Some art shows are truly visceral. They force you to react. It is like getting a punch in the guts. You cannot remain detached or neutral about it. You are made to think and reflect about the most fundamental things: sex, relationships, deep emotions of love or hate, death, the natural world, and ourselves. Abramovic is that sort of show.
The canvas is herself, and her body is the sculpture. She is interested in the direct relationship between herself and people. One of her early performances was to sit in a museum and allow people to spend as little or as long as they wished sitting opposite her. One of the gallery walls shows dozens of photos of her, and the other wall is filled with photos of the people who participated in this performance. You see a huge array of reactions—smiles, serenity, nervousness, anxiety, and tears. How often do we ever engage with a stranger in this way, sitting opposite one another in close proximity? Think about how we behave on the bus or tube, where we generally avoid eye contact.
Later, Abramovic goes much further. She set up a performance in a gallery where she invited the public to more or less do whatever they wished with her. A table was even provided with a variety of objects you could use on her body. People threw water over her, groped her, hit her, and one person even pulled out a gun. Her explorations seem to involve her wanting to experience situations within the limits of what is tolerable. One display in the exhibition shows how she cut a star on her stomach and lay in the middle of a circle of fire. Another has photos of her after taking large doses of prescription drugs.
Some of us have maybe played this game of stabbing down very quickly and repeatedly between our splayed fingers. When we goofed about kids doing this, we probably did not use a very sharp knife and just did it more slowly and for a shorter time. Abramovic did it for much longer and kept doing it even when she had drawn blood from her fingers as the knife missed and gave her painful nicks. This sort of performance art hovers around masochistic impulses. Of course, such self-duels with violence and pain did not continue through all her career, although pushing herself to the extremes, such as being in the performance for many hours or even days, remained a feature of her work.
Here we see later in her career how she became much more interested in our relationship to nature. She still tested her endurance and capacity to remain quite still for long periods of time. She was interested in experiencing and communicating the power of energy from nature. In her one-hour performance to camera, The Current (image above), the artist lies on a metal structure surrounded by crystals, beneath stormy skies, in a meditative trance.
For 12 years, Abramović worked with her then-partner, Ulay. The collaboration led to works that fused male and female duality into an entity they referred to as ‘That Self’. In one room, we see giant video screens where body-performance art becomes an unnerving duet. There is one where the two are shown in close-up screaming at each other or kissing passionately.
In one of their most stunning and tense collaborations, Rest Energy, Abramović held a bow, and Ulay drew back the bowstring with an arrow aimed at her chest—an expression of total trust and vulnerability. Observing this recreates the fear and tension you feel when watching a film where the characters risk falling to their deaths. You see the bow moving slightly as he struggles to keep it under control. But she wants to show how a deep relationship that lasts requires trust and understanding.
Their relationship ended in the mid-1980s. The performance The Lovers, Great Wall Walk saw Abramović and Ulay walk towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China over 90 days, meeting briefly in the middle before going separate ways. You can watch the side-by-side video of their walk towards each other across the Chinese landscape; one carries a red flag, the other a white one. It is quite beautiful and moving. On a nearby wall, Abramovic has written a short tribute to their time together. Ulay died a few years ago.
Towards the end of the exhibition, there is a performance that I defy anyone not to be blown away by. There is a video screen showing Abramovic naked with a skeleton on top of her. As she breathes in and out, the skeleton moves up and down as though making love. Like certain religious orders where it was customary to have a skull on your desk to remind you every day of your mortality, the artist wants us to reflect on our own mortality. Procreation and death are the circle of life. On a platform directly above the screen, there is a live, naked woman artist performer enacting the same scene. It does not get much more direct or in your face than that. Watching the visitors’ reactions—there was more of a hush in this room—you could see this artwork had a real effect on them as they stood and watched for some time.
Abramovic was the daughter of Yugoslav partisan leaders. She even has an installation in the show of her father and mother’s medals and documents from the revolutionary war against the Nazis. Her parents’ position in post-war Yugoslavia meant she was able to receive an excellent education, and it was relatively easy for her to train and become an artist as a woman. At the start of the show, there is a video performance of her sitting on a beautiful horse in the Yugoslav countryside holding a large white flag. It is a homage to the liberation struggle against the Nazis. Tito, the Yugoslav leader, broke with Stalin, who had agreed with Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta that Yugoslavia was to be in the Western sphere of influence. Consequently, there was much less of socialist realism’s dead weight on artistic creativity.
Abramovic’s art might seem to be overly self-obsessed about her individual body, but this would be to misunderstand how the performance art of her body challenges the dominant male gaze in art and the way male artists have used the female body. Her performances have a social resonance and create an interaction with the public that is quite distinct from one that treats people as passive consumers of art commodities.
A lot of her later work in the exhibition focuses on our relationship to the energy of nature. She had produced sculptures that you can sit on or lean against using quartz and other minerals. You can put your feet into giant stone mineral shoes. One installation shows her being filmed sleeping for hours under a Banyan tree. As eco-socialists, we do think it is positive if people develop an emotional relationship with the natural world.
Other works reflect a social consciousness, particularly about the terrible wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. She made an installation of a big pile of bloodied animal bones.
Performance art lends itself well to mass participation and to political interventions. Often, women have taken the lead—think of Carolee Schneemann or Yoko Ono. It can take place in the squares and the streets. It can be easily filmed and distributed on social media. Just today I was at a protest in Hackney for Palestine, which was entitled Performance and Poetry for a ceasefire. Some people had made bundles of white sheets to resemble the horrendous images we see on our TV screens of slaughtered infants. Others had made simple signs using animal symbols to express notions of ancestry and freedom. These words were the only ones used on the placards with an Arabic translation. Artists like Abramovic can make us think about communicating our stories and ideas in different ways than conventional art.
This manifesto that is displayed on one of the walls summarises a lot of her ideas.
Below are some good links if you want to find out more about this artist. Abramovic also recently appeared on Desert Island Discs, which is available on BBC sounds.
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