ESSAY//Marina Abramovic and the Dematerialization of the Performative Body

Image of Generator at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, originally published in New York Times. 

    Marina Abramovic’s 2010 piece The Artist is Present marked a distinct change in the nature of her work. Abramovic has been creating long duration performance pieces since the 1970s. This piece however, was the beginning of a turn toward consciousness based art, or immaterial art, as she herself describes it. In The Artist is Present Abramovic spent 736 hours and 30 minutes in the atrium of the MOMA and invited the public to sit across from her and engage in a mutual gaze. The piece ran throughout the duration of her retrospective from March 14 through May 31, 2010. This piece, and Abramovic’s move towards the immaterial in art, relied on a conscious relationship between the audience and the performer and reflected changing ideas about the performative body in contemporary performance art.
    From June 11th through August 24, 2014 Abramovic performed 512 Hours at the Serpentine Gallery in London. This piece was comprised of practices meant to cultivate presence for the audience. These practices are the basis of her “Abramovic Method”, a method originally conceived of as a way to prepare performers and audience members for the experience of long duration art. The Abramovic method consists of simple acts meant to aid in cultivating presence and mindfulness. They include slow walking, counting rice grain by grain, and mindfully drinking water. These practices comprised the entirety of her show in London and created art out of the cultivation of mindfulness. 512 Hours was the first piece in which Abramovic gave the performative body entirely to the audience.
    Before Abramovic began working with the immaterial she created long duration pieces that were concerned with overcoming physical limits, coming to a new understanding of time and consciousness, and working with the lines between life and death. In 1976 she performed three pieces entitled Freeing the Body, Freeing the Memory, and Freeing the Voice. These pieces sought freedom through exhaustion. In Freeing the Body Abramovic danced until she collapsed. In Freeing the Memory she recited every word she could remember until she could remember no more, and in Freeing the Voice Abramovic screamed until her voice gave out. In these pieces the performative body is Abramovic’s own physical body. In this early work she is working with a causal relationship to time—she is exhausting time, as opposed to dematerializing time consciousness through duration, which is where she arrives in her later work.
    Abramovic understood the importance of consciousness in her work early in her career, and she cites meditation practices as crucial to her process of cultivating the presence and mindfulness needed to perform. But beyond this she was interested in the role of the performer’s consciousness as an active agent in the performative space. She began to work directly with consciousness in her 1974 piece, Rhythm 2. In this piece—which was performed in a gallery setting—she first took a pill that was meant to mobilize an immobile body. This pill caused her to have seizures and lose control of her body. She then took a sedative for people with anxiety, and this caused her to be still for the duration of the performance. The purpose of this piece was to learn the ways in which the performer’s consciousness effected the performative space. Rhythm 2 was the beginning of her direct incorporation of consciousness into her work. Once she began to consider the conscious state of mind of the performer as crucial to the work it began to transform the performative body, and the body’s relationship to time in her work.  
    Group consciousness then began to play a role in her work with her 1974 piece Rhythm 0. In this piece she laid passively on a table and placed various objects around her. These objects included a loaded gun, pills, condoms, etc. She placed a sign in the museum that notified the audience that there would be no consequences for their actions against her for the duration of the six hour performance. The audience proceeded to drug her, cut her hair, draw on her, and in some cases, protect her. In this piece she began to see the way that group consciousness interacted with the performative space, which then served as the beginning of her changing relationship with audience participation and the performative body in relation to the audience.
    In Marina Abramovic’s 2014 piece Generator at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City she utilized sensory deprivation in the development of her immaterial work. In this piece she required all gallery participants to leave their cell phones, watches and all other personal belongings in a locker. They were then given noise cancelling headphones and were blindfolded. In this work, which is participatory and blurs the boundaries between installation and performance, Abramovic is giving the performative body over entirely to the audience.
    In participatory performance art the collective group within the performative space becomes the performative body. A collective consciousness is created through the performative space and the body of the performance becomes a body that is external to the creator of the performance.
    Generator however takes this one step further by removing the ability of the audience to perceive the collective they have become a part of. She relies heavily on group consciousness and on the perceptive abilities of the individual to sense the space and the others within it—but the participants obvious ability to perceive the other participants or the space is taken away with the loss of their sight and hearing.
    In this instance it is the participants own unconscious that begins to be performed. Participants are left with only their own internal experience of themselves as bodily beings removed from context. This divorce from context is significant because it creates a space in which the only context is that of the participant’s own internal world. They are perceiving themselves and finding their own somatic body within the conceptual performance space. Each individual becomes the performative body in this work, both as singular individuals, and in the form of the collective that is created.

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