Table of Contents
2. Performativity: A definition
3. Marina Abramović
4. The Artist Is Present
4.1 Embodiment and Presence in Abramović’s performance
4.2 Participation and resulting relationship between artist and visitor
4.3 Possible interferences with audience’s participation
6. Works Cited
“Schlechte (weil überforderte) Zeugen, schlechte (weil nicht genießende) Voyeure und schlechte (weil sich innerlich wehrende) Mitspieler.“ Florian Malzmacher, There is a Word for People like you: Audience1
Contemporary theatre productions and performance art increasingly provoke their recipients to engage with their own presence and position within performances, which since long, but at least since the performative turn in the sixties2, exceeds the role of a mere passive and innocent spectator, distanced from the actors or performers on stage. The performances of Yugoslav artist Marina Abramović involve a high degree of audience participation, in which the audience is inevitably confronted with carrying an ethical responsibility for what is happening in front of its eyes in being part of the performance itself. In most performance pieces (especially those characterised by violence against the self) the individual viewer is forced into a situation of crisis in which he or she has to determine whether the event at hand is still to be considered as a purely aesthetical one or a situation which might even demand intervention based on socio-ethical norms. While most of Abramović’s performances do carry this momentum of urgency in agency it is surprisingly her final performance The Artist is Present, performed during a retrospective of her works in the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, which seemingly establishes an entirely different relation between artist and viewer than in any other of her performances. For the three month duration of the exhibition, Abramović sat motionless and entirely silent on a chair in the middle of the MoMA’s atrium for more than seven hours a day. Visitors were free to sit on a chair in front of her for as long as desired.3 Her performance grew continuously popular and with the sudden onrush, visitors established a self-imposed number system to get the chance to sit with Abramović.4
In the following, the audience’s participation in Abramović’s The Artist is Present will be analysed in terms of its constitution; further as to what extent the audience unknowingly plays in active role in simply being present. The focus of this paper is set on the relationship between artist and viewer and will deal with how co-subjectivity, embodiment and presence, as well as the audience’s suggestibility work together to create a unique form of community during the performance. An analytical basis for this closer examination will be provided through the 2012 published documentary by the same title Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present.
First, this paper will shortly discuss performativity, embodiment and presence, and will give definitions based on, primarily, Erika-Fischer Lichte’s Ästhetik des Performativen, in order to establish a general understanding of key factors regarding performance art. Secondly, the most important aspects of Abramović’s performance will be presented. The relationship between artist and audience will be analysed and discussed according to the concerns given above. As a result, the unique character of the established community between artist and audience in this specific performance piece will be made clear. Ultimately, it will become apparent as to how the relationship between artist and audience is established through embodiment and presence.
2. Performativity: A definition.
Originally coined by John L. Austin, the term performative was first used in linguistics to describe a newly discovered category of verbs which do not merely serve to describe an action or to assert a certain circumstance, but by utterance in fact perform an action.5 The sentence “I hereby declare you husband and wife.” does not describe an already existing state of affairs, it creates a new state of affairs, namely the one this sentence denotes.6 Fischer-Lichte determines two main characteristics of performative utterances: “Das heißt, sie sind selbstreferentiell, insofern sie das bedeuten, was sie tun, und sie sind wirklichkeitskonstituierend, indem sie die soziale Wirklichkeit herstellen, von der sie sprechen.“7 Yet, as Austin remarks, certain non-linguistic conditions have to be given for performative utterances to be considered successful.8 Those conditions usually develop out of social or institutional norms.9 In the example above, one of those conditions for success demands that the utterance is made by a person who has the necessary or required authority to marry two people, for example a priest or a marriage registrar.10 Exactly these characteristics of being self-referential and reality-constituting, as well as the demand for certain social or institutional conditions that determine the success or failure of performative utterances, are according to Fischer-Lichter not at all bound to language – they are very well applicable to bodily actions.11 Furthermore, Fischer-Lichte notes the performative’s ability to destabilise, even entirely dissolve, dichotomic conceptual pairs: Concepts like subject/object begin to lose a clear boundary and start to oscillate in regard to performance art as the traditional roles of artist and viewer, participant and spectator, lose their binarity and are not able to be separated from each other.12 As Rebentisch writes about the loss of this convention:
Sofern die alte Trennung zwischen Bühnen- und Zuschauerraum mit der Unterscheidung zwischen fiktivem Bühnengeschehen und realem Zuschauerraum einherging, impliziert die Verunsicherung jener Trennung auch die Destabilisierung dieser Unterscheidung: Alles, was sich hier ereignet, ereignet sich auch immer auch wirklich und nicht bloß fiktiv [...].13
Nevertheless, this loss of dichotomy in concepts enables the transformation of everyone being present during a performance, as well as the transformation of the social and ethical framework it is embedded in, which might even transgress into ritual or spectacle.14 Because this term paper focuses on the relationship between artist and audience, the social and ethical framework will not be further discussed in-depth. As the audience transforms from passive spectators into directly, emotionally and sensibly, involved participants,15 bound to experience the performance without a distanced stance, it is necessary to take a closer look upon the one fact connecting every individual present during a performance piece, which inevitably makes them to co-subjects16: Their bodily presence.
