Seductive, fearless and outrageous, the “grandmother of performing art” Marina Abramović has been the most avant-garde representative of performing and body art since the beginning of 70s. Using her own body as vehicle and subject of her art, she explores the physical and mental limits, the relationship between performer and audience and the possibilities of the mind. During her performances, her hyper intense and extremely sensorial body has been burnt, cut, rolled, scourged, whipped, violated and expiated: “The body’s boundaries are the subject of my creations. I will use the performance to push the physical and psychical limits beyond conscience”. In her work, audience’s reaction becomes part of the performance and the performance itselfs is ritualized and becomes a mental state in which the body can do things that normally will never do.
In her first performance, Rhythm 10 (1973), Abramović explored elements of ritual and gesture. She laid ten knives of different shapes and sizes on the floor, placed her left hand on a sheet of paper and played the Russian game of knives: she took a knife and she stuck it between her fingers as fast as she could. Each time she hurt herself, she changed the knives. The sound of the knife that was hitting the wood or the flesh was recorded with a voice recorder. After cutting herself ten times, she replayed the tape, listened to the sounds, and tried to repeat the same movements, attempting to replicate the mistakes, merging past and present. Abramović extended the visual tension to sound tension.
In Rhythm 5 (1974), Abramović poured oil on a star with five corners (the political emblem of communism of the former Yugoslavia) and set it on fire. Standing outside the star, she cut her nails, toenails, and hair and threw the clippings into the flames. As final act of purification, she leapt across the flames, sat into the center of the large star. Once inside the star, the artist lost consciousness from lack of oxygen. Some members of the audience realized what had occurred and a doctor and several members of the audience intervened and extricated her from the star. Abramović later commented upon this experience: “I was very angry because I understood there is a physical limit: when you lose consciousness you can’t be present; you can’t perform”.
In Rhythm 0 (1974), she transformed her body into a passive object, without any reactive impulse; she placed upon a table 72 objects and wrote on a board: “There are 72 objects on the table, which you can use as you please”. Initially, members of the audience reacted with caution and modesty, but as time passed (and the artist remained impassive) people began to act more aggressively. They cut her clothes, they touched her most intimate places and they even aimed a gun at her head. For 6 hours she supported the actions without acting, than, as planned, she stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation. This performance proved the limits of the relationship between performer and audience and the imminent need of brutalization of the humankind. Rhythm 0 remains one of the most overwhelming provocations in the history of the performance and one of the most sensually painful conditions of corporeal abandonment.
Lips of Thomas (1975) is probably the most famous Abramović’s performance. In this work, she tested her body’s limits eating a kilo of honey and drinking a litre of wine, sat naked at a table. Than she crushed the glass in her hand, she took a blade and cut the shape of a star with five corners on her abdomen (image that has begun an icon of the performing art) and mechanically wiped herself until she no longer felt any pain. As final act, she sat bleeding on a cross-shaped piece of ice. Her body became a space of purifying self-sacrifice.
One of her recent works is Balkan Erotic Epic (2006) which was inspired by Balkan’s popular culture and the use of eroticism in its traditions. Abramović thinks that through the eroticism, the man aims at becoming alike gods. The work is composed by screens installation and a 12-minute film. From March 14 to May 31, 2010, MOMA held a major retrospective and performance recreation of Abramović’s work, the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA’s history. During the run of the exhibition, Abramović performed The Artist is Present, a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium, while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her.