The Performance of Paradox: ‘Border Perspectives’ on the work of Marina Abramović

Post an old essay… why not? Just read this back to nick some quotes for a reflective journal essay for my MA, and thought I should whack it on here. I think it’s interesting, maybe some other people will too 🙂

Marina Abramović has insisted that “performance, by its nature, is ephemeral” (in The Artist is Present, 2012), and a world away from the “fake blood” of theatre (ibid, 2012), yet is this really so? It may read like some kind of Zen riddle, but if life is performance as many have suggested (Augusto Boal, Allan Kaprow, Abramović herself), then how can we separate the real and the unreal; is it necessary to(?), and if we cannot or will not, what incongruities does this reveal in the work of Abramović and others like her? Finally, but most crucially of all, how are we to approach such artists’ work from a new perspective?

Performance art is already a slippery category, brimming with paradoxes on which there are various perspectives. Performances of art, ritual or ordinary life all tend to “mark identities, bend time, reshape and adorn the body, and tell stories” (Schechner, 2002, p.22), so we are told. Performance in its larger context cannot then be confined to a particular art form, or even to art itself. Consequently, when it comes to Abramović we find a ready reflection of the paradoxes at play both in the world at large and within her as an individual. If each human being is a conglomerate of causes and effects which reach way beyond the time and space of their own individual life, and performance can be in the ‘being, doing, showing doing’, or even ‘explaining showing doing’ (op cit, p.22), then it is no surprise that paradox prevails in her work. Who is Marina Abramovic, what is performance art – but most of all, why are we still so concerned with finding definitive answers to such unanswerable questions?

When performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña wrote his essay on The New Global Culture in 2001, he described the state of the world, and performance art’s place in it with considerable clarity. In a border perspective from a radical-Mexican-artist-now-residing- in-Chicago, he depicted a no-man’s land “somewhere between Corporate Multiculturalism and the Mainstream bizarre” (Gómez-Peña, 2001, p.7), when discussing the many consequences of the cult of globalization and virtual capitalism. He described how he and his contemporaries had become marooned at the borderline, unable to “assume simplistic personalities or to unconditionally embrace a cause” (ibid, p.7) since binary models of understanding were no longer functional. All they could do now, he said, was “raise questions, myriad impertinent questions” (ibid, p.7).

From Object to Individual in ‘The New Global Culture’

These questions might be felt most keenly in an art form in which art and artist are more closely bound than ever. As reviewer Adrian Searle says, suffering for your art is one thing, suffering as your art is another”, ( anddesign2012/jul/03/performance-art-abramovic-tate-modern, 10/12/2012). However, in a life which is flux, is it not unlikely that one would suffer forever, at least not from the same kind of suffering? Or alternatively, as Japanese writer Haruki Murakami states, is “pain inevitable, suffering optional”? (2008, foreword: vii).

Marina Abramović, now 64, is a Serbian performance artist who began her long career in the early 1970s.  She is often described as the ‘Grandmother of Performance Art’, and though this might be debated from a critical standpoint, she is certainly the most infamous, as demonstrated by her 2010 retrospective The Artist is Present. The show was not only the first such honour for an artist of her form, but was also said to have garnered “as much mainstream press as a pop star” (Yablonsky,, 15/10/2012). As Peggy Phelan puts it, “the gap between the art Abramovic makes and the form of its most recent celebration raises interesting questions about both art and capital in the new century”. ( /13B9A79EB2E6DCC3AED/1?accountid=10258, 07/12/2012).

