On March 14, 2010, Marina Abramović began her three-month art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. “The Artist is Present” would become one of the most famous performance art exhibitions of all time.
Abramović established her performance art career in the 1970s, with her pieces showing the reaction between her own body and the audience. She stresses pushing her body to its ultimate limits, and frequently injures herself in the name of art.
One of her more well-known pieces, performed in 1974, put her own life in the hands of the audience. The scene was set for “Rhythm 0” with 72 objects on a table, some which could produce pleasure (honey, a feather, etc.), and others that could inflict pain (a scalpel, a rose, a gun loaded with one bullet, etc.).
Abramović assumed an entirely passive role in the piece, allowing the audience to use the objects set forth in any way they chose. For six hours she stood still as passersby carved into her skin, removed her clothes, and even pointed the gun at her head. At the end of the time, she began to walk towards the audience, who, fearing confrontation, scattered.
The piece showed that when there is no consequence, the human psyche takes a far darker and more violent form. Her following performances were filled with as much darkness and vulnerability as this early one.
In one, she lies on a table and screams in agony for hours. In another, two nude individuals (originally herself and former lover, Ulay) stand close together in a narrow doorway, forcing the audience to squeeze between them in order to enter the room.
Abramović and Ulay had many collaborations from the late ‘70s to early ‘80s. They experimented with the limits of the human body, breathing in and out of each other’s mouths for 17 minutes until they became unconscious due to lack of oxygen.
The two were a powerful team as performers, but in 1988, they ended their relationship with one last performance. They each began at one side of the Great Wall of China, walking the entire length (5500.3 miles) before meeting in the middle for one last goodbye.
“The Artist is Present” was an exhibition of projections and photographs of many of her previous pieces and included 30 volunteer artists who reenacted the important ones that could not be properly captured on film.
On the top floor, Abramović was to be sitting during all hours of the day that the museum was open, March 14-May 31. She sat motionless during the entire exhibition at a wooden table, in one of two chairs facing each other.
As she sat, members of the audience could sit in the opposing chair for as long as they wished. In silence, they would look into each other’s eyes until the audience member felt it was time to stand up. Then Abramović would start over with a whole new individual.
For three months the artist was at the museum. People who looked at her often burst into tears, smiled, or plainly shook their heads in dumbfoundedness. Although it was hard to pinpoint why, the piece was emotional and Abramović’s stare was exceedingly powerful.
Even Ulay came to look in her eyes, causing her to break her position in order to hold his hands.
Performance art is famously bizarre, and Marina Abramović’s is no exception. However, Abramović shows again and again that her performances are chock full of the wonder, emotion, and interaction that one expects from something so bizarre.
A 2012 documentary entitled “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present” details the preparation and contents of her famous performance and is available on Netflix.