Art Must be True - for 736 Hours and 30 Minutes!

author Marina Abramović
written by Nada Beroš

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When you draw with your right hand and become so skilful that you could draw with your eyes closed, start drawing with your left hand.


It was the advice of the supreme master Krsto Hegedušić to a young student from Belgrade, who attended his Master’s Workshop in Zamenhoffova Street in Zagreb, the cult postgraduate class of the former Yugoslavia. The advice was given in the early seventies, right after the student revolts which also had a turbulent expression in Tito’s Yugoslavia, but with a public and a private face. Krsto’s thoughts, in the words of the young Marina Abramović, largely determined the direction of her entire artistic career despite the big difference between their artistic worlds.[1] She also said that her development was greatly influenced by Tomislav Gotovac, the artist whose own example eventually made her choose performance art.[2] Soon after her Zagreb ‘lessons’, she went into the world, which was primarily the world of performance, to eventually crown the four decades of her long and fruitful career with a retrospective exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with a significant title: ‘Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present’ (14 March – 31 May 2010).


This very present artist was physically and spiritually present at the exhibition for 736 hours and 30 minutes, sitting still across from the visitors, who took turns on the other side of the table during the three months of the exhibition. This longest performance in her entire career was the crown of the exhibition that she rightly called ‘radical’, if only for the fact that it presented nothing but performances, a material that is hard to put in a museum. Certainly, it was high-risk material even for the institution – the oldest and still the most important museum of modern and contemporary art in the world – and an important landmark in its history of preserving and presenting contemporary art. Suffice it to mention that it was the first retrospective of performances in the history of MoMA, putting many dilemmas before the artist, the exhibition curator Klaus Biesenbach and the institution. The harsher critics recognized them as conceptual problems, even though it was claimed that the compromises resulted from strict security requirements.


Let us first take a deep breath, Marina Abramović would say.


The history of what we now call performance goes back to the early sixties. After half a century of relevant heritage, it is still perceived as an alternative art form, which usually loses more than it gains when it is put in a museum. The here and now of a performance applies to a specific moment and a specific audience (however, there are performances without an audience), but it can be documented and perpetuated with photography, audio or video record. And that is how a performance is usually recreated in a museum: by means of photographic or video documentation. Recently, there has been a rise in re-enactments of performances, either by the authors/artists themselves or by completely new participants.


A necessary consequence of such re-enactment is the theatrical aspect of the performance, which requires a precise script for the work. The script is actually the performance that the work refers to. There is nothing disputable about that, says Marina Abramović, who compares it with reproductive art, since a performance is ‘like a piece of music, an opera or piano concerto; of course, it will be different with each new performer after the disappearance of the original voice or virtuoso’.[3]


Of course, a re-enactment is essentially different from the performances from the sixties and seventies, primarily because of the predictable ending. In the ‘original’ performances, neither the performer nor the audience could foresee the flow, duration and ending of the performance. There were neither rehearsals nor repetitions. Everything was about the process and not the result of the work, as Marina Abramović likes to point out. The notion of disturbation art, used by the American philosopher and art theorist Arthur C. Danto when analyzing her work and the early works of famous performers (Chris Burden, Vito Acconci etc.), points out the very essence of the performances of the period: the wish to disturb the audience, but also the conscious destabilization and extreme physical or mental states of the performer.[4] The closeness of death, similar to extreme sports, is an undeniable fact that gives strength, persuasion and truthfulness to a performance.


For years, Marina Abramović has been synonymous with the radical art of performance. Journalists often ask her about her game with death, a kind of Russian roulette, which she actually played for the first time as a fourteen-year-old girl. The panic she felt then left a deep mark on her life. Today she claims that the medium of performance is what she uses as an anesthetic releasing her from fear and helping her body and mind to endure extreme strain. One of the most famous early performances was Rhythm 0 (1974), performed in front of an audience in Naples for six hours. She placed 72 objects upon a table – including a knife, a razor, a gun, a bullet, a whip – that the audience could use on her body. In the end, she reached a simple conclusion: ‘The audience can really kill you!’[5] This was not just some kind of a theatre of cruelty in the manner of Artaud. As the performance went on, the audience in Naples was getting more aggressive, cutting and massacring her body; finally, a curator had to stop the performance and take the gun from an audience member who loaded and cocked the weapon.


