There are easily two different schools of thought when it comes to art. Some believe in the 19th-century French slogan “l’art pour l’art” (“art for art’s sake”), while others think that art should serve a moral, political, or utilitarian purpose. There are also those who believe art should satisfy both. Marina Abramovic’s art is the type of art that pushes herself as well as the audience to question themselves and re-examine their self-identity. In 1974, she performed what was perhaps the most dangerous art experiment any artist had ever done called Rhythm 0, and here is how it went.
Often described as the “grandmother of performing art,” Marina Abramović is a Yugoslavia-born performance artist known for pushing her physical and mental limits.
Marina Abramović was born on November 30, 1946, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Her parents, Danica Rosić and Vojin Abramović, were Yugoslav Partisans during the Second World War, and she often described her family as having been “Red bourgeoisie.” She was a student at the University of Arts in Belgrade from 1965 to 1970 and was brought up under the strict, military-like supervision of her mother who never allowed her to leave the house after ten at night until she was 29 years old. While studying and later teaching art, she delivered many performances including Rhythm 0 in 1974 and The Artist is Present in 2010. She also collaborated with various celebrities such as James Franco, Jay-Z, and Lady Gaga.
Rhythm 0 was a six-hour performance art work by Abramovic performed in 1974 in Studio Morra, Naples. During the performance, she stood motionless and passive while the audience was invited to do to her whatever they wished to her.
Rhythm 0 was one of Abramović’s most challenging and best-known performances. Its purpose was to test the limits of the relationship between a performer and the audience. By changing the roles of each player, she sought her identity through the perspective of others as well as the identity and nature of humanity. Another objective of her art was to represent the objectification of human body. Standing in front of the audience motionless and allowing them to do as they please with her body, she wanted to push the limits of what is considered acceptable.
In front of the audience, Abramovic placed 72 objects on a table which could either give pleasure, inflict pain, or even kill her. The audience was then allowed to use these objects on her.
Among the 72 objects placed in front of the audience were a rose, a feather, perfume, honey, bread, grapes, wine, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, nails, a metal bar, and a gun loaded with one bullet. She also placed instructions on the table that said,
“There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.
Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am)”
In the beginning, the audience reacted modestly and cautiously, but as time passed they became more aggressive. By the end of the performance, Abramović’s clothes were cut off, rose thorns were stuck in her stomach, and someone even had held a gun to her head.
During the performance, Abramović allowed the audience to manipulate her body and actions as well as use the objects on her. It was, in a way, a test of human behavior when there are no social consequences to face. At first, the audience was gentle, giving her roses and kisses. After a while, it started to get aggressive, as someone aimed the gun at her head while another came and took it away.
According to art critic Thomas McEvilley who was present during the performance,
“It began tamely. Someone turned her around. Someone thrust her arms into the air. Someone touched her somewhat intimately. The Neapolitan night began to heat up. In the third hour all her clothes were cut from her with razor blades. In the fourth hour the same blades began to explore her skin. Her throat was slashed so someone could suck her blood. Various minor sexual assaults were carried out on her body.
“She was so committed to the piece that she would not have resisted rape or murder. Faced with her abdication of will, with its implied collapse of human psychology, a protective group began to define itself in the audience. When a loaded gun was thrust to Marina’s head and her own finger was being worked around the trigger, a fight broke out between the audience factions.”
Six hours later at the end of the performance, Abramović stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone moved away from her, unable to face her. Though radical performance art, such as what Abramović does, might seem sensationalist or ridiculous at first glance, it probably was not how the participants must have felt experiencing it in reality.