The function of time in the performances of Marina Abramović

She likes to define herself as “the grandmother of performance”, a form of art that, from the beginning, has strongly placed her in the spotlight.

She is controversial like all the artists, deeply loved and criticized, Marina Abramović never stops exploring the territories of art and body, often overstepping them.

Marina Abramović_Portrait with Scorpion
Marina Abramović, Portrait with Scorpion (Closed Eyes), 2005.

The boundaries of body and time

Her performances put to the test the boundaries of the body and mind. They can even last eight hours and continue for days or months. The time dimension is, in any case, an essential element always important for the success of the performance. Every experience, even the artistic one, can’t be done if not referred to space and time. Whereas the first element is objectively defined and can be shared, the second one considers a subjective and interior dimension. It is necessary to explore this interior dimension, that is by nature without borders and potentially infinite, to establish boundaries within which to act, defining a precise start and end time of the execution. In doing so, the event has a clear duration and it can become linear, avoiding any risk that it gets dispersed.

Rhythm 0, the emergence of violence

Six hours. This was the duration of one of the first performances of Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0, executed in Naples in 1974. On a table, seventy-two objects were disposed, such as feathers, chains, blades, scissors and a loaded gun. Together with the objects, some brief instructions: for the entire duration of the performance, the body of the artist would have been an object like the others and the public could use it at will. The duration of the performance, in this case, was of fundamental importance. During the first three hours, the public shyly interacted with Abramović’s body, then the approaches became, hour after hour, more daring. Someone attempted an erotic touch, someone else used blades to cut her clothes and then her skin, there is also someone who sucked her nipple or the blood that came out of her wounds, and some who placed the loaded gun in her hands. The contact started as exploration and then turned into violence. All along the performance the most primordial and unsayable instincts of man emerged.

Marina Abramović_Breathing in, Breathing out
Marina Abramović and Ulay, Breathing in, Breathing out, 1977.

Breathing in, Breathing out: the time of the air

The Seventies are the years in which the artist started the long-lasting collaboration and sentimental relationship with the German artist Ulay. Breathing in, Breathing out (1977) and Nightsea Crossing (1981-1987) are some of the performances they did together. The time of the execution of the two performances was radically different: the first demanded less than twenty minutes, whereas the second one lasted seven hours. Both performances, however, wanted to achieve a limit. In the first performance Marina Abramović and Ulay were kneeling face to face and pressed their lips on the other’s. Two cigarette filters blocked their noses. For almost twenty minutes they breathed in and out each other’s air to stay alive, they shared oxygen and then carbon dioxide. Necessarily, the performance was destined to run out in short time, otherwise they would be dead.      

Nightsea Crossing and the proof of the spirit

Also, Nightsea Crossing tests the borders of the body, but almost as secondary action, subordinated to the main purpose of the performance: to show three things that contemporary Western society finds unacceptable, such as inactivity, silence and fasting. Marina Abramović and Ulay remained seven hours a day, for ninety days sitting face to face. After a few days, he gave up. «He asserted that I had to get up too, because the performance could not take place without him», says Marina Abramović during an interview «I didn’t understand the reason, so I continued». The length of the performance, in this case, clashed with the individual limit, the needs of the body, the strength or the weakness of the spirit. Time was the testing ground for discipline.

Bringing themselves back to themselves: The artist is present

Violence, asphyxiation, prostration. The duration of each performance determines a different effect, but in every case the artist reaches a greater awareness of herself and sometimes even of her audience. This is what happened to Marina Abramović after the execution of one of her most known and beloved performances, The artist is present (2010), which kept her busy seven hours a day, for almost three months. Sitting at a table, she met the gaze of 1,400 strangers who could sit in front of her and look at her eyes as long as they wanted. Week by week, Abramović, as well as her public, experienced a deep and mysterious empathy. The artist and the spectators finally found a way to take back their exclusive and shared time, necessarily long, in which humanity and emotion found a place.




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