Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramović is the woman many credit as "the grandmother of performance art." She was featured on Sex and the City and collaborated with James Franco.
Somehow, her celebrated 1988 art piece, "The Lovers: the Great Wall Walk" — in which she and her longtime lover and collaborator Ulay started at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, to meet in the middle as a way of signaling the break up of their 12-year relationship — seems like something that happened over a million years ago now.
In light of the events going on in the world today, her work may perhaps be more intensely important now than it ever has been before, particularly if you are either a woman or someone with a sincere interested in understanding the depth of what women experience.
To understand why that, it is important to first revisit a performance piece she presented as a young woman over 40 years ago, titled "Rhythm O."
The premise was deceptively simple. Abramović announced that she would stand absolutely still for the next 6 hours. In front of her, a table was covered with objects and instructions for how they could be used.
The instructions read:
There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.
Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am)
The items on the table were described as being "objects of pleasure" and "objects of destruction." Included among them were a rose, feather, perfume, honey, bread, grapes, wine, scissors, a scalpel, nails, a metal bar, and a gun loaded with one bullet.
When the performance first began, people were tentative and shy, and it seemed as though no one might interact with her at all. Which makes sense, right? She might have labeled herself as an object, but in reality, she was still a person.
Eventually, people got interesting and involved and got the hang of things. Marina was their object, so they moved her position. They poured water on her. They wrapped her up in string.
A simple series of minor humiliations, right?
Before long, however, things took a dark and disturbing turn. Someone touched her intimately. One man cut her neck with the razor blade and drank some of her blood. By the third hour, her clothes had been cut from her body. She was groped again and sexually assaulted by more than one person. They carried her through the room half-naked, placed her on a table, and stabbed a knife into the wood between her legs.
At one point, someone put the loaded gun in her own hand and positioned her arm to hold it against her throat.
While Abramović wouldn't call it off, fortunately, another person present intervened as someone moved the artist's own finger to the trigger. When the six hours ended and it was announced that the performance was over.
As she walked through the crowd, not one person who had made use of her and the other objects she'd displayed would look at her, speak with her, or interact with her.
Talking about the performance later, Abramović remarked, “This work reveals something terrible about humanity. It shows how fast a person can hurt you under favorable circumstances. It shows how easy it is to dehumanize a person who does not fight, who does not defend himself. It shows that if he provides the stage, the majority of ‘normal’ people, apparently can become truly violent.”
And in 2015 she stated further that under only slightly different circumstances, things could have gone differently."They didn’t rape me," she said, "because they were with their wives.” This piece of performance art may be 40 years old, but it feels as relevant today as it was when Abramović first performed it in Naples, Italy, in 1974.
In addition, following the rise of the MeToo Movement, more and more women are breaking their silence to speak out about times their bodies were used without their consent in a way that made them feel less than, used in a way that made them feel like objects.
Many people have a hard time believing that so many nightmarish stories could possibly be true. Who would treat another person that way? It's a question women have been hearing far too often.
In May 2019, Abramović revealed that she had a new project to raise awareness about climate change.
The Rising app features an avatar of Abramović, surrounded by ice caps that are melting, with her inside a glass tank, slowly filling with water. By taking a pledge to do our part and help save the environment, we can "save her." Just as her performance art before, there are certain tasks one can complete, and each action you take affects your life as well as the app itself.
In an interview with Vice, Abramović gave a suggestion: "We always start with ourselves, if you change yourself, you can change thousands. So, it’s mostly important to look at what you can do on your own. That’s how it works. Some people are trying to push it away, as if it's not our problem, but it is our problem. Everything is inter-dependent; with plants, rocks, mountains, every living organism on the planet and us. The entire climate is disbalanced. We don’t see the big picture."
The answer is to whether or not we would treat people that way, just like the environment, comes with a reality that no one likes facing head on. Humans could. We could. Give us some space in which we can be terrible and we may just take you up on it.
The real question should be this: If we are challenged to be great, can we, will we do that just as readily by our free will?
Rebecca Jane Stokes is a sex, humor and lifestyle writer living in Brooklyn, New York with her cat, Batman. She hosts the sex, love, and dating advice show, Becca After Dark on YourTango's Facebook Page every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:20 pm Eastern. For more of her work, check out her Tumblr.