By Eunice Cho
Born November 30, 1946 in Belgrade, Serbia, Marina Abramovic was raised in a very political household. Both of her parents were Partisans during WWII: her father was considered a national hero for his work as a prominent commander, while her mother was an army major and member of the Communist Party. However, her childhood was extremely rocky–her parents often fought, and when Abramovic was 18, her father abandoned the family, resulting in an intensified militaristic, physically abusive and oppressive upbringing by her mother (“I was not allowed to leave the house after 10 o’clock at night till I was 29 years old. … [A]ll the performances in Yugoslavia I did before 10 o’clock in the evening because I had to be home then,” Abramovic has said. “… all of my cutting myself, whipping myself, burning myself, almost losing my life in the firestar, everything was done before 10 in the evening.”).
However, as shown, Abramovic continued to be productive, studying and teaching art in Belgrade in addition to having her own solo performances. She had a five-year marriage with Serbian artist Nesa Paripovic, which ended the same year she moved to Amsterdam, at the age of 30. There, she met German artist “Ulay” Laysiepen, whom she collaborated and had a close relationship with for 12 years (before literally separating in their The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk performance). In 2010, MoMa held a retrospective for her (America’s first large-scale retrospective on a performance artist), which included her famous The Artist Is Present piece. She is currently 67 years old, and continues to do performance art pieces.
Conceptual Art was a movement which emerged in the mid-1960s that focused on the idea that all art is conceptual, going further to say that other standards which were usually used for judging art–such as aesthetics, technique etc–were irrelevant. As such, conceptual artists often “dematerialized” their art, eliminating any materials which were unnecessary in driving forward the artwork’s concept. However, they were different from minimalists in that they didn’t follow any artistic rules or design standards such as balance and use of color.
Whether performances or essays, conceptual art pieces came in many forms, but all were dependent on the presence of an audience. This is because the viewer was also part of the art (perhaps even the subject itself, such as in some of Abramovic’s pieces) in that their interactions and thoughts were necessary in bringing to life the concept inherent within the piece of art.
Style, Subject Matter, Technique & Their Influences:
“The public is in need of experiences that are not just voyeuristic. Our society is in a mess of losing its spiritual center. The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, and to elevate the mind”
Abramovic uses her own body as a medium in often radical ways for her performance art. Because most of her pieces are interactive, she is often both the subject and object of her pieces, many of which explore the ideas of suffering, endurance, transcendence, daily living and human nature through the juxtaposition of calm, “daily-life”, ritualistic actions with gruesome and unthinkable violent acts.
A large part of her art lies in the audience members’ (often the general public) role as constructive and active participants in her piece. This is often a test of endurance for the audience as well, since her performances tend to be very long. Her work, which often makes cultural and political statements, tends to be fairly simple in set-up, concept and execution. There are never a huge number of props or complicated steps (essentially any adult could do it, if s/he had the courage), so everything she does has a purpose and is essential in the meaning of her performance.
Future Piece! –> 512 Hours (upcoming: June 11- Aug 25)– From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 6 days a week for more than a month, Abramovic will wander around the Serpentine Gallery (located in London) in her unscripted/unplanned performance. The public can visit, provided that they leave most of their personal items at the door (ie: jackets, cameras, electronics, watches, bags etc). As with many of her other performances, this requires intense physical and mental endurance. And unlike her Artist is Present piece, she doesn’t even have a chair to sit on or props like the table.
Said Abramovic of the upcoming piece: “It’s the public and me and nothing else. I took the objects away. But the encounter…I’ve never done anything as radical as this. This is as immaterial as you can go.”
Compared Artist (21st Century):
Lady Gaga–American pop singer and song-writer, in addition to activist, fashion designer, philanthropist etc.
SMSX Performance vs. The Lips of Thomas
SMSX performance (March 13, 2014 in Austin, Texas)–as a part of one of Gaga’s performances, London performance artist Millie Brown vomited paint on her. This received a lot of outcry from the general public, who attacked it as glamorizing bulimia.
