“Marina Abramovic – Re-Appropriating the Masculine in Seven Easy Pieces” – Written by Allen Ley (Carleton University)

“We are always in the space in-between… all the spaces where you are not actually at home. You haven’t arrived yet…. This is where our mind is the most open. We are alert, we are sensitive, and destiny can happen. We do not have any barriers and we are vulnerable”

– Marina Abramovic

* * *

From November 9 through November 15, 2005, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presented Marina Abramovic’s performance cycle entitled Seven Easy Pieces, which consisted of seven consecutive nights of performances in the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, each lasting for seven hours from 5 PM to 12 AM.  Abramovic´s Seven Easy Pieces appropriated five other artists’ performances from the 1960s and 1970s and included two of her own works—one old and one new. The performances consisted of re-performances Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure (1974), Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972), VALIE EXPORT’s Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), Gina Pane’s The Conditioning (1973), Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) and her own Lips of Thomas (1975), which was followed by a new work entitled Entering the Other Side, a work especially created for this performance cycle.[1] Her stated purpose for re-performing these earlier works by her peers was to create a documentation of performance art that would properly record the elements of these works for future generations.  This is problematic, as little or no sufficient evidence remains from the original performances.  In some cases, all that is extant are photographs and word of mouth narratives from those who were in attendance.  [2]

Despite her stated reasons for these re-performances, other intentions were clearly hidden beneath the surface.  In choosing to reenact performances that were originally performed by male artists, it leads one to wonder as to how the issues of gender and masculinity could be addressed in the performance of these works by a female artist.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s when these works were originally performed, body and performance art by male and female artists was very different in its approach.  Performed during a time when the Women’s Movement was militantly moving forward with the feminist agenda for equal rights and recognition, male performance artists, such as Acconci and Beuys, often pitted themselves against themselves to challenge the social expectations of masculinity and indestructibility.  Female performers, on the other side of the spectrum, were using performance art to confront the norms of cultural conditioning and thus challenging the more traditional views of the female body.[3]  When the female artist Abramovic appropriates what is embodied in the canon of art as a “masculine” performance, in particular Acconci’s Seedbed and Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, these performances do effect dialogue and change. In examining these two re-performances, it will be possible to see how the traditional binaries of masculine and feminine are undermined by the act of Abramovic appropriating these traditional masculine performances.

Image

Vito Acconci, Seedbed (1972), photograph, Collection of the Artist and the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York.

The original performance of Seedbed by Vito Acconci in 1972 was given at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. [4]   The performance involved Acconci masturbating under a raised ramp in the gallery, making him invisible to the spectators in the gallery.  While masturbating, he would aggressively vocalize his sexual fantasies into a microphone that were heard through speakers arrange around the gallery floor for the visitors to hear.[5]  With his voice dominating the gallery space while spectators walked over top of him, Acconci created an interesting interchange between the masculine notions of masochism and empowerment, thus making his own dynamics of masculine creativity and control somewhat ironic.[6]

Image

Marina Abramovic performing performing Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972)
at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on November 10, 2005. Photograph by Kathryn Carr. © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. 

The re-performance by Abramovic in 2005 demonstrated that there were key elements of traditional masculinity that were able to be undermined and subverted.  The first elements of this re-performance that speaks to this appropriation of the masculine are the space and acoustics in which the work is performed.  In the performance by Acconci in 1972, the floor of the visitor space as raised at an angle in order to symbolize the erect phallus of the male performer.  Speakers were placed at strategic places around the gallery space, amplifying Acconci’s voice so that no matter where the visitor was, the sound of his voice was powerful and intrusive.  In creating her re-performance of this work, Abramovic positioned the performance so that she was likewise hidden from the gallery visitors by means of a specially built platform that was placed in the center of the Guggenheim space.  The platform was built in the shape of a Roman rostrum, which was a raised platform for the use of public orators.[7]  Circular in shape with a single point of entry, it is difficult not to make a connection with the writings of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro on the idea of central core imagery, where they refer to the woman as being “formed around a central core” with a “secret place that can be entered.” [8]   Their writing is also important in that it confirms that the works of female artist become a symbolic place where the artist creates her sense of “personal, sexual identity”. [9]  In counterpoint to Acconci, Abramovic had created a space that was symbolic of the womb that was in direct opposition of the phallic space.   In addition, Abramovic asked her audience to try and ignore the fact that they were in a public gallery, again undermining the original space that was created by Acconci.  As part of her seven hour stream of consciousness monologue, she asked people to “Close your eyes and keep them closed. Forget you’re at the museum. Don’t be afraid.  Don’t be ashamed.  Give to me all that you desire”[10]  In doing this, she was effectively removing the space of male penetration that Acconci had constructed.

