In Profile: Marina Abramovic

Fred Johnson takes an in-depth look at an artist whose work continues to inspire…

Ritual. Power. Human nature. Such words form the creed of Marina Abramovic, the Serbian “grandmother of performance art”, a woman who is at once a controversial and iconic figure and one who undoubtedly shaped artistic movements throughout the late 20th century and continues to do so today.

It’s not surprising then that Abramovic has been assigned a “trigger artist” or, if you’re feeling colourful, a bright star in the constellations of Tate Liverpool’s current exhibition of the same name: DLA Piper Series: Constellations.

Although Abramovic’s performances are difficult to effectively present in a gallery context, the footage of Abramovic’s famous Rhymth 0 (1974) and the table bristling with weapons and other objects, are faithful to the artist’s intentions, and the emotional response you feel as you silently observe is as cutting as if you were at the original performance.

“Arguably no other artist has such a rich history of placing their craft over personal wellbeing” 

The horrifying and (perhaps worryingly) mesmerising nature of Rhythm 0 is one that had a profound impact in contemporary art at the time, and the shocking expositions the piece elicited only serve to continue to inspire more extreme psychological art experimentation today; arguably no other artist has such a rich history of placing their craft over personal mental and physical wellbeing.

Whether it’s the reckless disregard for her own hands she displays in Rhythm 10 (essentially a long, recorded session of the Russian knife game in order to explore links between mental and physical limitations) or the blazing display of Rhythm 5, where unconscious, she had to be rescued from a fire-circle, Abramovic is a woman who throws herself head-first into her artistic vision with little to no regard for the consequences.

It is this absolute dedication, and her rock-steady conviction in the power of artistic experimentation, that explains why Abramovic continues to be so influential today. Such attitudes are the seeds of artistic creation – they inspire wherever they are observed, and when you’re a figure as sharp, vivid, and unusual as she, you are observed often.

It’s natural then that Abramovic is the centre of a constellation – younger artists growing up around her see her raw and visceral performance pieces as stark and simple expositions of the most enduring human issues: phsyical and mental limitations; the darkness of human nature; the commodification and reification of the body; the fine line between abuse and submission, and the often flimsy nature of supposedly concrete ethics.

“One of the more shocking off-shoots of Abramovic’s constellation is by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra” 

One of the more shocking off-shoots of Abramovic’s constellation is a video recording by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra. The footage seemed innocuous enough; 4 women sat side-by-side getting a 160cm continuous line tattooed across their backs. Rather than just being a recording of women with questionable and minimalist tastes in tattoos however, a quick read identified the women, who laughed and joked with one another as the line was etched across them, as heroin-addicted Spanish prostitutes who had agreed to be tattooed for enough money to buy a single shot of heroin – about $67. 

This harrowing context took the absolute artistic submission of the artist seen in Rhythm 0 and turned it on the women being recorded; they were essentially objects, items exploited to make an all too relevant point in an artistic medium, perhaps more chilling than Rhythm 0 due to the apparently happy and undiscerning natures of the women recorded. They seemed not to see the horror of the situation, the wider picture, and this is where the tragedy of the piece is born.

Abramovic undoubtedly excels in deriving stark and unmistakeable raw concepts and ideas from her often violent and controversial performance pieces. Tate Liverpool’s Constellations is an excellent opportunity to identify and track her explosive influence through other artists, often manipulated (as by Sierra, and indeed the feminist multi-disciplinary artist Eleanor Antin) for social and political purposes, or indeed just the incredible theatricality and intense exhibitionism Abramovic has come to embody. 

Fred Johnson

DLA Piper Series: Constellations continues at Tate Liverpool 

Read our review 

Posted on 29/07/2013 by thedoublenegative