Marina Abramović – the Grandmother of Performance Art

The last great Avant-garde movement in the pictorial arts was its commodification by artists like New York’s Andy Warhol. Warhol’s approach was holistic and his art was inexorably interconnected with our modern lives, culture (even lack of…) and with the images we created both for and of ourselves and that were so essential in how we were to be presented on the world’s stage for our “fifteen minutes of fame”. For Warhol, performance was always a part of art and the artist him/herself became an integral part of the body of work.

Which brings us to Marina…. I’m the first to admit I’m a bit of a philistine and have the cultural sophistication of the country mouse showing off an underdeveloped intellect for his city cousins. For me, though, on the heels of the Pop Art movement, Marina Abramović was able to propel art forward and keep it on the cutting edge where art must continuously move or it will surely decay from its own inertia. To do this, she and her fellow performance artists had to confront more than just the art establishment, but all norms we held so dear including those of the patriarchy and the fractured self. They did this by bringing the audience into the art on a deeper, more intimate level through the use of the body and the personification of this “new” medium.

Certainly, others are more qualified to show how performance art developed, but it has obvious roots in Dadaism, Surrealism, and apparently emerged from post-Minimalist “happenings” that started to take place after the war and which saw expression through the expositions that were part of the Counterculture Movement of the 1960s. Plastic art had become passé, so a new, living art was made manifest in each moment of the performance.

Marina’s work explored postmodern and feminist themes, the body and dualism, ritual vs. mysticism and the important issues surrounding love, emotion and relationships. Her years of work with her long-time companion and partner, Ulay, explored our male and female halves and the intersections of our lives.

It seems that a great deal of performance work is beyond the reach of many and that’s ok and what one might expect from a movement that is so recently of the Avant-garde. I am reminded of something Joseph Campbell said in Hero with a Thousand Faces and that was undoubtedly a piece of ancient wisdom, “Anyone unable to understand a god sees it as a devil and is thus defended from the approach.”

So Marina’s work remains unapproachable for the masses, although I suspect it’s becoming less exclusive now that we’ve seen tribalism, tattoos, body-piercing and a less self-conscious body awareness as part of our social masque.

My original exposure to performance art was through the genius of Laurie Anderson and a late appreciation for Yoko Ono and her marvelous work. Then I saw the film The Artist is Present about Marina’s MOMA retrospective and show. I was stunned. It was absolutely beautiful, powerful and moving.

In art, I experience one of my many apparent, and in this case, too real contradictions. Art is our darkness merging with our light and this is where human beauty and frailty must fully emerge. Marina, through her strength, humanity and artistic sensibility embraces this darkness and makes it something I can only call angelic. She is that powerful of an artist and the medium is of such a purity of truth. It is a lightness of being that explores the darkness as something that we should never really be threatened by. See her Relation in Space with Ulay, Freeing the Mind and see what you can of Rhythm 0, A Living Door of the Museum or Lips of Thomas. Performance pieces are meant to be repeated by other artists and in a real sense they are “owned” by all of us, although I suspect that no artist will be able to fully replicate the experience of Rhythm 0 will they? That’s another great Abramović innovation – living art that rides along the mouth of the abyss.

Her masterpiece, The Artist is Present, is literally as universal and as eternal as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and at least as profound and important of a work.

These blogs are never really about the artists or judgements of them as individuals, but explorations of their art. There is something disingenuous in this though and, indeed, downright impossible with Marina and her work. In Marina’s work, Marina is always there deeply and richly human. In a sense you must make a judgement, but she isn’t just Marina anymore either. You become part of the work as much as she is. Her vulnerability becomes your vulnerability. The art isn’t just a body of work, but something intangible, emotional and powerfully spiritual. Her strength becomes your strength. If you see her work as only feminist, well you’re missing at least half of it.

Nothing impacts me more than her best work – nothing, because it is holding a mirror up to myself and exposing who I really am without the masks and the artifice. As an artist, and it is the artist in me that tells you this…well, I am completely in love with Marina Abramović. Is there anything more beautiful than that?

This was originally posted on the Reveille website on September 28, 2017.