Marina Abramović - Walk Through Walls (excerpt)

Once I was a postwoman. Not for very long, though.

None of us had wanted to go back to Belgrade when the festival was over, but in order to stay in Edinburgh, we had to find work. So I got a job as a mail lady. I was excited about my new job, but after a few exhausting days of walking around the city, often lost and not speaking the language very well, I decided to only deliver the envelopes with nice handwritten addresses and throw out everything else—especially the bills. My supervisor asked me to return my uniform. That was that for postal work. Then Demarco asked me if I knew anything about interior design. “Of course,” I said. Of course I knew nothing. He took me to an architectural firm and introduced me to one of the principals. “We are designing a dining room for a luxury cruise ship,” the guy said. “Can you give us your input?”

I reported for work the next morning. The first thing I did was to take a pile of white paper and draw a closely spaced grid on each sheet. It was painstaking work with a ruler and pencil, and it took me all week. At the end of the week, the architect said, “Can you show me what you’re thinking?” I showed him all the sheets I had so carefully prepared. He looked at me and took me to a supply closet. There, on a shelf, were reams and reams of preprinted graph paper. At least he was amused instead of angry at this clueless Slavic chick from the middle of nowhere, but that job didn’t last very long, either. Soon afterward the five of us moved to London, where I worked on an assembly line in a toy factory, manufacturing the Newton’s cradle—the toy with the shiny metal balls swinging back and forth. I was such a fast assembler that my supervisor was impressed—so impressed that he kept hitting on me. I was bored and frustrated: I was an artist, and there seemed to be no way for me to do art in London. At the very least, I thought, I could look at art. And so I spent many pleasant afternoons visiting London galleries. My favorite was Lisson Gallery, which featured cutting-edge contemporary pieces in several media. I vividly remember an exhibition of very conceptual work by a group that called itself Art & Language. And I remember the young man sitting at the gallery’s front desk, to whom I was too shy to talk or show my work. As it turned out, this was Lisson’s founder, Nicholas Logsdail—who, forty years later, became my gallerist in London. This was when my mother found me a job without asking me, and once again Belgrade pulled me back. I’d stayed away as long as I could, yet in order to really leave, I had to return first.

Balkan Baroque - Venice Biennale 1997

I began teaching at the Novi Sad Academy, but—thanks to my growing notoriety and no doubt thanks to Danica’s influence as well—my course load was small (I taught only one day a week) and my salary high. This gave me the freedom to save my money and pursue performance art seriously. In those days, it never crossed my mind that I could make a living from my performances. I simply had ideas, and felt that I had to realize them no matter what.

In late 1973 I went to Rome as part of an exhibition called “Contemporanea,” curated by the Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva. There I met such important performance artists as Joan Jonas, Charlemagne Palestine, Simone Forti, and Luigi Ontani, and the key Arte Povera figures Marisa and Mario Merz, Jannis Kounellis, Luciano Fabro, Giovanni Anselmo, and Giuseppe Penone. It was heady company. But as my horizons broadened and I understood how conceptualism was taking hold, I yearned to make my own art more visceral. That meant using the body—my body. In Rome I performed Rhythm 10 once more, this time with twenty knives and even more blood than before. Once again I got a big reaction from the audience. My mind was ablaze—it felt as though the possibilities for performance art were infinite.

One of the artists I met in Rome was a Brazilian, a couple of years older than me, named Antonio Dias. I was fascinated with his work, which lay in a strange and wonderful territory between straightforward painting and conceptual art. One piece consisted simply of a record player, a 45rpm record, and a banana. While the record was playing, he put the banana on it, creating an interesting distortion of sight and sound. In 1974 Beuys came to the April meeting of the SKC, and I spent a lot of time with him. My mind was on fire and fire was on my mind, as part of a new piece I was thinking about. But when I told Beuys about it, he sounded a note of caution. “Be very careful with fire,” he warned me. But careful was not part of my vocabulary in those days. The piece I had in mind would be called Rhythm 5. The “5” in the title stood for a five-pointed star—for two stars, really. There was the large five-pointed wooden star I planned to build in the courtyard of the SKC, and there were the starfishlike extremities of my body as I would lie inside it: my head and my outstretched arms and legs. The star was actually a double star of wooden rails, one star inside the other, the outer one some fifteen feet from point to point, the inner just slightly larger than my body. In between the two star outlines I would lay wood shavings soaked in 100 liters of gasoline. Then I would set this highly flammable material ablaze and lie inside the inner star, my arms and legs outspread.

