- Marina Abramović, and: The DbD Experience: Chance Knows What It's Doing!
Artists' commitment to the ephemerality of performance, coupled, in many cases, with the lack of funds needed for extensive documentation, has complicated the history of performance art of the 1970s-'90s. Theatre and performance historians, and artists themselves, are now reexamining key works from this period, filling in the documentary gaps with analyses of influences, techniques, and thick descriptions of artists' creative processes and individual pieces. Both of the volumes reviewed here contribute meaningfully to that effort.
Mary Richards's book Marina Abramović is part of the Routledge Performance Practitioners series, which provides valuable overviews of selected innovators in theatre, dance, and performance. It includes a lengthy discussion of Abramović's life, thematic elements in her work, influences, analyses of pivotal performances, and some of her practical exercises. It is one of two books published on Abramović this year; the other is James Westcott's biography When Marina Abramović Dies (2010). The two volumes work well together, with Richards's book serving more as a primer that is especially useful for basic background information.
Abramović's biography is particularly rich. She was born into a privileged family in Montenegro, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in 1946 and benefited from the relative freedom the country enjoyed under Josip Tito. Abramović's mother was a prominent curator and member of the arts community, and Abramović drew much from her influence. Abramović was a politically engaged artist early in her career, presenting pieces that challenged the repressive regime and calling for greater freedom of expression. She is best-known, however, for her endurance pieces, which are evocatively summarized in the book. A representative example is "The Onion" (1995), in which she consumed an entire onion, burning her mouth in the process. Her partnership with the artist Ulay (Uwe E. Laysiepen), which began in 1975 and ended in 1988, generated memorable and well-documented works, including "Nightsea Crossing" (1981-86), in which they sat perfectly still at opposite sides of a table for the duration of the performance space's opening—sometimes as long as seven hours. Their final performance was "The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk" (1988), wherein each walked toward the other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China. Richards provides valuable descriptions, background, and artists' commentary on these pivotal pieces, and includes key biographical details about their collaboration.
Richards is especially attuned to the spiritual dimensions of Abramović's work, describing her ability to focus her own "electromagnetic field" (53) in her durational performances and "charging" the performance space with her presence (107). Abramović's later politics, however, are presented more obliquely. For example, Richards notes a 2003 piece "criticizing the UN" (77), but is not more specific. Did Abramović, who "reconnected" to her "largely suppressed (or ignored) sense of Serbian/ Montenegrin national identity" (77) during this period, address Serbian and other atrocities committed in the Balkans during the 1990s? Abramović's perspective on this tragic period in Balkan history would be an interesting counterpoint to the more mystical discourses both she and Richards see as informing her work. On a related note, while there is relatively little theoretically informed analysis of Abramović's pieces here, what there is does not benefit from a grab-bag approach that includes references to Victor Turner, Michel Foucault, Theravadin Buddhism, and Australia aboriginal practices, among other seemingly incompatible discourses. In fairness, some of this is a function of the secondary sources that Richards cites, but the overall impression is one of interpretive dilettantism. If the larger issue is that Abramović's work challenges conventional interpretive taxonomies, which it certainly may, the book would have benefited from stating this up front. In addition, some more judicious editing to minimize repetitions and consolidate references to key works and influences would have helped the reader.
This volume raises larger questions about the increasing canonization of...