It is well known that Marina was close to death in many performances. In Rhythm 5 (1974), she was almost suffocated by the smoke, lying in a burning five-pointed star. She endured extreme physical and mental strain in prolonged performances together with the German artist Ulay (real name: Uwe Laysiepen), her partner in life and art from 1976 to 1988, including their last and most famous performance, Great Wall Walk in 1988. The fascinating thing about the art of Marina Abramović, however, is not the endurance, the determination to persevere until the end, but the very presence, being here and now, the complete immersion in what she does.


We will agree that the presence from the exhibition title indicates a discourse belonging to the notion of the icon, the mystical presence that we find in the images of saints.[6] She grew up in a Christian Orthodox society, was educated in the spirit of atheism (her parents were Partisans, heroes and communist officials in the former Yugoslavia), but her conception of the world is largely influenced by Eastern religions and philosophy. She often emphasizes the influence of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, from whom she took the concept of emptiness as form.


‘One must go through a process of incredible discipline to achieve a state of complete emptiness.’[7] She finds the idea of humility to be very important. ‘The limits of the body should be the subject of my work,’ she said in an interview with Thomas McEvilley.[8] However, it should be emphasized that the artist, while examining the endurance of the body, questioned the unmapped areas of spirituality and morals. She has not explicitly called herself a feminist artist, but her opus has been one of the most vital postmodernist threads, particularly marked by a link with feminism. Therefore, Arthur C. Danto is right in saying that the activities of Marina Abramović influenced the work of many female artists who tried to express broader social issues through the medium of the body.[9]


The big differences in performances in the East and the West in the early seventies were shown by two large exhibitions in the late nineties. The American exhibition ‘Out of Actions – Actionism, Body Art & Performance 1949-1979’ presented the works of 150 artists from Western and Eastern Europe, Japan, South America and the United States. The other exhibition, ‘Body and the East’[10] in the Modern Gallery in Ljubljana, focused on the artists behind the ‘iron curtain’ whose work was seen primarily through the prism of the dark and irrational red dictatorship.[11] Still, forcefulness and ‘truthfulness’ were common to Chris Burden and Gina Pane and Vito Acconci and Petr Štembera, regardless of the social context of their performances. There was no acting, no performance for the camera, it was not the main goal. 


This is not true for re-performances, which have been staged in museums in recent years. Now the artist is in control, ending the performance at the precise moment when he or she wants it, in accordance with a set script, unlike the earlier performances when ‘the audience could kill you’. It was none other than Marina Abramović, with her exhibition ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ in the Guggenheim Museum in 2005, who ‘opened the floodgates and allowed the multitude of re-performances,’[12] the re-enactments of the performances of other artists. She was very influential in the first decade of the 21st century, but also created a strict normative protocol for re-performances – from a thorough study of documents to a significant re-interpretation that should turn the re-performance into a new work. Now it could be said that the performance has become a libretto for the re-performance.


With a touch of cynicism, she claims that performances always come back in fashion in times of recession, when the sales of works of art declines, but it seems that Marina Abramović herself contributes to the new craze for re-performances.[13]


The artist’s intentions are clear: she wants performances to become part of official history, she wants to protect them from the misuse of the media, photographers and other artists who are illegally using someone else’s creations, and last but not least, she wants the original authors to be paid for their work. For this purpose, she established a foundation called ARS, Artists Rights Society. It is a copyright agency that takes care of performance heritage, prescribing the conditions under which one may enact the performance of another artist. It is important to emphasize that a re-performance should deviate from the original, confirming that it is a new work.


The last hall of MoMA presents Marina’s re-performances of Bruce Naumann’s Body Pressure (1974), Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972), Valie Export’s Action Pants, Genital Panic (1969), Gina Pane’s The Conditioning, first action of Self-Portrait(s) (1973), Joseph Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), and of her own Lips of Thomas (1975), in the form of video-documentation, creating some kind of a performance anthology. Even in earlier years, the artists used the hybrid form of performances and videos (some of them were made specially for video, such as Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, 1975). There is nothing questionable there. What some critics consider questionable about re-performances is that they are closing the possibilities of performances instead of opening them. In fact, the American critic Carrie Lambert-Beatty claims that the re-performance restrictions proposed by Marina Abramović are reducing the interesting part of a performance – its tendency to spread freely – and emphasizing its boring part: the glorification of the artist.[14] The stress on heroic and saintly aspects of the central performance of the retrospective in MoMA, The Artist is Present / Umjetnica je prisutna, which gave the title to the entire exhibition, is considered by the critic Lambert-Beatty to be the most questionable part of the exhibition.[15] The scene in MoMA, where the audience finds the artist sitting still under the floodlights which give a special luminosity and aura to Marina’s face, while the visitor’s chair across the artist is bathed only by natural light, makes the performance idea suspect. Even the fact that the audience never sees the artist sitting down or leaving the hall after the performance like an ordinary mortal indicates that MoMA wanted to use this performance to turn Marina Abramović into a martyr and star at the same time, which is absolutely unnecessary, says Lambert-Beatty, since she is truly ‘a great artist, a performer who is able to electrify the audience, a true legend of art history’.[16]


