At first glance, Marina Abramović ́ might seem like a figment of a wild artist-stereotype dream. Through the years she has been donned the “grandmother of performance art,” an apt title for a woman who has pioneered the limits and conceptions of the human body through elevating “the spirit of the audience.”
Oft reviled, she has definitely pushed the boundaries. Imponderabilia, a performance that involved her and her partner, Ulay, standing at a doorway, naked, challenged the audience to breathe in their discomfort and to either question the norms of human sexuality or the tenuous nature of self and awareness that we have when it comes to real human nakedness.
Are our notions of nakedness built on an archaic ideology of an Adam-and-Eve shame, or is nudity just habitually and inherently sexual, and therefore deemed inappropriate?
She’s burned herself, cut herself, taken pills to induce a catatonic state, screamed for hours until the point of exhaustion, massaged her breasts as part of an ancient rain-making ritual and starved herself in an art gallery for 12 days straight, a scene which was famously reenacted for an episode of Sex and The City. Although to some she might be an overbearing kook, she has no doubt definitively transcended conceptions of art by interacting genuinely with her mediums.
Her career has been made from a zeal for the arts that is sometimes uncomfortably riveting. A central player in the artistic milieu, Abramović gravitates towards the purity of human emotions. She chooses aesthetics that challenge our humanity by forcing us to push outside of what we know, thereby expressing human vulnerability as well as strengths.
A particularly striking exhibition was The Artist is Present, which was at the Museum of Modern Arts in New York City two years ago. The title mirrored its purpose: to conduct an artwork where the audience was to not only have direct contact with the artist, but to also have her undivided attention. The artwork involved Abramović sitting silently and motionlessly inside her grey artists atrium whilst audience members were encouraged to sit and take turns opposite her. No sound.
They merely had to do nothing more but to stare back at her. Spectators could leave when they so desired. No commitments. The sheer gravity of this project was unquestionable due to the blatant effect it had on those who sat opposite her. Moving through several of the portraits taken during the experience, one can see that some audience members were brought to tears perhaps identifying with Abramovic on some existential level or recognizing the humanity in the action of truly being present. A tumblr page was set up after the event, fittingly named, “Marina Abramović Made Me Cry.”
By simply reflecting on silence, she encouraged the misanthropic amongst us to give through presence, recognizing one’s existence and participating in what may seem to be a mediocre, or trivial act. Upon further evaluation, however, one can see that even the most menial of actions have great significance if rendered with attentiveness and purity of interests. She urged audience members to fully transcend into the moment, into the breath, a meditation, challenging the urban trance.
The piece was 736 hours and 30 minutes in length. Everyone from Isabella Rosselini to Patti Smith experienced this artistic phenomenon. As Marina sat directly facing her comrades, she was composed and unyielding. Hauntingly elegant, draped in a floor-length dress that was reminiscent of a Lanvin sketch, a deco Galadriel or a portrait of an Athenian Goddess, booming with a metaphysical confidence that reeked with sincerity.
She is a testament to womankind because she draws her own limits and provokes the social norms and boundaries that have been created through time. She is stylish because she is chic; she is centered and she carries herself with a dignity and extraordinary power. She is a poster girl for feminists, female artists and women in general.
The great appeal of Abramović is that unlike other artists she looks into our eyes, we the “other,” and acts against waxing lyrical to our intelligence. Instead she forces us to feel, in whatever capacity that may be. She does not indulge us the superficiality of strangers, but encourages genuine interaction, so that we can all enlighten ourselves on some level.
The HBO documentary titled, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, is out now.