Said Gaga in response: “For us, that performance was art in its purest form. But we totally understand that some people won’t be into it.”
The Lips of Thomas (1975, repeated in 1993 and 2005)– Abramovic slowly ate 1 kilo of honey, then drank 1 kilo of red wine. Then she carved a communist star into her abdomen with a razor blade, after which she lay on a huge block of ice. While the backside of her body froze, a heater was above her, heating her stomach and making it bleed more. After she lay for 30 minutes in the 1975 performance, the audience members couldn’t take it anymore and had to carry her off of the ice blocks.
Like many of her other pieces, this involved some form of self-harm which gradually increased in intensity (in this case, the over-eating and drinking escalated to cutting). The Lips of Thomas also centered around many ritualistic actions and religious allusions, such as the wine-drinking. The violent, political element–which was common in her early career as a young, still relatively unknown artist performing on the streets–combined with the religious (and also violent) imagery provides an interesting and thought-provoking sociopolitical commentary.
–I think if people viewed Lady Gaga as a real performance artist with a purely conceptual goal (instead of as opposed to a pop singer who simply wants to do strange things and who earns a lot of money off of shock value), the outcry against “glamorizing bulimia” would not have been as intense. Because, after all, with Abramovic’s The Lips of Thomas, few people claim she was “glamorizing” binge-eating disorder or cutting, which she of course wasn’t.–
–Both pieces use performance to play out and interpret concepts of life, and involve a kind of self-transformation on stage.–
“Everything in my childhood is about total sacrifice, whether to religion or to communism. This is what is engraved on me. This is why I have this insane willpower. My body is now beginning to be falling apart, but I will do it to the end. I don’t care. With me it is about whatever it takes.”
Although I would not watch most Abramovic performances (unless it is like The Artist is Present) because their often self-harming elements are too disturbing to watch for me, I really respect her dedication to her art. Each of her pieces involves a lot of thought and planning, but is not “stale” or fixed due to the inherent nature of live performance. Even when she repeats the same performance, it creates a different environment and sparks different emotions, ideas and current event connections depending on the time (ex: 1970s vs. now) and on the audience. Her art truly makes the viewer confront the important and relevant ideas of pain, suffering and what it means to be human–ideas which many of us have the luxury of tucking away in the back of our minds. For her, life is art and vice versa, and she helps us see that too.
(She has also made me relook at other performers, such as Lady Gaga, who I thought often did strange things simply for their shock value. Now if Lady Gaga does something weird, I will take the time to think about what she may have intended to accomplish through her performance/costume instead of simply brushing it off).
Brockes, Emma. “Performance artist Marina Abramovic: ‘I was ready to die.'” The Guardian. Last modified May 12, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/12/
“Marina Abramovic: 512 Hours.” Serpentine Galleries.http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/marina-abramovi%C4%87-512-hours.
“Lady calls vomit-based SXSW performance ‘art in its purest form.'” NME. Last
modified March 22, 2014. http://www.nme.com/news/lady-gaga/76259.
Wikimedia Foundation. “Marina Abramovic.” Wikipedia. Last modified May 7, 2014.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marina_Abramovic.
O’Hagan, Sean. “Interview: Marina Abramovic.” The Guardian. Last modified
October 2, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/oct/03/interview-marina-abramovic-performance-artist.
“The Artist Was Here.” http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/arts/artist-was-here.
Levy, Glen. “Did Lady Gaga Really Stay Inside the Egg for 72 Hours?” Time. Last
modified February 16, 2011. http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/02/16/
Art Story Foundation. “Marina Abramovic.” The Art Story. Last modified 2014.http://m.theartstory.org/artist-abramovic-marina.htm.
Kaufman, Gil. “Lady Gaga Talks VMA Meat Suit With Ellen DeGeneres.” MTV. Last
modified September 3, 2010. http://www.mtv.com/news/1647701/