Abramović is best known for long-duration performance pieces that often require both mental and physical endurance as well as the power to withstand intense tedium, exhaustion, pain and even the threat of death.
Abramović's abusive upbringing deeply impacted her work. She was raised in the capital of the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia) by parents loyal to the post-war communist regime. Her mother ran the household with harsh military discipline. These unpleasant origins were re-lived by the artist in 2011 through the autobiographical play, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, directed by Robert Wilson.
The artist spent years addressing the repression present in her upbringing and country of birth in visceral performances. In Thomas Lips (1975) she carved a five-pointed Communist star into her abdomen. Although such performances have been called masochistic, Marina Abramović approaches pain and privation as a door to the subconscious mind. From her perspective, the only way to have control over pain or tedium is to focus on and endure the experience.
These ideas were present from the beginning of her artistic career in the early 1970s. Following her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade and a brief experimentation with sound installation, she produced her 'Rhythm' series (1973–74): five different performances involving risk and pain interlaced with symbolic meanings. In 1974, for Rhythm 0—the final work in this series—Abramović carried out an experiment at a gallery in Naples.
In this performance, she laid out 72 items on a table with an invitation to the audience to use them on her as they wished. There were harmless items such as a grape, a feather, a rose; however, there were also items of a more sinister nature, such as knives, a whip, scissors, a gun and a single bullet. Over six hours the artist revealed the savagery lurking beneath the surface of seemingly civilised human beings while remaining totally passive and vulnerable. Members of the public slowly began subtly torturing her: stripping away her clothes, cutting her body and even pointing the gun at her head.
From 1976 Abramović began collaborating with her then-partner, the performance artist and photographer known as Ulay. For five years, they toured Europe together, living out of a van. The pair terminated their relationship in 1988, grandly marking the occasion with a final collaboration called The Lovers. In this lengthy performance, the former art world couple walked towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, each covering 2,500km over several months and finally meeting in the middle to say goodbye.
Her works following the break-up—such as Cleaning the Mirror (1995), Balkan Baroque (1997) and The House with the Ocean View (2002)—were, though not without privation, more contemplative and less violent. Balkan Baroque, in which Abramović hand-washed cattle bones, won her the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale.
In her Seven Easy Pieces show at the Guggenheim, New York, in 2005, Abramović took an approach closer to an art-historical retrospective. As well as re-enacting Thomas Lips, for seven hours on seven nights she reenacted five works by performance artists Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane and Joseph Beuys. Each work explores their contribution to the medium's history.
At a major retrospective of her own work at The Museum of Modern Art in 2010 Abramović presented a new performance, The Artist is Present. Eight hours a day for nearly three months, she sat impassively in the gallery space while visitors came one by one to sit opposite her. The reactions ranged from tears to laughter (and one incident of unauthorised nudity). She broke protocol only once, when Ulay made a surprise appearance, by reaching out to grasp his hand. In contrast to the Rhythm 0 experiment the interactions were mostly based on love and brought out the best in people.
A documentary film by the same name, released in 2012, followed Abramović's preparations for the show MOMA show.
Marina Abramović: In Residence (2015), for Kaldor Public Art Project 30, was a paradigm-shift that placed the onus of performance on the public rather than Abramović herself. In the 12 days onsite at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay, Sydney, visitors were guided through focus-shifting, perception-challenging experiences based on the 'Abramović Method': a process pioneered by the artist and intended to use slow and conscious movement to heighten and engage people's mindfulness of the moment they are in and the actions they perform.
Abramović previously collaborated with pop music icon Lady Gaga on a 2013 video exploring this method.
Alongside these often controversial performances, sound, video, sculpture, installation and photography have also been important aspects of Abramović's work. Video and photographic stills often document or reference her performances. She has also used these media on their own, as in the independent photographic series, 'Places of Power' (2012–2013), which draws connections between her art and spirituality. Abramović's sculpture addresses pain, the body and other themes from her performances and photography.
The artist's body will always be the primary medium of Abramović's practice. As the self-proclaimed 'grandmother' of performance art, she has striven to sustain it by founding the non-profit Marina Abramović Institute in Hudson, New York, in 2012. The organization has initiated contemporary art projects around the world.
Announced in 2018, Marina Abramović's 50 years retrospective at Britain's Royal Academy would be the first major retrospective of a female artist in the institution's history.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021
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