The following is the first of a two-part series.
Marina Abramovic is arguably the most celebrated contemporary artist in the world. She works in performance art that is currently regarded as the most avant-garde form of art. Abramovic, who is now 74, has once dubbed herself in jest as “the grandmother of performance art.” The name has stuck and is currently widely used to introduce Abramovic’s numerous shows and talks.
In the course of her long and productive career, Abramovic directed and staged numerous performances that she presented in some of the most prestigious cultural institutions. Her shows at the MOMA, the Guggenheim Museum, the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Oxford University, and other prominent venues attracted a lot of attention.
The performance “The Artist is Present” went for three grueling months at the MOMA and had over 850,000 visitors who waited patiently in line to take part in the performance. Abramovic is a recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale for “Balkan Baroque” in which Abramovic scrubbed raw animal bones for hours despite the terrible stench that came from the pile.
These achievements hardly exhaust the list of Abramovic’s accomplishments. She wrote books, including her acclaimed autobiography, presented numerous talks, made films, and did much else. She has created her own method of performance art practice that is now studied in some of the most prestigious educational art institutions in the world and that she continues to develop.
As a famous artist, Abramovic rubs shoulders with prominent artists, politician, and cultural icons. The circle of her friends and acquaintances includes the likes of Susan Sontag, Yoko Ono, Chris Burden, Valery Export, and others. She is on friendly relations with Tony and John Podesta, a prominent liberal lobbyist and Clinton campaign manager. Abramovic inspired Jay Z, who was so impressed by “The Artist Is Present” that he staged his own much shorter six-hour gallery performance focused on his song “Picasso Baby.”4 She has collaborated with Lady Gaga, who credits Abramovic for helping her stop smoking, and with Deborah Harry.
Works of art in many ways reflect artists’ approach toward art practice. Although true for any art form, this is particularly true in the case of performance art where practice is the very essence of the work it produces. Art practice reflects the philosophy of art to which the artist subscribed. Therefore, a brief overview of Abramovic’s philosophy of art is in order.
The view that art is about liberation is central to Abramovic’s philosophy. In her view, true art has a liberating function. Its task is to interrogate and question the boundaries that circumscribe the life of society. It should challenge and transcend the accepted values, norms, tastes, and modes of behavior. Liberation is the direct result of such transcendence.
For Abramovic, true art evokes a direct emotional response; it produces a jolt of energy. This response constitutes, according to Abramovic, the essence of an authentic aesthetic experience. Performance art, Abramovic contends, occupies a special place in the world of art. More than any other form of art, performance pieces generate aesthetic experience for all involved in their production because it allows generating aesthetic experience simultaneously in the viewer and in the artist who both equally participate and collaborate in producing the work of art.
As Abramovic makes clear, emotional response is critical for the work of art. The more intense the emotional response is, the more powerful is the aesthetic experience generated by the work of art; and the more powerful this experience is, the better the work of art performs its function and the more authentic and transformative it is.
Abramovic and many other contemporary artists believe that transgression generates the most powerful emotional response. It violates accepted norms and values, thus ushering in disorder and instability. It is a profoundly disturbing experience that denies us a sense of control and security associated with this control. With transgression, we leave the safe ground of what is regarded as normal and acceptable. The forces unleashed by transgression threaten to destroy everything that we rely on to sustain our life and society.
They pose the imminent danger of death and destruction. We have no control over these forces that for this very reason frighten us; they make us feel extremely uncomfortable, and insecure. Suffering is an integral part of this experience.
It is precisely for this reason that Abramovic and other contemporary artists value transgression and use it widely in their practice. Their arsenal of devices to make the viewer feel uncomfortable is broad. It ranges from exposure of the intimate side that we usually try to keep private (nudity, sexuality, etc.) to exploiting vulnerability to the intrusive gaze of outsiders, to spectacles that involve extreme endurance, physical pain or a threat of pain, and even a possibility of death. Most of Abramovic’s performances played with expressive limits of pain. Her goal was to make audiences aware of her pain and bear witness to it.
Here are some examples that illustrate the kind of performances that Abramovic staged. In her 2010 performance of “The Artist is Present” at the MOMA, Abramovic spent a total of 736 hours sitting at a table and doing absolutely nothing, while visitors to her event took turns in sitting across from her and looking her straight in her eyes.
The long duration of this performance was a real test of Abramovic’s endurance and stamina. Suffering was integral to it. For her other performance “Thomas Lips” (1975) Abramovic wrote the following script for what she would do during the performance:
I slowly eat 1 kilo of honey with a silver spoon.
I slowly drink one liter of red wine out of a crystal glass.
I break the class with my right hand.
I cut a five-pointed star on my stomach with a razor blade.
I violently whip myself until I no longer feel any pain.
I lay down a cross made of ice blocks. The heat of a suspended heater pointed at my stomach makes the cut star bleed.
In her performance entitled “Rhythm 0” (1974) Abramovic passively endured whatever members of the audience decided to do to her. For the entire six hours of that performance, visitors could use any of the 72 objects provided for them, some of which could cause pleasant experience (honey, a rose, feathers) and others could cause pain or even death (scalpels, a whip, a gun and a bullet).
