Live art performances, marked by an overture of spirituality, consciousness, physical introductions to pain, drawn further on to include specific rituals, symbolisms, varied states of emotions brought by self-inflicted hurt and eventually, culminating in a wild display of frenzy and shocking images, are less likely to please the uninitiated audience than it will provoke a sense of awe and wonderment among performance art critics.
In a similar situation, Marina Abramovic’s attempts to upend the static discourses of physicality, mental states of mind and art that pervade current Western hegemony, understandably, can only be regarded in the extremes by people steeped firmly into formal traditions. Either her method of performance will elevate its spectators to a heightened degree of appreciation, therefore merit a thunderous welcome to a novel brand, sui generis, of art of our time at the end of each scene; or her gruesome didactics on the body’s threshold for pain, simply fails to pass muster.
Her performance practice, a risk more than anything else, certainly inspire debates on whether or not to set moral, perhaps even social limits to art in order to determine, in precise and concrete terms, at which point creativity and imaginative art themes and performances become either delightful to the senses or noxious to the sensitivities of the general public.
The idea of drawing the line along and between different shades of extremes, although already evinced clearly in the works of Marina Abramovic, seems to fit the consensus on the idea of censuring the bold and burlesque, stripping it off its material enunciation and expression to mitigate the horror and revulsion inherent in the exposition, or in the worst case, totally ignore it until the novel yet misunderstood facade fades from inattention.
However, thanks mainly to Marina Abramovic’s unwavering desire to reach her audience, despite the sometimes hostile reception during her performances itself, in ways that continually push the envelope of spectator tolerance, did she carry her work from the esoteric art circles to mainstream. To wit, in one of her collaborative performances with Ulay, entitled Incision (1978), while purposively eliciting reaction, probably direct participation, from their audience, one of the spectators primed the climactic resonance of the work by jumping into the stage to kick Marina Abramovic as she was lying prostate right in the middle of the act.
In her biographical work, she writes that although she expected the attack to happen any moment during the performance, she did not realize the immediacy and steeled resolution of that man who assailed her (Abramovic, 1998). Photographs of the show caught the man with a leg lifted, jumping into the air. “The next photograph shows Abramovic lying on the floor, and the man seems to be landing from a kicking action […] the audience’s interrogation manifested in a spontaneous physical attack (Tang, 2005).
Ethical and moral questions, as well as aesthetic controversies have been discussed quite animatedly as early as the 18th century. Philosophers, like David Hume, have started to addressed the tough issues about morality, art and taste—the chief concerns that pervaded his era. Cynthia Freeland, introducing the notions of Taste and Beauty, in a book about defining the slippery strands of art, writes that Hume and his contemporaries “would not have approved of blasphemy, immorality, sex, or the use of body fluids as appropriate in art” (Freeland 2001).
As a caveat to this general statement, it must be understood that even though 18th century consciousness all the way up to the present have not been too open in giving cognizance to art that smack of Marina Abramovic’s own brand of carnal art expressions, there are already extant cultural and social systems which places importance into shamanistic and ritualistic gestures. Among art critics and historians, some pursue a theory of art as ritual: “ordinary objects or acts acquire symbolic significance through incorporation into a shared belief system” (Freeland, 2001).
In the same vein, Freeland further digs deep in history to provide evidence in varied cultural rituals that depict blood and physical pain. She avers that “when a Mayan king shed blood before the multitude in Palenque by piercing his own penis and drawing a thin reed through it three times, he exhibited his shamanistic ability to contact the land of the undead” (2001). Other modern artists try to recreate a similar sense of art as ritual, just as much as Marina Abramovic has had for the last three decades.
Diamanda Galas, for instance, “fuses operatic wizardry, light shows and glistening blood in her Plague Mass” (2001), supposedly to exorcise pain in the era of Aids. Herman Nitsch, Viennese founder of the Orgies Mystery Theater, promises “catharsis through a combination of music, painting, wine-pressing, and ceremonial pouring of animal blood and entrails” (Nitsch, n. d. in Freeland, 2001). As it turns out, these very rituals are ingrained in Western traditions.
Illuminating examples of which are the amount of blood depicted in European’s, and verily much of the cultures in the modern world today, two main belief discourses: that of the Judeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman. By taking a cursory review of religious and classical texts of Western traditions, we are able to immediately uncover a plenitude of blood representations and ritualistic sacrifices. In the Old Testament, Yahweh is seen to require “sacrifices as parts of His covenant with the Hebrews” (Freeland, 2001).
Similarly, Agamemnon “faced a divine command to slit the throat of his own child […] the blood of Jesus is so sacred that it is symbolically drunk to this day by believing Christians as promising redemption and eternal life” (2001). Such myths and religious stories are rather germane to Western art. We read of Homeric heroes wining the favors of their gods and goddesses by sacrificing animals. Likewise, the tragedies of Lucan and Seneca “piled up more body parts than Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Sreet” (2001).
