It “Made Me Cry”, the Radical Work of Marina Abramović

It “Made Me Cry”, the Radical Work of Marina Abramović

Marina Abramovic is one of the most celebrated performance artists alive. Abramovic has achieved notoriety beyond avant-garde circles, while remaining exceptionally true to performance art’s radical ethics.

Abramovic was born in 1946 in the former Yugoslavia. Her early pieces used body flagellation and life-threatening actions as ritualistic vehicles. “Rhythm O,” which took place in Naples in 1975, was the most taboo-shattering of her early works. For the piece, Abramovic placed on a table 72 pleasure and pain objects — ranging from honey, to a gun and a bullet — and encouraged the public to do as it pleased with her body. At first, the public was playful, but eventually people tore off most of her clothes, cut her skin and even engaged in mild sexual assault. At some point, a man took the loaded gun and pressed it hard against her temple. Years later, Abramovic described the performance as “Six Hours of Real Horror.”

In the mid-70s, Abramovic’s art took a different turn. She stopped putting her life at such risk. But, most importantly, in 1975 she met Frank Uwe Laysiepen, better known as Ulay. Both artists started a symbiotic artistic and personal relationship that lasted for over 12 years. They lived in a van and produced works that added cerebral and geometrical (or architectural) elements to Abramovic’s ritualistic concerns.

For 1977’s “Imponderabilia,” the two artists stood facing each other naked in a narrow museum entrance. To enter the museum, visitors had to turn sideways and choose to face, and rub up against, one of the artists. That same year, the couple performed “Relation in Movement,” for which they drove their van in counterclockwise circles for 16 hours, or 2,226 laps.

In 1988, Abramovic and Ulay ended their fruitful relationship with “The Lovers,” in which they walked from both ends of the Great Wall of China for 90 days (2,400 miles) met in the middle, hugged, and said good-bye.

After breaking up with Ulay, Abramovic went back to performing alone. Though her work remained ritualistic and, some might say, solipsistic, she was embraced by big art institutions. By the end of the 1990s, her oeuvre had grown to the degree that she started looking back both at her own history and that of performance art.

In 2005 she performed “Seven Easy Pieces.” Five of the seven pieces were recreations of earlier performances by other artists: Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane and Joseph Beuys. Performing someone else’s work was not normally done at the time. Abramovic argued that performance art was about live actions more than about photographs or written records, and that reenacting performances might be the best way to keep performances alive. In 2010, with the artist in her 60s, Abramovic had a career-long retrospective at MoMA. During this retrospective, younger artists reenacted some of her most celebrated pieces, including “Rhythm 0.”

Before the retrospective, Abramovic wondered if younger audiences would actually be interested in her work. “The Artist is Present,” a new piece in which she invited individuals to do nothing but sit across her, and silently establish eye contact, was performed as part of the retrospective. Scores of people, including many celebrities, sat in front of Abramovic. Many cried. Abramovic’s new work, though cool in execution, was compared to old religious art in the fervent reactions it brought out in people. “The Artist is Present” was less shocking than some of her earlier works, but no less challenging than anything she’d done in the ‘70s. The main difference was the amount of mainstream attention the work got — unmatched in the performance art world to date.

Written By Patricio Maya

Featured Series  Made Me Cry
Portraits taken during the MoMA’s exhibit of performance artist “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present”.
Abramović sits at a table in silence, and museum guests can sit across from her and stare.
Some people couldn’t handle the heat.

Portraits >

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