Proclaiming herself to be the ‘grandmother of performance art’, Marina Abramović has been pushing her body to its utmost limits since 1970s. Infamous for testing the relationship between performer and spectator, Abramović insists that art does not exist without the active participation of its audience. For her, performance isn’t acting; it relies on a reciprocity of real emotion and energy. In her words, “In the theatre, the knife is not a knife, and the blood is just ketchup. In performance, the blood is the material, and the razor blade is the tool”.
It comes as no surprise that many religious groups have accused her of being either a “Satanist” or a “witch”. In many of her earlier performances, Abramović would commit acts of self-harm like cutting or whipping herself. Her disregard for her physical safety and her self-imposed bodily disfigurement defied the mainstream beautification of the female body. Her version of autonomy is one that is unconventional and grotesque. She purposefully elicits discomfort from the public in a way that is very much reminiscent of the Salem witch trials.
This was a period marked by the fear of female sexuality and the persecution of “deviant” women who were portrayed as lascivious and physically deformed. Therefore, the act of flagellating her own naked back is not so much a reflection of her apparent devotion to Satan as much as it is an invitation to self-reflection. Any scrutinization of said performance as a sexually aberrant act merely forces audiences to face their own associations of sexual violence with women’s bodies.
Performed in 1974, Rhythm 5 has been one of Abramović’s most disturbing pieces to date and possibly her most “satanic” one. It finds the artist lying in the middle of an ablaze, wooden five-pointed star into which she has thrown pieces of her own hair and toenails. In a horrific turn of events, the lack of oxygen causes Marina to faint and the audience doesn’t realise until she shows no response to a flame touching her leg. Two viewers then intervene, and she is carried out.
Marina’s strange enthrallment by this even today, resembles a strange ecstasy that no doubt makes many people feel uneasy. She has described this unexpected occurrence as if catching fire had been part of the intended performance. For someone that is not familiar with her views on performance art, it becomes easy to interpret it purely as some kind of black magic ritual. However, the main goal for Marina is to transcend the very constraints of her own corporeality. Her fascination with placing her life in the face of death for the sake of her art is a declaration of an agency that demystifies women’s ongoing, historical objectification. Her body is her own and only she is allowed to decide the significance inscribed onto it.
Before dismissing Marina Abramović as a demon-worshipping, soul-devouring witch, take a minute to deliberate over the powerful political implications of her art. She holds the viewer accountable in the formation of artistic meaning. She is aware of the power dynamics underlying the subject-object relationship, often influenced by prevailing systems of cultural thought. Through her art, she unapologetically challenges patriarchal expectations and lays them bare, placing them centre stage and exposing the inherent performativity of gender.
Marina’s whip is a real whip, and her cries of anguish are anything but fake. Such is the effect of the superficial, contemporary society we live in, that nonetheless brings about real pain in its subjects.
Image credit: Marco Aneli / Frieze.com