Innovator in resurgent genre visits Yale

Marina Abramovic decided to test her audience in a 1974 performance: she laid out 72 objects on the stage — some of pleasure, others of pain — and said she would not resist anything they tried to do to her. Among the objects were a revolver and a single bullet.

This piece of performance art, entitled “Rhythm 0,” remains after 35 years Abramovic’s best known work, an example of her willingness to surrender herself to her art, Yale School of Art Dean Robert Storr said. Storr introduced Abramovic’s public lecture at the School of Art Friday, and said Abramovic’s body of work has been essential to the development and recognition of performance art as an independent form.

Abramovic speaks at the School of Art about her unique art.
Brian Chang
Abramovic speaks at the School of Art about her unique art.

“You are in the presence of a very great artist,” Storr said to an audience of about 100 students, professors and New Haven residents.

Abramovic, 63, was born in the former Yugoslavia, the daughter of two military heroes in the Partisan movement for Yugoslav independence during the Second World War. She said her parents’ courage played a role in her drive toward the extreme physical risks she takes in her performances. Other performances in the “Rhythm” series in the 1970s involved ingesting catatonia-inducing pills and leaping into a giant, petroleum-drenched Communist Star she constructed out of flammable material and then set ablaze.

“I started as a painter, but once I began performing it was so intense I felt I could never go back to the studio,” she said.

In performance art, Abramovic said, the artist’s body is the medium — an idea especially compelling in a 1975 performance entitled “Lips of Thomas.” Abramovic played a video recording of the piece, in which she carves the Communist Star into the skin of her belly with a razor, and described it as a means of purification from the restrictions of the communist-ruled Yugoslavia of her youth.

Using the body as a medium necessitated that Abramovic travel incessantly.

“You can’t send your art off to a gallery or a museum: you are the art,” Abramovic said. She added that while an audience is important to all art forms, performance art depends on the energy of the audience, which liberates the artist’s spirit from fear of pain.

In the late 1970s, Abramovic’s audience grew increasingly large. Performance art, which can be traced back to the “Happenings” — a term used to describe the performance works of the late 1950s and 1960s — was by then a burgeoning field in the contemporary art world.

Abramovic added credibility to a form that was less than fully defined, Storr said, when, in a 2005 exhibition called “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, she honored four other seminal performance artists of her generation, paid for reproduction rights and cited each work she was inspired by.

Theater studies and English professor Joseph Roach said the line between performance art and theater is blurry, but there are still clear differences.

“In performance art, all fiction is removed,” Roach said. “It’s the artist’s real flesh that’s bleeding.”

Abramovic, whose work will be featured in a retrospective this spring at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said performance art, unlike film and drama, exists only in the present, making time irrelevant. As an assertion of her art’s freedom from time, many of her performances extend for dozens of hours or more. “House with an Ocean View,” featured at the Guggenheim in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, lasted 12 consecutive days. Abramovic did not leave the museum while the performance lasted.

“I believe the longer the duration, the more transformative the experience becomes,” Abramovic said. “Art should become longer and longer until it becomes life itself.”

Storr said in an interview that after popular interest in performance art dipped in the 1990s, the field has grown increasingly influential in recent years.

“It’s grown spontaneously, and there’s now a lot of students who are interested in pursuing it, but they need feedback,” he said.

To this end, he said he plans to incorporate performance art into the curriculum of the School of Art, though he said the current economic climate would make expansion difficult.

Though Abramovic’s lecture drew mostly School of Art students, there were also several students from the School of Drama in the mix. Stephanie Hayes DRA ’11 said she was captivated by the visceral and dangerous nature of Abramovic’s performances.

“When I watch her I can’t take my eyes off whatever she’s doing,” Hayes said.

Hrovje Slovenc ART ’10, a photography student in the School of Art and also a native of former Yugoslavia, said listening to Abramovic speak filled him with national pride and admiration.

Abramovic said her belief that an artist must give freely of his or her knowledge to succeeding generations led her to begin planning for an institute, to be housed in Hudson, N.Y., for aspiring performance artists. To the laughter of the audience, she promised it would not be a foundation to promote her own art, which, she said, would be self-congratulation.

The retrospective exhibition at MoMA, entitled “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present,” will open Mar. 14 and run through May 31.

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