Initially, the participants were restrained. However, gradually they became emboldened and began to cut off pieces of her clothing, mark, burn, and even cut her body. One man asked Abramovic to put a loaded gun to her head and then tried to force her to squeeze the trigger. She offered no resistance. It is quite possible that this performance could end tragically had it not been for the intervention of members of the audience who took away the gun.
As Abramovic later confessed, “This was the only performance where I was really ready to die.” When asked why she had taken such risk, Abramovic responded: “Art is a matter of life and death. This may be melodramatic, but it is also true.”
There was at least one other occasion (that was not planned) when Abramovic could have died as a result of her performance. In “Rhythm 5” (1974) Abramovic lay down inside a burning start. The fire was so powerful that it sucked all the oxygen from Abramovic’s lungs, which caused her to collapse. She escaped death but only narrowly as a member of the audience, realizing that something went wrong, pulled her out of fire.10
In her performance “Rhythm 10” Abramovic intentionally stabbed and re-stabbed her own fingers. During “Rhythm 2” she consumed large amounts of drugs and waited for their effects. At her 1997 Venice Biennale performance “Balkan Baroque,” for which she received the Golden Lion award, Abramovic scrubbed a malodorous mountain of bloody cow bones over a period of four days.
Abramovic is certainly not the only one who subscribes to this aesthetic theory and uses it in her practice. There are many others who use the same approach in their performance pieces, among them Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci, Yoko Ono, Ana Mendieta, Chris Burden, and others. In his 1973 performance Chris Burden, for example, staged a crucifixion by nailing his hands to the roof of a Volkswagen (the ”people’s car”).
Abramovic would later try, albeit unsuccessfully, to repeat this performance. David Blaine subjected himself to extreme mental and physical suffering by burying himself alive in a transparent coffin for a week or by encasing his body in a block of ice for 63 hours.
As these examples show, many contemporary performance artists seek to exploit sights of pain and suffering. They use them to produce the desired effect in their audiences; and the audiences are not unwilling. These sights of pain and suffering are what attracts audiences who derive aesthetic pleasure from such performances.
One point of clarification is in order. Some may feel tempted to conflate this theoretical perspective and practice with the real life of Abramovic and other practitioners of performance art. Abramovic is not a sadist or masochist. Indeed, she expresses some views that may appear ambivalent. For example, she claims that true art requires self- renunciation and the suppression of the self. The artist is merely a servant to the audience, she has argued. Abramovic has claimed in a 2016 Time magazine interview with Belinda Luscombe that she has always believed “that people don’t do anything really important from the state of happiness. Because happiness is to say that you don’t want to change.”
However, when questioned about her personal attitude to suffering, she made the following comment in the same interview:
Everybody suffers fear of pain, fear of suffering and mortality. But physical pain is almost like a door to secrets. The moment you understand how you can control the physical pain, then you stop having the fear. And this only happened to me if I used the energy of the public. In my own life, I don’t do any of this. I don’t like suffering. (74)
On another occasion, she offered this comment: “In normal life, 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.”
Thus, for many contemporary artists transgression and suffering play an extremely important role in a creative act. However, neither the artists nor critics offer a clear explanation of the connection that they claim exists between transgression that involves pain and suffering and transcendence.
They base their claim on what appears to be a superficial similarity between the two vaguely associated with crossing the boundary of what is socially acceptable. In other words, they tend to conflate transgression and transcendence. Sixto Castro, for example, emphasizes the role of transgression in art in his essay “The Transcendence of Transgression.” In his view, the process of creation starts with transgression—the denial of the norm. He writes:
This is one of the reasons why transgression in art is such an important topic for theorists: it is a constant effort to redefine the limits between what is considered sacred (and art has a decisive power on that) and what is profane (not sacred anymore or not yet).
Elsewhere Castro further elaborates on the connection between transgression, on one hand, and transcendence, on the other:
For this reason, among others, artists usually claim a special status in the moral space, as seen in controversies on the ethical nature of certain works of art, demanding for themselves a special space beyond good and evil.
Usually artists affirm that art is not governed by ordinary moral criteria since transgression and scandal are supposed to be part of the structure of this new way of searching for transcendence, just as it happens with mystical religions.
Indeed, on some very superficial level there is some similarity between transgression and transcendence in that both deal with the boundary. However, this similarity does not go very deep; it overlooks a very important difference between the two. Transcendence is not possible without creation and creation does not reject the existing forms. It subsumes and conserves them by integrating them into a new and broader frame where the old forms constitute a particular case of a new and more powerful level of organization.
Transcendence involves the creation of this new level of organization. In other words, there is a deep connection between transcendence and the act of creation. By contrast, transgression does not involve creation. Transgression denies and rejects what exists. Such rejection does not require the creation of a new and more powerful level of organization and usually takes the form of inversion. It uses inversion to negate existing forms (values, norms, etc.) and thus does not transcend them.
In contrast to transcendence, transgression does not have autonomy; it relies on existing forms because without them transgression has nothing to reject. A criminal act, for example, involves transgression of existing norms and values but it does not create anything new. The transgression of the existing values and norms by criminals does not turn them into creative artists.
Gennady Shkliarevsky if Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College. He is the author of Labor in the Russian Revolution: Factory Committees and Trade Unions, 1917-1918 (St Martin’s Press, 1993).