‘Being’ as material and immaterial

Irene Kyritsis

We can very truly state that art is one of the most effective means of expression because it causes each of its viewers to undergo a personalized and different experience. It expresses ideas that cannot be expressed as easily by words, and is often tied into other contexts, such as religion, deeper philosophical ideas and social issues.1 Among all forms of art, one that is very interesting to consider due to its characteristics is performance art. One concept that can be strongly related to performance art is philosopher Martin Heidegger’s ‘question of Being.’ Marina Abramović and Joseph Beuys are two artists that illustrate this notion through their performance artworks. Abramović does so by putting herself through physical pain and difficult situations, with the aim to create an awareness of her presence, of her ‘being,’ with the audience. In contrast, Beuys addresses the question of Being by alluding to immaterial aspects, which are the presence of the energy, the knowledge and the creativity that exist within every human being.

To better understand the connection between the question of Being and performance art, more specifically with these artists’ works, one must first understand Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. Heidegger, a German philosopher, was known for his explorations of existentialism and phenomenology, especially his theory of the question of Being. 2 He stated that in the past two thousand years, philosophers have neglected this question and have solely contemplated on topics that surround it.

To express his ideas, Heidegger had to invent a new language, with which he tried to keep away from traditional connotations. Rather than getting the readers to come up with simple answers to his questions, his goal was to get the readers to contemplate and think deeply about what they have read, “That Being itself and how Being itself concerns our thinking does not depend upon thinking alone. That Being itself, and the manner in which Being itself, strikes a man’s thinking, that rouses his thinking and stirs it to rise from Being itself to respond and correspond to Being as such.”3 Similarly, Abramović and Beuys also invent their own language, but in the form of their artworks. The viewers will, in turn, contemplate and think deeply about what they have experienced through these works.

Furthermore, Heidegger believed that art can play a privileged role in the unconcealment of Being as he notes that “unconcealment occurs only when it is achieved by work: the work of the word in poetry, the work of stone in temple and statue, [and] the work of the word in thought.” 4 As previously stated, works of art have the power to express things that words cannot, and to show the viewer a new way of understanding what is important and prevalent in our concerns in these given aspects. Also, “the work shapes a culture’s sensibilities by collecting the scattered practices of a people, unifying them into coherent and meaningful possibilities for action, and epitomizing this unified and coherent meaning in a visible fashion.” 5 Thus, we can see the relation that art has with the question of Being, and how it can help one get a better understanding or contemplation of it. It is through this idea that we can consider performance art, more specifically the works of Marina Abramović and Joseph Beuys, and contemplate how these artists express this topic as one of their main themes.

Before getting to interpret the works of these artists, it is useful to first consider performance art in general, in association with Heidegger’s question of Being. First, it is important to note that performance art is a form of art that strongly differs from all other types of art in that its essence as an artwork falls into the performance as it happens. Performance art fundamentally involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer’s body and the audience. It is through these, that the relationship between the performer and the audience is created. The performance is presented to an audience and can be scripted or unscripted, spontaneous or carefully planned, done in a museum, in a public space, or any other venue. Some performance works require the audience to simply watch the performance and others encourage participation from the audience. 6 It is this presence of real time, real space, and real interaction that strongly relates to Heidegger’s question of Being expressed through art.

Marina Abramović, a Serbian performance artist, has done works that can be strongly related to this question of Being. Throughout her career in the past three decades, she has been known for pushing the limits of performance art, and has never ceased to surprise her audience. Her works have involved self-mutilation, threat of assault and death, and also intense endurance.7 However, the element that is the most crucial for the completion of her works is the interaction between her and the audience. For her, what is essential is the result of what the participant/viewer will become after viewing her performance:

The performance is a process. The public as well as the artist has to go into it. They must meet in a completely new territory, and build from that timeless time spent together. That’s very important. Because you need that time so that something can really happen as a performer. But the public also needs time for something to happen to them. Because they need time to adjust. I’m totally against all these short performances-two minutes, three minutes. It’s really feeding an audience who doesn’t have time. I don’t have time in my life, but I have time in my performance. I always have time in my performance.8

Thus, we see that the state of the viewer is a crucial element in Abramović’s work, which relates to Heidegger’s question of Being. The viewer’s experience, while observing her works, will have an effect on the viewer’s being.

