Art History 101: Marina

By Austin Bowes


The purpose of this column is to both introduce and teach my readers a smidgeon of art history about major figures. Sometimes, I like to question their being major figures. In this article, I want to talk about a major artist in a medium that isn’t always talked about: performance art.

I was first introduced to performance art in my freshman year of high school when I heard of Marina Abramović’s retrospective and performance entitled “The Artist is Present.” Back then, I wasn’t really into art, and I was only confused when I saw photos of a woman sitting at a table string at random volunteers who often seemed to cry. I encountered these photos frequently on the internet, but never really looked into what the retrospective or the performance was. I remained ignorant. It was only a year or two later when I would watch a video of this same performance, except the man who volunteered to sit across from Marina was apparently a long lost love: they smiled at each other, held hands, cried, and parted ways. I was very touched by the intimacy and closeness they shared, so I researched.

Marina Abramović began her performance art career in the early 1970s in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where she was born. She wanted to explore the limits and possibilities of her own body and mind, while also looking at the relationship between the artist and the viewer. Her “Rhythm” series of performances (1973-1974) explores these themes. “Rhythm 5,” for example, was a performance in which she created a large, five-pointed star on the ground out of wood and petrol…then lit it on fire. She would walk around the fire, cutting her hair, fingernails, and toenails, and throw a bit of each into each point until the end where she goes into the center of the burning star and lays down. The star was meant to represent a kind of cleansing.

However the performance was interrupted when she lost consciousness in the star due to lack of oxygen.

She had to be pulled out by the audience. She noted later, “I was very angry because I understood there is a physical limit: when you lose consciousness you can’t be present; you can’t perform.”

Perhaps her best known performance, especially from the “Rhythm” series, is of “Rhythm 0,” where she stood in a room that had a table holding 72 miscellaneous objects that the audience could use as desired on Marina. Some objects would be a band-aid, newspaper, a mirror, a gun, a comb, a rose with thorns, a candle, etc. The performance, which lasted six hours, began very simple where the audience would move her body around and make her hold items, but the audience slowly began to torture Marina, pricking her with the rose thorns to make her bleed, making her hold the gun to her head with her finger on the trigger, etc. It was her exploration of the audience using the artist how they like while she was still conscious, but she could do nothing.

But how does she know this man I mentioned before? The man turned out to be Ulay, a frequent collaborator with Marina and a former lover. They explored the possibilities of performance art together like their 1977 performance, “Breathing in / Breathing out,” which looked at a person’s ability to absorb the life of another, except in a more literal context. The two kneeled face to face, pressing their mouths together, with their nostrils blocked. They breathed in and out each other’s air until they both fell unconscious. They had a multitude of performances together, and considered themselves as more of one being with two heads than two separate people. To end their close relationship, they had a final performance in 1988 entitled “The Great Wall Walk,” in which Ulay and Marina started at separate ends of the Great Wall of China, to meet in the center 90 days later and say goodbye. That was the last time they had met, before “The Artist is Present.”

“The Artist is Present” was a retrospective of Marina’s works over the years at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. The performers were all trained by Marina herself and replicated her pieces her through the MoMA’s galleries. Marina, however, was performing something new, also entitled “The Artist is Present,” where she sat in a space and would have volunteers sit across from her and they would share a period of time together with no words. This intimate connection with the artist caused many of the volunteers to experience rushes of emotion – likewise for Marina. She performed this every day the MoMA showed her retrospective, from March 14 to May 31 of 2010.

Marina has been an artist that I have felt a personal connection with since I first delved into her art career years ago. She opened my eyes to a new kind of art that I had not even known existed.

Now, I think of art as an experience, a connection with the artist, the work, and the audience. I hope that in reading this article, you can understand this and how I feel, or at least feel the need to do further research because I can only explain so much in so few words. For me, Marina has been a sort of enlightenment, and hopefully she can be for you too.

Austin Bowes is a contributing writer. Email him at


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