The art of suffering: a glimpse into the work of Marina Abramović

Since the 1970s, the bold performance artist has pushed her body to extreme lengths for the sake of her art

Picture this: you’ve decided to spend 12 days in an area consisting of three small rooms. A bedroom, a kitchenette, and a living room. You’ve denied yourself food, limited yourself only to water, are unable to speak, and don’t have access to any sort of entertainment to help pass the time. There are three ladders connected to each room, allowing you the opportunity to simply walk away. The rungs of the ladder, however, have been replaced with butcher knives. Oh, and on top of that, you are completely exposed, having dozens of strangers watch your every move. This might sound like a type of challenge that results in one’s endurance being rewarded with a cash prize or the like. But this is nothing of the sort. This is one of Marina Abramović’s most famous endurance art pieces titled The House With the Ocean View. 

Self-dubbed as the “grandmother of performance art,” Abramović has rarely shied away from the spotlight. In fact, at its very core, her work is built on suffering. Born in 1946 in Belgrade in former Yugoslavia, the artist experienced a difficult childhood, living with strict expectations and erratic behaviour from her parents. At the beginning of the 1970s, the artist’s career soon took off while studying at Belgrade’s Academy of Fine Arts. Over the years, she has created countless performance pieces that never cease to shock and engross audience members.

For some, The House With the Ocean View will seem like child’s play in comparison to her other works, such as Rhythm 4, where she knelt in front of a high-power industrial fan, attempting to test her lung capacity by breathing in as much air as she possibly could. It wasn’t long before she was rendered unconscious during this performance.

In her extremely controversial and disturbing work titled Rhythm 0, the artist took on a passive role as she essentially allowed audience members to do anything they wanted to her body. She laid out 72 items, with some as harmless as feathers and honey, to those that were meant to inflict pain, such as whips and knives. Initially, the audience members did not engage with her body in a harsh manner, but near the end of the six-hour block Abramović had dedicated to her performance, people began to get violent.

While it’s best to spare the details (feel free to do your own research, but be forewarned of the disturbing content you may find), the main objective of this piece was for Abramović to see just how far people would be willing to go when they were relieved of any consequences. Some chose a pacifist stance, while others chose to act on violent urges.

In many ways, Rhythm 0 was a genius (albeit terrifying) social experiment, one that demonstrated both sides of the spectrum when it comes to how humans could act given absolute free will and the assurance that their actions would have no consequences. While no doubt disturbing, Abramović’s work has contributed massively to the endurance art realm, pushing multiple boundaries that other artists had not dared to do at the time in order to explore the relationship that the artist shares with the audience.

 

Graphic by Taylor Reddam

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