Furthermore, in her works, the artist expresses the presence of human beings in the moment, in time and in space. She highlights this through her performances, acting in real life in front of an audience, and especially by testing her own endurance and pain. One example is her work Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, performed in 1975.9  In this work, Abramović continuously hits her face and her hair with a hairbrush while repeating the phrase, “art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful.”9 In another more complex work, Lips of Thomas, also performed in 1975, Abramović first drinks a bottle of red wine and a kilo of honey, and then breaks the wine glass with her hand. Afterwards, she cuts the shape of the communist star on her stomach with a razor blade, whips herself until she bleeds and, finally, lies down on a cross, made out of ice. She stays lying on the cross until the audience intervenes and takes her away. One common characteristic between these two last works is that she inflicts pain on herself. She intentionally hurts herself in front of the audience, which also very much affects the way they perceive her artistic performance. In describing his question of Being, Heidegger recalls the concept of time in relation to our presence. In other words, being present means being in the world, right here, right now. In essence, he claims that we, as beings, are delivered to a world that already exists. We do not have control in the ways that we are affected by the situations we find ourselves in, which further reveals the fundamental structure of the world and of our “being” in it.10 Especially in Lips of Thomas, Abramović marks her presence through her suffering and endurance. The whipping and the cross both refer to the suffering of Christ, “The fact that an act which involves pain or self-inflicted violence can be elevated to the level of rite clearly relates closely to Christian memory.”11 Although the works address many other issues beyond the question of Being, such as feminism and religion, it is clear that the self-inflicted pain will bring about an awareness of the body’s presence among the audience.

This painful state that Abramović undergoes creates a strong sense of her presence about ‘right here, right now,’ as described by Heidegger. It is also what creates such relation between her and her audience. The audience feels her presence as they watch her performance, and undoubtedly gain some kind of experience from it. For one thing, there is the big question on what their role as an audience entails: Do they stop her? Do they simply witness what is happening and not do anything about it? Hence, we can see that on top of referring to the presence of the artist’s being in the world through self-inflicted pain, her performance brings about the question of Being among the audience as well. She illustrates that we are human, that we can suffer, and that we are all present in a same given time and space.

Moreover, Abramović addresses the question of Being through physical references, also referring to the fact that our bodies are all matter. One of her artworks which does not involve any self-inflicted physical pain, but that does focus on this idea of beings as matter, is Cleaning the Mirror, performed in 1995. In this work, she vigorously scrubs skeletal bones until they are all clean. As an audience, watching this performance creates a sense of recognition about our being, “While watching your innermost physical structure being picked painfully clean, you feel a sense of shocked recognition similar to seeing an x-ray.”12 Thus, looking at a skeleton, which constitutes our body, drives us, as viewers, to contemplate about our body and our sense of being in this world.  It makes us think about what we are, that we are all matter.

Another artist that addresses the question of being is a German performance artist, Joseph Beuys. During his career, he strongly supported the idea that every human being is an artist; that we, as humans, should exert our minds, use our knowledge and creativity, and be spiritual. Through his art, his aim was to make the viewer aware of the world’s conditions and to show that we can recover the damage that has been done.13 Unlike Abramović, whose focus is on our physicality in our presence and in our being, Beuys focuses more on our immateriality; the energy that he believed existed among all living things and shared among them, and which represents the intuition to be reborn and to regenerate our being-in-the-world.14

He believed that art can help us achieve this state because, similarly to Heidegger’s invention of a new language to express his ideas, art can help us perceive the imperceptible:

To experience the presence of the immaterial within us and outside us, or rather through us, for this non-matter is inscribed neither in time nor in space. It is always there and never there, everywhere and nowhere, and can be revealed only beyond intelligence, as a presence that is felt without being understood.15
 Thus, we can once again see the importance of art as a means to express ideas and themes that are more obscure.

