TW: descriptions of physical violence and sexual assault
It is eight o’clock AM in Naples, Italy in 1974 and a group of audience members has gathered in a small art studio. They are here for a performance, a non-material art piece. In front of them are 76 items, among which were a rose, a loaf of bread, honey, a feather, a knife, a scalpel, a pair of scissors, and a pistol with one bullet sitting next to it. There are instructions on the table as well. They read, “There are 76 items on the table that one can use on me as desired. Performance. I am the object. During this period, I take full responsibility. Duration: six hours.” Just beyond the table, standing completely still, is a twenty-three-year-old Serbian woman named Marina.
This marks the beginning of famed performance artist Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, the most notable piece in her endurance art series titled Rhythms. The piece explored many subjects, such as the human body’s endurance of bodily pain, the audience’s connection with the artist, and the human tendency towards violence. During the piece, Abramovic stood completely still and passive while audience members were invited to follow their impulses and do whatever they wanted with the objects for six hours.
Critic Thomas McEvilley, who was present during the piece, described his experiences during the six-hour period, stating,
“It began tamely. Someone turned her around. Someone thrust her arms into the air. Someone touched her somewhat intimately. 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. Faced with an 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.”
By the end of the six-hour period, Abramovic had sustained a slash in her throat from a knife, several cuts on her stomach from the thorns of the rose being pushed into her skin, bruises from various slaps and punches from the audience, and alterations to her face. She had also been sexually assaulted by several male audience members. At the end of the six hours, Abramovic, tears streaks staining her face, began to walk slowly towards the audience, establishing the end of the piece. She remembers, “(As) I stood up and started walking towards the audience, everyone ran away to escape an actual confrontation.” It is as if in walking towards them, Abromovic reclaimed her personhood, at which point the actions they inflicted on her would now have consequences. While Abramovic endured unspeakable abuses during the piece, she bears no ill will towards any of the piece’s participants. She states, “What I learned was that… if you leave it up to an audience, they can kill you.”
The performance was unconventional, brutal, certainly not beautiful. But was it art? Abramovic explained in her 2015 TED Talk titled “An Art Made of Trust, Vulnerability, and Connection,” that performance art is one of the purest art forms aside from music. Since performance art is completely non-material, it relies on nothing but the body, emotions, and experiences of the artist and the audience. While it often uses physical materials to aid in its execution (such as the rose or the loaded gun), the performance itself occurs through the exchange of energy between the artist and the audience. Due to this principle, performance art has virtually no limits and can take many different forms. The only defining factor of performance art is the artist’s intention. Artists such as Abramovic use art to challenge an idea or concept, such as humanity, politics, violence, or the different planes of consciousness.
Performance art also finds significance in art history as one of the most direct reflections of the society in which it is created. While performance art has existed in one form or another for several decades, it gained mainstream prominence in the 1960s and 70s as the experimental theater scene in Bohemian havens such as Amsterdam, Paris, and Greenwich Village began to expand into more daring mediums. Some of these platforms included body art, events, actions, and guerilla theater — a form of public performance that uses satire, improvisation, and absurdity to comment on political and social issues and disrupt cultural norms.
However, as the surrounding political climate became more tumultuous, specifically in the U.S., performance art shifted with it. Thus, the early 1970s saw the creation of endurance art, a form of performance art that challenged the body’s mortal limits through pain, exhaustion, or the deprivation of certain types of psychological sustenance such as social interaction. Many people look to American artist Chris Burden’s 1974 piece Trans-Fixed as a prime example of endurance art. In this piece, Burden had his assistants nail his hands and feet to a Volkswagen Beetle for several hours in a position that resembled the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
While Burden himself claims no political significance within this specific piece, many endurance artists during this time were working specifically in response to the horrors of the Vietnam War, a war that challenged the concepts of morality and humanity. While the 19-year conflict over the expansion of communism into Vietnam began officially in 1955 between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, the involvement of other world leaders such as the Soviet Union, China, France, and the U.S. gave the war the effective political momentum of a world war. The U.S., fresh from the Cold War-era hatred of communism, launched itself into the battle, siding with South Vietnam and its other anti-communist allies.
When President John F. Kennedy’s assassination put the presidency in the hands of Lyndon B. Johnson, the Vietnam War was passed along with it. As President Johnson pushed to deploy more and more American soldiers to Vietnam upon seemingly shoddy reasoning, the American public began to grow infuriated with this meaningless loss of American life. This gave rise to social movements such as the anti-war movement and the hippie movement, which rallied for an end to the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. This protest proved futile, however, as President Johnson pushed even harder to increase the U.S.’s involvement in the war until 1973 when the enormous loss of life forced the U.S. to pull away from Vietnam. By the end of the U.S.’s involvement in the war, over 90,000 Americans had died overseas — a tragedy matched only by the unspeakable acts inflicted on Vietnamese citizens by American soldiers. The war represented one of the most unnecessary losses of life in the 20th century for the American public, sparking a resurgence in national mistrust of the government and its regard for human life.
From this anger and mistrust grew a sense of nihilism within the art community — a communal ponderance as to just how cruel human beings can be to one another when faced with little to no consequences for their violent actions. From a citizen’s perspective, the U.S. had very little reason to become involved in the Vietnam War other than a thirst for the destruction of communism. Furthermore, President Johnson’s push to send more American citizens overseas despite the astronomical losses of life seemed to reveal how truly meaningless human life was to the federal government except when it served a specific purpose within the U.S.’s quest for power. In the face of such existential dread, a simple painting, song, or play did not seem to suffice as a constructive method of conveying such a visceral national emotion. It seemed that the only way to challenge the U.S.’s regard for human life was to challenge the individual’s regard for pain.
Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 is known as one of the most canonical classics in performance art, studied by aspiring performance artists and art scholars alike. However, it is also a product of its time. Performed during the tragic final years of the U.S. and U.K’s involvement in the Vietnam War, it is reflective of a worldwide cultural shift towards pessimism, mistrust, and nihilism. Through Rhythm 0’s performance, Abromovic is able to display humanity in its most visceral form — a form in which no one’s actions have any consequences. Rhythm 0 reveals that while the shocking violence of war is enacted on an institutional level, it is bred on the individual level and is fueled by a lack of consequences. However, Rhythm 0 is also canonical in its ability to make those who hear or read about it ponder what their own reaction would be were they in the studio with Abramovic. In a studio with a young female and zero consequences, located within a society plagued by meaningless loss of life and violence, what would you have done with a rose, a loaf of bread, a scalpel, a knife, and a gun with one bullet beside it?
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