Non - objective art and Marina Abramovic


"I believe the 21st century will be a world without art in the sense that we have it now. It will be a world without objects, where the human being can be on such a high level of consciousness and has such a strong mental state that he or she can transmit thoughts and energy to other people, without needing objects in between. So there will not be sculptures, or paintings, or installations. There will just be the artist standing in front of a public, which is developed enough to receive a message or energy. They will just sit or stand , like the Samurai in old Japan, looking at each other and transmitting energy. This is the future world I see as an artist: a non-objective world."
(Marina Abromovic. Interview with Louwrien Wijers and Johan Pijnappel. 1990)

Marina Abramovic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1946 into a well-established influential family of the new communist state. Her father was a famous general and her mother a major as well as the director of the "Museum of Art and the Revolution". She says of her childhood that it was like being in the military. Yet also outside her own family home there was a lot of discipline as well as repression going on in Yugoslavia at that time.

"I think that our society is a very disturbed society. We need art as a way of showing to humanity how it can develop, as scientists project, or spiritual people exemplify. My function as an artist is the bridging of West and East. Until now this function has been very particular. I always go to the East and to nature, to extreme situations like living in the desert, or I spend time with Tibetans or Aborigines, or decide to be just by myself on a little island somewhere in the Pacific. And there I get the energy and ideas for art.
Then I come back to Western society and serve as a bridge. There I receive and here I give. That goes on in cycles all the time."
(Marina Abromovic. Interview with Louwrien Wijers and Johan Pijnappel. 1990)

In eastern thought, the mind and body are indivisible. The aim is to achieve a harmonious balance between the two and, through gradual transformation, to reach a higher state of awareness, commonly known as "enlightenment". In order to be transformed, one must first empty the mind. For thirty years Marina Abramovic has used the techniques of emptying and transforming to create conditions in which transition of both the artist and the public into higher states can occur.

Abramovic claims that she needs to leave our chaotic and disturbed environments in order to attune her mind with the purity of nature in some far distant and undisturbed region which is usually a desert.
"When I say "the East", I think of nature too. Here in the West nature is already very disturbed. But if you go to the Sahara or to the Gobi Desert or the Tar Desert in India, there is still this purity of nature and pure energies that call. I need that to develop my mind and to reach the level on which I can create. It is a condition of my mind in order to make works of art. Brancusi, the great sculptor, said, "It's not important what you're doing, it's important from which state of mind you are doing what you're doing". Individual people have different ways of getting there. My way is by nature and the East."
(Marina Abromovic. Interview with Louwrien Wijers and Johan Pijnappel. 1990)

Even though Marina Abramovic's work is considered cutting edge contemporary art (in particular her radical performance works) she argues that art must be more than just a reflection of what is going on. For her there must be answers and prediction in a good piece of art. " Art should not be used like a newspaper. For instance, a painting that is a reflection of the daily news is finished the next day. There is nothing more in it. There should be different layers in a work of art. And I think it should have a kind of energy which is beyond the descriptive or visual. It is this kind of presence that makes the difference in a space.
I think that in the situation of art today, there are very few artists who have that ability to create such presence. Most of them lost it because we completely lost our connection with nature. We are a very disturbed society."
(Marina Abromovic. Interview with Louwrien Wijers and Johan Pijnappel. 1990)

Regarding her own development as an artist, Marina Abramovic reveals that she has been exhibiting works since the age of twelve when she decided that art was all she ever wanted to do. Yet doubts about the conventional idea of art began during her final year at the art academy and together with five others she tried to find new forms. "That was when we started breaking through with performances, installations and multimedia concepts, using real fire, real water, real ice. That was pretty revolutionary at that time and we were cut off from the art world. We didn't know this was a movement. Much later I met Joseph Beuys and other people and I came to realise "Oh, but there is a family, we are not alone."
(RoseLee Goldberg, "Here and Now", Exhibition Catalogue." Marina Abromovic.
:objects performance video sound. Oxford 1995)

