Reading Marina Abramović’s Performance Art as a Feminist Act

Samantha Henman

 I have often wondered how large of a role feminism plays in my identity and the decisions I make in my daily life. As a self-identifying feminist, I consider feminism to be something that has deeply influenced my views on almost every issue, however, I am not sure that it is particularly visible or obvious to any person I may come into contact with. The art practice of Marina Abramović operates on a similar but distinct axis. Although she has never identified herself as a feminist, there is something about her work that has always stood out to me as having a strong feminist slant. In her writings on feminist art, Jayne Wark has argued that it is not necessarily the presence of a feminist intention behind art that is important, but rather the political implications of the art and whether or not these implications engage in a feminist discourse.1 Artists who use “performance to bring an awareness of feminist concerns to the practice of art making, […] explicitly propose the idea that art could be a form of political science.”2 The issues and ideas behind many of Abramović’s performances are ones that have been important to feminism and feminist art – among them, the body and its limits, the passive-active binary, and appropriation as it applies to the notion of the individual creative genius in the avant-garde art world. In Abramović’s early practice, a definite preoccupation with the body leads us to examine the ways in which the viewer and the artist act and react with her body when it is involved with performance. She explores how the limits of pain affect the body, particularly in those works that involve violence. The manner in which the audience reacts to the artist’s body, particularly in situations where roles are reversed and the audience becomes the active participant, provides an interesting and fresh point of view towards the female body. This approach is made even more poignant in situations where Abramović’s body has been purposely made vulnerable to the audience. A later performance, Seven Easy Pieces (2005), gives insight into the ways in which Abramović’s work may encourage thorough readings of the history of art and the history of performance art as feminist endeavors. By examining these subjects, she demonstrates that art doesn’t necessarily need to call attention to itself as feminist to be read as feminist art.

Abramović frequently emphasizes the important role her body plays in her performances, from her pre-performance preparation to the performances themselves, which often focus on the physical limits of the body. Feminist discourse, in relation to art, immediately recognizes the use of the body as a tool in constructing social hierarchy. It likewise acknowledges the societal control of bodily appetites and desires, which have been used to serve a capitalist ideology as well as to subordinate women. In her establishment of the self/other dichotomy, Simone de Beauvoir defines one of the ways in which the constructed social hierarchy works with the body.3 In this discourse, man (as ‘self’) is seen as able to transcend, whereas woman (as ‘other’) is bound to the corporeal. It is here that the ideas of de Beauvoir and other feminist thinkers, like Luce Irigaray, diverge. De Beauvoir argues for the eradication of sexual difference, while Irigaray argues that this would still leave us with a phallocentric system, and sexual difference should be looked at in a more positive light.4 While Abramović’s interest in the body follows a course laid out historically by artists like Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and the post-war avant-garde, many of her performances push the body to extremes that those artists never dreamed of. By going to such extremes, she also examines what she thinks of as contemporary society’s obsession with conquering the limits of the body.5

Just as I have posited that there does not need to be a feminist intention behind Abramović’s art for it to be read as feminist, in some of her work, like Escape (1998), she has attempted to show that bodies don’t necessarily need to be in attendance for their presence to be palpable. Escape is a performance that took place in an empty women’s prison in Melbourne, Australia. Abramović had previously visited the prison, and found herself fascinated by the traces that the prisoner’s presence had left – from the marks on the wall, to the lingering scent of their bodies. For the performance, Abramović put visitors in the position of the inmates. She trained guards to help her prepare the ‘prisoners’, who were led into “steel constructions with leather belts” and “cut off from surrounding sounds by headphones” for a period of 15 minutes.6 In this work, Abramović has the visitors bear witness to the traces of presence left by former prisoners. Thus, the participants’ experience of visiting the prison is made more intense by the artist’s machinations. Each participant puts their body in a situation that would have been familiar to the inmates of the prison, and by doing so, recognizes the futility of patriarchal society’s Cartesian obsession with transcending the physical body. A physical body considered too corporeal and feminine in comparison to the mind, which is considered to be superior and masculine. It emphasizes to the participants that the mind remains firmly locked in the body, especially in situations where physical and psychological pain are so closely tied.

Abramović’s Lips of Thomas (fig. 1) performance from 1975 took place in the Krinzinger Gallery in Innsbruck. It is another example of the artist’s desire to examine the limitations of the body as well as the effects of both pleasure and pain. During the performance, Abramović undressed, framed a picture of a man with a five-pointed star, sat down, ate a kilogram of honey, emptied a bottle of wine and then broke the bottle. While she was facing away from the man’s photo, the artist carved a five-pointed star into her belly.

