Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design

6/10/2015

What Marina Abramovic Taught Me About Labor

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |


Marina Abramovic, called the "grandmother of performance art," knows endurance and pain. Throughout her career, she has subjected her body to public scrutiny.

In Rhythm 10 (1973), she recorded herself hopskipping a sharp knife across the spaces in between her fingers, eventually cutting herself multiple times. Once she finished, she took the recording and tried to recreate that same heart-stopping movement, breaths, bruises, cuts and all. In Relation in Space (1976), she ran into her male performance partner again and again, violently, supposedly mixing male and female energy until there was only 'that self' left.

Her most famous work is perhaps The Artist is Present (2010), where she sat in a chair stationed at the Museum of Modern Art, mostly unmoving for three months, eight hours a day. It may seem like an easy task, but as anyone who had to sit still can attest, it is grueling. We already know sitting can kill the body, Abramovic's feat simply reinforces that. But that's not the point of her work.

In the 2012 documentary of the same name, we learn that The Artist is Present is about slowing time, opening oneself to the person sitting across the artist. By focusing just on the person that sat in front of Abramovic, she allows herself to be a mirror for all the thoughts and emotions for those that sat with her. By the smiles and tears her piece engendered, Abramovic's piece was particularly moving.


I was transfixed. Each frame revealed just how many people were lined up to be seen, really seen. It showed me that too many people feel invisible.

I was also drawn to Abramovic's commitment to her piece. Despite sheer pain that I imagine only got worse day by day, as she sat in the chair motionless, she persisted. She could have stopped the performance at any point, but she continued to the very end. Indeed, as I watched the documentary, I could see her struggle with the pain. Her eyes were bleary, her gaze unsteady. It was only her will keeping her upright. Toward the end of the three months, she admits, "This is about the limit, even for me."

When asked why she did not draw away from the pain, she said in an accented Yugoslavian voice, "There is pain, but the pain is a kind of keeping secret. The moment you really go through the door of pain, you enter into another state of mind. This feeling of beauty and unconditional love and this feeling of 'there is not border' between your body and environment. You start having this incredible feeling of lightness and harmony with yourself. It feels holy. I can't explain. That's when others start feeling that something is different."

As I heard her words, my mind conjured up an image of another long moment of pain that almost every woman would experience: labor.

Labor, the long interminable period before a new life arrives in this world, can last anywhere from six hours to days (at least that's what I've heard from friends). It comes with pain, but pain that is productive to say the least. Though Abramovic has never birthed a child, her words surely applied to all women who have experienced what it is to labor.

Pain, while not pleasant, does come with rewards. It may seem ludicrous to some, but its physical effect also produces a kind of bliss. Based on Abramovic's words, it also helps erase the hesitant, thinking part of the human mind, forcing us to rely purely on instinct. I only hope I can be as ruminative when my turn at the metaphorical artist's chair is up.

Catch The Artist is Present on Netflix. You can watch her struggle with her art piece and the pain that comes with it around the 1:18:00 mark.

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