The Patient Body: Marina Abramovic and the Efficacy of Performance

By Ann Neumann

MAI is home to the Abramovic Method, a series of exercises designed by Marina Abramovic* over the course of 40 years to explore boundaries of body and mind. —Marina Abramovic Institute website, “About” page

One of the innumerable preposterous episodes to accompany the presidential election season—only to be lost in the endless rinse of the news cycle—was the November claim by conservative website Drudge Report that John Podesta’s emails, released by Wikileaks, linked the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign to a satanic cult.

The image of Podesta in the midst of some candle-lit, blood-strewn pagan ritual is too good to be true—even though many were quite prepared to pretend that it was true for their own purposes. The hashtag “#spiritcooking” clogged up 400,000 Twitter posts and gave saucy, ravenous media commentators the irresistible opportunity to go on about “blood, sperm and breastmilk. But mostly blood.”

Marina Abramovic, the “world’s most famous performance artist,” turned out to be the inadvertent source of the salaciousness, a role reversal for the artist who has made a career out of always being intentional about her salaciousness. Reached by Washington Post writer (and The Revealer alum) Abby Ohlheiser, Abramovic, through a spokesperson, confirmed that Podesta never made it to her New York apartment. The event turned out to be a thank-you dinner for donors, not a witch’s fete. Ho hum. “There was no blood, no anything else,” Abramovic told ArtNews:

“Anybody who wants can read my memoirs and find out that [my work] is far away from Satanism,” she said. (The book was just released this week, she noted, and it’s doing well on Amazon.) “My work is really more about spirituality and not anything else,” she continued. “I’ve been doing my work for so long, and this is a misunderstanding.”

One is left to deeply regret that ArtNews had not asked Abramovic about the meaning of “spirituality,” perhaps an even more poorly defined term than Satanism. The phrase “Spirit Cooking,” which caught Drudge Report’s eye, references a 1996 project by the artist in which she records a series of “essential aphrodisiac recipes”: “mix fresh breast milk / with / fresh sperm milk / drink on earthquake nights.” For the accompanying exhibition, she used pig blood to paint the recipes on a gallery’s walls. It’s the type of “spiritual” work that Abramovic is known for, often combined with feats of endurance and some sort of potential or actual pain. That’s Abramovic’s wheelhouse and medium: endurance, exhibitionism, and spiritual pain. But mostly spiritual pain.

It’s this key latter ingredient that has, since “The Artist is Present,” her blockbuster retrospective at MoMA in 2010, made Abramovic an iconic figure in popular culture. For 7 hours a day, 6 days a week—for a total of 700 hours over two and a half months—she sat at a table in MoMA’s atrium, silently staring into the eyes of any museum-goer who queued to sit across from her. The physical power of locking eyes with Abramovic often evoked tears, presumably a reaction to Abramovic’s spiritual power.

Portraits of those who faced her were captured in a photo book (Marco Anelli: Portraits in the Presence of Marina Abramovic (Damiani, 2012)). Scrolling through the 1,566 photos posted on Flikr by MoMA, more than a few celebrities are recognizable, including Ulay, Abramovic’s partner throughout the 70s. A video of the former couple’s tears (and Abramovic’s break with passivity to lay a hand on his) was a viral sensation, racking up more than a million views. Others who sat throughout the marathon performance included Lou Reed, Bjork, Alan Rickman, Isabelle Huppert, Isabella Rossellini, Andres Serrano (the artist of “Piss Christ” infamy), Marisa Tomei, and Christiane Amanpour. Those accustomed to performing for the mass public—actors, singers, TV news journalists—flocked to Abramovic as if on pilgrimage to the master.

 

Since the MoMA show, some have discussed their fandom as “conversion” to the “cult” of Abramovic. You’re a convert—her performances have efficacy for you—if you believe in them. Your belief is proven by a physical reaction, tears. This mind-body effect is why other performers now seek out Abramovic to study and practice. Jay Z and James Franco are collaborators and pals. Contact with celebrities has imbued her with celebrity and has provided her with a flurry of opportunities, including a series of Adidas “commercials.” Rem Koolhaus even designed the multi-million dollar renovation of a building in Hudson, New York, to house the Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI). The Marina Abramovic Method is now a thing you can study at the institute, just like Lady Gaga did.