Abramović then knelt in the direction of the picture, flogged herself with a whip, and laid herself down on ice blocks. An overhead heater ensured that her wounds did not stop bleeding. Abramović stayed on the blocks for 30 minutes, until the audience intervened, covering her in their coats and carrying her off the ice. This performance was a transgression of boundaries for both artist and spectator. The fact that she placed the spectators into a voyeuristic role that they couldn’t entirely fulfill, as social rules regarding behavior guided them to intervene, is extremely significant. Each element of the performance was carefully planned to back the spectator into a corner of sorts, forcing them to take part in an uncomfortable situation. The audience is then left in a tight spot regarding interpretation. In her performance, the audience might be able to use interpretation as a way to protect themselves from having to make the difficult choice between ethical concerns (stopping the performance) and aesthetic concerns (remaining a passive viewer). She seems to have deliberately chosen signs and symbols with myriad meanings, like the five-pointed star, which “could allude to highly different mythical, religious, cultural, historical, and political contexts, as, for instance, it could be used as a symbol of Venus or, generally, for femininity.”7 Abramović’s positioning of the spectator in a liminal zone between ethical and aesthetic concerns, as well as the emphasis on the futility of interpretation, is a reflection of the difficult position that feminist artists occupy, especially in an era that is often erroneously called post-feminist.

In many of Abramović’s performances, the nature of active and passive roles are examined in a way that calls attention to the constructed gender binaries deeply rooted in patriarchal society. For Role Exchange (1975, fig. 2), a performance inspired by time Abramović spent in the red light district of Amsterdam, she decided to work with a prostitute who had been working for the same amount of time that Abramović had been working as a professional artist – 10 years. The artist went to the red light district and stood in the window of a brothel, while the prostitute went to the De Appel Gallery and stood there, as the artist might at an opening. Somewhat ironically, the prostitute only stayed at the gallery for two hours instead of Abramović’s proposed six. This was because the prostitute would make more on the street in that time than if she were being paid from the artist’s honorarium.8 The accessibility of the spaces the artist and the prostitute were in at the time of the performance played an important part, as each had windows visible to passers-by on the street and were open to the general public. In this way, Role Exchange called attention to the way public or exterior space is positioned as masculine, while interior space is regarded as feminine, yet at the same time open to men at their own discretion.9 While her choice of subject matter could position her art in part of a larger feminist discourse regarding sex work, it is the way in which Abramović deconstructs binaries of public and private space as they relate to gender that is consistent with other post-structuralist elements found in her art practice.

Another type of constructed binary that is frequently found in dialogues surrounding both feminism and contemporary art is the distinction between passive and active. Post-structuralist feminist discourse has examined the way in which the male role has been constructed as active, while females have been relegated to a passive role within patriarchal society. Abramović states that, “in traditional performance the role of the spectators is always that of passive observers, but my desire is that everyone should have their own experience.”10 By doing this, Abramović seeks to create new roles for the audience, breaking assumptions about the traditional position of the viewer in art. This action is felt most manifestly in her performance Rhythm 0 (fig. 3), originally performed in Naples in 1974, in which the artist embodied a passive role and leaving 72 objects on a table for the audience to use on her as they saw fit. Among these objects were “a gun, a bullet, a saw, an axe, a fork, a comb, a whip, lipstick, a bottle of perfume, paint, knives, matches, a feather, a rose, a candle, water, chains, nails, needles, scissors, honey, grapes, plasters, sulphur and olive oil.”11 Throughout the performances, different participants used the razors to cut off all of Abramović’s clothing, and by the end she had been “cut, painted, cleaned, decorated, [and] crowned with thorns.”12 At one point the bullet was loaded into the gun and pointed at the artist’s head by a participant, until another participant intervened to take it away. After six hours the audience intervened to prevent anything else from being done to Abramović, and at this point she walked out of the gallery, stating that the performance was complete. Abramović remarked on the experience:

The experience was pretty frightening because I was just the object, well dressed, looking the public straight. In the beginning nothing happened. Later on the public started being more and more aggressive and they projected three basic images on me: image of Madonna, image of the mother and image of the whore. It was a very strange situation in Naples: women did very little, were hardly active, but were telling men what to do.13

Although the artist skirts the implications of her own passivity and the audience’s violence, this performance can easily be read as a scathing critique of the risks posed to any passive female body in our society, addressing widely-held attitudes towards the female body. However, the inclusion of the body in the artistic performance can itself be a positive act, in that it shifts the role of the female body: “When women use their own bodies in their art work, they are using their selves; a significant psychological factor converts these bodies or faces from object to subject.”14

