Marina Abramovic and the legacies of controversial artists

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Photo: Wikimedia commons

A central question in the idolisation of celebrities, whether they are musicians, actors or athletes, is the distinction between the individual as a person and the individual as a public figure. The lines between these categories often blur, leaving the public unsure of how to connect their idols to bodies of work. For example, are Michael Phelp’s Olympic records marred by his multiple DUI’s? Are Pablo Picasso’s cubist works any less revolutionary because they were painted by a prolific womaniser? The issue of how an artist’s actions relate to their oeuvre is one that will never be definitively resolved; however, it is worth discussing in relation to performance artist Marina Abramovic, who is the latest art giant to become mired in controversy.

Known for her shocking performance pieces, which offer insightful glances into the human psyche through the use of nudity, violence or the threat of violence, Abramovic is no stranger to controversy. 2016 has been particularly unkind to the artist. Last week, the “grandmother of performance art” lost her lawsuit against former artistic and romantic partner Ulay, who had sued her over unpaid royalties. A Dutch court ordered Abramovic to pay Ulay €250,000 in back-royalties and more than €23,000 in legal costs.

Abramovic’s legal troubles follow yet another bout of negative publicity. Last month, an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, Walk Through Walls, began circulating on social media. The passage, taken from a 1979 diary entry, describes Abramovic’s former collaborators, the Aboriginal people, as dinosaurs.

She writes: “To Western eyes they look terrible. Their faces are like no other faces on earth; they have big torsos (just one bad result of their encounter with Western civilisation is a high-sugar diet that bloats their bodies) and sticklike legs.”

Unsurprisingly, Abramovic’s fans were not pleased. By the end of the day, #TheRacistIsPresent (a play on the artist’s 2010 Museum of Modern Art show The Artist is Present) was trending on Twitter. Abramovic soon apologised, stating that she deeply regretted the inclusion of the passage and emphasized her continued respect for the Aboriginal people.

These incidents are only the latest in Abramovic’s controversial career. A pioneer of performance art, Abramovic rose to prominence in the early 1970s with her confrontational and highly unusual work.

Photo: Wikimedia commons
Photo: Wikimedia commons

One of the artist’s earliest pieces, entitled Rhythm 0 (1974), found her standing passively on a street corner for six hours. Audience members were invited to interact with Abramovic using various objects, including a rose, a whip and a gun. Initial timidity gave way to outright aggression, and by the end of the piece, Abramovic had been stripped of her clothing, threatened, and manhandled.

Rhythm 0 offers insights into the very nature of humanity, with Abramovic’s passivity offset by the sheer brutality of participants who knew they would face no consequences for their actions.

The rest of Abramovic’s work also focuses on relationships between humans. During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Abramovic collaborated with Ulay (the man who just sued her) in a series of performances that highlighted the female-male dynamic. In one piece, Abramovic and Ulay simply let out guttural screams while standing inches apart. In another, they ran at each other full-speed, only to meet in the middle, fall, and repeat the action.

One of the pair’s most famous performances was also their last. The Lovers (1988) involved Abramovic and Ulay trekking across the Great Wall of China. Ulay started at one end of the wall, and Abramovic started at the other. When they met in the middle after months of walking, they embraced and officially ended both their artistic and personal relationships. More recently, Abramovic has gained global attention for her MoMA retrospective, The Artist is Present. The 2010 show included younger performance artists reenacting Abramovic’s earlier works, such as a nude male and female standing in the doorway between exhibit rooms. Guests were forced to push their way through the pair as they navigated the exhibit, creating a confrontation between the public and the typically taboo. The most memorable aspect of the show, however, was a new piece performed by Abramovic. In the work, museum visitors were invited to sit across from Abramovic for as long as they wanted. During this time, the artist and her audience simply stared into each other’s eyes, creating a connection without the use of words or touch. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the MoMA for the chance to sit with Abramovic, citing the transformative nature of this surprisingly simple act.

For many, Abramovic represented an individual who looked at them and truly saw who they were. Contemporary art skeptics might scoff at the power of a minute spent staring into someone’s eyes, but the countless individuals who were overcome with emotion after sitting with Abramovic would beg to differ. Abramovic is, without a doubt, the most well-known performance artist in the history of the medium. Her work, with its willingness to push the boundaries of human endurance, attracted the public’s attention and helped solidify performance’s status as an art form.

So, how do Abramovic’s current missteps interact with her storied past? It’s true that she, at least according to the Dutch court, knowingly paid Ulay less than the amount agreed upon in their earlier contract. It’s also true that she wrote a horribly racist description of a group of people whose help she once found invaluable.

The key thing to remember, however, is that Abramovic accepted responsibility for her remarks. She has always been a controversial figure, but at least she acknowledges when she has taken things a step too far.

No matter what Abramovic says or does, the fact remains that she played an invaluable role in the history of performance art. Many famous artists have less than stellar stories hidden in their pasts. Some, like Georg Baselitz (who once said, “Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact”), were openly misogynistic. Others, like Amedeo Modigliani, had extramarital affairs and battled substance abuse. At the same time, these artists displayed immense talent and daring faith in their craft.

The wrongdoings of artists are many and, in many cases, unforgivable, but it’s important to separate the individual from their work. Yes, an individual is intrinsically linked to their creations, but at the same time, art is highly capable of standing alone. Forgive artists such as Abramovic who take responsibility for their mistakes, and learn to appreciate the works of problematic artists separately from their controversial lifestyle.

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