In 1974, Abramovic declared “I am the object” (Thurman, iipa/docview/753490553/13B9A7D52B67F2F58A9/1?accountid=10258, 7/12/2012). This begs the question: does performance art rid us of the art object only to find it replaced with the human artist as object, uncomfortably perched upon a very similar, if not even more questionable pedestal? This treatment, in which the art/artist becomes elevated yet de-humanised or caricatured via quotations, and is essentially commodified as a seller of news stories or even ideas, is a direct consequence of the times we live in. This is exemplified by Vito Acconici’s description of performance art as a contract between performer and audience:

“On the one hand, performance imposed the unsaleable onto the store that the gallery is. On the other hand, performance built that store up and confirmed the market system: it increased the gallery’s sales by acting as window dressing and … publicity … There was only one meaning of the word ‘performance’ I was committed to: ‘Performance in the sense of performing a contract – you promised you would do something, now you have to carry that promise out …” (quoted in Freeman, 2007, p.62).

From a personal as political vantage point, the artist as art phenomenon also brings the paradoxical nature of identity into the furore. It is a delicate operation to provide a balanced view of an artist who seems so inseparable from her work, as Christopher Grobe demonstrated when he praised Abramović’s biographer James Westcott’s “work at its best” (2011, p.105).

“Paying close attention to archival material, much of it rare or difficult for the average researcher to access, Westcott supplements the record with well- educated acts of imagination, or else prompts the reader to do so through his spare juxtaposition of historical detail and commentary. Finally, using extensive personal interviews with Abramović, her peers, and her intimates, he places the work in its proper personal, professional, and theoretical contexts. In this and other such compelling moments, Westcott shows just how entangled these countervailing contexts can be” (ibid, p.105).

Contradictory statements made by Abramovic, such as “to be a performance artist, you must hate theatre” (quoted in Gardner, blog/2010/jul/20/noises-off-performance-art-theatre, 5/11/2012), as opposed to “it’s not so much the type of art you practise that matters, more the state of mind you approach it from” (The Artist is Present documentary, 2012) are a consequence of  just such ‘contervailing contexts’.

As a young idealist in her years with Ulay, Abramović lived in a van in order to experience a heightened perception of life. Yet as ‘corporate man’ Hardenmore says when held captive by young revolutionaries in German film ‘The Edukators’, “one day, you want a car that doesn’t break down and some other conveniences. Then you have children and want security for them. Then one day, to your surprise, you find yourself voting conservative” (2004). Though Abramović never had children and as far as we know, never voted conservative, critics such as Thurman have often commented that she receives “quite a payload for a nomad” (http://search.proq iipa/docview/753490553/13B9A7D52B67F2F58A9/1?accountid=10258, 7/12/2012), and she does now admit to wanting to be accepted by the establishment.

In The Artist is Present documentary, however, she also says that she “kind of misses” (2012) people questioning why her work is art. That nobody asks this anymore is evidence that her performance art has been accepted into the mainstream and is no longer considered particularly controversial. Abramović is revealed to be neither quite here, nor there – a position which will recur throughout this essay. Has her art’s radical content been subsumed by the art machine which is subject to the same economic conditions as the rest of the world? What is now truly radical? 

From ‘The Art of the Ordeal’ to ‘The Art of Doing Something Closer to Nothing’

Abramović’s physically demanding and often dangerous earlier works, of which Rhythm O in 1974 was the most famous, a piece where spectators “abused her at their will for six hours, using instruments of pain and pleasure” (Goldberg, 1988, p.165), ensured that her work would be heavily marketed in future. As curator Chrissy Iles said;

“The veneer of civilization is very thin. What’s absolutely terrifying is how quickly a group of people will become bestial if allowed to do so” (The Artist is Present Documentary, 2012).

Beisenbach, her ex-husband and manager, describes Abramović’s work as “staging miniature experiments which reveal human nature” (ibid), and Sean Kelly, a gallerist observes that it is “playing with the sharp edge of the knife which allows her to make her performances transcendent” (ibid). Such bombastic controversy in which performances must be cut short due to an audience member holding a gun to the artist’s head and a fight breaking out, or the artist passing out in a star of fire and having to be rescued (see Rhythm 5, also 1974), was described as ‘the art of the ordeal’. However, over time and with thanks to the new global culture, the art of the ordeal became almost an everyday occurrence. Was Abramović subject to ‘the monstrous culture of the mainstream bizarre’ as Gomez-Pena described it? A time when;

“‘alternative’ subcultures and so called ‘radical’ behaviours as we knew it have become mainstream. Spectacle has replaced content, form gets heightened, more stylized than ever, as ‘meaning’ (remember meaning?) evaporates, or rather, fades out, and everybody searches for the next ‘extreme’ image or ‘interactive experience’” (2001, p.13).