Not surprisingly, likewise, Renaissance paintings are never without a hint of blood draped at the canvassed in hard red-acrylic paint whilst Shakespeare’s tragedies typically concluded with swordplay and stabbings. The preceding examples of ritualistic performances which involves blood and sacrifices, death and disease, murder and trials, are very instructive with regards to our penchant for the macabre and the dreadful. It is in these premises that Marina Abramovic draws much of her inspiration to create an art, pro forma, that bespeak of our capacity to endure scenes of gore and violence—if only on a less exacerbated state.
Her performance, for the most part, certainly places importance on the symbolic values of ceremonies, gestures and artifacts. Albeit appearing random and spontaneous, her methods establish a logical connection between her consciousness while performing and her body’s means of coping with the strength of self-infliction. In the nascent days of her art, she has performed controversial after controversial explorations into the limitations of the mind and the body. Rhythm 10, in 1973, was the first in a series of abject surrender to the inevitability of suffering.
Alone in the stage, she prepared a set of knives to be used as piercing objects in a risky game of Russian hand roulette. Without signs of hesitation, she proceeded to stab the spaces between her fingers in a rough yet determined fashion. Each time she made the mistake of cutting her flesh; she dropped the knife and took out another one to repeat the process all over again until she made use of all ten knives (Abramovic, 1998). The following year, in the performance entitled Rhythm 5, she sought to re-evoke the energy of extreme body pain by constructing a huge star soused with combustible petroleum liquid.
At the onset, the structure as lit to flames, and while she was standing right outside the contraption, she religiously clipped her fingernails, cut her hair and them inside the burning star. The denouement of the program was when she danced around and then flew across the flames into the center of the burning star. Serious and life-threatening complications ensued when the smoke that engulfed her from inside asphyxiated her to the point that she no longer had control of her actions. The medical team and the audience, who were all there to watch, started to suspect that something was terribly amiss.
Fortunately, the quick responses from the stand-by technicians saved her from an untimely death caused by severe smoke inhalation (Abramovic, 1998). In the same year and the years that followed, Marina Abramovic designed similar art experiments that were meant to test the limits of herself and her body, and later the audience and their tolerance for vicarious agony through her body. Rhythm 2 and Rhythm 0, were performed with the hopes of proving that the consciousness can go beyond the rubric of psychological triggers in mind.
The sole aim of both was to uproot the inherited tendencies of the mind to reel from stark images and provocative gestures. She sought to cultivate in the audience a sense of indifference in order that one may reach a virtual catharsis what with all the sharp and strong representations between the body and suffering. For artists like Marina Abramovic, it is clear to them that what they are performing, and while in the act of performing, there is a higher purpose that they wish to achieve regardless of the methods by which these are made possible. They have a firm understanding and appreciation for every act and gesture that they make.
None of such are done without rhyme and reason. For artists like Marina Abramovic, everything that happens during any performance, in spite of the harsh opinions of critic that meet them right afterwards, makes a lot of sense. However, audiences who see and react to these artists do not enter, much less share the beliefs and values, or with prior knowledge of what will transpire, with that of the artist. When asked about the origins of her creativity and ideas for her art performance, Marina Abramovic happily recalls her childhood memories with her parents.
As if to show indeed that her style was a result of previous life experiences that may be susceptible to a psychoanalytical reading, she narrates: “A long time ago I made a piece called Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful. At that time, I thought that art should be disturbing rather than beautiful. […]My life is full of such contradictions. […] My father and mother are divorced. As an adult, I recently wanted to go back to help them because of the war. With the embargo, there is nothing in the stores.
[…] I called my father to ask him what he needs, and he dictates a long list – antibiotics, bandages, penicillin, toilet paper, coffee, sugar, powdered milk, all these basic things for survival. Then I call my mother and ask what she needs. She says, “I need Chanel lipstick, Absolute Red, Number 345, and hair spray. ” I am between these two. ” (Abramovic, 2005) Most modern art, in this case, within the context of theatre, videos and live performances, fail to provide ample background reinforcement against the dominant traditions and systems of belief.
What invariably happens is that the audiences will remain ignorant to, consequently, unappreciative of the complexities and undertones of the supposedly artful, meaningful and profound gestures. The audience, instead of sharing that same degree of catharsis, sacrifice and initiation, will shy away. They themselves are alienated from the performance so much that they are brought far afield the community, forcing them to abandon the art because of pure shock and horror, largely as a result of their ineligibility to feel as the artists do (Freeland, 2001).
Damien Hirst, the ‘Britpack’ artist who sparked controversy in the 1990s with his motley display of macabre high-tech exhibits of “dead sharks, sliced cows, or lambs in glasses of formaldehyde, […] has parlayed his notoriety into success with his popular Pharmacy restaurant in London” (Freeland, 2001). By no means, therefore, are the works that revolve around symbolisms, spirituality, humanity and fatalism seldom reflects the nature of most of our ritualistic traditions.
Symbols of pain and suffering that are central to many religions, cultural systems, political and social units, may come off to the lay person as undesirable and may even cause the same panic as had the man in Marina Abramovic’s performance. Art performance that utilizes imageries that hint at violence, torture and distress, when it is performed in the public who has no inkling of its context, meaning and history are in danger of misconstruing art for capricious display of filth and tripe.
