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Understanding the Work of Marina Abramovic in Five Phases

How the performance artist got from bodily extremes to quiet introspection — and with it, superstardom.
By Annie Murney
July 03, 2015
By Annie Murney
July 03, 2015

Abramovic is the undisputed “grandmother of performance art”. She gained notoriety in art circles for her daring and death-defying performances from the ‘70s onward; however, it was her 2010 retrospective, The Artist Is Present at MoMA which catapulted her into the cultural mainstream. Following high-profile collaborations with the likes of Lady Gaga and Jay Z, Abramovic has reached rock-star levels of popularity herself.

If it feels like Abramovic sprung out of obscurity around five years ago, you might wonder how she came to be the world’s most famous performance artist. Let's journey back.




As a bright-eyed Serbian student, Abramovic took the leap over to Western Europe during the '70s and became a key player in the genesis of performance art. One of her earliest and most significant achievements has been reconfiguring the relationship between artist and audience. These were the first steps into participatory artworks, upending the standard passivity of the spectator.

Her self-objectifying performance Rhythm 0 (1974) gave power to a particularly masochistic swarm of gallery-goers. Abramovic lay naked on a table next to a whole range of objects, including perfume, a rose, a feather, scissors, a scalpel and a gun loaded with one bullet. From decorative to sinister, these objects were used at the whim of participants who were compelled to decide whether to act or prevent an action.

The situation escalated when Abramovic was cut with razor blades, the gun was held to her head, and rose thorns were pressed into her stomach. She is not being melodramatic when she claims that art is a matter of life and death. Over a period of decades, she has subjected herself to demanding physical conditions, cultivating an ability to push through pain barriers and enter a trance like state during performances. This has allowed her to build a strong sense of power and resilience.

Image: Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0 (1974)



Abramovic began performing with artist and former life partner Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) in 1976. They became the power couple of the ‘80s art world, united by a compulsion to examine consciousness. They also shared the strength-through-pain ethos that Abramovic had been working on as a solo artist. Many of their works come across as if they are trying to fuse themselves together or create a combined self. In one performance, Relation in Space (1976), they ran at each other repeatedly, violently knocking bodies.

After 12 years of artistic and personal companionship, Abramovic and Ulay parted ways in an epic gesture of farewell. Beginning their journey from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China — Abramovic from the Yellow Sea and Ulay from the Gobi Desert — they travelled for 90 days before officially ending their relationship.




As Abramovic stepped up as a solo artist for the second time, she became passionate about preserving the craft of performance art, experimenting with alternative methods of documentation. At one point, she stated that there are to be no repetitions of this kind of art — you cannot have a substitute for the real experience. However, the artist broke this rule when staging the spectacular series Seven Easy Pieces (2003), which paid homage to the pioneers of performance art.

Piecing together fragmented records, Abramovic recreated ephemeral performances by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane and Joseph Beuys, putting her own individual spin on them. The re-enactments took place over seven days at the Guggenheim Museum. Of course, the relationship between art and the archive can be tricky business, particularly with regard to preserving the spontaneity and integrity of the original event. In any case, Abramovic’s pedagogical project is ongoing. The Abramovic Institute was a Kickstarter-funded initiative which took off in 2013, dedicated to durational performance and interdisciplinary research.

Image: Marina Abramovic performing Gina Pane's The Conditioning in Seven Easy Pieces (2003).




From 2010 onward, Abramovic seems to have a newfound subtlety and quietness. More recently there have been fewer clanging bodies and life-threatening situations. Unlike her earlier performances, she is expending energy in a different way, deeply influenced by Eastern spirituality and mindfulness.

A good example of this would be the massively hyped retrospective at MoMA drew in approximately 750,000 people. Spread across six floors of the gallery, the 2010 exhibition was unprecedented in scale. The centrepiece of the show, The Artist Is Present, showcased the shamanistic Abramovic, silently projecting energy into her sitters for eight hours a day, every day.

Surely, there is an element of narcissism here. While Abramovic has built a solid legacy of groundbreaking performances, she may be coasting on charisma these days, inviting the public to bathe in her superstar status. Regardless of this cynical thought, there is something compelling about The Artist Is Present. It is testament to Abramovic that a piece which could have easily lapsed into tacky sensationalism turned out to be profoundly moving.

Image: Marina Abramovic, The Artist Is Present (2010)



Today, Abramovic has become a brand in and of herself. However, contrary to her popularity, performance art isn’t the most lucrative trade. Her works don’t actually fetch much — a mere fraction of the kind of money thrown at Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.While criticism levelled at Abramovic may strike the occasional chord of truth (mainly in regard to her potential narcissism and theatricality), some of it seems like the product of stuffy art world insiders who see celebrity collaborations as tainting the intellectual heritage of performance art. They're quick to denounce 'sell-outs', but that very term seems to imply a big divide between high art and popular culture. Abramovic is responsible for pioneering some of the most significant aspects of performance art — arguably she has a degree of ownership over them. So why shouldn't she be able to use these techniques however she sees fit? Why not use Lady Gaga as the face of The Abramovic Method? If Marina Abramovic has made performance art more accessible for a new generation, that’s a good thing.


Published on July 03, 2015 by Annie Murney


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