Why a star? It was the symbol of Communism, the repressive force under which I had grown up, the thing I was trying to escape—but it was so many other things, too: a pentagram, an icon worshiped and mystified by ancient religions and cults, a shape possessing enormous symbolic power. I was trying to understand the deeper meaning of these symbols by using them in my work. Beuys, along with many others, was in the audience at the SKC the night I performed Rhythm 5. I set the wood chips ablaze, then I walked around the perimeter of the star a few times. I cut my fingernails and tossed the clippings into the fire. Then I took a scissors to my hair—which was down to my shoulders at the time—and cut it all off. I tossed my hair into the fire, too. Then I lay inside the inner star, stretching out my arms and legs to conform to its shape. There was dead silence—all you could hear in the courtyard was the crackling of the flames. That was the last thing I remembered. Once the fire touched my leg and I didn’t react, the audience quickly realized I had lost consciousness: the flames had consumed all the oxygen around my head. Someone picked me up and carried me to safety, but instead of being a fiasco, the piece had been a strange kind of hit. It wasn’t just my act of bravery and foolishness: the audience had been transfixed by the symbolic spectacle of the blazing star and the woman within.

In Rhythm 5 I had gotten so angry that I’d lost control. In my next pieces, I asked myself how to use my body in and out of consciousness without interrupting the performance. For Rhythm 2, which I performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb a few months later, I got two pills from the hospital: one that forces catatonics to move, and one that quiets down schizophrenics. I sat at a little table in front of the audience and took pill number one. In a couple of minutes my body was jerking around involuntarily, almost falling out of my chair. I was aware of what was happening to me, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. Then, when that pill wore off, I took the second one. This time I went into a kind of passive trance, sitting there with a big smile on my face, aware of nothing. And this pill took five hours to wear off. In Yugoslavia and in the rest of Europe, word was spreading in the art world about this reckless young woman. Later that year I went to Galleria Diagramma in Milan to perform Rhythm 4. In this piece I was naked, alone in a white room and crouched above a powerful industrial fan. As a video camera sent my image to the audience in the next room, I pressed my face against the hurricane blowing out of the fan, trying to take as much air into my lungs as possible. In a couple of minutes, the great torrent of air filling my insides caused me to lose consciousness. I had anticipated this, but as with Rhythm 2, the point of the piece had been to show me in two different states, consciousness and unconsciousness. I knew that I was experiencing new ways of using my body as material. The problem was that as with Rhythm 5, I was perceived to be in danger. And while in the earlier piece the danger had been real, and this time it was only perceived, the Milan gallery staff, fearing for my well-being, rushed in and “rescued” me. It wasn’t needed, it wasn’t intended, but it all became part of the piece.

I had wanted attention for my work, but much of the attention I got in Belgrade was negative. My hometown newspapers ridiculed me viciously. What I was doing had nothing to do with art, they wrote. I was nothing but an exhibitionist and a masochist, they said. I belonged in a mental hospital, they claimed. The photographs of me naked in Galleria Diagramma were especially scandalous. This reaction to my work led me to plan my most daring piece to date. What if instead of doing something to myself, I let the public decide what to do to me? The invitation came from Studio Morra in Naples: Come and perform whatever you want. It was early 1975. With the scandalized reactions of the Belgrade press fresh in my mind, I planned a piece in which the audience would provide the action. I would merely be the object, the receptacle. My plan was to go to the gallery and just stand there, in black trousers and a black T-shirt, behind a table containing seventy-two objects: A hammer. A saw. A feather. A fork. A bottle of perfume. A bowler hat. An ax. A rose. A bell. Scissors. Needles. A pen. Honey. A lamb bone. A carving knife. A mirror. A newspaper. A shawl. Pins. Lipstick. Sugar. A Polaroid camera. Various other things. And a pistol, and one bullet lying next to it. When a big crowd had gathered at eight P.M., they found these instructions on the table:

There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. 

