Performance art is a little weird if we think about it. It involves you, the artist, essentially adopting the status of a zoo or circus animal, performing quaint tricks for an indulgent audience to enjoy. The only difference is, we call it art, sometimes saying the word ‘art’ with a posh accent and overly flowery hand gestures.
But slightly immature jokes about performance art aside, there is a reason that arguments on the merits of performance art is more polarised than non-performance art. Some people think it is pretty cool, some think it is extremely pretentious (this group is quite vocal).
Well the main reason is that lot of people do not quite understand a lot of performance art. In essence, what is ‘the point’? This includes me too. For instance, I fail to see the point of Vito Acconci masturbating on stage to people’s voices (1972. The performance was called Seedbed).
But, people still harshly criticize performance art where the point is more obvious, and I think a reason for that may have to do with subtlety and the fact that the artist and audience is face-to-face.
With non-performance art – paintings, sculpture, prose, poetry etc. – there is a sort of disconnect between the artist and the receiver. Whatever words you read from a book, it is just words. Words that may arouse deep emotions, but words regardless. I am not sure a lot of people imagine a writer talking to them as they read a novel (it’s more their own voices). For a painting, it is more of how you interpret it. Even in cases where the idea that the art is trying to pass across may be very obvious, you are comfortable, you are in your own head, and you can ruminate on it, one small step at a time.
Non-performance art is not in-your-face Performance art on the other hand, can be more emotionally resonant because the artist is in front of you, and you see whatever is being created, so whatever message the artist wants to pass across smacks you in the face. You do not take breaks, there is no place to hide. You take everything in at once. It is not at all subtle.
But while performance art may not have any subtlety, I think that is part of its strengths, because whatever it wants to say, nobody has no illusions about it. And a lot of the time, that is how we should be confronted with things in my opinion.
Which leads me to Rhythm 0. In 1974 in Naples, Marina Abramovic, then 23-years old, created a performance art that was also a poignant social experiment called Rhythm 0. It involved her standing on stage, unmoving. Beside her was a table that contained 72 objects, ranging from a rose with thorns, grapes, a feather, perfume to scissors, a knife, a razor blade, a pistol and a grapefruit.
The audience were to take the objects and use them on her body however they wished for the next six hours, with Marina bearing responsibility for anything they did.
The instructions were placed on the table. It said: “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. Performance. I am the object. During this period, I take full responsibility. Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am)”
As expected, the crowd were a bit sheepish at first. Marina, in an interview talking about the performance, said that ‘in the beginning, the public was very much playing with me’. They handed her the rose, someone gave her a kiss. Very much gentle.
Then, it became suddenly much darker. Honestly, it became like something from a godforsaken dystopia, the kind we only see in books and movies. Marina stood immobile while someone pricked her with the thorns on the rose and while her clothes were cut off. A man cut her neck with the razorblade, then leant forwards and placed his lips on the fresh wound and drank her blood. By now, tears streamed down her face. People touched her in intimate places. One person put the bullet in the pistol and put it in her (Marina’s) hand, and then pointed it to her neck, finger on the trigger. Someone thankfully came and yanked the gun away. Marina did not still move.
Then, she was picked up and carried around, then placed on a table. Then the knife was picked up and rammed into the table between her legs. Art critic Thomas McEvilley said that “…she would not have resisted rape or murder.”
But to me, what made the whole performance even more interesting was what the audience did when the six hours elapsed and Marina started moving. Here’s what she said happened: ‘But, I remember after six hours when the gallerist come and say this piece, it’s finished that I start being by myself and start walking through the audience naked and with blood, and tears in my eyes, everybody run away, literally run out the door.’
The implications of this performance are beyond frightening.
It took just a simple absolution of guilt, a taking away of responsibility, to get human beings to begin to act like cruel, savage bastards. But again, this is nothing new. When we are absolved of responsibility, we tend to go too far, to take too many liberties. Ever heard of the Milgram Experiment? However, Rhythm 0’s case is particularly chilling because the people did what they did with glee. They seemed to enjoy demeaning someone, like they were playing out their dark fantasies or something.
I feel they saw her like an object, and played with her in a sadistic manner when she did not react in any way. It is also shocking how they went mainly for the dangerous objects and used them on her.
What is it about us that makes us want to hurt each other? Why does having power over someone immediately make us want to hurt them and dominate them?
Another thing is how mob mentality affects our behaviour. If there were only three people at that performance, I am certain that they’d have never done all those things. Being in a crowd loosened their inhibitions. Again, it is that absolution of responsibility that a crowd brings. You’re faceless and you have people around you doing whatever, so you do it too. This can be good, such as when you’re protesting for a cause, but it can be horrifying when it goes the other way. Consider how a slightly timid accountant can join a mob to brutally put down another person online, or how a woman can join in riots and unrest, looting and burning, or how people can lynch someone in the street for stealing.
Lastly, for the aspect that made this performance particularly interesting to me. The way the crowd scattered when Marina began to move. Recall that earlier, I said that I felt that the crowd saw her as an object as they mistreated her, but then when Marina began to assert herself, take control of her body, the crowd were forced to confront what they had done, and it was not good. We see this pattern in oppression around the world. Oppressors take away the humanity of those they oppress when they oppress them, and the earliest steps to break out of oppression is usually to re-assert that humanity and speak up for themselves.
As a conclusion, let me ask some questions. Is the ‘responsibility’ we impose on ourselves the only reason there is any order in the society? If we didn’t have these ‘rules’, would it be a person-eat-person world out there, as it were? Or is it just a power thing? Are most of us reasonably upstanding members of society because we are not that powerful? Or is it something else entirely?