Studio  April 17, 2024  Megan D Robinson

Marina Abramović: Challenging Art Through The Use of Her Body

© Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović, Four Crosses: The Evil (positive), 2019 (detail). Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Often referred to as “the grandmother of performance art,” Marina Abramović, born in 1946, has spent her career taking risks to plumb the depths of the human psyche. A celebrated and controversial performance artist since the 1970s, Abramović brought this experimental art form into the mainstream with shockingly thought-provoking gallery shows, installations, and videos. Using her body as her medium, Abramović’s innovative explorations of mental and physical endurance and spiritual transformation shaped the trajectory of modern performance art. Her groundbreaking work influenced generations of artists across genres, received multiple accolades and awards, has been featured in documentaries, and even inspired a mockumentary. 

In a famous and disturbing six-hour long endurance piece, Rhythm 0, performed in Naples in 1974, Abramović exposed the violent impulses many people have towards the female form. Standing passively, Abramović invited audience members to use one of a number of objects—ranging from a rose, to a loaded gun—to interact with her body. Initially cautious and respectful, the audience became progressively more violent and invasive, slicing away her clothes, sexually harassing her, and threatening her with the gun.

© Ulay / Marina Abramović

Ulay / Marina Abramović, Rest Energy, 1980.  ROSC' 80, Dublin. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Her collaborations with longtime artistic and romantic partner, Ulay, born in 1943, caused an international sensation. Their innovative performances explored social expectations, gender roles, pain and mortality, female objectification, identity, non-verbal communication, and interpersonal connection. For their intimately confrontational 1977 piece, Imponderabilia, they stood naked at opposite sides of a doorway, forcing visitors to squeeze past them. In Rest Energy, a 1980 piece, Abramović and Ulay stood leaning away from each other, dressed in similar white and black outfits, balanced on opposite sides of a drawn bow. Abramović held the handle of the bow, while Ulay drew back the arrow, aimed at Abramović's heart. This reflected the mutual support and potential harm within a relationship, and catered to the societally-curated power dynamic in support of male violence.

Over time, their relationship became strained. After their breakup in 1988, Abramović continued to explore spirituality, political accountability, and the energy exchange between performer and audience through her solo work. 

In a protest piece against the ethnic cleansing and war in Bosnia, Abramović spent four days scrubbing thousands of bloody cow bones for the 1997 Venice Biennale. She won the Golden Lion award for this performance.

In Abramović's iconic 2005 piece, Nude with Skeleton, she lay naked on the floor with a skeleton on top of her, mirroring her position. This beautifully macabre piece draws attention to the bones that support our bodies, and to our mortality.

© Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović, Nude with Skeleton, 2005. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

In 2007, as a way to cultivate new kinds of performance art and to preserve historic pieces as a kind of living archive, Abramović founded the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI), a non-profit foundation for performance art.

Part of a major retrospective of Abramović's work in 2010— the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA's history—The Artist Is Present made Abramović a worldwide sensation. For a total of 736.5 hours, she sat silently at a table, inviting visitors to sit across from her, without touching or speaking. 1,545 sitters participated. As a fan of the show, Lady Gaga brought an entirely new audience to Abramović’s work. The pair collaborated on Gaga’s third album in 2013 and on some MAI pieces as well.

That year, Jay-Z also showcased an Abramović-inspired piece, adapting The Artist Is Present into a music performance that later turned into a music video. Jay-Z performed Picasso Baby for six hours, while inviting Abramović and other prominent artists to dance with him.

© Marina Abramović

Installation view, Marina Abramović, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2024. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

An exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam currently provides visitors with an immersive experience of Abramović’s work. Featuring over 60 key works, the retrospective spans five decades of her prolific career and contains performances presented in the Netherlands for the first time, including: ImponderabiliaLuminosityArt Must Be BeautifulArtist Must Be BeautifulCounting the Rice; and The House with the Ocean View, in addition to reprising Work Relation. Artists trained in the Abramović method will be performing at various times throughout the exhibition. 

Abramović has also been featured on Stedelijk's podcast, A Closer Look With. She was interviewed by Emma Harjadi Herman, Manager of Education and Inclusion, about her career, motivation, and the experiential aspect of her work.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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