I am the object. 
During this period I take full responsibility. 

Duration: 6 hours (8pm - 2am) 
Studio Morra, Naples.

If someone wanted to put the bullet into the pistol and use it, I was ready for the consequences. I said to myself, Okay, let’s see what happens. For the first three hours, not much happened—the audience was being shy with me. I just stood there, staring into the distance, not looking at anything or anybody; now and then, someone would hand me the rose, or drape the shawl over my shoulders, or kiss me. Then, slowly at first and then quickly, things began to happen. It was very interesting: for the most part, the women in the gallery would tell the men what to do to me, rather than do it themselves (although later on, when someone stuck a pin into me, one woman wiped the tears from my eyes). For the most part, these were just normal members of the Italian art establishment and their wives. Ultimately I think the reason I wasn’t raped was that the wives were there. As evening turned into late night, a certain air of sexuality arose in the room. This came not from me but from the audience. We were in southern Italy, where the Catholic Church was so powerful, and there was this strong Madonna/whore dichotomy in attitudes toward women.

After three hours, one man cut my shirt apart with the scissors and took it off. People manipulated me into various poses. If they turned my head down, I kept it down; if they turned it up, I kept it that way. I was a puppet—entirely passive. Bare-breasted, I stood there, and someone put the bowler hat on my head. With the lipstick, someone else wrote IO SONO LIBERO—“I am free”—on the mirror and stuck it in my hand. Someone else took the lipstick and wrote END across my forehead. A guy took Polaroids of me and stuck them in my hand, like playing cards. Things got more intense. A couple of people picked me up and carried me around. They put me on the table, spread my legs, stuck the knife in the table close to my crotch. Someone stuck pins into me. Someone else slowly poured a glass of water over my head. Someone cut my neck with the knife and sucked the blood. I still have the scar. There was one man—a very small man—who just stood very close to me, breathing heavily. This man scared me. Nobody else, nothing else, did. But he did. After a while, he put the bullet in the pistol and put the pistol in my right hand. He moved the pistol toward my neck and touched the trigger. There was a murmur in the crowd, and someone grabbed him. A scuffle broke out. Some of the audience obviously wanted to protect me; others wanted the performance to continue. This being southern Italy, voices were raised; tempers flared. The little man was hustled out of the gallery and the piece continued. In fact, the audience became more and more active, as if in a trance. And then, at two A.M., the gallerist came and told me the six hours were up. I stopped staring and looked directly at the audience. “The performance is over,” the gallerist said. “Thank you.”

Rhythm 0 (performance, 6 hours), Studio Morra, Naples, 1974 

I looked like hell. I was half naked and bleeding; my hair was wet. And a strange thing happened: at this moment, the people who were still there suddenly became afraid of me. As I walked toward them, they ran out of the gallery. The gallerist drove me back to my hotel and I went to my room alone—feeling more alone than I’d felt for a long time. I was exhausted, but my mind wouldn’t stop buzzing, replaying scenes from the wild evening. The pain that had been absent when I received the pinpricks and the cut to my neck now throbbed. The fear of that little man wouldn’t leave me. Eventually I fell into a kind of half sleep. In the morning I looked in the mirror, and a whole clump of my hair had turned gray. In that moment, I realized that the public can kill you. The next day, the gallery received dozens of phone calls from people who had participated in the show. They were terribly sorry, they said; they didn’t really understand what had happened while they were there—they didn’t know what had come over them.

What had happened while they were there, quite simply, was performance. And the essence of performance is that the audience and the performer make the piece together. I wanted to test the limits of how far the public would go if I didn’t do anything at all. This was a brand-new concept to the people who came to Studio Morra that night, and it was perfectly natural that those who attended felt worked up about it, both during the performance and afterward. Human beings are afraid of very simple things: we fear suffering, we fear mortality. What I was doing in Rhythm 0—as in all my other performances—was staging these fears for the audience: using their energy to push my body as far as possible. In the process, I liberated myself from my fears. And as this happened, I became a mirror for the audience—if I could do it, they could do it, too.

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