Gómez-Peña suggested that the mainstream bizarre, particularly the availability of anything and everything in the media and particularly the internet, has blurred the boundaries between,

‘pop culture, performance and ‘reality’, between audience and performer; between the surface and the underground; between marginal identities and fashionable trends” (ibid, p.13).

Whilst Abramović, as ‘Grandmother of Performance Art’ is at risk of this phenomenon, it can also be argued that there is much more of substance to be found in her work. Nevertheless, if ‘radical spirituality’ is to the 21st century what ‘radical politics’ was to the 80s and 90s, as Gomez-Pena’s vegan anarchist friend suggested (2001, p.23), then a question is raised about how ‘genuine’ she is. Still, I wonder, why am I even asking this question? The answer has to be that there is little way to function within the mainstream art world without becoming enmeshed within the ‘cult of the personality’.

It would not be easy to deny, for example, that in art which explores the limits of the body and the possibilities of the mind alongside the relationship between artist and audience (, 10/10/2012), Abramović betrays her own formative years. This was a childhood in which her war hero parents’ military approach to parenthood lay in sharp contrast to the loving spirituality of her Grandmother.

At an early stage her performances were aggressive, repetitive and ritualistic (See Rhythm 10 and the Russian stabbing game); but there were also early performances focused on stillness, fasting and presence. For example, the series performed in conjunction with Ulay and entitled Nightsea Crossing, in which they sat silent and motionless facing each other across a table, and Conjunction, in which they were joined at a golden table by a Tibetan Lama and an Aborigine for four days of meditation. An interview with Abramović on the MoMA website confirms that this piece was inspired by the time that her and Ulay spent immersed in Aborigine culture – a choice they made due to the culture’s nomadism, lack of possessions, the idea of here and now, and their entire life being based upon ceremony (http://www.moma. org/explore/multimedia/audios/190/1985, 3/1/2013).

These themes run like a vein through Abramović’s work and life. In 2002 Abramović performed “The House with the Ocean View”, spending 12 hours a day silent and fasting as she lived in a sparsely furnished open fronted house, five feet above the ground in a gallery. Abramović later said, “I made a huge mistake in ‘House’, to put myself up on some kind of altar” ( iipa/docview /753490553/13B9A7D52B67F2F58A9/1?accountid=10258, 7/12/2012), and since then her trajectory has been further towards simplicity and presence – towards, as she has put it, “something closer to nothing”, since “the more I think about energy, the simpler my art becomes, because it is just about pure presence” (ibid). As T.S.Eliot wrote about the state of old age,

“we must be still

and still moving into another intensity” (, 10/12/2013).

For The Artist is Present retrospective, Abramović chose the participants who would re-perform selected works via a retreat of sorts, where the contract obliged them to;

“observe complete silence; to fast on green tea and water; to sleep on the hard floor of an old barn; and to submit to her discipline, which is partly that of a guru, partly a drill sergeant” (Thurman, iipa/docview/753490553/ 13B9A7D52B6 7F2F58A9/1?accountid=10258, 7/12/2012).

Divestment of “comfort, modesty, impatience, habits and attachments … seemed to be what she was after” (ibid); and the first tasks included breathing exercises, naked communal submersion in a lake and slow motion moving for three hours.

Her own performance, which the whole retrospective borrowed its name from, was much pared down, including only a table, a chair and Abramović seated there for seven hours per day, six days a week over three months. It was the longest durational piece ever mounted in a gallery and demonstrated a coming of age for Abramović. Members of the audience could choose to participate by sitting in a chair opposite her. Was this performance virtuosic endurance, meditation, or both? Who are we to judge? It was certainly no less punishing than her earlier works.

