On a hot summer night in 1974, in a small studio on the outskirts of Naples, a Serbian artist called Marina Abramovic gathered an audience around a table full of objects. Some of these items were innocent enough: a comb, a lipstick, a rose, a feather. Others were more malign, such as chains, nails, a safety pin, a kitchen knife, a box of razor blades, a whip and a gun. Beside them Abramovic had placed a set of simple instructions. “Performance: I am the object. Duration: 6 hours (8pm-2am). During this period I take full responsibility.”
What unfolded during those six hours proved to be a turning point in the history of performance art. The form sprung up after the second world war, when artists began to use bodies as their medium. Sometimes the results were whimsical, as when Yves Klein painted a group of women blue and got them to roll around on the floor. Sometimes they were shocking: Chris Burden filmed his assistant shooting him in the arm. Abramovic changed the game. With her piece in Naples, which she called “Rhythm O”, she turned the audience into the performers, instead of the artist.
The evening began gently. Someone stroked her. Another offered her a rose, one a kiss. But as the Neapolitan night began to heat up, the mood darkened.
By the third hour her clothes had been cut off her with razor blades, one critic recalled. By the fourth hour, people had used the same blades to cut her skin. One slashed her throat to drink her blood. Someone held a gun to her head, at which point a group of participants decided enough was enough and a fight broke out. “What I learned”, Abramovic later said, “was that…if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.”
Performance art is now ubiquitous, with its own fairs and festivals. Many of its leading figures – Rebecca Patek, Pat Olesko, Clifford Owens – make audiences participate in their work to explore physical and psychological violation. But it took Abramovic’s “Rhythm O” to show just how powerfully performance art can illuminate the dark corners of the mind.•
The Performa 2019 Biennial is in New York from November 1st-24th