CLARA WRONSKI Exploring the Gap
An Introduction to Marina Abramović’s Live-performances Three rooms bright coloured two meters above the floor and furnished with simple wooden things for everyday life: a desk, chair, bed, shower and a toilet. Three ladders with upturned knife blades as rungs leading down to the floor. Three walls in every room. The fourth – targeted to the audience – is missing. This was Marina Abramović’s living space in her installation The House with the Ocean View performed in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York 2002. She imposed herself for 12 days neither to eat, speak, read nor to write. There was nothing to amuse herself except a metronome which she had to actuate when it stopped. The audience – a few meters away and not allowed to cross a white line – could watch her during these days. It had to follow the conditions to remain silent, establish energy dialogue with the artist and to use the telescope which stood next to the people. Marina Abramović born in 1946 in Belgrade Yugoslavia describes herself as the “grandmother of performance art”. Her work can divided in three stages: her early solo performances in the 1970s, performances with her former partner Ulay 1976-88 and her return to solo pieces until today. Her first shows were characterized by self-destructive elements by which she tried to reach the limits of her body. They alternated between the desire to control and the desire to submit. In her two-hour performance 1975 for example she ate a kilo of honey, drank one litre of red wine, broke the wine glass with her hand and cut a five-pointed star with a razor blade on her baree stomach. “I violently whip myself until I no longer feel any pain. I lay down on a cross made of ice blocks. The heat of a suspended heater pointed at my stomach causes the cut star to bleed. The rest of my body begins to freeze. I remain on the ice cross for 30 minutes until the public interrupts the piece by removing the ice blocks from underneath me.” She consciously designed her stage and achieved while performing a state of unconsciousness. Marina Abramović comes to a point of transcendence which she wants to be witnessed by an audience. “Her own individual consciousness was not necessary for the completion of the event itself.” She played with the aesthetic expectations of the audience. Her masochistic performance got to the limits of moral endurability and forced the spectators to react, thus they receive a special position in her work. After her break-up with Ulay, with whom she explored the spaces of relation on stage, Marina Abramović came back to solo performances. She was still focused on the investigation of her own borders, but she turned from physical to mind barriers. Also her methods diversified. In her performances she was not eager to hurt her body or to interfere her physical condition but she tried to achieve the goal in rather a meditative way, but what does she really want? It is difficult to find out the exact intent of an artist. There will always be a gap between the artist’s intention and the spectator’s interpretation and it is even harder to explain it without ever having seen them live-performed. But the answers to the questions – what is live-performance and what does it make so unique can – help us get closer to the purpose. That includes also the question what kind of role do the spectators play and how does their presence effect the performance. In an interview which was made on the occasion of her exhibition in New York this year, Marina Abramović says: Performing Art is “the moment when the performer with his one idea steps in his own mental and physical construction in the front of the audience in a particular time. This is not theatre. (…) Performance is real. In theatre you can cut with a knife and there is blood. And the knife is not real and the blood is not real. In performance the knife and the blood and the body of the performer are real.” She mentions that she is no actor, who just repeats the work of somebody else. She is actually there, real and herself. On the one hand she experiments with the states of consciousness and uses her body to expose herself to pressures, dangers and contingencies. On the other hand she wants the spectators to participate in this process. She uses her body to present it and make it present. Her body becomes the instrument to show specific moments of human-being, her body becomes the medium of her art. The performances are not theatre but theatrical because they depend on an audience. In the House with the Ocean View she invites the visitors to take part in the living installation. Thus she does not perform for them but with them. They are invited to enter in dialogue with her which can take different forms. First the presence of both sides is essential for the success of the performance. The title already shows that this installation is a common issue: The House with the Ocean View. The rooms are open in the direction of the audience, of the ocean. The visitors are the ocean. The spectators notice and observe the artist, the artist notices and observes them. Both sides are aware of the presence of each other. This setting creates new room for dialogue without language and the gap in between becomes smaller. The differences between watching and showing disappears, both parts need and depend on each other. Neither the artist nor the audience knows what will happen next but can also determine the progress.Even if Marina Abramovic says that she does not expect anything from the audience but its presence, her living-installation does. She confronts the spectators with their embarrassing feelings and their unpleasant fears by watching her taking a shower, starving, crying, peeing, living without anything to amuse herself and without any chance to leave. It is not surprising that this leads to indignation. Her abstentions provoke the public. A student who visited the gallery comments: “What’s the difference between this and those two anorexic sisters who were in the Tate in London eating crackers? The only difference is that this is a choice. The whole thing is a luxury, a privilege. When this is over she can go back to her loft in Manhattan. (…) I’m all into people pushing the limits but if she really wants to push the limits why doesn’t she get a job cleaning the toilets on the MTA for 12 days?” One step further and the girl would probably understand one intended goal: the reflection of her own expectations. The living installation plays with both sides expectations. Descriptions of other visitors show that there is a strong desire to get in an energetic dialogue with the artist. This desire raises a huge disappointment if this does not succeed. In this performance Marina Abramovic creates a space that reflects wishes, hopes, fears and desires.So one reason why live-performance is that unique is because it touches the border between acting and performing, between real and not real and it creates new communication in a certain time. There is no distance like in theatre. Both parts are involved in that performance and both parts are the performance. If we think about how to record or re-perform one of these pieces, we will come to the point, that this is impossible. Of course it is possible to take pictures, make a movie or re-perform it another day at another place, but the specific intensity will be gone. Certainly one could see the colours, hear sounds but it would not be possible to establish a dialogue between one and the artist if the performance is recorded. The same would not happen if the piece – even with the same setting – is repeated somewhere else. Body performances like Marina Abramovic’s late pieces work only once.