First and foremost it is essential to establish a clear understanding of the term “embodiment” and what it actually denotes according to Fischer-Lichte. A significant issue to take note of arises out of the fact, that an actor or performer cannot be separated from his or her work, as the material used is the own body.17 The artist’s body is dominated by a tension between the own physical body and his or her “semiotic body”.18 As far as Fischer-Lichte is concerned, this specific tension enables “[die] Möglichkeit zum einen für die performative Hervorbringung von Körperlichkeit in der Aufführung und zum anderen für ihre je spezifische Wahrnehmung durch die Zuschauer.“19 Further, it accentuates the tension between reality and enactment by introducing reality, which is always part of enactment, in a very apparent way into the performance.20 These concurrent states of being express themselves in two different but interdependent forms: The process of embodiment and the phenomenon of presence.21
In regard to this, Fischer-Lichte first presents an outdated understanding of embodiment: It functions as a sort of condition in which the actor transforms his physical and sensible body into a purely semiotic one that denotes the meaning expressed through the language in a certain text, and thus acts as a new substantial symbol for the latter. Anything not serving this purpose of conveying meaning is to be eradicated completely.22 However, the artist’s physical body is the basis for the realisation and existence of the semiotic body, and cannot be separated from its specific and individual physic, especially its gender.23 Thus, Fischer-Lichte then outlines a new definition of embodiment, which also does prove itself as necessary for the analysis of performance art as Marina Abramović creates. “Die Rolle ist nicht länger Ziel und Zweck der Tätigkeit des Schauspielers, sondern lediglich ein Mittel zur Erreichung eines anderen Zwecks.”24 This different purpose manifests itself in establishing the physical body no longer as an instrument to be used but as an important agent acting out the embodied mind.25 Fischer-Lichte concludes: “Verkörpern meint hier, am bzw. durch den Körper etwas zur Erscheinung bringen, das nur durch den Körper Existenz hat.“26 In my opinion this is a significant factor to take into consideration as it illuminates how important sensory perception is for becoming fully aware of how a certain portrayal or situation affects each individual viewer. In performance pieces that include self-harming behaviour for example, one’s primary thought will barely be about what it might symbolise in a greater context.27 Rather, individual feelings about the action itself, maybe a tingle or a shiver in the own body, will surface as the individual viewer is able to see the action simply for what it is on a physical level and be affected respectively.
Jeglicher menschliche Zugriff auf die Welt erfolgt mit dem Leib, kann nur als verkörperter erfolgen. Deshalb eben übersteigt der Leib in seiner Fleischlichkeit jede seiner instrumentellen und semiotischen Funktionen.28 […] Es geht […] also darum, dem Körper eine vergleichbar paradigmatische Position zu verschaffen wie dem Text, anstatt ihn unter dem Textparadigma zu subsumieren. Das eben soll der Begriff embodiment/ Verkörperung leisten.29
Exactly this enables the audience to feel emotionally impacted by a performance, due to the artist’s body working as a kind of reflector beyond its symbolic denotation.30
Based on her new definition of embodiment, Fischer-Lichter develops three different but closely related concepts of presence which might be found in performances. Namely, the weak, the strong and the radical concept of presence. Before further elaborating on these, it is significant to note that Fischer-Lichte understood performances in general as events constituted through the simultaneous physical presence (co-presence) of artists and viewers, concentrating on the “between” of both:
Es ist die leibliche Ko-Präsenz von Akteuren und Zuschauern, welche eine Aufführung allererst ermöglicht. […] Die leibliche Ko-Präsenz meint […] ein Verhältnis von Ko-Subjekten. Die Zuschauer werden als Mitspieler begriffen, welche die Aufführung durch ihre Teilnahme am Spiel, d.h. ihre physische Präsenz, ihre Wahrnehmung, ihre Reaktionen mit hervorbringen.31
Fischer-Lichte remarks that the exchange between artist and audience is always based on mutual influence. However, the individual viewer’s reaction to the performance and how it in turn impacts the artist’s and their performance as well as the other viewer’s perception, is entirely unpredictable and comparable to the infamous butterfly-effect.32 As shown above, the mere physical and simultaneous presence of artist and viewer forms the basis of mutual interaction between each correspondingly, and is what Fischer-Lichte calls the weak concept of presence.33
The strong concept of presence goes beyond mere bodily presence, because it is determined by how an artist is able to dominate the performative space and if he or she is able to engage the audience’s attention and focus on him- or herself entirely.34 This kind of presence is inevitably forced upon the individual viewer by the artist through different methods and processes of embodiment, which highlight his or her physical body.35 Likewise, Fischer-Lichte asserts:
Die […] Techniken und Praktiken zur Separierung von Darsteller und Figur, zur Ostentation auf die besondere individuelle Leiblichkeit der Darsteller, lassen sich zugleich als Techniken und Praktiken zur Erzeugung von Präsenz beschreiben.36
Through diverse methods and techniques of embodiment, the artist creates a certain energy, which circulates between artist and viewer and impacts the latter directly.37 The viewer is affected in such a way by how the artist presents and carries his or her physical body, that the energy created is perceived as transformative. It allows the viewer to experience himself as the “embodied mind” and shifts his state of consciousness into a constant becoming instead of being.38 This is the radical concept of presence. It comprises a state of mind encouraging artist and viewer to experience their own existence:
Den anderen und sich selbst als gegenwärtig, als präsent zu erfahren, heißt, ihn und sich als embodied mind zu erfahren und damit das eigene gewöhnliche Dasein als außergewöhnlich zu erleben als verwandelt, ja transfiguriert.39
While the weak and strong concept of presence might as well be transferred to objects meeting the respective conditions, the radical concept of presence is exclusive to humans.40 It enables transformative experiences for the individual and also creates a sense of community. The artist Marina Abramović directly engages with the concept of presence in her performance piece The Artist is Present, which makes it a significant contribution to the discussion of co-subjectivity and participation in performance art. In the following, a short introduction to Abramović is given, before moving on to analyse the above mentioned piece.