Throughout the years, Abramovic’s work has never been without detractors, but increased cultural visibility has amplified the negative critiques. The memoir Abramovic touted to ArtNews during the “spirit cooking” election fracas, Walk through Walls, was published in October and promptly eviscerated. The opening of Elaine Margolin’s acerbic review at the Washington Post, titled “The unending agony of Marina Abramovic,” reads:

“Marina Abramovic’s disturbing performance art has not raised the consciousness of the world, although she has always proclaimed this to be her sacred goal. Nor have her provocative performances allowed her to transcend her personal pain, despite her protestations to the contrary,”

Despite all the failed effort, time seems to be on Abramovic’s side; on the heels of her memoir comes a new movie about the artist, “Marina Abramovic in Brazil: The Space In Between,” which captures a particular current zeitgeist. (You can rent or buy the exclusive release on Vimeo for $5.99 or $14.99, respectively.) The Creators Project calls it “part travel film and part spiritual thriller”; they’re accurate on the travel part, not so much the “thriller” part. Director Marco Del Fiol, who’s documented other big-named artists like Olafur Eliasson and Marepe, follows Abramovic to Brazil where an exhibition of her work is showing in Sao Paolo. Before we get to see the new work, though (at least according to the chronology of the film) we accompany Abramovic on a tour of the country to “learn from these cultures,” she narrates, flirting with exoticization of an entire country, “people of nature, the ones who really learn how to take energy from the outside and from inside themselves, transform it, and give it back to the ones who can’t do it themselves.”

Any thrills on offer are really just dazzling landscapes and costumes, perplexing chants and un-translated dialogue. Oh, and there’s blood. Whatever great spiritual power Abramovic has, we’re unable to discern it in “The Space in Between.” “Frankly, she sometimes looks like a dilettante whose money and connections allow her to dabble in a dozen cults without giving herself fully to any of them,” wrote John DeFore in his review of the film at The Hollywood Reporter, reminding us that celebrity too has a power.

Of course the film is charged with the lure of celebrity, but Abramovic is also able to use old, repeating images from her decades of work, now well-known by her followers, along with certain repeating themes to create a kind of ritualized viewing. We see the crystals from decades before, we see her posing in now-iconic ways with “permanent collection” pieces. Abramovic’s themes are set on repeat, a repetition that is both comforting and shifting (aging and refreshing) over time.

***

“The Space in Between” opens with Abramovic, clad in an army-drab jumpsuit, walking deeper into a dark cave. She tells us that as a child she was never interested in the cosmos, but what was behind the cosmos; when she asked the universe what her purpose was, it told her that her purpose was to “learn humans how to transcend pain.” The purpose of “The Space in Between” is to establish Abramovic as a guru and healer, one who brings back knowledge to us and remedies our spiritual and physical suffering. In Brazil she is Christ in the desert, she is Buddha under the tree, a prophet gone out to be tested, readying for a return to us so that we may learn. The promotional copy at Vimeo reads, “In search of personal healing and artistic inspiration, Marina Abramović travels through Brazil experiencing sacred rituals and exploring the limits between art and spirituality. How far will she go to create another work of art?” Her suffering will be our experiential gain.

Marina & Ulay, Rest Energy, 1980

Abramovic can deal with physical pain, she tells us. From her artistic oeuvre which spans morethan 40 years and involves thorns, arrows, and knives, exposure to fire, ice and the elements, great physical endurance tests and all manner of discomfort, there can be no doubt that she is a master of physical pain. “I can control [physical pain],” she tells us in “The Space,” a Serbian (former Yugoslavian) accent inflecting her measured and slightly breathy elocution, “but emotional pain is what really give me trouble.”

As Abramovic, sets out across the country with her director, sound person, translator and others, descending on various individuals and communities with all the subtlety of a B movie crew, she tells us that there’s a difference between spiritual and physical pain, but she spends the rest of the film conflating the two.

Her first stop: A faith healer named John of God shoves a cotton swab—clenched in the teeth of a pair of long scissors—up the nose and down the throat of a young man and pulls it back bloody. “There is so much pain,” Abramovic tells us as John of God takes a common paring knife off a tray and cuts into the bloated belly of a middle-aged blonde. “People come here to be healed. They come here as the last hope place. There is nowhere else to go with cancers, all kinds of different diseases, and the hope is in all of their faces.” The blonde does not move as John pulls some piece of her insides out and tosses it on the floor, then coarsely stitches her up with what looks like a darning needle and thread. We assume John’s got no use for lidocaine. “If there is faith,” Abramovic tells us as the blond finally collapses into someone’s arms, “there is no pain.”