Abramovic's contact with pre-materialist thought was formed through an encounter with materialism via the socialist state. Inevitably, she was also stimulated by the conceptual ideas she became exposed to in the late sixties and early seventies when international artists visited Belgrade. Art and Language, Joseph Beuys, Walter de Maria, Daniel Buren, Victor Burgin, Lawrence Weiner, Gina Pane, Ulricke Rosenbach together with videotapes by Vito Acconci, Beuys, Joan Jonas, Frank Gillette and Alan Kaprow all made it to Belgrade.

The generation of artists Abramovic belonged to were the first to be brought up under the new socialist system. Without a nostalgia for the past, they were particularly receptive to the new art practice. She says: "All the artworks dealt directly with reality and used process. Any physical form was not an aesthetic object to be contemplated, but was the materialisation of a mental operation." Jesa Denegri, The new art practice in Yugoslavia 1966-1978, Gallery of Contemporary Art Zagreb, 1978, (Edition Marijan Susovski.)

Belgrade's Dada and Surrealist history may also underlie what could be termed "the Duchampian aspect" of Abramovic's work. According to Chrissie Iles, of the four main figures who influenced Abramovic: Beuys, Klein, Cage and Duchamp, the strongest influence is not, as one might expect, that of Klein, although his ideas and writing had a profound impact. Klein's statement that "my paintings are the ashes of my art" is significant for the reading of materiality in Abramovic's work. Yet Duchamp proves to be the more pervasive influence due to his profound ideas on transience. For Duchamp, art was "a device with which to break mental and emotional habits". (William A Kanfield, Marcel Duchamp, Fountain;Menil Collection, Houston fine Art Press, 1989). His Fountain of 1917 has become a kind of mirror onto which the twentieth century has projected itself.

For Yves Klein the sky (blue) represented both the immaterial and the infinite. Through the void, "the realm of freedom and creativity, a space where sensibility is evoked and endlessly recognised, a zone of nothingness and everything, where there are no names, rules, boundaries or definitions" (Thomas McEvilley, "Empyrhhical Thinking (And Why Kant Can't)", Artforum, 27, no.2 (New York, Oct. 1988). Klein had sought to explore the fundamental nature of being. He applied his ideas of transformation in physical discipline, through meditation, fasting and judo exercises.

John Cage observed that technology had liberated sound from objects. He also described "hearing" as the most public of the senses, since it allowed contact with people from a distance. Yet Cage's most important contribution to contemporary understanding is his discovery that silence is not the absence of sound but an aspect of it. (Frances Dyson, "The Ear That Would Hear Sounds in Themselves", in Wired Imagination:Sound, Radio and the Avant Garde. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (ed.), M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Massechussetts,1992.) For him, silence was a powerful metaphor for "non-being" through which one eventually could arrive at "being".

Abramovic's interest in sound was stimulated by the combination of its immateriality and its ability to have a direct impact on the body without involving the intellect. Amplifying the silence of the room produced a vibration which caused the space to become charged, as the artist herself was later to charge the space with her own presence in both her sole performances and those with her partner and collaborator Ulay.

She visited Amsterdam in 1975 to attend an international gathering of conceptual artists and performers, where she met Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay). She had already begun research into a range of Eastern philosophies, their rituals and ceremonies which could raise the participant into heightened states of self-awareness. These rituals seemed to correspond to unconscious desires which lay behind many of her instinctively executed performances. Ulay was equally absorbed in Tibetan Buddhism, Tantric, Sufi and Indian philosophies, and both artists created performances that aimed to move both artist and viewer along the pathway to enlightenment. Abramovic and Ulay worked collaboratively over a twelve year period which ended with their most famous work "The Lovers", a walk along the Great Chinese Wall from either end to the middle where they met to say good bye for good.