We should, however, recognize where the artist had to depart from her original idea for institutional, security, and not conceptual reasons. The performance The Artist is Present was conceived as a continuation of her early performances where she invited the audience to have an active role. Unlike the relatively small audiences in her early performances, the expected number of visitors in an institution like MoMA is naturally big, so they had to provide security officers and observe strict security rules, which are ruthless in a country with a high risk of terrorism. At first Marina wanted to spend all her time at MoMA during the entire retrospective, just as she spent the twelve days of the performance House With the Ocean View in Sean Kelly Gallery in New York in 2002, meditating and mourning the victims of terrorist attacks in a way. (‘Started the year after the events of September 11, 2001, the work tapped into the ideas of meditation, reflection and remorse.’)[17] However, MoMA could not let her do that. So she redefined her idea and decided to spend eight hours on average – the standard working day – sitting still in the Atrium of Donald B. and Cathrine C. Marron, where the performance took place, every day for three months. Just like many times before, she set herself a strict daily ritual where she is interested in extreme situations: on one hand, there is radical simplicity; on the other, there is drama, even opera. Unsurprisingly, Charles Atlas compares her to Maria Callas.[18]


The Artist is Present clearly continues the performance Nightsea Crossing, which she did for the first time with Ulay in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sidney in 1981. Sitting still, facing each other at a rectangular mahogany table and turning their profile to the audience, they spent 16 days subsisting on nothing but water. They did that performance 22 times in 22 global locations from 1981 to 1987, occasionally using certain objects on the table.[19] In the largest and very thorough essay in the exhibition catalogue, the curator Klaus Biesenbach points out: ‘Contemplative sitting is the centre of her work, which actually sums up the entire cultural history of the act of sitting that starts with the rich repository of rituals.’[20] From the early Christian ascetics like St Simeon Stylites, who voluntarily spent twenty years on a pillar as a penance, to the self-mummification techniques of Buddhist monks, practiced in Japan from the 12th to the 19th century, where a priest would dehydrate his body with special diets and close himself in a narrow coffin in the lotus position, remaining in that meditative position until the time when his soul leaves his body, to modern political protest sittings, history has many examples of sitting as the expression of strong acts of will and asceticism.


The table is another important element of Marina’s work. Sometimes it has the role of an altar for everyday objects; sometimes it is the stage as the place of meeting and action. At the exhibition at MoMA, in the performance The Artist is Present, it was soon removed as an unnecessary obstacle between the artist and the visitor sitting across her. As Abramović said, she was primarily interested by the ‘dialog of energies,’ so there was no need for an object between them like in many earlier performances.[21]


Ritual elements and a trance-like state, analyzed by the critics Arthur C. Danto and Thomas McEvilley, are present in almost all her performances. For example, in the performance Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful in 1975, the artist forcefully brushed her hair until her head started to bleed (in the video version, her hair is brushed in an endless loop). ‘Art does not have to be beautiful, art has to be true,’ says Marina Abramović in the audio guide for the publication The Artist is Present.


A similar state of ritual trance happens in numerous performances where the artist’s body is accompanied by a human skeleton. Facing one’s mortality, the tendency to ‘bare to the bone’, can be seen in many works, such as Cleaning the Mirror I (1995), Nude With Skeleton (2002–05), Carrying the Skeleton (2008), hybrid performances varying from very simple ritual actions to complex baroque structures (Balkan Baroque, 1997).


Personally, I prefer the ‘radically simple’ performances of Marina Abramović. Many of them were created together with Ulay (Breathing In / Breathing Out, Belgrade, 1977; Rest Energy, Dublin, 1980; Imponderabilia, Bologna, 1977). I saw a dozen of Marina’s performances and appearances, from Venice to Ljubljana and Berlin to New York. I was always shocked by the energy, vitality and persuasion radiating from her on the scene and in everyday life. Unfortunately, I did not visit the New York retrospective, but new technologies more or less brought it to my home. All the works, exhibition videos, interviews and the artist’s guide to the exhibition are available at the web page of MoMA. The great publication about the exhibition, including a CD ROM with the artist’s voice commenting each photograph, explaining why each photograph has a particular place in the publication, gives you the wonderful feeling that you are not disadvantaged in any way. As a special treat, she tells the well-known anecdotes about her life, which are excellent examples of modern urban legends.[22] It is the inevitable paradoxical situation in our digital age: the artist is present in mind and body at the exhibition, but it seems that the viewer no longer needs to be physically present at the exhibition.  


