Imagine it is a Saturday. You are in New York and decide to go to the Museum of Modern Art. There is a special exhibit on called The Artist is Present. Performance artist Marina Abramovic is sitting in one of the galleries. You wait in line to sit across from her, noticing that hundreds of people are lined up for the experience. Anticipation slowly builds as your time gets closer.
From your spot in line, you can see her seated in a red dress. Across the table from her, people sit; some for mere moments, others for long stretches. You later learn that there is no limit on the length of time you can sit at the table across from her, but you are not allowed to touch or talk to her. As you are waiting in line, the experience is like looking at a living painting.
When it’s your turn and you take your seat across from her, your experience transforms and becomes part of the art itself.
Marina Abramovic performed The Artist is Present, sitting eight hours a day for three months in 2010. She trained for months to build the physical stamina to perform the piece, and in her memoir Walk Through Walls she comments on how the performance demonstrated the profound need for people to connect.
Originally from Belgrade, Abramovic began her art career in the 1960s, starting with traditional painting, before moving into performance pieces in the early 1970s. Many of her pieces are iconic, and she continues to work all over the world.
Here are some of her insights from her memoir that transcend performance art and speak to how we can move through life to achieve our goals.
“It is incredible how fear is built into you, by your parents and others surrounding you.”
“Human beings are afraid of very simple things: we fear suffering, we fear mortality. What I was doing in Rhythm 0—as in all my other performances—was staging these fears for the audience: using their energy to push my body as far as possible. In the process, I liberated myself from my fears. And as this happened, I became a mirror for the audience—if I could do it, they could do it too.”
The relationship we have with fear can be one of the defining relationships of our life. Finding a way to accept and process our fears is an ongoing task that can be mastered by willingly exploring them.
“For the first three months, I place each student at a table with a thousand pieces of white paper and a trash can underneath. Every day they have to sit at the table for several hours and write ideas. They put the ideas they like on the right side of the table; the ones they don’t like, they put in the trash. But we don’t throw out the trash. After three months, I only take the ideas from the trash can. I don’t even look at the ideas they liked. Because the trash can is a treasure trove of things they’re afraid to do.”
Part of dealing with fear is acknowledging it. Hiding fear in the garbage bin does us no good. When we confront what we are afraid to do, we find immense opportunities to develop and grow because we increase our options and adaptability. We both remove limits and teach ourselves how to handle a wider spectrum of fear-inducing situations in the future.
On finding your place
“All at once it occurred to me—why paint? Why should I limit myself to two dimensions when I could make out from anything at all: fire, water, the human body? Anything! There was something like a click in my mind—I realized that being an artist meant having immense freedom.”
We need to explore until we find our “clicks.” Limiting ourselves to convention might not be satisfactory. As Abramovic began to develop her performance art pieces, her physical self was at the center of her work. In most of her pieces, the audience was confronted with the idea of art as a living thing: not a painting on a wall, but a physical body.
“The essence of performance is that the audience and the performer make the piece together.”
In one of her pieces, people entered the gallery while she stood completely still, dressed in a blouse and pants. On a table in front of her were dozens of objects—things like cards, lipstick, pins, and even a gun. Over the next hours, the audience was invited to use any object to do whatever they wanted to Abramovic. Slowly at first, but with increasing momentum, they began to interact with her body. They moved her arms, put lipstick on her, put cards in her hand. One person stuck a pin into her. Only at the end of the night did security intervene when someone picked up the gun and prepared to shoot her.
It must have been an incredible experience.
The notion that an audience can participate in the creation of art as it is happening has been an important aspect of many of Abramovic’s performances. In the dynamic nature of performance art, Abramovic has found her medium to explore the nature of art itself.
“I had experienced absolute freedom—I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn’t matter, that nothing mattered at all—and it intoxicated me. I was drunk from the overwhelming energy that I’d received. That was the moment I knew that I had found my medium.”
Paying attention to our moments as we experience them helps us find our place. Abramovic writes often in her memoir about the success that came with being fully committed to her performances while they were happening. Her ability to move through physical pain in pursuit of artistic expression, and to communicate with her audience, stems in part from her knowing she was creating from a place of authenticity.
“What is art? I feel that if we see art as something isolated, something holy and separate from everything, that means it’s not life. Art must be a part of life. Art has to belong to everybody.”
Another famous piece of hers was done in a gallery space, where she lived in front of the audience in three open rooms. Each room was a square box with one side removed. One was a living room, another one was a bedroom, and the final one was a bathroom. Abramovic did everything in front of the crowds who came into the gallery—sleep, meditate, shower, and use the toilet. One interpretation of the work is that by inviting the audience to watch her doing some of the mundane daily tasks that we all do, she provided a way for them to find the art in their own lives.
“This is a rule of performance: once you enter into this mental-physical construct you’ve devised, the rules are set, and that’s that—you’re the last one who can change them.”
Part of Abramovic’s success has stemmed from her fearlessness in using performance art to explore basic questions of humanity, as well as from her total respect for the medium. Her pieces are thoughtful, and no doubt leave a lasting impression on those who are able to watch and engage with them.
On the business of art
“It’s interesting with art. Some people have the ability—and the energy—not just to make the work, but to make sure it’s put in exactly the right place, at the right moment. Some artists realize they have to spend as much time as it took them to get an idea in finding the way to show it, and the infrastructure to support it. And some artists just don’t have that energy, and have to be taken care of, by art lovers or collectors or the gallery system.”
The business of creating and the business of selling one’s creations require different skills and temperaments that are not always found in the same person. When we know our capabilities, we can try to set ourselves up for success by knowing how and where to ask for help. All of us want our outputs to be recognized in some way. What we don’t often realize is that we have a part to play in getting that recognition to happen. We can’t expect everything to magically fall into place.
“From the mid-1970s to the end of the decade, performance art caught on. . . . The originators of the medium were no longer young, and this work was very hard on the body. And the market, and art dealers especially, were putting increasing pressure on artists to make something to sell, because, after all, performance produced nothing marketable.”
Choices close some doors and open others. Having a personal definition of success is critical. We have to make sacrifices to achieve our goals, so we must be confident we are working toward our own idea of success and not someone else’s. Abramovic continues to do performance art, but she also became an art teacher and has partnered on numerous other art projects, including films. From her memoir, we learn that an insightful way of measuring our achievements is against what we believe gives life meaning.