Tag: Marina Abramovic

Mirror Your Audience: Four Life Lessons From Performance Artist Marina Abramović

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.

On fear

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.

On art

“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.

The Psychology of We

Two categories of people that can be hard to have a conversation with are good friends and people who have worked together for a long time. Sometimes it’s like they are speaking their own language — and they are. But these connections can transcend conversation and touch on life.

In Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, Joshua Shenk explores how the identity of pairs resemble that of a mosaic, “a series of pieces that connect to one another.”

A good place to begin is with ritual, since this is often the foundation of creative practice. Igor Stravinsky came into his studio and, first thing, sat down and played a Bach fugue. When he was writing The End of the Affair, Graham Greene produced five hundred words every day, and only five hundred, even if it meant stopping in the middle of a scene. The choreographer Twyla Tharp rises every morning at 5:30, puts on her workout clothes, and catches a taxi to the Pumping Iron gym at Ninety-First Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. “The ritual,” she writes in The Creative Habit, “is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”

Tharp’s point is that ritual emerges from the smallest, most concrete action. For pairs, the most basic thing is a regular meeting time. James Watson and Francis Crick had lunch most days at the Eagle pub in Cambridge. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg begin and end every week with hourlong private meetings. After they began to exchange their work, J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis set aside Mondays to meet at a pub and later met with a group, the Inklings, every Thursday night at Lewis’s apartment.

Meeting rituals may be tied to moments in time — as when partners like Buffett and Munger begin every day with a call—or to a physical space, as when Lennon and McCartney met at Paul’s house to write. Watson and Crick ended up sharing an office at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge because the other scientists in the lab couldn’t stand their incessant chatter.

Moving towards each other as people often means leaving the rest of the world behind. “Every real friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion,” C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves.

In the midst of the feverish and entwined six-year collaboration between Braque and Picasso that led to cubism, both artists signed the back of each of their canvases; only they would know who did what. “People always ask Ulay and me the same questions,” Marina Abramovic told me. ‘”Whose idea was it?’ or ‘How was this done?’… But we never specify. Everything was interrelated and interdependent.”

Partnerships often form impediments to others trying to look in. Outsiders are not part of the club, they are not doing the work, they don’t have the shared understanding, the common goals, the …

This is one reason many epic partnerships end up as historical footnotes or become entirely effaced: “Things were said with Picasso during those years,” Braque said, “that no one will ever say again, things that no one could ever say any more, that no one could ever understand… things that would be incomprehensible and which gave us such joy.” This was one of the very few lines either man ever spoke about the relationship that helped give birth to modern art.

In addition to the physical gestures that a pair can share, there is also an unmistakable private language. This is the key to high-bandwidth communication.

Many pairs have what we could fairly call a private language. Tom Hanks described the communication between director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer as “some gestalt Vulcan.” Akio Morita and Ma- saru Ibuka, the cofounders of Sony, “would sit there talking to each other,” Morita’s son Hideo said, “and we would listen but we had no idea what they were saying … It was gibberish to us, but they were understanding each other, and interrupting them for any reason was forbidden.”

Private language emerges organically from constant exchange. Intimate pairs talk fluidly and naturally, having let go of what psychologists call “self-monitoring”—the process of watching impulses and protean thoughts, censoring some, allowing others to pass one’s lips. … The psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes the same point. “Like most people, I am somewhat cautious about exposing tentative thoughts to others,” he said. But after a while with Amos Tversky, “this caution was completely absent.”

You just get so high-bandwidth,” Bill Gates said about talking to Steve Ballmer, his longtime deputy at Microsoft (and eventual successor). “Steve and I would just be going from talking to meeting to talking to meeting, and then I’d stay up late at night, and write him five e-mails. He’d get up early in the morning and maybe not necessarily respond to them, but start thinking about them. And the minute I see him, he’s [at the office whiteboard] saying we could move this guy over here and do this thing here.” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg used that same term, high- bandwidth, to describe his exchanges with his COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We can talk for 30 seconds and have more meaning be exchanged than in a lot of meetings that I have for an hour,” he said.

More than shared language, people develop into shared rhythms and syntactical structures of speech.

This is due in part to the astonishing power of mimicry, which psychologists call “social contagion.” Just by being near each other, the psychologist Elaine Hatfield has shown, people come to match accents, speech rates, vocal intensity, vocal frequency, pauses, and quickness to respond.

Psychologists used to think that people imitated each other in a deliberate attempt to be liked, but mimicry is far more pervasive than this — and largely nonconscious. Intimate partners share physical postures and breathing patterns too. They use the same muscles so often, the psychologist Robert Zajonc and colleagues found in a study of spouses, that they even come to look alike. Warren Buffett has said that he and Charlie Munger are “Siamese twins, practically.” In addition to wearing the same gray suits, the same Clark Kent glasses, and the same comb-overs, writes Buffett biographer Alice Schroeder, they also share a “lurching, awkward gait” and a flickering intensity in their eyes. Whether or not this is due to what Zajonc calls “repeated empathic mimicry,” we can’t be sure, but one does wonder.

The larger point about any physical convergence is that it reflects what psychologists call a “shared coordinative structure.” Shared mannerisms, like similar walking gaits, often come along with shared emotions and ideas. Just as physical qualities are “highly communicable,” write psychologists Molly Ireland and James Pennebaker, so are behaviors, affective states, and beliefs.

Language is an unusually potent mechanism for psychic convergence, because it is so closely tied to thinking. “Linguistic coordination,” Ireland and Pennebaker explain, leads to “the cultivation of common ground (i.e., matching cognitive frameworks in which conversants adopt shared assumptions, linguistic referents, and knowledge).”

Of course, eventually this goes telepathic.

Barry Sonnenfeld, who has directed photography on several films for the Coen brothers, remembers Ethan saying, after a take, “Hey, Joel, you know what?” And Joel replying: “Yeah, I know, I’m going to tell him.” When the writer David Zax visited The Daily Show to profile Steve Bodow, Jon Stewart’s head writer at the time, Zax could understand only a small fraction of their exchanges, given the dominance of “workplace argot and quasi-telepathy.” “If you work with Jon for any length of time, you learn to interpret the short hand,” Bodow said. For example, Stewart might say: “Cut the thing and bring the thing around and do the thing.” ‘”Cut the thing’: You know what thing needs to be cut,” Bodow explained. “‘Bring the thing around’: There’s a thing that works, but it needs to move up in order to set up the ‘do the thing’ thing, which is probably the ‘blow,’ the big joke at the end. It takes time and repetition and patience and frustration, and suddenly you know how to bring the thing around and do the thing.”