank canvas for the audience to project their darkest desires with the insistence that they need not feel guilt. In this way, Abramović freed her audience of responsibility, and she alone walked away with the physical and emotional scars of the last six hours. Despite Abramović’s lack of authority in the performance, she was the only artist in the room.

Over the next three decades, Abramović continued to explore the limits of her art through solo and collaborative works. By 2002, Abramović was ready to bear the pain of her audience through a long-durational work entitled The House with an Ocean View. Performed in New York’s Sean Kelly Gallery only a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, Abramović dedicated twelve days of time to her audience of New Yorkers. Abramović did not leave the gallery space for the span of the performance, clocking 186 hours of recording time (during which the gallery was open to the public) and a total of 372 hours (including nights) (Biesenbach et al. 180). 

According to a description by theater critic Peggy Phelan, Abramović’s performance space consisted of three stages suspended six feet from the floor. Upon the first stage was a toilet and shower, upon the second was a wooden table and chair, and upon the third was a wooden sleeping platform. Ladders with butcher-knife rungs were propped against the front ledge of each stage and Abramović was the sole inhabitant, appearing in a different colored uniform for each day of her performance. During these twelve days, Abramović did not allow herself to eat, read, or speak. She faced an audience during the day and an empty gallery during the night (574).

Visitors to Abramović’s performance had mixed reactions. One local artist, Nina Meledandri, visited Abramović’s three stages everyday of her performance—sometimes sitting against a wall to sketch and sometimes wordlessly contemplating the exposed existence of Abramović (Westcott, “The House,” 130). For audience members like Meledandri, Abramović’s performance became their own. The “nothingness” of the performance became the central focus that allowed the audience to project their own energies and mentally join Abramović upon her three stages. The audience could interpret the performance so that it became relevant to their current lives; a local artist’s interpretation of Abramović’s performance was as definitive as that of a professional art critic’s.

Abramović’s absolute refusal to do anything beyond basic survival within these twelve days did, however, frustrate several audience members more accustomed to the twenty-first century lifestyle of constant productivity and work. One audience member remarked, “I’m all into people pushing the limits, but if [Abramović] really wants to push the limits, why doesn’t she get a job cleaning the toilets […] for twelve days?” (Westcott, “The House,” 136). According to Abramović, such work would be a distraction from the present. “I don’t want an audience to spend time with me looking at my work,” she would later explain, “I want them to be with me and forget about time [and] open up […] that moment of here and now, of nothing, there is no future and there is no past. In that way you can extend eternity. It is about being present” (Biesenbach et al. 211).

At the conclusion of The House with an Ocean View, Abramović stated the purpose of her performance: “In a city that has no time I wanted to create an island of time” (Phelan 576). Abramović believed that in the months following the 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers had collectively avoided dwelling upon the pain of their everyday lives and had instead busied themselves on both the imagined future and the idealized distant past. Her audience did not seem to have the strength to experience the present. The reality of the present—the fear, the mourning of death, and the new era of “the war against terror,” seemed too tremendous for most New Yorkers to bear.

In her performance of The House with an Ocean View, Abramović once again took up all responsibility and bore the pain of her entire audience. In doing nothing, Abramović could not distract herself from the present. She alone experienced the twelve days of fasting and performing, but every member of the audience was invited to make that experience their own. By witnessing Abramović and her simple everyday rituals, the audience could forget their fears and pain and could finally be in the present again. In the time spent with Abramović, the audience was free.

In the spring of 2010, the New York Museum of Modern Art honored Abramović’s contributions with a retrospective of her work. In addition to recreations of past performances, the exhibit also featured Abramović performing her newest work entitled The Artist is Present. The performance would be Abramović’s longest yet, ultimately clocking in at 736,030 minutes of performance time between March 14th and May 31st of 2010. In the atrium of the museum, Abramović began the performance sitting at a table, her unwavering gaze fixed on an unoccupied second chair. As the museum doors opened to the public, visitors were invited to sit in the second chair and become a part of the performance themselves (Cotter, “Performance Art”).

