By 2005, the world’s best-known performance artist Marina Abramović is highly regarded for her pioneering pieces made in Belgrade (editor's note: currently on display at MoCAB is the artist's first retrospective in her native city) as well as the ones conducted in collaboration with the German artist Ulay. By exploring the limits of the body and mind, Abramović plunged herself on an incredible and at the time unprecedented journey that led her to embrace the ritualistic legacy of ancient cultures along with the personal and collective heritage of the former Yugoslavia that was disintegrated with a bloody civil war during the 1990s.
The 1968 student protests and the atmosphere of social and political renewal that occurred afterwards was best expressed by the cultural centers that actively gathered the youth throughout the country. The Yugoslav socialism was a rather experimental, always between East and West, so it is not unusual that an international atmosphere was created in the Student cultural center in Belgrade where emerging artists released radical artworks. It is there Abramović meet Joseph Beuys in 1972, at the time an influential professor and an established artist, as well as the French performance artist Gina Pane; both were part of a manifestation called Aprilski susreti or April meetings.
From her more simplistic performances in the 1970s and 1980s, to the more elaborate ones in the 1990s, Abramović made a name of herself, confirmed with the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale where she released a spectacular and visually striking performance called Balkan Baroque.
From November 9 through November 15 2005, Marina Abramović performed Seven Easy Pieces at The Guggenheim Museum, a series of the most important performances made between 1965 and 1975. She was led by the idea to revisit the history of the performance art, to underline the significance some of them had on her own practice, and to archive the deeds to the pioneering artists (including herself) for future references. To manage the re-enactments, the artist asked for the consent of her peers whose performances she selected. Before the event, Abramović gave the following statement for the New York Times:
There's nobody to keep the history straight. I felt almost, like, obliged. I felt like I have this function to do it.
Abramović performed, as the title indicates, for seven days (seven hours each day) in a row, starting on 9 November 2005. Seven Easy Pieces was part of the Performance Art Festival organized by the non-profit art organization Performa, at the time directed by the prolific art historian RoseLee Goldberg who wrote the best-known study on performance art called Performance Art from Futurism to the Present. Abramović dedicated the performance series to the late Susan Sontag, who was her close friend.
Each performance in their order of appearance will be briefly described in the rest of this text.
The first night of the event was initiated with Bruce Nauman’s performance Body Pressure released in 1974. The most conceptual of the seven performances, it featured Abramović pushing her body with utmost force to the glass located on the stage that functioned as a wall. The action was repeated every five minutes for the seven-hour period from 5 p.m. to 12 p.m. During the performance, the announcement recorded by Abramović was broadcasted, while she kept static facial expression.
Initially, Nauman chose a wall to underline the artist’s lack of ability to see the other side; he was not interested in a reflection as Abramović was. As a matter of fact, Nauman wanted to overcome the physical reality of the wall, by inscribing symbolic and associative elements through this performance.
On the second night, Abramović re-performed the iconic 1972 piece by Vito Acconci who masturbated for eight hours in a surface installed under the floor of a gallery; he repeated this action three times per week. Although the visitors were easy to miss him, they were able to hear his voice through the speaker installed in the gallery.
Abramović did the same, so the entire Guggenheim Museum was filled with her ecstatic voice making the space sexually driven. What makes this particular re-performance so special is the way she critically interpreted what initially was a white male privileged experience by underlining the importance of female presence.
In 1969, VALIE EXPORT performed Action Pants: Genital Panic during the screening of an erotic film. The artist entered the movie theater with crotchless pants and said "what you watch here is a reality". For the re-enactment, Abramović was wearing the same outfit as EXPORT (a leather jacket and black jeans) while sitting on a chair and holding a machine gun. Silently she gazed at the audience for seven hours with her threatening image and bare neither region. People felt exposed and could not stand her gaze; she frequently stood or sat down.
#365daysofwomeninart #VALIEEXPORT is a contemporary Austrian artist known for her photographs and radical performances that engage the public into a discourse on the female body and gaze.
Image: VALIE EXPORT, 'Action Pants: Genital Panic', 1968 pic.twitter.com/cq1qzJdH0R
— Richard Saltoun (@RSaltounGallery) March 8, 2019
For this performance as Gina Pane, Abramović lied on an iron bed with the fire of a candle positioned only 10 cm underneath it. Although it was not visually clear whether she is hot or not, the artist moaned from time to time suggesting that she is bearing high temperature. Every hour, she would change the candle that had burned down, and again lay on the bed; she would fall down the bed on purposely marking the shift. Like all others in Seven Easy Pieces, this performance too lasted seven hours.
How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare was saluted as one of the most prolific performances of the 1960s. Abramović decided to re-stage it by dragging herself as Joseph Beuys in his signature fisherman’s vest with a face covered in gold leaf. She walked around the stage making loud noise and was surrounded by a chair, some easels and black canvases. At a certain point, she took a dead hare, sat on a chair and started whispering to a dead mammal.
By holding a hare in her left hand and supporting its paw by her forefinger, the artist moved in front of a blackboard. Then, she crawled around on the stage to make it look as if the hare itself is running around. The repetitive action was reminiscent of the mythical birth of the archipelago in the Japanese Chronicle (Nihon Shoki) when the gods Izanaki and Izanami take down a pike in chaos and strum the tide slowly. Abramović was apparently fascinated by Beuys’s shamanistic approach, which she embraced and extended throughout the years of her spiritually inclined practice.
The sixth night, the artist re-performed re-performance the iconic 1975 piece Lips of Thomas. It took place in Innsbruck, Austria, just after she just left Yugoslavia, so it naturally resonated with the history of her country.
In the late afternoon, Abramović appeared on the stage nude, sat down on a chair, and after a while switched on a metronome. Only the sound of the apparatus was heard, until the artist ten minutes later opened a jar of honey, started eating it slowly. The repetitive licking of the spoon had an explicit sexual connotation.
After eating honey for ten minutes, the artist opened a wine bottle and drank it slowly while gazing at the spectators. Then, she took a razor from the table, and made a slow and careful star-shaped incision on her stomach, while the sound of a metronome counted the passing time.
The last performance Marina Abramović conducted was her latest piece at the time under the title Entering the Other Side. It was a tableaux vivant or living sculpture of the artist herself dressed in a huge gown at the center of The Guggenheim Museum's famous rotunda looking through the audience in every direction. This statuesque act of observing had a dominant spiritual element - from time to time, Abramović would put her hands together as if in a prayer.
By positioning herself as an idol, the artist questioned the notion of prayer in contemporary times silently, in a state of contemplative ecstasy. Although the act of praying seems meaningless at the moment, it indicates one’s ability to perform a sincere gesture that accumulates power for something imaginary, unreachable.
Editors’ Tip: Marina Abramović: Seven Easy Pieces
This new monograph documents seven consecutive, groundbreaking nights of monumental, solo, body-art performances by the internationally renowned artist, Marina Abramović, during the Fall of 2005 in the famous rotunda of New York City's Guggenheim Museum. It includes a new piece created by Abramović specifically for the project, as well as her renditions of six other seminal works (by five other artists and herself) from the formative decade, 1965-1975. In this important series, Abramović gives us the opportunity to recall, revive and preserve major historical performance pieces, all of which are inherently ephemeral, in a completely original way. With an interview by the esteemed Guggenheim curator, Nancy Spector.
Featured image: Installation view: Marina Abramović: Seven Easy Pieces, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, November 9–November 15, 2005. Photo: Kathryn Carr. Courtesy The Guggenheim.