In the documentary, Abramović admitted that “the moment you really go through the door of pain, you enter this other world … feel lightness, harmony, no borders between you and the rest of the world” (The Artist is Present Documentary, 2012). She states that performance is “all about state of mind’, and expresses hopes for a “direct energy dialogue” between public and performer. It is work which relies “on the belief that emptying out and erasing the self and the objects used to sustain that self paradoxically creates extraordinary abundance” (Phelan, /13B9A79EB2E6DCC3 AED/1?accountid=10258, 07/12/2012 ).

Reviewer Francine Prose has commented that “less and less frequently does contemporary art inspire extreme emotion as this work did” (http://www.nybooks .com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/sep/06/marina-abramovic-when-art-makes-us-cry/, 5/11/2012). Watching the footage, it is clear that an exchange did indeed take place. Some people returned over twenty times, to this performance which slowed everything down and made time visual. The performance area was described at various times as ‘silent therapy’ or a ‘boxing ring’ (The Artist is Present Documentary, 2012), an apt description given Abramovic’s hopes.

It is fascinating to watch the ‘hand on heart’ gesture which so many of the people seated opposite Abramović gave. It appeared to be a non-verbal expression of shared consciousness, the price of this being a glimpse of “the threshold between form and formlessness, knowing and unknowing, life and death” (Phelan, /13B9A79EB2E6DCC3 AED/1?accountid=10258, 07/12/2012). It appeared that Abramović managed to defeat the emptiness of an alienating culture in creating a work which connected human beings and enabled energy exchange – as long as they could handle what was left.

Though Gómez-Peña et al might well be jaded with ‘alternative’ spirituality manifested as temporary festivals and assorted ‘tribal’ tattoos (2001, p.19), Abramović’s presence can hardly be argued with. Yet if we insist that her presence does communicate, what then, do we make of her forays into theatre, which began as early as The Biography Remix in 2004, and led up to her most recent work in 2012; a collaboration with avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson with the grandiose title, “The Life and Death of Marina Abramović”.

From Performance Art to Theatre and Back Again: “Direct Energy Dialogues”

Usually people say that a truly artistic show will always be unique,

impossible to be repeated; never will the same actors,

in the same play, produce the same show.

Theatre is life.

People say that, in life, we never really do anything

for the first time, always repeating

past experiences, habits, rituals, conventions.

Life is theatre.

(Boal, quoted in Schechner, 2002, introductory page)

“To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality”.

(Abramović, quoted Gardner, blog/2010/jul/20/noises-off-performance-art-theatre, 5/11/2012 )

“What matters is not so much the type of art you make, but more the state of mind which you approach it from”. (Abramović, in The Artist is Present Documentary, 2012).

When faced with such a bundle of contradictions, how do we decide whether theatre and performance art are really so different? Perhaps in the revolutionary heyday of performance art, such separation of form would have been more helpful in differentiating the form, but today the standard live art rejection of theatre is no longer permissible in a postmodern world. In 1966 Kaprow declared the “installation dead … [that] whilst time is always in progress, terms offer only calcification” (quoted in Freeman, p.63). Now we are faced with the problematic existence of a world in which nothing is dead, collaboration is key and every genre is ripe for the postmodern plucking of its’ treasures. We are transient, mortal creatures who are nevertheless, time-binders.

In addition to this, much late 20th century avant-garde theatre, often aligned with that other slippery, much maligned category ‘physical theatre’, also reaches towards this genre defying creation of a paradoxical world. Remarkably, this theatre was pre-described in the 1930s by Artaud when he envisaged a ‘Theatre of Cruelty’,

“Theatre … which is in no thing, but makes use of everything — gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness — rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre” (, 20/11/2013).