3. Marina Abramović
Abramović was born in Belgrade in 1946 to two Yugoslav Partisans41 and began her career in performance art in the late sixties, focusing on individual performances before entering a partnership with the German artist Uwe Laysiepen, professionally known as Ulay, in 1976.42 Her performances are usually concerned with the human body’s limits and capacities43 and oftentimes involve extreme violence directed against herself, as exemplary shown in her performance Thomas’ Lips during which she inter alia used a razor blade to repeatedly cut a five-pointed star into her abdomen, afterwards whipping herself continuously.44 Based on an interview with Abramović, the psychoanalyst Jeanette Fischer tries to understand the ever prevailing key factor of enduring pain in her performances. Fischer arrives at the deduction that Abramović’s childhood trauma of experiencing entire denial of her needs and self (a form of emotional abuse and violence against herself) expresses itself in a mortal fear of being unloved and lonely.45 Enduring the concrete physical sensation of pain is used to cope with, or rather avoid, these quite vague feelings of anxiety: “The end of pain is the end of fear, and also the end of the performance.”46 This constant re-enactment of trauma and the underlying emotions are also a present and significant factor in Abramović’s performance The Artist is Present.
Despite the very provocative nature of her performances (violence, nakedness, ritualistic practices), her earlier works are less well-known and it was only through The Artist is Present during the retrospective exhibition of her works at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, that she was made known to a wider public and gained in popularity.47
1 Florian Malzmacher. “There is a Word for People like you: Audience” In: Jan Deck, Angelika Sieburg (eds.). Paradoxien des Zuschauens. Die Rolle des Publikums im zeitgenössischen Theater. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag 2008, 50.
2 Erika Fischer-Lichte. Ästhetik des Performativen. Edition Suhrkamp. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag 2004, S. 22.
3 Cp. Matthew Akers; Jeff Dupre (co-prod.): Marina Abramovic. The Artist is Present. US: Show of Force 2012, 00:31:42. Hereafter referred to as The Artist is Present.
4 Cp. Ibid. 01:21:15.
5 Cp. Fischer-Lichter, S.31.
6 Cp. Ibid. S.32.
8 Cp. Ibid.
9 Cp. Fischer-Lichte , 32.
10 Cp. Ibid.
11 Cp. Ibid. 33-34.
12 Cp. Ibid. 32
13 Rebentisch, Juliane. Theorien der Gegenwartskunst. zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius Verlag 2013, 74.
14 Cp. Ibid. 34-35
15 Cp. Ibid. 32.
16 Cp. Ibid. 47.
17 Cp. Ibid. 129.
18 Fischer-Lichte, 129.
19 Fischer-Lichte, 130.
20 Cp. Rebentisch, 75.
21 Cp. Ibid.
22 Ibid. 132.
23 Ibid. 140.
24 Ibid. 139.
25 Cp Ibid. 140.
26 I bid. 142.
27 Cp. Fischer-Lichte, 21.
28 Ibid. 141.
29 Cp. Ibid. 153.
30 Cp. Ibid. 138.
31 Ibid. 47.
32 Cp. Ibid. 67.
33 Cp. Ibid. 163.
34 Fischer-Lichte, S. 166.
35 Cp. Ibid. 165.
36 Ibid. 170.
37 Cp. Ibid. 169.
38 Cp. Ibid. 171.
39 Ibid. 173.
40 Cp. Ibid.
41 The Artist is Present, 00:05:26
42 Cp. Ward, Frazer. No innocent bystanders: performance art and audience. New England: Dartmouth College Press 2012, 113.
43 Cp. Ibid. 115.
44 Cp. Fischer-Lichte, 9.
45 Cp. Jeanette Fischer. Psychoanalyst meets Marina Abramović. Zürich: Scheidegger & Spies 2018, 62-63.
46 Ibid. 62.
47 Cp. Ward, 113.