It’s an ancient tautology—“if there is faith there is no pain”—and Abramovic likes ancient things (crystals, caves, a 110 year old women named Mae Filhinha who, when Abramovic asks what the most important thing in life is, answers with the prosaic: healthy food and family) because she assumes that ancient things are authentic and therefore sacred, spiritual, closer to the original gods or doctors than the ones we ailing Westerners have today. We’re helped along in this understanding as Abramovic, famously an all-black wearing New Yorker, appears so often throughout the film in white with her arms outstretched, Christ-like. Forever in pain, forever seeking salvation from that pain. Or she sits in a chair, clad in white, before a breathtaking landscape, god-artist surveying her work. Of course it’s easy to read all this as a performance of self-importance.

And that’s the film’s structure, placing Abramovic in settings that feel rural or foreign but are really just exotic backdrops to the artist. Indeed, the artist is present. Abramovic visits faith healers, medicine men and women, indigenous tribes and religious cults with festooned, bleeding, chanting, pleading believers. Yet they are not the subjects of the movie, Abramovic is, hoping to demonstrate, it seems, that her pain, once again, can represent ours.

“Some of her New Age digressions border on incoherent,” Elaine Margolin wrote in her Washington Post review of the memoir. However annoyingly true that may be, Abramovic’s finger is dead on the pulse of a body of popular ideas about behavior’s power to heal. (The incoherence allows us to project as much as our hearts desire.) Call it therapeutic culture, call it the monetization of everything that now fills the vacuum left behind by declining institutionalized religion; whatever yearnings American culture is having—for the numinous, for the meaningful, for the healthy, for the capital T true—to many, Abramovic is an answer.

***

The crux of Abramovic’s film—and the media surrounding it—is the artist’s consumption of ayahuasca, an “ancient Amazonian hallucinogenic brew” trending in cities across the country to such a degree that The New Yorker sent staff writer Ariel Levy off to a yoga studio in Brooklyn to try it. (Ayahuasca came to the states long ago and has been trending for some time, just not among The New Yorker reading set.) “Ayahuasca is like having a cup of coffee here,” San Francisco-based “self-help guru” Tim Ferriss tells Levy. “On any given night in Manhattan,” University of Washington School of Medicine researcher Leanna Standish tells Levy, “there are a hundred ayahuasca ‘circles’ going on.” Drugs have their moments, or rather, moments have their drugs; ayahuasca meets a particular craving in American culture right now. Levy writes:

If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale. It is a time characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and we are willing to suffer for our soulfulness.

Those who belong to the “Age of Kale” belong to a particular sociopolitical demographic: under 40, urban, making the rent. Which might explain the tech language that Levy tells us dominates the “plant-medicine lexicon” in Silicon Valley and elsewhere:

In an industry devoted to synthetic products, people are drawn to this natural drug, with its ancient lineage and ritualized use: traditionally, shamans purify the setting by smoking tobacco, playing ceremonial instruments, and chanting icaros—songs that they say come to them from the plants, the way Pentecostals are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues.

While Levy observes the appeal of the seemingly organic, authentic and vegetable properties of the drug to social media-frenzied young professionals, and while she observes the use of ritual to sacralize experience, she misses the money angle on all this. Like indulgences of old, salvation (or self-knowledge or health and longevity, or perhaps even immortality) has a price. An ayahuasca sitting can cost anywhere from several hundred to over a thousand dollars, depending on how chic the locale or the person administering the drug (who Levy tells us may call themselves “a shaman, an ayahuasquero, a curandero, a vegetalista, or just a healer”).

***

Our collective faith that being strong and living right makes us healthy overshadows the corollary: those who don’t, or more importantly, simply can’t, afford to care for themselves must deserve to be unhealthy and ill at peace. Such is the premise of the country’s current health care system. Even a quick and dirty fix like the Affordable Care Act is like to not survive the rich-makes-right current administration.

From yoga classes and all their required garment and equipment accoutrements to an all-organic diet; from gym memberships to de-cluttering consultants and personal and career coaches: getting and staying healthy takes a lot of time and money, two things that are an increasing luxury to most of us. Getting yourself to Brazil to see John of God? With a film crew? Priceless.

When The New Yorker’s Levy finally takes Ayahuasca herself, she doesn’t get the experience the drug’s reputation has led her to expect—there’s no magical enlightenment, no great insight into life’s needs, gifts or priorities. Yes, there’s puke and lots of it; yes, as she closes the piece, she gets high and is “content and vaguely delighted and temporarily free.” Nevertheless, ayahuasca is just the kind of seemingly authentic experience Abramovic goes to Brazil for.