For Artaud, the image of a violent act portrayed in theatre was infinitely more powerful than the act carried out elsewhere – ‘showing doing’ carrying more meaning than simply ‘doing’.  (Freeman, p.110). Furthermore, can it be argued that the white space of the contemporary art gallery is any more true to life than the black box of the theatre? Does it really matter? As Lyn Gardner questions, are such environments always antithetical to the creation of work which is truly radical? (Gardner, blog/2010/jul/20/noises-off-performance-art-theatre, 5/11/2012). Does Marina Abramović observe true reality in her work? At the level of common sense, does she really hang around at home carving stars into her abdomen; would she really sit for 7 hours per day if she had no audience?

Of course not, but as Beisenbach, Abramović’s manager and ex-husband puts it, “with Marina, she’s never not performing … she seduces everybody she meets” (The Artist is Present Documentary, 2012). From another perspective, it could be suggested that The Artist is Present is superior to The Life and Death of in that it depends upon shared face to face experience with the artist, nothing rerouted via character or imagined worlds as in a theatrical performance. It could also be argued, however, that in the ideal performance, what meets in the performance space would not be the performer and observer, but the unmediated presence of the two. In any good performance, surely both parties are transformed, brought to another sphere of presence entirely? We are all performers in the end, and as Lyn Gardner points out so astutely:

“When an audience is required to see something as both real and unreal simultaneously there arises a creative and imaginative tension that enables us to transcend the mundanity of real life” ( blog/2010/jul/20/noises-off-performance-art-theatre, 5/11/2012).

It is clear that the shared concerns in The Life and Death of and The Artist is Present are striking. As Christopher Grobe said of his time in the presence of the artist,

“her eyes set in a thousand yard stare and her face clammy, waxen with another day of perfect stillness, she looked to me like a corpse – or else a premature effigy of herself” (2011, p.109).

At 64, the theme of her own mortality has clearly crept into Abramović’s work and collaborations. Much criticism abounds surrounding The Life and Death of, with many critics disappointed that it was in fact, Wilson’s work, describing it as “not so much a disappointment, as a travesty” (Dorment,, 15/12/2012). It was widely considered a work of visual pomp and ceremony which contradicted the state of stillness achieved in The Artist is Present.

There has also been much discussion of Abramović’s later tendency towards the repetition, documentation and preservation of her work. She is now developing extensive archives, acidic critics such as Thurman remark that “the purgative ethos of the retreat does not, apparently, apply to her archives” ( iipa/docview/753490553/ 13B9A7D52B6 7F2F58A9/1?accountid=10258, 7/12/2012). She is also very particular about the way in which her work is documented, and as early as The Lovers walk along the Great Wall of China in 1988, there have been re-enactments with increasing frequency. Christopher Grobe observes that in the filming of the piece, four months after they originally met and split up in un-filmed real time, you can hear Ulay complain to Grigor: ‘Murray, we’ll have to do it again. She’s crying again.’ ” Marina recalls, “To me it was re-enaction but at the same time it was twice real. It was just as painful” (quoted in Grobe, 2010, p.104).

Again, such statements can be seen as the answer to Gómez-Peña’s philosophical vertigo. Creative and imaginative tension, a subtlety of play which holds two spheres of meaning overlapping, and breaking through language in order to touch life. These are the paradoxes of performance at play in Abramović’s work. The ability to simultaneously hold two spheres of meaning is what allows us to appreciate her work without becoming depressed by the limitations of art which is beholden to economic conditions, or a human being whose performances could be endlessly debated as to whether they are ‘real’ or not, or whether or not certain actions contradict her own philosophies. Nowadays, this question is more complex than ever.

A Conclusion Which Reads as a Confused Manifesto

In a final performance of paradox, this conclusion reads as a confused manifesto. In Marina Abramović and her work, we have discovered the blurring of boundaries and defeat of dichotomies. In her work, little is constant, except change. I propose that the movement has been thus, in so much as it can be described:

From the rejection of a static art object we arrive at the cult of a changeable identity,

From the art of the ordeal the work becomes ‘something closer to nothing’,

From outsider radicalism to mainstream success (whilst attempting to maintain a mixture of both),

From the standard live art rejection of theatre to collaborating with theatre,

From unrepeated live performance to repetition, documentation and preservation.