To be honest, I am sorry I could not personally choose the ‘door’ that would lead me to the hall presenting the 12 years of her work with Ulay. Live, naked, opposed bodies of young performers (this time in three combinations: man opposed to woman; woman opposed to woman; man opposed to man), just like in the original performance, Imponderabilia from 1977, where Marina and Ulay opposed their bodies, made it difficult to go through the narrow entrance to the gallery hall.[23] The museum visitors found themselves in the typical situation we often encounter in a small elevator or in a movie hall, when we have to make our way along rows of people who are already at their places and cannot avoid unintentional touches of strangers’ bodies in the cramped space, face to face. Imponderabilia[24] is definitely Marina Abramović’s simplest and warmest performance, with a great potential for humour. In today’s age of much greater tolerance for sexual difference and orientation than in the seventies, it is still an important test of normative heterosexuality: which face will we turn to, the male or the female, and whose pubic hair will be brushed by our buttocks?



[1]          ‘All my life, I have been trying to escape from what I learned, towards the unknown, the frightening, an unexplored territory. It is really important in my work – to change something fixed to reach a new experience. And I learned that from Krsto Hegedušić,’ in the interview with Nada Beroš, Taming the Darkness, Fraktura, Zagreb, 2011, pp. 333-349 (first published in Globus, 1999). 

[2]              She also assigned an important role to the former Gallery of Contemporary Art (today’s Museum of Contemporary Art), where she had her first and only one-woman exhibition, in 1974, with catalogue design by Sanja Iveković.

[3]              Klaus Biesenbach, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, The Artist was Present, The Artist Will Be Present, pref. cat, MoMA, 2010, p. 20.

[4]              Arthur C. Danto, Danger and Disturbation: The Art of Marina Abramović, pref. cat, MoMA, 2010, pp. 28–35.

[5]              Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, The Artist’s Guide, CD ROM for the homonymous publication with the recorded artist’s guide through the publication.

[6]           Ibid., note 3, pp. 12–21. The artist herself gives a simple explanation that the title was initially taken from the invitations to the opening of the exhibition.

[7]              In the interview with David Ebony, Art in America, May 2009, pp. 112–121.

[8]              Thomas McEvillley, ‘Stages of Energy. Performance Art Ground Zero?’, in Artist Body, Milan, 1998, pp. 14-25.

[9]           Arthur C. Danto, Danger and Disturbation: The Art of Marina Abramović, pref. cat, MoMA, 2010, p. 29.

[10]          Body and the East, Modern Gallery in Ljubljana, 1998.

[11]             Zdenka Badovinac, Body and the East, pref. cat., Modern Gallery in Ljubljana, 1998, p. 9.

[12]             Ibid., note 3, p. 18.

[13]             Marina Abramović, interview with David Ebony, Art in America, No 5, May, 2009, p. 115.

[14]             Carrie Lambert–Beatty, ‘Against Performance Art’, Artforum, May, 2010, pp. 209–213.

[15]             Ibid., p. 212.

[16]             Ibid., p. 212.

[17]             Klaus Biesenbach, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, The Artist Was Present, The Artist Will Be Present, pref. cat., MoMA, 2010, p. 17.

[18]             Charles Atlas, Artforum, January, 2010, p. 83.

[19]             Ulay appeared on the first day after the exhibition was opened, on 9 March 2010, and sat across Marina as the third visitor. His photographic portrait, like the portraits of other visitors in the performance, was made by Marco Anelli.

[20]             Ibid., note 3, p. 15.

[21]             Arthur C. Danto, in the essay ‘Sitting with Marina’, New York Times, 23 May 2010, describes the wondrous state of sitting across Marina as a ‘dialogue of the deaf’.

[22]             One of those urban legends is the story that her strict mother imposed a curfew until her 29th birthday, so that all her early performances, until 1975, had to finish before 10 pm!

[23]             Conceptually speaking, I think that the biggest omission of the exhibition is that visitors could enter the hall through the alternative door that was not taken by the live bodies of the performers. I believe that such curatorial concession to the indecisive audience is completely opposed to the work of Marina Abramović.

[24]             Imponderabilia is a term used by the famous Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942). It means the attentive observation of everyday phenomena and rituals like dressing, eating, hygiene etc.