Performance art usually refers to a kind of conceptual art that conveys content-based meaning in a greatly drama-related sense, as opposed to being a simple performance meant for mere entertainment purposes. To a greater extent, it is that performance to an audience which usually does not simply seek to present a formal linear narrative or conventional theoretical play. In addition, its aim is not to just depict fictitious characters in the context of formal scripted interactions. As such, it, therefore, includes actions or use of spoken work in communicating between artists and their audience. It does not necessarily use a script written beforehand, and audience expectations may be ignored sometimes. However, performance may still utilize a script or involve the creation of a dramatic setting that is fictional. With this understanding of what performance art entails, one might want to examine in detail the life and works of one of the most outstanding artists in this field: Marina Abramovic. Why and how are her pieces of art perceived as performance art? It is against this backdrop that this paper proceeds to give a critical analysis of the renowned artist, rightly positing that truly, Marina is the grandmother of performance art.
Perhaps a better understanding of the person of Marina Abramovic would help give more insight as regards her career in this discipline. She was born to Vojo Abramovic and Danica Abramovic on November 30, 1946 in Belgrade, Serbia (Stokic 3). Her father, a commander in World War II, was honored as a national hero at the end of the conflict. Her mother, also one of the majors in the country army, later in 1960s became the Director of the Museum of the Revolution and Art, Belgrade. Her father left the family sometime in 1964, a development that left her mother in charge. She once described her mother’s style of leadership in the family as ‘military-style’; perhaps owing it to the fact that she never let her kids (Marina and her brother) depart from the house after 10:00 P.M. This was the norm till she was 29 years old. She had to adhere to this regulation even in her earlier performances in Yugoslavia. She later said she thought it was insane. She studied in Brigade at the Academy of Fine Arts from 1965 to 1970. Soon after, she proceeded to Zagreb where she pursued and finished her post-graduate studies in the same field. She later became a tutor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Novi Sad (1973-1975). It is during this period that she implemented some of her first solo performances. She was briefly married to Nesa Pariporic, a union that lasted five years. It ended in 1976 when she left Yugoslavia, moving to Amsterdam (Stokic 52).
Marina has been successfully active in her career for over three decades. Recently, she has begun referring to herself as the ‘the grandmother of performance art’, a title she perhaps deserves. Her work largely explores the relationship between audience and performer, possibilities of the mind, and limits of the body (Stiles et al. 15). Some of them include Rhythm 10 (1973), Rhythm 5 (1974), Rhythm 2 (1974), Rhythm 0 (1974), Seven Easy Pieces (2005), and The Artist is Present (2010). A few of these shall be discussed.
In her first performance, Rhythm 10, she explored elements of gesture and ritual (Stiles et al. 30). She made use of two tape recorders and twenty knives to play the ‘Russian game’. The game involves the aiming of rhythmic knife jabs between one’s splayed fingers (of one hand). Recording the operation, she would cut herself, each time picking a different knife out of the row of twenty that she had set up. Being done with the twenty knives, thus, cutting herself an equivalent number of times, she played the tape again and listened to the sounds, each time attempting to repeat similar movements as before. She tried to repeat the mistakes, merging the present and past (Abramovic 11). In so doing, she sought to explore the mental and physical limitations of the body through the sound of the stabbing and the accompanying pain, and the replication and double sounds from the memory aided by the recording. She began to consider the performer’s state of consciousness through this piece. In her own words, “Once one enters the performance state, they can push their bodies to do things they could never do under normal circumstances” (Abramovic & Adelina 100).
Her daring performance spirit was further revealed in her other performance, Rhythm 5. In this piece, she sought to bring out the energy of extremely intense bodily pain. Marina used a very big petroleum-drenched star which she lit as the performance commenced. Positioning herself outside the star, she cut her toenails, fingernails, and hair. She then proceeded to throw the clippings into the fire, each time producing a burst of light. Marina depicted mental and physical purification by burning the five-pointed star of communism. Through the same act, she was able to address political traditions that had dominated her past (Abramovic 67). She then proceeded to perform her final act of purification by leaping across the flames and squarely propelling herself forward to the central part of the star. Once inside the star, she lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen, something that was not immediately realized by the audience due to the smoke and light emitted by the fire. Luckily, part of the audience realized something was amiss when flames came too close to her, and she did not move. That was when the audience, among them a doctor, intervened and saved Marina. Later Abramovic said she had been very angry since she understood the body had its physical limit. When it is exceeded, she said, one loses consciousness and, therefore, cannot perform (Abramovic & Bulgari 19).
Her most recent performance, The Artist Is Present, was at the Museum of Modern Art when the largest exhibition in the Museum’s history was organized. Marina’s performance was a 736- and half an hour static and silent session in which she sat motionless in the museum. Spectators were invited to sit opposite her in turns (Abramovic & Biesenbach 4). Portraits of all the people who sat opposite her were taken. Later, Marina said the piece changed her life completely. She said her popularity got a major boost since many people, especially of the younger generation, went to the museum just because of Lady Gaga, who was in attendance too (Anelli & Abramovic).