Marina Abramović and Art of Performance
Dr. Eser Selen
16 February 2022
Performance as an art form is the possibility of an experience that brings together the artist, the work, and the participant’s body, in a given space and time; as a life form, performance can be experienced with the acceptance that the artist’s body is also space. Freely navigating contemporary art forms, performance could also be considered a channel that connects the participant to the event-work through a specific experience with dynamics that correspond to the individual’s representational field. Performance art, which includes painting, sculpture, installation, video, film, sound, and digital media, dance, theater, cinema, and literary forms, directly opens up to the participants with dramatic or anti-dramatic actions in the triangle of body, space, and time.
In performance, both the participant and the artist experience the work with their body: While the participant experiences the work, the artist leaves their trace in space and time with the body’s interaction within the work and with the participant’s body.
Far from completeness, this essay is a thematic analysis that examines the issues, concepts, and forms of performance art by touching on the works of artists produced within the field of contemporary art through Turkey’s framework. It explores how performance art is received outside the formalist framework, arguing that it cannot be separated from other visual, auditory, and spatial arts modalities. The text surveys in which various art projections within Turkey’s context can be seen, rather than looking at trajectories of geographic or linear histories.
In the late 1960s to the 1980s, in Europe Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramović, Niki de Saint Phalle; in North America Jackson Pollock, Allan Kaprow, John Cage, Chris Burden, Adrian Piper; in South America Ana Mendieta, Lygia Clark, Tunga, Margarita Azurdia shaped performance both as an idea and as an elusive and hybrid art that produces experience, using the capacity of their bodies as they were.1 The artists of the period followed a coherent route specific to the form in the research, understanding, and reception of the subjects and concepts of performance, sometimes breaking the creative practice’s connection with galleries and museums. In the shaping of performance art, the body-space-performance relationship, which became evident in Klein and Pollock’s rituals in their composition methods—in other words, the efforts to show the action in their practices— formed a ground albeit a slippery one. However, performance art has also received its share of fetishization and idealization that other art forms often fall prey to.
Still, how fetishization took shape in each of the different geographical and linear histories of global performance art is too critical to be completely covered up. In particular, the sociopolitical reflections on daily life have become almost a reflex in the formal formation of artists from Turkey through the concepts and subjects that frame their works. When performance is used not only as a form but also as an idea, the artists’ reflex disrupts the perception of abstract-tangible imagery to make the viewer/visitor or participant/user feel that the norm and the ideal could also be overbearing and often repressive, even evoking the power of the normative. The concept of ‘uncanny,’2 which forms the intuitive aspect of contemporary art’s experience, emerges as the notion of the phallus included purposefully and at times seep in through the unconscious, often rampantly in the works of artists from Turkey. Perhaps the sole totality of performance is the power of the uncanny, which is a reflection of and includes a desire to return to the womb, within the ‘bodyspace’ of both the artist and the participant.3
The idea and art of performance, observed in many artists’ practices as a field of unfolding and resistance, is entirely removed from being neutral: it is inconsistent for making ambiguous the theorization of the subjective and what is perceived to be objective in practice. Within the focus of contemporary art, form often narrates the artist’s life story and sometimes the participant’s life story.4 For example, Kaprow defines performance as the difference between the strawberry that he eats on the stage and the strawberry that he eats in his daily life, which corresponds to Erving Goffman’s description of performance as: “the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants.”5 But instead of asking, “what is performance art?” or “what is the kind of art that is accepted as this form?” researching the question of “how does a performance artwork work?” will expand the scale and direct us towards the reasons of ambiguity at the formation of performance.
Marina Abramović, the leading actor of the idea of performance in contemporary art, uses her body as a space to explore how to transcend the limits of her physical/mental/spiritual endurance, which she has been kneading with pain since the early 1970s. Together with Ulay in 1975, they presented their violent, threatening, and provocative performances, which they started to realize with their incidental energies, through video and sometimes with the audience’s participation. Following the performance of 90 Days, the Great Wall of China (1988; fig. 1.1), which ended Marina and Ulay’s art/life partnership, Abramović transformed her performance method significantly and began to include the subject-body in her practice.6 This transformation, which questioned the participant’s presence, did not change her attitude towards art but included the participant’s body in her performances, sometimes in a concrete and mostly abstract sense besides the artist’s body.
1 — Please see Paul Schimmel, et al., Art Action, 1958-1998; Thomas E. Crow, Out of Actions; The Rise of the Sixties, 1996.
2 — Please see Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Books, 2003 and Morgan, Stuart., et al. “Of Word and Flesh: An Interview with Julia Kristeva by Charles Penwarden,” 1995.
3 — Please see Eser Selen, “Bedenden Mekân: Performans” (Body- Space: Performance).
4 — Peggy Phelan considers the presence of the viewer as both a deceiving and creative process; she claims, “[f]or the spectator the performance spectacle is itself a projection of the scenario in which her own desire takes place” (Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, 1993: 152).
5 — Please see Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 1993: 12 and Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1990: 22.
6 — Marina Abramović: Artist Body, 1998: 395.4
Figure 1.1: Marina and Ulay, The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk. Based on the performance90 Days, the Great Wall of China from 1988. © Marina Abramović and Ulay. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.
Figure 1.2: Marina Abramović, The Biography, 1992. Theatrical performance. Vienna © Marina Abramović. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.
Figure 1.3: Marina Abramović, The Biography, 1992. Theatrical performance. Vienna ©Marina Abramović. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.
