Art has the power to hold a mirror to our human psyches. It forces us to reflect on what it really means to be human.
Sometimes, that process can reveal profound beauty. Other times, we find the ugly, the perverse, or even parts of us that are just plain scary.
“Rhythm 0” was a groundbreaking piece of art by legendary performance artist, Marina Abramovic. She demonstrated what can happen when you give up your own free will to the whims of a crowd.
The result nearly killed her.
Marina Abramovic’s Deadly Performance
When Marina Abramovic placed herself at the mercy of a crowd of strangers in an art studio in Naples in 1974, she had no idea what to expect. She stood before them with a sign that read:
“There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.
Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am)”
At first, the participants were gentle. They kissed her, fed her chocolate cake, and put a rose in her hand. But very soon the mood shifted. As each person took their turn, they began to choose pain over pleasure.
Someone took the knife and cut off her clothes. Another man made an incision in her neck and drank some of her blood. Marina Abramovic was completely committed to her art piece. She did nothing to resist, even as tears began to run down her face.
But the night was still far from over. At one point, someone picked her up and carried her half-naked around the studio. They then placed her down on a table and stuck a knife between her legs.
The performance piece had a strange effect on the crowd. It triggered an aggressive mob mentality that caused each successive person to take the experiment to a more dangerous extreme.
And things almost went too far. In the most tense moment of the night, one woman picked up a gun, loaded it with a bullet, and pressed it against Marina Abramovic’s temple. She then carefully placed Abramovic’s finger around the trigger, apparently daring the artist to pull it.
At once, the gallery staff seized the gun and threw it out the window. But Marina Abramovic remained stoically impassive during the entire episode.
According to one art critic who witnessed the terrifying spectacle, she was so devoted to the piece that, “…she would not have resisted rape or murder.”
Marina Abramovic Used Art to Reveal Truths About Human Nature
Marina Abramovi’s bold exhibition was about more than just flirting with death. It revealed some interesting, if disturbing, truths about who we are as humans.
She wanted to examine what would happen if someone was freed from any responsibility for their actions. That is, without moral and legal safeguards, how would humans behave?
The crowd’s response to this invitation demonstrated the dual nature of our collective humanity. While several participants took full liberties to inflict pain and terror, others displayed kindness and even tenderness.
As the night progressed and things began to break down, the crowd formed into two opposing factions – those who sought to abuse Marina Abramovic, and those who wanted to protect her.
These two groups could easily be thought of as our conscience. While we are capable of great acts of kindness, we are equally driven by a desire to inflict pain and suffering.
What’s more, when that desire for pain becomes a group activity, chaos can ensue as we lose sight of any kind of self-imposed limits.
The Legacy of Marina Abramovic
Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 caused a splash in the art world and catapulted her into a position of international fame. But that was far from the end of her career as an artist.
Since Rhythm 0, Marina Abramovic has continued to explore the possibilities of performance art and elevate it within the canon of artistic mediums.
In 1976, she teamed up with the German-born Frank Uwe Laysiepen, known by his artistic name, Ulay. The pair went on to create numerous ground-breaking pieces together over the next several decades.
In one, Ulay runs naked toward Marina Abramovic before being yanked backward by an elastic cord. In another iconic piece, the pair simply scream at each other throughout the entire piece.
Marina Abramovic’s latest work, which debuted in 2010, is called “The Artist Is Present.” In the piece, Marina Abramovic sits on a chair and places another chair opposite her. Anyone who wished to participate was invited to take the chair opposite her and share eye contact for as long as they wished.
As simple as the premise may sound, it could often generate powerful moments.
Ulay and Marina Abramovic’s Complicated Relationship
The chemistry between Ulay and Marina Abramovic no doubt led to some of the most important performance art pieces ever created.
It turned them both into perhaps the most famous performance artists in the world. But off-stage, their relationship has not been without its conflict.
Their artistic collaboration ended in 1988. They turned their parting into an occasion that they marked by walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China before meeting in the middle to bid their farewell.
It was an emotional, beautiful scene. But unfortunately, the beauty of that friendship has diminished somewhat in the wake of recent tensions over money and attribution.
Ulay claims that the stardom that began with Rhythm 0 and continued in the years since has gone to Abramovic’s head and altered her behavior.
Specifically, he alleges that she failed to honor contract agreements that stipulate that he should receive 20% of the sales from their shared work. He also complains that she refused to allow him to use an interview with her that she originally was happy to offer him.
Of course, the personal and business relations between artists are something that should probably remain private. What should matter to the rest of us is the innovative body of work that they have left behind.
Marina Abramovic’s courageous performance of Rhythm 0 helped to turn performance art into a legitimate art form. She will no doubt go down in history as the woman who used art to plumb the very depths of the human psyche.