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The Artist is Present

by Lowell Warren

When I hear someone say “performance art,” I picture actors, singers, and dancers prancing around a stage, reciting dramatic monologues, belting high notes, and tap dancing to showtunes as an audience watches from their seats, politely clapping between numbers. Or, I picture myself standing awkwardly in a museum, unsure of what to do with myself, as performers in weird costumes move about the room. But fifty years ago, unsuspecting gallery-goers in Naples, Italy stumbled into an experience called Rhythm 0, a performance piece that would make them question everything they thought they knew about themselves and would redefine the genre.

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The year is 1974. Twenty-eight year old performance artist Marina Abramović stands completely still before an audience in an art gallery, about to perform one of the most extreme stunts of her career. Spread across a table before her are seventy-two objects, including feathers, lipstick, grapes, a rose, scissors, matches, a camera, a knife, an ax, a pistol, and a single bullet.

A sign reads:

Instructions: There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. Performance: I am an object. During this period I take full responsibility.

At first, viewers are gentle. They brush her hair, hand her the rose, feed her grapes, kiss her skin. But over time her limits are tested. They tear off her clothes, cut her hair, and stick rose thorns in her body. Someone cuts her throat and sucks her blood. Others carry her around the room and lay her across the table where they jab the knife between her legs. One person places the loaded gun in her hand, aims it at her head, and wraps her finger around the trigger, as another person yanks it away. One woman wipes Abramović’s tears with a tissue.

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Rhythm 0 lasts six hours. At two in the morning, when the gallery closes, Abramović stands and approaches the crowd. The audience bolts, horrified at what they had just done. Not only was this an experiment to prove how much pain Abramović was able to endure, it was a look at how far the public could go if put in a position of complete control over another human being. Abramović claims that if the performance had lasted longer, the participants could have gone as far as to kill her. To them, she was not a human; she was an object whose limits were to be tested.

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Abramović, born in Yugoslavia in 1946, was raised by strict, militaristic parents. Her early performance pieces, like Rhythm 0, grew from her fascination with the body and its ability to endure pain. For one piece, she played “the knife game,” in which she stabbed a knife between her open fingers as quickly as she could; when she nicked herself she would select a different knife, and repeat this exercise until she cut herself twenty times with twenty different knives, at which point she would play a recording of herself playing this game and try to recreate her movements and the cuts as precisely as possible. In another, she stood in the center of a star shaped fire and threw cut pieces of her hair and nails into the flames until she lost consciousness from lack of oxygen.

Abramović believed that by pushing the limits of her body through extreme pain and exhaustion, she was able to become completely aware of herself. She learned that strength was not physical, but existed in the mind–that our mind could endure even the most excruciating physical and psychological torture as long as we let down the barriers holding us back and allow ourselves to be completely focused and present.

The performance piece that would define Abramović’s career subjected the artist to a different kind of challenge. Titled The Artist is Present, Abramović would be just that: present. She would sit in the Museum of Modern Art, completely silent, completely still, as museum visitors sat across from her for as long as they desired.

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Over the course of three months (March-May 2010, a total of 736 hours), Abramović stared into the eyes of over 1,500 strangers as they stared back into hers. The Artist is Present drew massive crowds to the museum, including stars like James Franco, Lou Reed, and Bjork. The performance dealt with themes of empathy and vulnerability. Abramović would mirror the emotions of her visitors in her own face; if the museum-goers were brought to tears, Abramović cried with them.

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Hundreds of visitors lined up outside the museum each night to get a chance to sit with the artist. Anxious crowds served unrest. One woman was hauled away by security as she tried to strip naked in front Abramović. Another person puked in line. Someone else attempted to approach Abramović wearing a cloak and a mask. The sheer length of the performance unsettled many, while others watched entranced and fascinated.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit across from Abramović, to stare deep into a stranger’s eyes for great lengths of time and give a piece of yourself to them. I picture the experience as draining, and cathartic, and possibly transcendent. Some described their encounter with the artist as religious. For Abramović, the experience was incredibly taxing and towards the end almost unbearable. In a film documenting her show at the MoMa, Abramović states, “the hardest thing is to do something which is close to nothing because it is demanding all of you.”

Marina Abramović pushed the boundaries of performance art by inviting the viewer to participate in the piece. She proved that the mind is limitless, that we possess power we didn’t know we had within us, and that danger unlocks this part of ourselves and can open our mind to new ideas and take our lives in exciting directions.

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