For the camera crew, Abramovic strips naked in the jungle for her ayahuasca. When it hits her, she shits and pisses and pukes all at once. She hallucinates that she is trapped and calls the experience the worst of her life. Then she (a little too dramatically) tries it again and the drug delivers. We’re able to neatly align ayahuasca with the successful completion of her trip’s (and her life’s) objectives: to bring methods of finding relief to her followers.

Another hint at Abramovic’s purpose—and the reason for her success—comes from a profile by New York magazine’s Carl Swanson, who writes that she’s not only the (only!) most famous performance artist:

She’s also become something else: a kind of shambolic mother goddess cloaked in a New Age self-help aura, her public image hovering somewhere between those of Joni Mitchell and Oprah, or perhaps Melisandre from Game of Thrones. Many who fell hardest for her would have mocked the guru impulse if it had come from someone or somewhere else, but from Abramovic, in the temple of art, the response was almost cultish.

Precisely because Abramovic comes from the art world, she can claim the authenticity and pure talent of someone like Mitchell. That voice! But also, the business savvy of Oprah, queen of the “buy this and be free” pitch…and the sorcery of the buxom witch who first bet on the wrong king, then resurrected the right one. That’s a powerful appeal.

If ayahuasca meets a particular craving in American culture right now—“soulfulness,” “wellness,” “mindfulness,” “detoxification”—Abramovic has perhaps established herself as its administering healer.

***

In some ways, the very popularity of Marina Abramovic is proof of the efficacy of her performances. We may live in an era of celebrity for the sake of celebrity, but her recognizability comes from her seeming substance rather than, like reality TV stars, her embarrassments or wealth. And rightly so. For decades she has demonstrated a kind of naked bravery, ability to capture attention, and sheer determination few others have. And all within the art realm, a territory that has proven itself able to reified much lesser acts of visceral knowledge. And yet, there are, at least to the public eye, two Abramovics. The one before MoMA that held the attention of rooms by not fearing pain, by exploring its every subtle possibility: shame, female denigration, proximity, sharp objects, extreme temperatures. It’s the other one that we must now reckon with, the teacher, the one in reach of a legacy (and solvency**).

Still from “The Space in Between”

The former Abramovic had the power to capture, if not to heal, a viewer. The latter is the one with fancy-ass portraits taken by pros, with a multi-million dollar institute named after her, with rich and famous pals (some of whom are even politicians like the Podesta brothers). The former Abramovic was a layperson like us, close, an everywoman of plight and pain; the latter is a messianic teacher…who, when she lectures, sounds out nonsensical stuff about energy and mindfulness.

Be all that as it may, her efficacy continues. She, in her eternal search and suffering, even in her role as “method” teacher, demonstrates the great spiritual lesson of our time. While writing this, I kept coming back to Abramovic’s articulation of faith as a painkiller. When dovetailed with the Christian lesson that faith is never stagnant but always diminishing or increasing, that we are always falling away from God or getting closer to him, always waiting for that day when we’ll be free, Abramovic has struck on a faith in performance. By believing there is a method (or ritual or medicinal routine) that will save us, we can know that freedom (from all kinds of pain) is at hand. If we know we will cry at an Abramovic performance, we will. If we understand that our effort to find healing and self-knowledge will eventually pay off, the search can itself be a solace. If we believe faith will lead to peace, belief will give us comfort.

Aspirin, like ayahuasca, is ancient; many of our healing drugs are plant-based, not synthetic. And there’s no denying that the discipline of medicine is ritualistic, even though those rituals may not (yet) convey, um, the numinous. But the belief that ayahuasca (and its surrounding rituals) are efficacious makes it so. I’m not saying that the hallucinations caused by ayahuasca are a lie—as Abramovic and thousands of other pukers have found out—but that they have an emotional and even an intellectual efficacy that has been cultivated over time and adjusted specifically for a spiritual need among a segment of our culture today.

Here, then, is the lesson about placebos—and perhaps performance: they very often work. Proof of the power of a Marina Abramovic performance is the reaction it causes in viewers, regardless of what those viewers are reacting to.

***

*The Marina Abramovic Institute website dispenses with the diacritics in the artist’s name so I have too.

**I say rake it in girl. The art boys, of all ages and colors, have been shamelessly doing it for, well, ever. I hope every corporate ad exec out there tracks you down.

***

Ann Neumann is a contributing editor at The Revealer and Guernica magazine and a visiting scholar at The Center for Religion and Media, NYU. Neumann is the author of The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America (Beacon Press, 2016).

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *