Every time I get an idea, if I'm afraid of that idea, (…) this is exactly the idea I'm going to do to liberate myself and also to understand where fear comes from - Marina Abramovic
In 1974, at the Galleria Studio Morra in Naples, Marina Abramovic realized one of her most extreme performances - Rhythm 0, taking “full responsibility” and inviting the audience to use objects on a table as they wished. The six hours performance quickly turned into an uncontrolled and violent show, echoing women’s objectification and power relations. With 72 objects of pleasure and pain at their disposal, a part of the public engaged in destructive experimental actions on the artist’s body.
If a group of protection quickly formed against the aggressors, it is only at the end of the time that the latter recovered their consciousness of a shared humanity. The artwork ended with the public running away from the Studio. The performance was a sign of deliberate exposure and vulnerability, following the artist’s desire to transcend any limit but also shaping an ambivalent pact between the woman’s artist and her audience. Beyond that, the running of the performance echoes deeper societal issues and reveals findings about human nature, power, consent, and responsibility which are especially accurate in our present society.
But the most important to ask ourselves is: how does the performance Rhythm 0, by exploring the chosen and ambivalent vulnerability of a woman’s artist, reveal profound societal phenomena?
Exposure and vulnerability: the desire to transcend limits
The artist decides to put her body at the disposition of the audience, as mentioned in the instructions: “During this period I take full responsibility”(source: Marina Abramovic). By giving her deliberate consent, she operates a reappropriation of the (forced) vulnerable position of women and an empowerment, being both object of the audience’s wishes and subject. In the performance, her body is both a sexualized object of desire for men and a tool of expression and challenge of the male gaze and unrestrained actions. The artist is still in control of the setting of the performance by the choice of objects, her indications and consent given to the public, as well as the pre-fixed time, following John Cage’s model: both define the end and beginning of their artworks . Nevertheless, Marina Abramovic has always been reluctant to be considered as feminist and was not involved in the 1970s feminist movement: a potential contradiction pointed out by Mira Schor (source: "I Am Not Now nor Have I Ever Been…", The Brooklyn Rail, 2008):
But when the work clearly deals with gender and gendered power relations, when it deals with femininity, when it explores female sexuality and the female body, when the work uses the vocabulary of gendered tropes developed by the first generations of the feminist art movement (…) is it not feminist art? Why is it still such a problem?.
Because she does not consider her work as feminist, the performance cannot be tackled exclusively through a feminist perspective. Such vulnerability may also be part of a broader tradition of “self-flagellation, catharsis and mythology” (source: Tate, *Marina Abramović, *Rhythm 0 1974: Second Floor, Tate, s. d), but also military discipline and resilience learned through her childhood in Communist Yugoslavia and later from various tribes and peoples . Pushing physical and mental boundaries, Abramovic explores the physicality of the body, endurance and pain, involving a degree of personal risk and suffering. But it is also a way to liberate from external constraints, towards transcendence and an unprecedented artistic and spiritual experience: a “conceptual and performance work that (…) incorporates the element of time as a tool to achieve transformation and transcendence”, (source: The Museum of Modern Art, Introduction to the Exhibition Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present *| MoMA *, 2010). To this transcendence echoes the rituality and the “quasi-sacred character” of the performance, reinforced by the religious symbols of the wine and table (present notably in The Last supper).
This theme is common in the artist’s works: Rhythm 5 was about “ritualization of the Communist five-point star” . Marina draws her physical stamina and strength mostly from the public according to art historian Chrissie Iles: she is “directly and boldly challenging the audience” . This shared experience dialogue appears ambivalent for this specific performance.
The ambivalent pact between a woman’s artist and her audience
The pact between the artist and the audience, embodied by connection and trust, is created by the vulnerability shown to the public. In this case, the “energy dialogue” with the audience is made ambivalent both by the configuration of the performance and the reaction of the public. The ambivalence of the relation lies first on the artist’s side, in the choice of objects: while some are for pleasure (book, wine) others are for pain (whip, chains) and even death (gun with a bullet). The boundaries of the duality love/death, pleasure/destruction are blurred, exploring mechanisms of threat and seduction in an echo to Freud’s Eros (life drive or sexual drive) and Thanatos (death drive), the two fundamental drives with which humans struggle.
The pact made is also ambivalent in the balance of power it implicates and explores. Rhythm 0 was created in reaction to the masochistic and sensationalist critics faced by the artist . This piece was thus an opportunity to rethink the practice of performance and the role of the audience. By completely letting the public shape the turn of the performance and cultivating the impassibility of the performer, this experimental participation reflects on the limits of the audience. This can echo Herbert Blau’s statement about the goal of performance: “to force the spectator into the center of the creative act”, (source: Blau, Herbert. The Audience. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990). As the artist retrospectively argued, “That Was The Heaviest piece I Ever Did Because I Wasn’t In Control. The Audience Was In Control”, (source: Schor, Mira. « “I Am Not Now nor Have I Ever Been…” ». The Brooklyn Rail, 2008). The pact is ambivalent by its uncertainty, which is blatant in Abramovic performances’, always inventing new situations that nobody has lived: “they must meet in a completely new territory, and build from that timeless time spent together”. Despite what was expected, it showed that performances were sensational also by the public’s acts and reactions: the few intimate approaches quickly became uncontrolled and dangerous acts on the artist. The fact that the performer is a woman cannot be neglected: it involves a power relation in addition to the chosen vulnerability already tackled. This gender dimension within a patriarchal society may accentuate the asymmetry of power and legitimize the excessive threats imposed upon the artist’s body. Later on, in Rest Energy, Marina will explore the asymmetrical relation between men and women. Both performances thus reveal broader societal questions through art.
Beyond the artistic performance, the questions of power, responsibility, and consent
Abramovic’s body is therefore also a medium used to test the mental and moral limits of humans. Through “the risk to her own person in this work, and her acceptance of that risk, Abramovic also explored collective action and responsibility” (source: Wood, Catherine. ‘Rhythm 0’, Marina Abramovic, 1974, Tate, 2010). The frame of the performance and its unprecedented artistic boldness creates a “scientific experiment that reveals human nature”, (source: Chief curator of the MOMA Klaus Biesenbah), because of the absence of surveillance, full submission of the artist and thus the illusion of actions without consequences. The performance reveals a deeper societal phenomenon about power and its abuses, and the lack of responsibility. When given the possibility to act without constraints, some people express their inner extreme violence . After the third hour, the artist was tied to a table, a knife between her legs, clothes tired up, someone cut her and drank her blood, and she even witnessed minor sexual assaults. Besides illustrating woman objectification and the bestial part of human nature, the performance also reveals the existence of group dynamics: at one time, two groups opposed, protectors versus aggressors, which led to a fight . It thus also questions our ability to react in front of excessive acts and sexual violence. A parallel can be drawn between the performer and rape victims’ state of minds and positions: the same phenomenon of dissociation occurs, letting the potential abusers in full control of the person. It is striking that Marina stated afterward that she “felt really violated” and Thomas McEvilley that “She was so committed to the piece that she would not have resisted rape or murder”, (source: Wood, Catherine, ‘Rhythm 0’, Marina Abramovic, 1974, Tate, 2010) . Moreover, the performance is a striking illustration of the principle of (non) responsibility. After the six hours planned, the artist recovered her consciousness, and “everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation." . The audience was “unable to face her as a person”, (source: Wood, Catherine), like if it recovered moral laws trespassed and recognized their shared human nature. When the audience sees Marina’s face, they see themselves (“Autrui, c’est l’autre, c’est-à dire le moi qui n’est pas moi” according to Sartre ) and see the reflection of their own consciences, like if she was “transformed into a mirror for the public’s projection, so that whatever is projected onto [her], desire, fear of death, whatever, [she] can react against by simply jumping into this higher self” . The fear of complicity in the process and the easiness to dehumanize the woman’s artist make the escape of the aggressive audience inevitable. Even if Marina does not see herself as a “female artist” , one could still see this final act as the confrontation of masculine violence on women’s bodies and minds.
In Rhythm 0, Marina Abramovic chose to endorse a mental and physical vulnerability to push her limits and build a raw dialogue of energy with the audience. The setting made possible the creation of a performance based on the audience’s reactions and actions, negating the sensationalist view of performers. This dialogue is ambivalent by the power relations accentuated and created, blurring the status of object and subject of the woman’s artist. Beyond this vulnerability and artistic pact, the conduct of the performance reveals the tendency of humans to abuse power when we are entitled to do so. When Marina recovers her consciousness and thus her humanity, the audience is no longer facing the alterity if not itself, making it hard to accept the violence inflicted.
One could think about Yoko Ono’s performance Cut Piece, where the artist also explores participatory art, the audience being invited to cut off her clothes. Both performances question the vulnerability and objectification of the female body and the “reciprocal way in which viewers and subjects become objects or each other” (as stated in « Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece explained | art | Phaidon », s. d.Hinan, Tin. « Yoko Ono : Cut Piece, idée de la femme en tant qu’objet sexuel ». Les Ourses à plumes (blog), 2015).
Rhythm 0 is also part of the meta reflection on the meaning of art. If this performance is mirroring current problems and exploring the pioneering form of performance, it is also questioning the limits of art. Can this be art when the audience almost exclusively shapes the artwork or when the show turns into a mere demonstration of gendered dynamics of violence?
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