What it takes to be a performance artist: Marina Abramović’s practice

Viewers could assume there are no concrete skills beyond contemporary art. Let me recall how Marina Abramović proved them wrong during a performance at MoMa, in 2010.


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Until Italian Renaissance, visual artists had had a great deal in asserting their name into intellectual circles: those manual skills needed to accomplish an artwork prevent artists to reach the same social status of persons of letters and musicians. One of the most diffuse opinion affecting contemporary artists assumes, conversely, they lack of concrete expertise. While the average viewer has learned to acknowledge uncommon skills to Leonardo Da Vinci for his sfumato, public still struggles to believe that contemporary art follows from a well conceived design, and an unrelenting practice.

See the following picture, taken in 2010 at MoMA in New York City.

Opening Reception for Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

At its center, a middle-aged woman sits at a table in front of a coetaneous man. Oddly enough, they stare at each other without a word, but they sit so quietly that you can guess they are close friends. Nevertheless, this is not what you’d consider properly a rendezvous between two old acquaintances: observing the scene, you recognize but an unwelcoming space, with its industrial floor and the cold hue of the background wall. It cannot possibly be an house interior also because there are no pieces of furniture aside from the table, and the two matching seats where the subjects stay still. Despite such a bald location, at least a dozen of persons stands at the bottom. People probably came to the place individually or in smaller groups, because they act like perfect strangers and interactions among them are sporadic. Why did they gather round, then? Half of the group on the background is watching intently at the couple in front: people are looking for something to happen between woman and man, even if they sits so peacefully that the chance of a noteworthy change seems unlikely.
Still, the picture transmits us the inner tension of this situation, and we could even tell where the pressure arise from. Taking a second look, we can’t help but notice the woman again. First because she’s the only one who’s wearing with colors or, to put it better, just with a vivid red. But the attraction this woman can exert on viewer rely less on her outfit – she didn’t even put make up on her carefree face – than on her overall deportment: she sits in a perfect posture, straight back and shoulders held higher than those of the man, while her hand lay unfold on the lap. Thus, the woman gets the focus of our attention by showing an impressive self-control, a profound discipline that makes her look ready to handle every circumstance.
You’d be surprised to understand that she hadn’t expected this very man to sit in front of her. The event has even caused her an initial puzzlement, but she will finally get the better of this painful encounter, while transmitting to viewers all the feelings that were undergoing. Because she is Marina Abramović, the most famous body art performer in Western culture, and the man is her former partner Ulay, with whom she had worked and lived for more than a decade. Taken years later, this picture portraits them during their meeting in 2010 at MoMa, where as a performer she has been sitting at that table for hours, day after day, looking blankly at everyone willing to sit in front of her.

If it is rather hard to sit still for a few hours, a three-months performance probably requires a peculiar training. The practice should reinforce the body but not only, because a true impassivity follows from a firm mind that doesn’t wander: if the performer doesn’t willingly focus on the task, she’ll divert from it as soon as the body starts aching. Before we go forward in this story, then, I’d like to recall how Marina Abramović has mastered every acts of her being through all this years of practice. Throughout her career in body art, that began in the Seventies, the balkan artist has always tested both her physical and mental strength in overcoming her own limits. Her experiences could be termed “deliberate practice”, an activity that “explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition”, as the Fortune’s senior editor-at-large Geoffrey Colvin wrote in his piece What it takes to be great.
In a newspaper article by Alaistar Sooke – Marina Abramović: ‘It takes strong willpower to do what I do’ – the author sums up the artist’s first performances, explaining indeed that they “were characterized by danger, endurance and more than a whiff of masochism”:

Her first mature work, Rhythm 10 (1973), involved stabbing the spaces between her splayed fingers with knives (in the process, she repeatedly cut herself). In Rhythm 5 (1974), she constructed a five-pointed star on the gallery floor made of wood shavings soaked in 100 litres of petrol. Having lit the star, she lay down in its center – and promptly passed out due to a lack of oxygen. She was rescued by a member of the audience who realized that this wasn’t part of the script.

Sooke also remembers her encounter with Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) in 1975 and how they chose to break their long-lasting bond, after thirteen years: “they walked the Great Wall of China for 90 days from either end, met in the middle, and finished their relationship”. During her public lecture in Milan in 2012, I myself have heard Marina Abramović recalling this performance as her peculiar way of preparing herself to say her last goodbye to Ulay: while other people can easily break their relationship by a call, she would have needed to walk for a few thousand of kilometers instead.
Humor apart, you should acknowledge she meant what she said in comparison with this other statement:

You must confront your own fear. If you’re afraid of pain, you have to do to find out what this pain is. When you open the door to pain, you’ll find out that you actually might be able to control it. You’ll be free from the fear of pain–which is a great feeling.

Maybe, it was this same relief that viewers felt at MoMa, when a weeping Marina Abramović bent down towards Ulay until their hands touched. She was not supposed to make any gestures, neither a facial expression, yet in her failure people sympathized with her: public started clapping, thus evaluating this presumed breakdown as one of the most touching moment of the entire performance.
Years of practice had not prevented Marina Abramović to fail in an unexpected difficulty, but they let the artist develop a mindset able to overcome struggles and take advantage from them. Many evidences demonstrate how much Marina Abramović’s performances are based upon a strong expertise in self-control. I guess this skill belongs specifically to those contemporary artists that deal with reality and chance in their work. Even if you don’t positively judge the artist’s work and what it aims to stand for, you should agree with Colvin with regard to Marina Abramovićherself:

For most people, work is hard enough without pushing even harder. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful they almost never get done. That’s the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn’t be rare.

Related posts:

Here are all the links I’ve been collecting on Urlist, with regard to Marina Abramović and her last two artistic projects in particular:

33 Links from: Marina Abramović

Kate P., via Urlist

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