As with all in theatre, the performer must work “against mutual projection between audience and performer”, the identification in which “[we] believe so readily in the other as the keeper of our treasure and our disease” (Tang, 2004). Valie Export, a similarly omnipresent and provocative figure in the world of art performance, shares the same problems of audience interaction, although not as much as Marina Abramovic. Beside art performance, her repertoire includes film, text, painting and photography to name a few.
These avenues of artistic expression gravitate towards her criticisms for feminism and gender. A staunch activist and a progressive performer, she has oftentimes been called a woman living an anachronistic life. This is due to her revolutionary ways to present her ideas that even her colleagues, who without proper notice of her intentions to perform, usually end up dismissing her as too fanciful and idealistic. Her works on ‘Asemie or the Inability of Expressing Oneself Through Facial Expressions’ (1973) and ‘Touch Cinema’ (1968) garnered both fame and distress.
Chief of the reasons that contributed to an admixture of reception from the critics and audience is the fact that her ideas do not create strong meaningful associations that the people can readily identify with. Humor and parody may be part and parcel of her work as a performer, but these effects are not what she contemplated to be so. Indeed, while she wanted to catch the attention of her spectators, her ultimate goal is to instruct them of the subtle messages regarding feminism, modernism and ritual art.
Export, along with the controversial artists at the turn of the 21st century, became (in-)famous in the recent decades because of her startling presentations of objects and her body (Mueller, 2004). Of her earlier works, ‘Aktionshose: Genitalpanik’ or ‘Action Pants: Genitals in Panic’ (1968), Export engaged the audience, piquing their imagination and belief, with a series of photographs, simultaneously permitting them to engage her as the tangible representations of the images presented in the collage.
In an art theater in Munich, dressed to the nines, with the crotch cut out of her pants, Valie Export threaded each row person-to-person, showed her outfit thereby giving the film-viewing public with a palpably visual representation with a real female body. In doing so Export tackled the pornographic reduction of women in static representations just when ideas of feminism and gender were starting to develop during that time. Her message is commensurate to a direct, unapologetic, political affront to the abstract objectification of the female body as a fetish.
She moved an aesthetic gesture beyond the representational context of the safe boundaries of art into an actual encounter with a public. Export effectively brought to the fore the various dimension of simple, albeit arresting, bodily gestures “both to produce and to represent action [. . . ] by stressing the moment and the process of its own production” (Stiles, n. d. ). Export repudiated the representational static sign and discharged an interventionist act by revealing her yonic-self to the public vis-a-vis the photos on the display.
Art performance, in the recent decades since its entrance in the mainstream, has, and is continuing to encompass a wide field of human proclivities which spans across a whole, comprehensive range of emotions, symbols and design. Although traditional views on aesthetics and taste still influence much of the productions in the art, more and more innovative, socially-informed, stunningly beautiful works of art performance are being (re-)invented and (re-)discovered every time. It doesn’t matter whether these newly created art forms subscribe to tradition or to the taste of the general public.
What matters most is the never-ending quest to plumb the full extent of our humanity as individuals and as a community. Art performance is yet to supplant, at least equal the popularity of video-films, cinema, photography and painting in terms of the instances that these are demanded by the public. But with the works of Marina Abramovic, Ulay, Damien Hirst, Valie Export et al and their boundless passion to break the mold and stun the public to enlightenment, art performance can be considered as a significant cornucopia of art studies and of artistic expression.
A number of critics do give favorable comments to Marina Abramovic’s performances and ingenuity, Valie Export’s live photography sessions, Hirst’s “gleaming vitrines with suspended animals inside” (Freeland, 2001). However, it must be noted that even if the critics find them beautiful and artful still its startling content warrants full attention; nothing short of shallow and pedantic in all respects of praise and criticism. Freeland writes, perhaps disinterestedness has some small and specific role in approaching difficult art by enabling us to try harder to look at and understand something that seems very repugnant to the senses (2001).
The work’s content and the artist performing are just as crucial as the theories that surround art performance. It is not so much as merely an arbitrary act done through the caprice of a strange art performer. It is instead, a manifestation of our natural tendencies, our history, our sense of taste and what is beautiful, our entire spirituality and lastly, our consciousness set against the body as a tool to perceive reality.
Art performance as practiced by these artists is a celebration of the body and of our community. An excellent performance and performer do more than take the audience to elevated heights, but also give them a sense of being truly and undeniably alive. And such, makes all the difference. References Abramovic, M. (2005). Marina Abramovic: the biography of biographies. New York & London: Charta Publishers. Abramovic, M. (1998). Artist body: performances 1969-1998. New York & London: Charta Publishers.
Freeland, C. (2001). But is it art? : blood and beauty. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. Mueller, R. (1994). Valie Export: fragments of imagination. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Stiles, C. (n. d. ). Aktionshose: genitalpanik (action pants: genital in panic). Retrieved January 15 2008, The Galleries at Moore database. Tang, A. (2005). Gazing at horror: body performance in the wake of mass social trauma. (Masters of Arts program, Rhodes University 2005). .