Marina Abramović’s Art versus War and Oppression

Marina Abramović, right, sits with a participant. -- Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The art world has been abuzz the last couple of months over the performance of “The Artist Is Present,” by Serbian artist Marina Abramović at New York’s MOMA. In the piece, she sits in a chair, nearly motionless, for eight hours a day — no food, no water, not even a bathroom break — and audience members may sit across from her as long as they like. Some have been reduced to tears. To those unfamiliar with Abramović’s past and past work, this is just a woman in a chair. But to know her background is to unlock the meaning of all this nothing.

Abramović has made her career on such feats of strength; in one piece, she lies on a bed, her head hanging over the edge, and screams incessantly until her voice gives. She has whipped herself, cut herself, drugged herself, brushed her hair for hours, and in 1974, she nearly died performing a piece in which she lied inside a 5-pointed star set aflame. In the 90s, to protest the Balkans wars, she sat atop a pile of cow bones and vainly attempted to scrub the flesh from them, her white dress staining yellow and red; we cannot make war clean.

In the most shocking and famous of her performances, she laid out items next to her prostrate body and invited the public to do to her what they would. Most were timid, some cut her clothing, others stuck thorns in her, but a riot nearly ensued when a man pointed the loaded gun she provided at her head. When the show ended, she walked toward the public — and they ran away. A comment on doing nothing while evil festers? A mere step in the direction of her erstwhile tormentors sent them scattering.

The artist’s influences are chiefly the air of Yugoslav nationalism in the postwar years — both parents were popular WWII figures; her great uncle was the patriarch of the Serbian Church — and the stark and dreary oppression of Tito’s communist regime. Abramović came of age under this anti-individualist orthodoxy; might this lead one to experiment further with self-denial, self-imposed stress positions — a popular tool in the torturer’s repertoire — and self-inflicted pain? She participated in a student protest that forced the dictator to convert a military building into an artists’ school, but Yugoslavia proved too stifling, and the young artist fled to Amsterdam in 1976, where she met her future partner Ulay.

On the last day of “The Artist Is Present,” Abramović tumbled out of her chair, lept up and did a twirl, and worked her adoring crowd like a rockstar. As in her life, as in the lives of many others who suffered under tyranny, she broke figurative but stultifying chains — and then did whatever the f*ck she wanted with her new freedom.

Though I saw in person and was amazed by the performance the day before the end of the show, I simply sported an awestruck grin. But just seeing the photos on my computer screen of Marina Abramović reveling in the end of her long and arduous feat made me cry, too.

9 thoughts on “Marina Abramović’s Art versus War and Oppression”

  1. Marina Abramović is a deranged megalomaniac (overdosing on LSD and Rx drugs over the years probably didn't help here), not an artist worthy of such straight-faced admiration. Then again, maybe in some mentally deranged way, narcissistic masochism can be "art" too. To each its own.

  2. Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" was first performed in Tokyo in 1964,and many times thereafter.

    And Ono is indeed a seminal artist.

    Art and Serbia are spelled K-U-S-T-U-R-I-C-A nowadays. But the Great Wall Of China piece seems nice–very Debordian in an original way.

  3. To complete my reply to the first comment by Heathcliff_Maw, I'd like to add the following. I don't like Marina Abramović because I consider her a nihilist. Nihilists don't make art, they use art as an alibi for deprecating and violating beauty. You don't condemn pornography by doing pornography, you don't condemn violence by exhibiting it without context. Concerning her most schocking performance, well, I don't know why but "A Clockwork Orange" came to my mind. It's a bit more subtle piece than the pieces of my compatriot.

  4. I'm with you, Vojkan Milosavljevic, although your point is more sophisticated than my simple philistinism. A lot of what passes as art is just pure crap; perhaps Abramovic could make a stage play from a collage of her performances and make her point. But it still wouldn't be art.

  5. I second Karl's observation. For all the faults and crimes of Tito's rule, the bloody part was reduced (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) to the after-war period, roughly 1945-mid 1950s (most notably,against the fraction of the Communist Party that remained loyal to the Soviets during the Tito-Stalin friction of 1948).

    Jeremy's piece is well-written and informative, though I'd abstain from evaluating Ms. Abramovic's art (being only dimly familiar with).

    But, again, Yugoslav 1960s and 1970s were hardly a "tyranny" (except for the political grasp held by the Communists, the ONLY permitted political party then), esp. in regard to the artistic scene in Belgrade where she belonged at the time (among some – later also internationally renowned – artists)). Quite the contrary in fact – the things that SHOCKED the viewers/readers/listeners in the west those days, were largely unnoticed in Yugoslavia, so the members of the poshy art groups were pretty much left unnoticed, and done whatever they wanted. Some (mainly the film directors from the famous "Black wave"-period of the late 1960s) even did everything they could to PROVOKE the anger among the critics and bureaucrats from the "Old guard" (ie the wartime-generation) and to fuel their own careers in the West by being labeled as "censored" in Yugoslavia, in order to achieve even the crumbs of publicity that followed, for example, the exiled Soviet artists and writers (who faced pretty much an unpleasantly huge deal of REAL censorship there, unlike in Tito's merrily Westernized and consumer-based "sugared communist" country).

