It's about time I wrote about her. I am endlessly fascinated by performance art mainly because of the uncharted territory and the polysemous nature of actions. There is a lot of fourth wall breaking, self-awareness, and a sense of connectedness that comes from this type of art. It can be difficult for the uninitiated (included yours truly), but when approached with an open mind, it can be enlightening and beyond compelling. I had attended my first performance 18 months ago and the variety of approaches, media, and interactions blew my mind. It was an MFA showcase at SAIC--I had a friend performing a beautiful piece--and I saw truly interactive pieces, pure performance, and an unsettling combination of the two.* Marina is a pivotal figure in the art form and as Hennessy said, she's the Dr. Dre of performance art. [Watch that whole video - it's fantastic]
Marina Abramović began her life in art in Beograd, Yugoslavia (Srbija) under her two military parents. Her familial background, as is discussed in all linked interviews, had a strong effect on her as a person and an artist. Since Marina is a performance artist, it's best to watch videos of her. The video below covers about her early years in performance art in Belgrade and the influence her mother had on her work.
This interview goes more into depth on the role her family had on her. I find that her first work, "Rhythm 10 (1973)" a really beautiful metaphor for communist life - she had not intended to go unconscious, but though unintended, it fits wonderfully with the symbolism. It did not burn people alive, but sucked out all the oxygen, leaving them unconscious.
Her work always threatens the integrity of her body and threatens the division of performer and audience; more than anything, her work is about testing boundaries, which is particularly obvious in her hermaphroditic work with Ulay. Her two most famous works are "Rhythm 0 (1974)" and "The Artist Is Present (2010)". "Rhythm 0" left her completely in the hands of her audience with objects that could either bring pleasure or pain; over the 6 hours of the performance (6!) audience members became violent and caused her harm. She began to walk out at the 6th hour, as planned, and everyone fled. (Great collection of pictures here) She tested the boundaries of power and in the simplest terms, the public's sense of compassion and decency, as she stood trusting, deliberately helpless. In "The Artist Is Present", she tested the boundaries of performance and the ability to channel one's energy for an audience. She sat still in the atrium of the MoMA for 7 hours a day for several months, logging about 700 motionless hours. The piece was to make a connection with the audience member opposite her and to create a performance piece with an audience member while the rest of the audience looks on. Her motionless, though strong, presence was additionally testing the boundaries of connection within such severe limitations. No one spoke and no one except Ulay touched her or moved beyond the chair. It was an ascetic experience while missing the hermetic element.
In the video above, she describes her methods and answers some intriguing questions. She relates that her work is highly influenced by a sense of transcendence, religious ritual, and boundaries. Performance art is highly contextual, largely due to the polysemous nature of the body and movement, but also because of the experience and background of the artist. Performance art truly brings the artist into the piece and it is not an external production. Interaction has endless possibilities and with the meaning of the body changing according to fashion, culture, politics, economics, and mores, there is lots of room to explore physical performance. Like Hennessy said, there is the possibility for performance art to explore the banality or the simple existence we have within our physical presence. How bodies shape and confine our experiences and what we use them for.
There is plenty of material about Queen Marina, so take a look! Her family background and her body of work are a great insight into the generation of communist-born, but seeking freedom. I'll let you come to your own conclusions.
*I was actually really terrified of this one artist walking around in a gold spacesuit that looked like a scary craft project from my space nightmares, trying to hold people's hands and put them onto the chest of his suit. That's the best way I can describe it, but I hadn't expected an interactive performance in the stairwell (and it was my first performance art encounter), so I was petrified. The rest were not so scary after that.