Abramović’s work has been revealed here as a microcosm of contemporary culture. Everything is connected in the paradox we all face. Under the ‘New Global Culture’ as described by Gomez-Pena, everything we ‘perform’ is compromised, and since I am not a critic but merely an observer, I would be loath to criticize Abramović for this. As has been demonstrated, her performance art has real depth in a human to human sense, and as she herself attests, in the right set of circumstances “each of us can be a killer” (interview with Abramović by Thomson and Weslien, 2006, p.41), or The Grandmother of Performance Art, as the case may be. Nothing is simple, and in an attempt to avoid paralysis Abramović’s later works are no longer fighting with tools which might have become closer to the “mainstream bizarre” or “corporate multiculturalism”, instead coming to the belief that raising our own individual consciousness through encountering ourselves and others more closely is the way forward. (interview with Abramović by Thomson and Weslien, 2006, p.30).

I recently read a book called The Story of B, which said that the world will be saved by a complete overhaul of vision, not by new systems and programs (for example, reforestation or recycling cannot save us, this is merely minor revolutions imposed from without. Instead, a complete change of vision happening incrementally will be necessary). At Abramović’s stage in life, as a performer of paradox taking part in two spheres of performance simultaneously, it appears that she has reached a state of comfort in her own contradictions, affirming to us, the audience, that all one can now do is “ask questions. Myriad important questions” (Gómez-Peña, 2001, p.7).


Written Sources



Freeman, John               (2007)    New Performance/New Writing

Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan.

Goldberg, RoseLee      (1988)     Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present

                                                         Singapore, Thames and Hudson.

Howell, Anthony            (1999)    The Analysis of Performance Art

                                                          Singapore, Harwood Academic Publishers.

Murakami, Haruki           (2008)    What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

London, Random House

Schechner, Richard       (2002)     Performance Studies: An Introduction  

London, Routledge.


Grobe, Christopher     (2011)     When Marina Abramovic Dies: A Biography/Marina

Abramović: The Artist is Present, Theater, vol. 41

Issue 1, pp. 104-13.

Gómez-Peña, G          (2001)      The New Global Culture, The Drama Review,

Spring 2001, Vol.45, No.1, pp.7-30.

Electronic Sources



Dorment, Richard       (2011)    The Telegraph Website, The Life and Death of                                                         Marina Abramović, Review, http://www.telegraph., accessed         .

Gardner, Lynn            2010)     The Guardian Website, Noises off: What’s the                                                             difference between performance art and theatre?, blog/2010/jul/20/noises-off-performance-art-theatre, accessed 5/11/2012.

Prose, Francine          (N/A)      The New York Review of Books, (http://www.ny, accessed 5/11/2012

Searle, Adrian            (2012)     The Guardian Website, artanddesign/2012/jul/03/performance-art-abramovic-tate-modern, accessed 7/11/2012.

Online Journals

Phelan, Peggy            (2004)     Marina Abramovic: Witnessing Shadows, Theatre                                                       Journal, Vol 56, No 4, pp569-577. http://search. /13B9A79EB2E6DCC3AED/1?accountid =10258, 07/12/2012         

Thurman, Judith         (2010)     Walking Through Walls: Marina Abramović’s                                                                Performance Art, The New Yorker, Vol 86, No 3, pp                                                    569-577. iipa/docview/753490553/ 13B9A7D52B6 7F2F58A9/1?accountid=10258, 7/12/2012).

Weslien, K &               (2006)     Pure Raw: Performance, Pedagogy and      Thompson, C                              (Re)presentation, PAJ, vol 28, issue 1, pp29-50.


Akers, Mathew          (2012)     The Artist is Present, Dogwoof Studios.

Weingartner, Hans    (2004)      The Edukators, Hans Weingartner Studios.


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