  6. "Reversing a famous maxim of Hegel, I already noted in 1967 that 'in a world really inverted, the truth is a moment of the false' The years since then have shown the progress of this principle in each specific domain, without exception.

    Thus, in an era when contemporary art can no longer exist, it becomes difficult to judge the classical arts. Here as elsewhere, ignorance is only produced in order to be exploited. At the same time the meaning of history and taste are lost, one organizes networks of falsification. It suffices to hold onto the experts and appraisers, which is easy enough, to get things to go through, since in affairs of this kind, as in the others, it is the sale which authenticates all value. Afterwards, it is the collectors and museums, particularly in America, which, gorged on falsehood, will have an interest in upholding its good reputation, just as the International Monetary Fund maintains the fiction of a positive value in the huge debts of a hundred nations.

    The false form of taste, and support of the false, deliberately make the possibility of reference to the authentic disappear. One even remakes the true as soon as possible to resemble the false. Being the richest and the most modern, the Americans have been the principal dupes of this commerce of the false in art. And they are exactly the same people who pay for restoration work at Versailles or in the Sistine Chapel. This is why Michelangelo's frescoes will acquire the bright colors of a cartoon strip, and the authentic furniture at Versailles acquire the brilliant quickness of gilt that will make them resemble the fake Louis XIV suites imported by Texans at such great expense.

    Feuerbach's judgment on the fact that his time preferred 'he image to the thing, the copy to the original, represenation to reality,' has been entirely confirmed by the century of the spectacle, and in several domains where the nineteenth century preferred to keep its distance from what was already its fundamental nature: industrial capitalist production. Thus it was that the bourgeoisie had widely spread the rigorous spirit of the museum, the original object, precise historical criticism, the authentic document. But today, the artificial tends to replace the true everywhere. At this point, it is fortuitous that pollution due to automobile traffic has necessitated the replacement of the Marly Horses in place de la Concorde, or the Roman statues in the doorway of Saint-Trophime in Arles, by plastic replicas. In short, everything will be more beautiful than before, so as to be photographed by tourists.

    The highest point has without doubt been reached by the Chinese bureaucracy's laughable fake of the great statues of the industrial army of the First Emperor, which so many visiting statesmen have been taken to admire in situ. Since one could mock them so cruelly, this thus proves that in all the masses of their advisors, there was not a single individual who knew the history of art, in China or anywhere else. One knows that their instructions were quite different: 'Your Excellency's computers have not been informed.' This confirmation that, for the first time, it is possible to govern without any artistic knowledge, nor any sense of the authentic or the impossible, could alone suffice to make us conjecture that the naive dupes of the economy and the administration will probably lead the world to
    some great catastrophe; if their actual practice had not already demonstrated that fact…."

    Guy Debord[1991 tr.N-BKK]

  7. Duchamp deobjectified the object.

    That monumental event in all its consequences is not widely understood, thus making Duchamp–not his "objects"–still the most important and revolutionary artist of the Twenty-FIRST century.

    Warhol mastered a small side path of Duchamp and brilliantly, cynically exploited it.

    Performance art such as Ono pioneered took another approach.

    There is some small interest in "an artist"(not "THE" artist), sitting impassively, as Abramović, while the "audience" performs–as "audience".

    But it is very small as these things go, and old mostly hat.

    Duchamp still does it better.

    The Museums and Galleries and critics ,obviously, are not going to tell you that.

    The Wall Of China piece, however, is interesting and original.

    Perhaps some will meet on the other side.

  8. "In New York in 1915 I bought at a hardware store a snow shovel on which I wrote 'In advance of the broken arm'…"

    Marcel Duchamp

  9. "Every fountain, every urinal in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century West is signed 'R.Mutt' in invisible ink."


  10. "Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story."

    Gertrude Stein

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  12. The artist Marina Abramovic, a master of performances, has received recognition for his bold, uncompromising work. In the early 1970s, entered the world of art installations with the scandalous hehe «Dragon heart» and "Rhythm of zero." In 1997, Abramovich has received the award "Golden Lion" at the Venice Biennale for his work "Balkan Baroque", and in 2003 – Award "Bessie" for his installation "The house with a window on the ocean." The first retrospective exhibition was held in Marina Abramovic in 2010 MoMA (New York).

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  15. I'm with you, Vojkan Milosavljevic, although your point is more sophisticated than my simple philistinism. When I woke up this morning, I looked at the Fitbit App to see how I slept. Looking at the information, I started wondering just how the sleep tracker worked so I headed over to the Fitbit site to see if I could get some more information.

  16. Abramovie is a artist and it like a complete movie present in a single person. She is the lady of feelings and art. It seemed to be like she sits on a chair for 8 hours and not went for bathroom break even. And she did not have food or water also. Many people in audience sit with her as much as they want. But many people cried on it. The story behind the scene is in the blog is just awesome.

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