Marina Abramovic: Simply An Artist?

On June 13th the New York Times Magazine featured an interview with the performance artist Marina Abramovic, titled, “The Devil in Marina Abramovic.” Asked to comment on the feminist backlash she received after getting a breast enlargement, she responded, “I’m not a feminist…I am just an artist.” 

I stopped, shocked by what I had just read. Marina Abramovic is not a feminist? But, I protested, all of her work deals with feminist issues: gender inequality, women’s sexuality, women’s passivity vs. men’s aggression, and the differences between male and female bodies and the differences in societal attitudes towards those bodies. From my initial surprise I decided to investigate Abramovic, to understand why she identifies solely as an artist.

Born in Yugoslavia in 1946 to Partisan officers, communist revolutionaries of World War II, Abramovic says she didn’t hear about feminism until she left the country in 1976. During her early years as an artist Abramovic’s pieces “were based on pain… I was very fatalistic.” For example, in Rhythm 0, 1974, Abramovic sat passively before a table set with 72 objects that the audience could use on her as they so desired. Throughout the performance audience members would scissor off her clothing, paint her body, and cut her skin. In describing the experience, Abramovic explained how at the start of the performance the audience was reserved but that they became “more and more aggressive and they projected three basic images on me: image of Madonna, image of the mother and image of the whore,” and that the “women did very little, but were telling the men what to do.” It is interesting that these three images are strongly associated with how cultures categorize women: as saint (virginal and innocent), mother (nurturing, passive, kind), and temptress (sexually voracious and morally corrupt). What could be more feminist than this meditation on female passivity and on male degradation and objectification of women’s bodies? Yet, to Abramovic, Rhythm 0 is not feminist. 

As part of a January 2007 symposium on feminist artists, MoMA invited Ambramovic to speak. In her opening remarks she “came out”—she declared that she was not, in fact, a feminist. She went on to say, “I come from a completely different culture, I come from ex-Yugoslavia…I never heard about feminism until I left Yugoslavia. So you can’t blame me for this, I made my work under these conditions.” For Abramovic, an adolescent feminist education is seemingly essential to identifying as a feminist in adult life. 

As a part of my internship at Ma’yan I recently read a research article by Campbell Leaper and Christina Spears Brown, titled, “Perceived Experiences with Sexism among Adolescent Girls,” in which they concluded that “learning about feminism helps girls recognize sexism when it occurs.” Girls who learn about gender-equality and feminism from the media, their school, or parents are more likely to recognize sexism later in life and to identify as feminists. Yet, is it possible that because Abramovic was not socialized with a feminist perspective that she cannot identify as a feminist today? That can’t be. Consider the multitude of feminist leaders and artists who sprang from conservative backgrounds to become pioneering feminists. Something else is at play here. 

Dissatisfied with this conclusion and desirous of more information, I went to see the recently released documentary featuring Abramovic, entitled “The Artist is Present.” While it focused primarily on the preparation for her retrospective at MoMA in 2010, a substantial portion featured her relationship with Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay), her lover and collaborator for twelve years. In an interview conducted by Helena Kontova in 1978, Ulay states that “people are always thinking of us as a symbol of a man and a woman…but we do not want to represent an Olympic game between men and women.” He argues that he and Abramovic are “more liberated than feminist and non-feminist artists.” Perhaps the picture is larger than these issues for the two artists; perhaps the issues are not confined to “male” and “female” but focus on the tension between passivity and aggression that applies to humans in general. 

In the same interview Abramovic said, “We don’t feel one uses the other. We are both completely free during performances…the end of each performance is always open.” This attitude, that the performance is always free to have its own outcomes, its own consequences, its own influences on the audience, may be the reason that Abramovic doesn’t subscribe to the feminist label. If she is catagorizable as a feminist then her work must have an agenda and a specific outcome; the performance and the self could never be “open.” 

While Abramovic’s “go to” excuse is that her upbringing prevented her from indentifying as a feminist, perhaps the truth is that she doesn’t want to be put in the box of a “feminist artist” at the risk of making her pieces temporal. Of course, one could argue that feminism is not temporal since it deals with the patriarchal society that has existed throughout human history and thus is not confined to the feminist movement of the 1970s. Still, Abramovic does not want to be labeled a feminist. Does she fear that she will alienate her audience? That her works will no longer be universal? By saying “I am not a feminist artist…I am just an artist,” I suspect that Abramovic wants her pieces to remain universal and significant whether they were done in the 70s or are recreated today. 

As a feminist, I find it unfortunate that the label is often used negatively, that it is not primarily associated with the dictionary definition of feminism: “a belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” Until “feminist” is no-longer a politically charged identification, “artist” is the best categorization for Abramovic, the safest marker so that her art isn’t limited. And it is because of this limitlessness that individuals like myself can interpret her works as feminist.  

Image via trumbull island

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