Figure 1.4: Marina Abramović, The Biography, 1992. Theatrical performance.Vienna ©Marina Abramović. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.
Figure 1.5: Marina Abramović, The Biography, 1992. Theatrical performance. Vienna ©Marina Abramović. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.
Abramović’s The Biography (1992), which she defines as a “work in progress”7, realized before her first retrospective in Turkey, Akış/Flux at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in 2020, is introspection that is key to the process of her life-art transformation.8 The dramaturgy of this performance was designed on a T-platform stage, and it can be perceived as a portfolio of her ongoing life/art. The Biography consists of four sections distinguished by shifts in sound and light; Abramović emerges on the stage in a simple black dress and begins walking from one side to the other under blue light. The sound recording of her art/life story is heard through a sound recording:
1975 I met Ulay. Strong attraction. 30 November, 30 November. Born on the same day. I write to him: “Pour mon cher chien Russe.” [For my dear Russian dog] He answers: “Für meinen lieben kleinen Teufel.” [My dear little devil] I go to Prague. Red drop of blood, white drop of sperm. We decided to live and work together…9
At this exact moment, a young girl walks across the stage, dragging her heavy shoes, as the audience continues to hear Abramović’s voice. In the next section, Abramović sits on one of the chairs placed on the two opposite sides of the stage, under the screen on which their collaborative works with Ulay are shown. At this stage in which a limited, forced performance is directed, the spectators get distracted, attacked by the details of Marina’s art/life, and ask: What is present here and what is missing? Two large screens emerge between the two chairs, and the viewers see the slides of the works that Abramović did with Ulay in 1975-1989 (Fig. 1.2). But these slides have been split into two and are reflected on two different curtains. Thus, as Abramović re-performs Nightsea Crossing (1981-1987), the chair under the screen on which Ulay’s images are projected remains empty. Then we hear the footsteps of the young girl who walks across the stage dragging her shoes.10
In his reading of Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double, Jacques Derrida refers to life as a performance that refers to itself, not reality, as it represents nothing but itself.11 The still images that Abramović projects for the viewers from a certain distance are documents of the life-art that she refers to and functions as a narrative. While this distance is perceived within the stage-performance-viewer triangle in the physical space, the moments when the viewers are transformed into participants by the artist are the moments when this distance is completely disrupted. As the images are used simultaneously with audial tools, hearing the voice that narrates her biography, Abramović retained her silence throughout the performance to become the executor and 7 — Ibid., 383. 8 — The first version of this performance was realized at Documenta 9 (1992) with Charles Atlas in Kassel Kunsthalle Wien and because it is a work in progress some scenes might change from performance to performance. Please see Reine Cantz, Marina Abramović Biography, 1994. 9 — Please see ibid., 25. 10 — Marina Abramović: Artist Body, 1998: 393. 11 — Jacques Derrida, “The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation”, 1978: 234. witness of The Biography. This four-part performance that is a realistic representation of Abramović’s autobiography informs us that her performance is transitioning to the next stage. As the artist performs Rest Energy (fig. 1.3) under the yellow light, the presence of Ulay is almost non-existent; Marina is now Abramović. We continue to hear the voice in which she relays her life-art. As the lights transition to red, the artist bids farewell to everything that was left behind. On the stage, Maria Callas’s Casta Diva and the little girl’s footsteps echo for one last time (fig. 1.4). The performance ends with Abramović’s recording, “1992 … opening to love. Butterflies. War in Yugoslavia … trip to Belgrade … grandmother, says: ‘thank you for coming now I can go.’”12
The relationship between other works by Abramović and The Biography is that despite the absence of force imposed on her body, the evoked pain is similar. The pain is still real, but it is not bloody and has shed flesh and bone; as Sigmund Freud mentions in his “Mourning and Melancholy,” this pain is reminiscent of the pain of a melancholic. It is even possible to claim that in The Biography, physical pain has switched places with melancholy. What made melancholy relevant for Freud is also valid about this performance: the melancholic directs themselves to pain to identify the object of love with themselves, deepening pain. This identification is later transformed into the object that replaces what was lost. In The Biography, the footsteps of the little girl are significant throughout the performance within this context. Abramović calls upon the “heavy orthopedic shoes” that she had to wear, which is represented first visually later audially over and over again in her biography, so that loss and perhaps melancholy can do what was promised.13 The loss, which is filled with the repeated sound, is shared with the participant. Her ability to present in different forms in every one of her performances that any weight experienced now or at any point is the most natural part of life and reflecting this in the experience of art as inevitable is the crux of Abramović’s genius (fig. 1.5).
7 — Ibid., 383.
8 — The first version of this performance was realized at Documenta 9 (1992) with Charles Atlas in Kassel Kunsthalle Wien and because it is a work in progress some scenes might change from performance to performance. Please see Reine Cantz, Marina Abramović Biography, 1994.
9 — Please see ibid., 25.
10 — Marina Abramović: Artist Body, 1998: 393.
11 — Jacques Derrida, “The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation”, 1978: 234.
12 — Cantz, Marina Abramović Biography, 1994: 59
13 — Marina Abramovic: Artist Body: Performances 1969-1998., 1998: 15–16.
14 — Héléne Cixous et al., “The Laugh of the Medusa,” 1976.
Source: Marina Abramović - Flow / Flux Catalogue, A Minor Survey on the Idea and Art of Performance in Turkey - Dr. Eser Selen
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