By this time, Abramović had gained a loyal following. Every day that she performed, visitors hoping for a chance to sit in the chair waited in a line that stretched across the museum’s atrium, its length and speed changing with the ebb and flow of visitors. Individuals could sit in the chair as little or as long as they wanted—from three short minutes, to six long hours, to anything in-between and beyond—and were challenged to meet Abramović’s wordlessly attentive eyes. Abramović was the only constant of the performance, always arriving with her hair braided into a long plait and wearing a grand concert dress of one of three colors (red, blue, or white). Day after day, she silently sat with slightly stooped shoulders as visitors politely fought for the chair in front of her. In order to preserve the mindset of the performance, Abramović did not speak—even outside of museum walls—during the duration of the two-and-a-half month long exhibition (Cotter, “700-Hour Silent Opera”).

Holland Cotter, New York Times art critic, remarked that the performance and the resulting endless cue of Marina admirers degraded Abramović from an artist to nothing more than a self-indulgent celebrity. He asserts, “Ms. Abramović, with her extravagant costume, her bent shoulders and her mournful gaze, is the prima donna. Visitors are cast as rapt audience, commenting chorus, supporting soloists” (“700-Hour Silent Opera”).

Contrary to Cotter’s observations and despite the mesmerizing power of Abramović’s presence, the emotional response of the estimated 1,545 audience participants and 700,000 additional onlookers was not to be overlooked (Yablonsky). No two individuals who met Abramović’s eyes from the opposite chair had the same reaction. Heads sometimes tilted to the side, expressions softened into shy smiles, and tears rolled down cheeks and into mustaches, yet almost every silent dialogue exchanged between Abramović and the strangers who sat before her appeared unique and uniquely poignant. No visitor was told to expect anything more from Abramović than her wordless gaze, and yet day after day, they would come back to the atrium of the museum. The visitors were not “cast” as the audience: they could not help themselves.

In truth, we need Marina Abramović. We need a prima donna. Abramović does everything that we believe we cannot do ourselves. In a recent interview with PBS, Abramović explains, “My purpose [as a] performance artist is to stage certain difficulties […] and tell the audience, I’m your mirror; if I can do this in my life, you can do it in yours.” Through performance, Abramović had originally sought to escape the limits of her regimented childhood in Belgrade. When she first performed in the 1970s, the audience gave her the initial strength to find liberation, a hurdle she had not been able to overcome by herself. Nearly four decades later, the Abramović who performed in the atrium of the New York MoMA was a perfect reflection of the audience member who sat before her—but the roles had been reversed. This time, the audience needed Abramović to find liberation. Art was no longer Abramović’s profession; it had become her duty in repaying society, a responsibility that she bears to this very day as she continues to perform around the world. 

In many ways, Abramović never ended her performances of Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful and Rhythm 0; at the heart of everything she’s done, she is still the object in the hands of an unpredictable audience. After more than forty years, Marina Abramović has added nothing more than a clarification to her mantra: Artist must be beautiful. Artist must be present.

Abramović, Marina. “Conversation: Marina Abramovic.” Interview by Jeffrey Brown. Web log post. Art Beat. PBS NewsHour, 8 Apr. 2011. Web. 23 May 2011.

Biesenbach, Klaus, Marina Abramovic, Arthur Danto, and Chrissie Iles. Marina Abramovic; The Artist Is Present. Museum of Modern Art, 2010. Print & Audio.

Cotter, Holland. “700-Hour Silent Opera Reaches Finale at MoMA.” The New York Times. 31 May 2010. Web. 21 May 2011. 

—. “Performance Art Preserved, in the Flesh.” The New York Times. 11 Mar. 2010. Web. 21 May 2011. 

Kennedy, Randy. “Self-Mutilation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery.” The New York Times. 6 Nov. 2005. Web. 21 May 2011. 

Phelan, Peggy. “Marina Abramović: Witnessing Shadows.” Theatre Journal 56.4 (2004): 569-77. JSTOR. Web. 21 May 2011. 

Westcott, James. “Artist Mrina Abramovic: ‘I Have to Be like a Mountain.’” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 19 Mar. 2010. Web. 21 May 2011. 

—. “Marina Abramovic’s ‘The House with the Ocean View’: The View of the House from Some Drops in the Ocean.” The Drama Review 47.3 (2003): 129-36. JSTOR. Web. 21 May 2011. 

Yablonsky, Linda. “Marina the Magnificent.” The New York Times Style Magazine. The New York Times Company, 2 June 2010. Web. 20 July 2011.