About her own spiritual inclinations, Abramovic confesses openly that hers is a "baroque mind" (she used "Balkan Baroque" in a recent title) and thus aligns more closely with Tibetan rather than the Zen Buddhism which was popular when she was an emerging artist. Zen has had a deep impact on many artists, from John Cage and Yves Klein to Bill Viola and Nam June Paik. Abramovic found it too stark and aesthetic. Zen begins with the white wall from which a mental jump must be made into emptiness. In Tibetan Buddhism one must plunge straight into the dirt, denying nothing, and work one's way through, balancing right in the middle without falling into any of the extremes.
Such an approach is more akin to that of Antonin Artaud, who believed in a "metamorphosis of the interior conditions of the soul" through creating "a theatre of dramatic and curative magic", in which the scream, "non-material double of excrement", and other sounds of the human body would become as important as the spoken word.
(Chrissie Iles, Cleaning the Mirror Exhibition Catalogue, Marina Abromovic:objects performance video sound. Oxford 1995)

From her earliest performance works onwards, Abramovic has always structured her pieces around the premise of balance between activity and passivity. On one hand it was very free-wheeling and intuitive. On another, it was rigorous and imbued with a strict inner order and a strong intention. According to Thomas McEvilley in his exhibition catalogue essay of 1995, Marina Abromovic: objects performance video sound, "it was a kind of tense intersection of Apollo and Dionysus, where the artist who had chosen the difficult balance of embodying both these forces refused to allow one ascendancy over the other."

Since her break up with Ulay in 1989 Abramovic's work has been characterised by sculptural works which have performative and participatory aspects. For Abromovic the making of sculptural objects is not enough. Her works of this type are intended to have a therapeutic aspect for the audience who are invited to interact with the work. The furniture-like sculptures incorporate large pieces of crystal which are used as generators and transmitters of curative forces.

"New Age" associations of crystallography, or crystal healing, are clearly present in these works, but should not dominate our perception. According to Thomas McEvilley the work is part of the Euro-Modernist tradition of therapeutic abstraction. Piet Mondrian derived certain principles of his work from the writings of Madame Blavatsky and regarded his art as potentially bestowing a therapeutic effect on the viewer. "This was not, however, because of occult materials so much as formal configurations that were regarded as harmonising the personality by speaking to its basic structure." (Maurice Tuchman, The spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1990 - 1985. New York, Abbeville Press, 1986)

In addition to the curative aspect, there is a cosmic dimension to the intention behind the work. The traditional view of sympathetic substances maintains that certain materials or forms have the power to heal because they participate in an energy line that is like a cosmic voice, harmonising in the music of the spheres. Much of Abramovic's work has been involved with attuning to that line and following wherever it might lead.

Abramovic's work presupposes a theory like that of the Great Chain of Being wherein each substance or form or aspect is related by intrinsic essence-lines with other substances and forms of other generic orders; the species and generic link into a vast network of interconnections and sympathies whose patterns allow or obstruct the free flow of current. The artist, or shaman, studies and then intervenes in the Great Chain. Her/his intervention is intended to be benign, merely participating, not manipulating. (Arthur O.Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A study of the History of the Idea, New York, Harper, Torchbooks. 1936)

Such ideas were in fact quite common in the crypto-religious milieu of late Modernism. It parallels traditional roles in religious or shamanistic settings. Medieval European alchemists, for example, would sometimes describe themselves as the midwives of nature, not creating anything, but assisting nature in her self-realistion.

