In 2010, a Serbian woman called Marina Abramovic sat in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York for 736 hours and 30 minutes, offering visitors the chance to sit opposite her and gaze at each other in silence. The response was incredible. People queued outside the museum all day for a chance to sit and be looked at. Many visitors left the exhibition crying, laughing and emotionally rocked by the performance.
Abramovic’s performance follows in a tradition that began with the dawn of conceptual art and new media in the late 1950s and 1960s. Its aim was to challenge people with the idea that art does not need to be aesthetically pleasing or within the boundaries of a museum. Artists began to engage with political and social issues surrounding the institution of art. Within this context, the very boundaries of paintings and sculpture were broken down with the introduction of new media and collaborative art. This included the increased use of video, installation, photography, the ready-made and of course, the human-body.
As artists pushed the limits of what art could be, it’s no surprise then that by the late 1960s and early 1970s, performance art was gaining increased popularity. Performance as art is not a new idea, and has existed in drama and poetry for centuries. However ‘performance art’ engaged with the art viewer more directly, often inviting the viewer to participate in the performance; it incorporated new media and, particularly in the 1960s, engaged with social movements such as civil rights, feminism and anti-war protests.
Performance artists also explore not just the limits of art, but the limits of the body, both physically and emotionally. They often look at themes such as discipline, pain, endurance and breakdown, and the human mind. It is because of this that performance art can be considered one of the most gruelling art forms, requiring incredible self-discipline. Unlike other types of performing arts, the body can be under intense strain.
Marina Abramovic’s performance at the Museum of Modern Art covered her career from the 1970s, and shows how performance art is still and will remain a major part of the art world. It also shows how emotionally gruelling performance art can be; being required to sit completely still and stare at people is a draining task.
A theory of why so many people were so emotionally affected is that Abramovic’s gaze made people aware of themselves and their vulnerability. In this incredibly busy world, it is rare that one is truly looked at. This performance provoked both thought and emotion from the viewer, however did so in an interactive and unique way.
On the more extreme end of performance art are artists such as Petr Pavlensky. The twenty-nine year old Russian is known for using his body to perform gruesome protests against not only the Russian state but also people’s apathy towards their surroundings and the events taking place in Russia. He is particularly well known for his performances last year which included nailing his scrotum to Red Square and cutting off his earlobe while sitting on the roof of the Serbsky psychiatric centre in Moscow.
The former performance was in protest of the political indifference of modern Russian society, while the latter was in protest of the use of forced psychiatric treatment on dissidents within Russia. While there is debate on whether these performances are successful in conveying their message to the public, nobody can deny it has personified the suffering of unknown people and brought media attention to Pavlensky’s criticisms.
There is no doubt that performance has solidified itself as a well respected art form since its emergence in the twentieth century. It is an ever evolving practice and connected to many extraordinarily complex and expressive ideas. The value of performance art transcends not just traditional art forms but also even monetary value as it is an ephemeral art. Perhaps this is why it has become so popular in an ever increasing money orientated world. Performance art came from the seeds of wanting to breakdown limits on art and the way we convey expression, language and particular messages. While debate continues on this form of art, it has been undeniably successful in achieving much of what it set out to achieve.