Abramović has expressed that “demystification of the artistic act [and] the democratization of art” are significant concerns for her artistic practice.15 In her work, Seven Easy Pieces, from 2002, the artist confronts the many issues and misconceptions surrounding performance, particularly the way a singular moment of performance is fetishized, the mystification of early unrecorded performance art, what a ‘proper’ method of documenting performance might be, and the implications of reenactment or appropriation as it applies to performance art specifically. In Seven Easy Pieces, Abramović reenacted six different performances, and on the seventh night created an entirely new performance. Some of these performances that Abramović chose were better documented than others – for example, her reenactment of Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic is based solely on sketchy accounts and blurry photos of the original performance.16 Each reenactment lasted seven hours a day at the Guggenheim in New York City. Her method of pacing the reenactments of the pieces throughout six days, with a new performance on the seventh, recalls the pacing of the creation of the world in Genesis. “By citing, and, at the same time, transforming, even subverting the scheme of Genesis, the female artist Abramović in a way, ridicules the idea of the male artist as a God-like creator.”17 Abramović’s choice of pieces to reenact, and the conditions under which she reenacts them, is extremely important if we try to look at Seven Easy Pieces as contributing to a feminist discourse of art history. It is significant for the scope of this paper that Abramović chose a variety of artists, each with a variety of ideas behind their work, making it clear that gender or politics isn’t the driving force behind her appropriation of their work. Instead, re-writing what has come to be the ‘canon’ of the history of performance art is Abramović aim, as well as making it accessible to new groups of people. The importance of accessibility also contributes to the way in which Seven Easy Pieces confronts the idea of the single male creative genius, which has permeated the field of art history for much too long. Abramović’s reenactment makes great works of performance art something that anyone can do, and what makes them great is not the fact that they are created by great artists, but that they are universal, and will remain significant whether they were performed in the 1970s by Bruce Nauman, or performed last week by one of Abramović’s students. This universality speaks to myriad backgrounds and points of views, playing upon the call for “pluralist variety” in feminist artwork.18

The range found in Abramović’s art practice is important in this light, as well as the way it confronts a variety of issues of direct concern to feminist discourse regarding art and art history. Abramović’s work is extremely important within the framework of feminist post-structuralism and the dismantling of arbitrary and incorrect binaries associated with male and female roles in society. Abramović does so by subverting the traditional way in which these binaries have been applied and by creating completely new roles and options for both male and female artists and spectators. Although she does not openly express that she is a feminist, to do so while producing the art that she does would be counter-intuitive and would only reinforce traditional binaries and social roles. Marina Abramović’s work, as we have seen, proves that art doesn’t need to call itself feminist to take place in a feminist discourse.

 Bibliography
Abramović, Marina. Marina Abramović. Milan: Charta, 2002.
Bergoffen, Debra. “Simone de Beauvoir: (Re)counting the Sexual Difference”. In The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir. Edited by Claudia Card, 248-265. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Broude, Norma, and Mary D. Garrard. “Introduction: Feminism and Art in the Early Twentieth Century,” In The Power of Feminist Art: the American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact. Edited by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, 10-31. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1994.
Celant, Germano, and Marina Abramović. “Towards a Pure Energy.” In Marina Abramović: Public Body: Installations and Objects, 1965-2001. Edited by Germano Celant, 9-30. Milan: Charta, 2001.
Denegri, Dobrila. “Conversation with Marina Abramović.” In Marina Abramović: Performing Body, 17-23. Milan: Charta, 1998.
Fischer-Licthe, Erica. “Performance Art: Experiencing Liminality.” In 7 Easy Pieces, 33-46. Milan: Charta, 2007.
Jones, Amelia, and Tracey Warr. The Artist’s Body. London: Phaidon, 2000.
Lippard, Lucy. From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976.
Novakov, Anna. “Point of Access: Marina Abramović’s 1975 Performance Role Exchange.” Woman’s Art Journal 24.2(2004): 31-35. Accessed 8 March, 2009. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1358784.
Spector, Nancy, and Marina Abramović. “Marina Abramović Interviewed.” In 7 Easy Pieces, 13-32. Milan: Charta, 2007.
Wark, Jayne. Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

End Notes
1 Jayne Wark, Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), 4.
2 Wark, 5.
3  Debra Bergoffen, “Simone de Beauvoir: (Re)counting the Sexual Difference,” in The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, ed. ClaudiaCard (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 248.
4 Wark, 166.
5 Dobrila Denegri, “Conversation with Marina Abramović,” in Marina Abramović: Performing Body (Milan: Charta, 1998), 18.
6 Germano Celant and Marina Abramović, “Towards a Pure Energy,” in Marina Abramović: Public Body: Installations and Objects, 1965-2001, ed. Germano Celant (Milan: Charta, 2001), 17.
7 Erica Fischer-Licthe, “Performance Art: Experiencing Liminality,” in 7 Easy Pieces (Milan: Charta, 2007), 35.
8 Marina Abramović, Marina Abramović, (Milan: Charta, 2002), 31.
9 Anna Novakov, “Point of Access: Marina Abramović’s 1975 Performance Role Exchange,” Woman’s Art Journal 24.2(2004), accessed 8 March, 2009. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1358784.
10 Dobrila Denegri, “Conversation with Marina Abramović,” in Marina Abramović: Performing Body (Milan: Charta, 1998), 19.
11 Amelia Jones, and Tracey Warr. The Artist’s Body (London: Phaidon, 2000), 125.
12 Ibid.
13 Marina Abramović, Marina Abramović, (Milan: Charta, 2002), 30.
14 Lucy Lippard, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976), 124.
15 Denegri 1998, 17.
16 Nancy Spector, and Marina Abramović. “Marina Abramović Interviewed,” in 7 Easy Pieces, (Milan: Charta, 2007), 15.
17 Fischer-Lichte 2007, 43.
18 Norma Broude, and Mary D. Garrard, “Introduction: Feminism and Art in the Early Twentieth Century,” in The Power of Feminist Art: the American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1994), 10.