Self-realisation is the goal or inner meaning of art. Art, in fact, can be conceived of as teleologically set up to induce or contribute to this self-realisation. The Hegelianism of this mythic approach supposes that an artwork has the ability to nullify the ordinary conditions of life. Yves Klein felt that spiritual entities which he projected (intended. R.Z.) invisibly into his works through deep meditation practices could awaken higher awareness in viewers. For Joseph Beuys and Wolfgang Laib certain natural materials such as bees-wax, animal fat, flower pollen, milk etc. are embued by nature with curative effects in terms of the complications of space-time. In this tradition natural materials, not manipulated by culture or industry, are regarded as inherently powerful. They can confer upon the "viewer" (conscious person) a wholeness or rebalancing which is to be sought from nature, but still through the art of meditation and yoga, or the intervention of the midwifing hand of the shaman-like artist. (Thomas McEvilley, The Serpent in the Stone, exhibition catalogue Marina Abramovic: objects performance video sound Oxford 1995)

Regarding the above mentioned problem of space-time, Chrissie Iles states that Eastern thought links both space and time to particular states of consciousness attitude. This correlates with the philosophy of the Mind-only School which states that the phenomenal world is mind made.
Abramovic: "One could compare time to a rotating wheel: our ordinary communal time, which we are aware of in our ego-consciousness (ordinary mind, R.Z.), would be the outermost ring which moves more quickly than the others. The next inner ring would represent aeonic time, moving progressively more slowly as the centre (Mind, R.Z.) is reached ... the next and smallest would represent Eliade's "illud tempus", which is right on the edge between time and no time...right between unutterable eternity and the beginnings of aeonic, slow time. And finally there is the hole, the non-rotating, empty centre of the wheel which remains permanently quiet and outside of all movement and time."

When questioned by Louwrien Wijers as to whether art could inspire science to find new ways and theories Abramovic commented: "I really think there has been a lack of interdisciplinary contact between artists and scientists, and I think that this contact should be re-established. When scientists reach a discovery, they never do so in an ordinary way, through mathematical formulas or anything like that. You don't sit in your studio or in your laboratory and come to the great discovery. It always comes in the same way as artistic inspiration comes. This is a very interesting thing for the two to have in common. What is involved is, as always, another state of mind, not this usual rational state.
There are so many levels where scientists are at work which are spaces where artists have already been. They haven't been there in a physical way. They have been there in a mental way. I am very interested in the idea expressed by the Yugoslavian scientist Nikola Tesla who worked as Edisons' assistant around the turn of the century in America. Tesla claims that every object, human being, plant and thing on this planet has its own wave-length or frequency. He talked about parallel worlds, the idea that actually in this world we live in many parallel worlds, but we can only communicate with our own world, with objects which are on the same wave-length. Everything else is invisible.
So when we talk about spirituality, people talk about this invisible world and say we don't have proof because it is not physical. But scientists are now discovering that this invisible world actually exists. There are hundreds of parallel worlds. The fascinating thing about the idea of being in this space is that just by changing my wave-length, I could disappear in front of your eyes and reappear in the same room but in another order, with another set-up. It could be incredible to work with both scientists and artists and make such things possible.
(Marina Abromovic, Art meets Science and Spirituality, Interview with Louwrien Wijers and Johan Pijnappel, Art and Design, Academy Group, London, 1990)

Abramovic says of her current work Transitory Objects: "I will continue to do performances. But I also think there is a big gap between the public and me, and I really think it is the task of the public to go through a process of transformation now. Because I have already got to the other side. Seen from the point of view of spiritual development I am just a baby, but the public is not even at that stage yet. So all my new work is concerned with this transformation of the public. My contribution is through my means, that is art. I produce objects that people call sculptures. I don't consider them sculptures. I call them transitional objects. I made some of them out of copper, which transmits energy, and out of quartz pillows, which are condensed energy in light. The public must participate actively.
They come to the museum and the object exists for them, -it is them that must press their bodies against the quartz pillows. The inscriptions on the wall say that they should stay in their position until energy is transmitted.This is my way of preparing humanity. Everybody must make their own contribution. I don't even know whether this is still art. I don't know what it is."
(Marina Abromovic, Art meets Science and Spirituality, Interview with Louwrien Wijers and Johan Pijnappel, Art and Design, Academy Group, London, 1990).

© 2000 - 2019 Raphael Zimmerman