Marina Abramović, a trailblazer of visual art performance, has fearlessly utilized her own body as both the subject and medium of her acts. Her performances have been an exploration of physical, mental, and emotional boundaries, often pushing these limits to their very edge.
Marina Abramović, 2012
Born on November 30, 1946, in Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Marina Abramović was raised by parents who actively fought as Partisans during World War II and later served in the communist government. Her initial pursuit of painting eventually led to a deep interest in performance art.
In her early piece, Rhythm 0 (1974), Abramović asked the audience to interact with her freely. She stood in a room with a table holding 72 objects, some harmless, some harmful, with a sign saying, “I am the object,” and, “During this period, I take full responsibility.”
The audience could use these objects on her as they wished. Surprisingly, some went to extreme lengths, like holding a loaded gun to her head.
What I learned was that…if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.
Two years later, Abramović crossed paths with Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), sparking a profound connection that lasted 12 years. This legendary couple embarked on a pioneering artistic journey as a duo, examining their affection for each other and the intricate interplay between mind and body.
In their compelling piece Rest Energy (1980), Abramović and Ulay were standing face to face, wielding a bow and arrow, supported solely by the weight of their bodies. As Abramović pulled back on the bow, Ulay held the arrow, its tip aimed directly at her heart. This evocative performance was an exploration of tension, balance, and trust, revealing the delicate fragility inherent in life’s existence.
Rest Energy, 1980; Dublin, Ireland
As their relationship deteriorated, Abramović and Ulay reached a critical juncture in 1988. To symbolize the end of their union, they undertake a poignant journey: a walk across the vast expanse of the Great Wall of China. Initially, their plan involved meeting in the middle and sealing their bond with marriage, but life had other plans.
Setting out from opposite ends, they tirelessly walked 3,725 miles (5,995 kilometers) toward one another. Finally, after 90 days of trekking, they met only to bid farewell.
Throughout her career, Abramović has consistently embraced works challenging her endurance, and The House with the Ocean View (2002) is a prime example. In this piece, she spent 12 days inside the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, residing within three elevated “rooms” suspended six feet above the ground.
During these days, Abramović refrained from eating or speaking, only engaging in essential activities like sleeping, drinking water, urinating, showering, and gazing out at the viewers each day. While she could move between the rooms, the stairs leading down were constructed with rungs made of butcher knives. With this performance, Abramović made a statement of dedication, vulnerability, and intimacy. It transcended time, creating a space focused solely on the present moment and pure presence.
The hardest thing is to do something which is close to nothing because it is demanding all of you.
In 2010, at MoMA, Abramović undertook her most famous and extended performance, The Artist Is Present. She sat silently at a wooden table, facing an empty chair, waiting for people to take turns sitting across from her and locking eyes. Remarkably, for nearly three months, seven hours a day, she remained motionless and met the gaze of a thousand strangers, moving many of them to tears.
However, the most unforgettable moment came when Ulay unexpectedly arrived to participate in the performance. The two hadn’t spoken for 20 years. According to Abramović, the piece aimed to showcase the human longing for genuine connection and contact with others.
Today, at 76, Marina Abramović resides and works in New York. Her passion for performance art endures as she imparts her principles through workshops at art galleries and her organizations. Most notably, she founded the Marina Abramović Institute, a hub for further exploration and advancement of performance art.
Words of wisdom
“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” ―Pablo Picasso
“A single day is enough to make us a little larger or, another time, a little smaller.” ―Paul Klee
“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.” ―Émile Zola
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” ―Edgar Degas