The power of silence: the art of Marina Abramović

Much of Abramović's work uses silence and ritualization to suspend all meaning of time

PHOTO: Andrew Russeth

Marina Abramović is known for producing unconventional art. Throughout her career, the self-professed ‘grandmother of performance art’ has persistently subverted the conventional, challenging and redefining the boundaries of what constitutes art.

Using the artist as a medium, her work occupies an odd, and somewhat unclear space between reality and performance, as the body becomes a vehicle through which the message of the piece is conveyed. In her early career, Abramović pushed the physical limits of her body to extremes, creating work verging on the self-destructive. Her infamous piece ‘Rhythym 0’ (1974) invited the public to do whatever they wanted to her motionless body, using any of the 72 objects she had arranged on a table: these included a saw, paint, scissors, perfume, and a loaded gun. Sacrificing herself to the decisions of the audience, the work makes a profound comment on the corruptibility of human nature; the performance was stopped after six hours, as participants became increasingly violent towards her body. Her silence and stillness throughout fulfilled the accompanying statement of instructions: ‘I am the object’. She has since described how the audience then left immediately after she began to move, unable to face her as a human, rather than a passive object.

As her career has progressed, Abramović’s work has increasingly focused on the capacity of the mind. In ‘The House with the Ocean View’ (2002), she spent 12 days living in three rooms, raised on platforms open to the public, in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. Audience members could watch her sleeping, washing, drinking, and urinating. She neither spoke nor ate for the duration of the performance. Describing the work as an experiment, Abramović has explained the piece as an attempt to subtract meaning from time, claiming that whilst they watched the performance audience members would find hours had passed instead of minutes.

This use of silence and ritualization to enhance concentration underpins Abramović’s ‘Counting the Rice’ interactive installations, which often feature in her retrospective exhibitions. Members of the public surrender their mobile phones and watches, to sit at tables and count individual black lentils and rice grains from large piles, all the while wearing noise-cancelling headphones. This project forms part of Abramović’s focus on gaining back free time by immersing oneself in long durational activities, in which there is no sense or even understanding of time.

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Abramović believes that “the hardest thing to do is to do something that is close to nothing, because it is demanding all of you”. It is no surprise, then, that she has described the aptly named ‘The Artist is Present’ (2010) as her most ambitious work. This was performed in accompaniment to her major retrospective exhibition of the same name, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This piece was essentially a reinvention of the earlier ‘Nightsea Crossing’ (1981–87), which was performed with her then lover and fellow performance artist, Uwe Laysiepen, commonly known as Ulay. The pair sat separated by a table, in total silence, for eight hours a day. The MoMA rendition replaced Ulay with a member of the public, so that Abramovic sat opposite an empty chair, in which anyone could sit, for as long as they wanted.

The premise of the performance may sound simple when compared to some of her more outlandish work, but this brief explanation belies an extreme feat of both mental and physical endurance. Abramović sat motionless and silent, for nearly eight hours a day, six days a week, for three months. In their original performance, Ulay stood up prematurely, so intense was the pain brought on by days of fasting and sitting still. In Matthew Akers’ documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which records the run up to and duration of the show, the curator suggested that she end the performance early, given the physical toll it was taking on her body. Yet Abramović refused to even contemplate this possibility, such is her commitment to her work.

Audience participation was essential to ‘The Artist is Present’; the curator warned her before it opened that the chair opposite her might remain empty for the majority of the performance. But it was never empty: people queued for hours, with many sleeping overnight outside the museum to be first in line the next morning. 78 people returned to sit more than 20 times.

Communication and silence form a central part of this monumental piece. The mutual gaze between Abramović and the audience member is a silent interaction, a form of unspoken dialogue. In the documentary, Ulay comments on the pertinence of the performance, claiming that inactivity and silence are becoming increasingly discredited. Removing all distractions from an interaction, including dialogue, Abramović created a vacuum in which reflection and observation became the focus, protected from the noise and movement of the museum. Watching the footage of the piece is bizarre, but surprisingly transfixing. Many participants, and even the artist herself, became overwhelmed by emotion. Abramović has explained the power of the work by saying that she became “just the mirror for their own self”, and that she “never saw so much pain”.

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An incredibly moving moment of the performance was when Ulay, her former lover and collaborator, sat across from her. Their relationship, which lasted over ten years, was a period of intense and passionate creativity, resulting in some of most pioneering and seminal performance artworks ever made. They referred to themselves as parts of a ‘two-headed body’, creating relational works of extreme intimacy, such as ‘Breathing In/Breathing Out’ (1977), in which they both blocked their nostrils with cigarette filters, pressing their mouths together so that they only inhaled each other’s breath. This symbiotic artistic and romantic partnership came to an epic conclusion with ‘The Lovers’ (1988), a 3 month project in which they each walked from one respective end of the Great Wall of China to meet the other in the middle, and finally say goodbye. They did not speak for the next 10 years. Ulay’s appearance at, or perhaps participation in, the MoMA performance was evidently a surprise to Abramović, whose implacable composure was unsettled when she saw him. The communication that takes place between them in this moment, though silent, is palpable as Abramović’s eyes fill with tears. The poignancy of the interaction is reinforced by the way in which the scenario exactly recreates ‘Nightsea Crossing’, performed at the height of their relationship. Such is the intensity of this moment that Abramović reached forwards, breaking protocol, to clasp Ulay’s hands.

In this work, Abramović renders the conventional totally unconventional. She stages an ordinary scenario, in which two people sit across from one another, but removes it from any we have known before: silence becomes a new mode of communication, a context for observation and, crucially, self-reflection.

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