In his works, Beuys often used substances such as fat, honey, wax and gelatin, because they are matters that change in shape depending on their environment and their properties, such as heat, cold, caloric value, and energy expenditure. He saw this characteristic as an emblematic value of the representation of the invisible characterization of the process of life, which in turn, emphasizes our being in the world. In his artwork, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare , performed in 1965 Beuys holds a dead hare in his arms and communicates with it with sounds, noises and silence. During this communication, his head is covered with honey and gold leaf, which are meant to represent the liquefaction of the process of thought. Its fluidity is meant to allow it to “glide towards levels of communication beyond human semantics.”16 Here, honey works as a link between the Earth and the heavens, and is considered like a substance that possesses immaterial forces. The connection between our being and our thoughts is evident in this work. Furthermore, another existential concept that is referred to in this work is what happens to us before life and death. The dead hare that he holds was initially born from the Earth. Now that it is dead, it will become part of Earth again.  This artwork is about our presence in the world, which connects to Heidegger’s statement about the concept of time in relation to our presence. In essence, what is illustrated is that we are all part of the world and repeatedly delivered to it through life and death.

Another one of his works done in 1970, Celtic +~ , also refers to this energy that is passed around among all living beings. In his performance, he threw gelatin on the walls and on his head. He chose to use gelatin because he saw it as a means to soften thought and to restore its long lost mobility, considering that he saw the human mind as more rigid than it should be. He once again referred to the process of creation, that “every man is an artist, since this process of creation can emerge from whoever has widened the scope of his perception from the inside.”17

In conclusion, the question of Being is by far one of the most complex questions that one can contemplate. While it is an issue that can be addressed in many ways, Marina Abramović focuses on our physical presence in the world, often hurting herself in her performances to make the viewers more conscious of the present time and space, and of our bodies as living beings in this world. In contrast, Joseph Beuys focuses much more on the spiritual energy that travels within all living beings, and tries to express the notion that all humans possess creativity and knowledge which characterize their being.


1. –. Faith: The Impact of Judeo-Christian Religion on Art at the Millennium, (Connecticut: The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000), 15.
2. Hubert L. Dreyfus, “Heidegger, Martin.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 23, 2012, http://0www.oxfordartonline.com.mercury.concordia.ca/subscriber/article/grove/art/T037220.
3. Martin Heidegger, “Existence and Being,” Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman, 129.
4. Hubert L. Dreyfus, and Mark A. Wrathall,“A Companion to Heidegger,” (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008), 12.
5. Ibid.
6. Oliver Parfitt, “Performance art,” The Oxford Companion to Western Art, Oxford Art Online, Oxford University Press, accessed November 23, 2012,http://0www.oxfordartonline.com.mercury.concordia.ca/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e201.
7. Mark Dawes, “Performance Art: Spectacle of the Body,” Circa Art Magazine, 74 (1995): 26.
8. Marina Abramović, Chris Thompson and Katarina Weslien, “Pure Raw: Performance, Pedagogy, and (Re)presentation,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 28, (2006): 34.
9. Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, by Marina Abramović, Charlottenburg Art Festival, Copenhagen, 1975.
10. Adrian Gorea, “Heidegger’s God: Creative Process as an Act of Faith” (lecture, ARTH 383: Contemporary Art Philosophy ad Religion: The Interrelations of the Sacred and Profane, Concordia University, October 15, 2012).
11. Mark Dawes, “Performance Art: Spectacle of the Body,” 27.
12. Ibid., 28.
13. Annie Suquet, “Archaic Thought and Ritual in the Work of Joseph Beuys,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 28 (1995): 149.
14. Ibid.,150
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid., 154.
17. Ibid., 155.