As for the acoustics, Abramovic chose to keep the volume somewhat muted instead of amplifying her voice to the level that Acconci used.  A passersby could hear the echoes of a speaking voice, but in order to hear what she was actually saying one would have to enter, or penetrate, the feminine space.  Hence, instead of the artist penetrating the visitor, spectators must now actively penetrate the artist.  When positioned against the traditional gender roles of sex, the masculine act of penetration was reversed to one of the feminine waiting to be penetrated.  As well, Acconci’s louder volume made his spoken sexual fantasies seem aggressive and almost violent.  Many visitors, as well as Acconci himself, were shocked by this element of the original performance in that it made the performance disquieting and even hostile.[11]  In the hands of Abramovic, with a more muted level of acoustics, people found themselves reacting to the performance in a completely different way.  In choosing to lower the volume of her sexual monologue, Abramovic was able to remove the masculine elements of the masturbatory fantasies by stripping away the overpowering aggressive elements of the male fantasy.  Instead, visitors were drawn closer and felt supportive of what she was doing.  As one reviewer wrote, “Her rendition makes it hard to imagine violating those about whom we fantasize.”[12]

Another aspect of this re-performance by Abramovic that challenges the notion of masculinity is in the very title of the work itself.  The very name of this ‘seminal’ performance piece suggests the barriers that are presented to Marina Abramovic as a female artist who wants to re-perform this work. In 1972, Acconci had written a narrative that described his actions and intensions, which Abramovic used as the springboard for her own performance.  Acconci wrote that:

The room is activated by my presence underground; the goal of my activity is the production of seed – the scattering of seed throughout the underground area…

The means to this goal is private sexual activity…

So that maximum seed is produced; my aim is to have constant contact with my body, so that an effect from my body is carried outside.[13]

Image

Joseph Beuys performing How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), photograph by Ute Klophaus, Collection: Galerie Alfred Schmela.

On November 13, 2005, Marina Abramovic returned to the stage at the Guggenheim Museum to perform a re-enactment of Joseph Beuys’ influential performance action entitled How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.[17]  Abramovic felt so strongly that this work needed to be re-created and documented that in seeking permission to perform it she refused to take “no” for an answer from Beuys’ widow.[18]  The original performance action was performed by Beuys on November 26, 1965, at the opening of the Galerie Schemla in Dusseldorf.  It was part of the exhibition Joseph Beuys…Any Old Noose, which was his first exhibition in the art world milieu that was separate from the academic world.[19]  The gallery itself was completely closed to the public during the performance and was only visible from the street window and doorway.

No elements of the performance had been rehearsed or thought out prior to the event; Beuys chose to simply let the entire process evolve naturally.[20]  Looking inside, the public watched Beuys with his head completely covered in a thick layer of honey that was peppered with layers of gold leaf walk around the gallery space explaining the meanings behind his pictures and paintings to a dead hare that he cradled in his arms and lap.[21]  As he moved around the gallery, spectators could observe that tied to his right foot was a sole made of iron, while on the left was one constructed of felt.[22]  As he walked the dead hare through the exhibition from image to image of his own art works, he would whisper in its ear as he discussed his art, letting the rabbit touch each of the paintings with its paw.[23]  The entire performance was videotaped for posterity by the photographer Ute Klophaus, which was to ultimately serve as a guide for the re-performance by Abramovic.[24]  The image of the anointed artist whispering to a dead hare what Beuys thought could not be explained to human beings ultimately became one of the most reverberating images of the 1960s.[25]

As was the case with Seedbed, there are key masculine elements of Beuys’ work that are subverted and changed as they are performed by a female artist.  The first notable appropriation appears in the artistic materials that are used during the performance.  The first materials usually noted in discussions of this work are gold and honey.  Gold itself typically associated with the world of alchemy, both in its associations as a philosophy and as an ancient practice that searched for ways to transform other materials into gold.[26]  In the 1970s, he stated to his close, personal friend Caroline Tisdale that “in putting honey on my head, I am clearly doing something that has to do with thinking”.[27]  Beuys later referred to honey as a living material, further stating that the honey allows the death-like disposition of thinking to develop into a living process once more.  The experience of war was something that was very close to Beuys’ heart, as he had been both a radio operator and a pilot during the Second World War.  Although he had received a military award for his bravery, he chose not to focus on his successes but rather on his defeats.  He was particularly disturbed by the crash of his airplane in Crimea in the winter of 1943.[28]  In his use of iron on the sole of his right foot, Beuys had chosen a material that for him was a hard metal in that it was both masculine and mythological, as iron has been traditionally associated with the god Mars who was the god of war.  Beuys also saw iron as being symbolic of the phallus in that war is a form of penetration.[29]  Using the analogy of the airplane, the hard trajectory of the aircraft (the phallus) penetrates the softer material of the earth which is representative of flesh.  Thus, the iron penetrates the flesh which creates a transformation of both materials during the acts of penetration and exchange.[30]

Felt is a common material that Beuys used in a number of his performance pieces.[31]  After the crash of his airplane during the Second World War, he was rescued by nomadic Tartars who had wrapped his wounded body in felt for warmth.[32]  This material ultimately took on shaman-like characteristics, as Beuys believed that the material felt could transform him from an everyday human being into one that was freed from all external concerns.  This ultimately allowed him to, like a shaman, engage in communications with animals.[33]  In the case of this performance piece, the felt is what transforms him into a type of medium that can communicate with the dead hare.

Image

Marina Abramovic, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (2005), film still by Babette Mangolte, Collection of the Artist.

In performing her seven hour version of the work, Abramovic chose to use the same materials as Beuys.  However, in assembling her re-enactment, the artistic materials represented something different for her, as the masculine memories of Beuys are displaced by those that are female.  The honey that covered her face represented for Abramovic the one thing that she hated to eat more than anything else in the world – a material that she had used for similar purposes in her 1975 performance piece Lips of Thomas.[34]  In this case, the material honey is transformed into a vehicle for feminist political commentary, as Abramovic likened the forced eating of honey to having the tenets and harshness of a Yugoslavian communist regime shoved down her throat.  [35]

Her re-enactment also included the piece of felt on her left foot as well as a piece of iron on her right.  Abramovic expanded this part of the material assemblage in wearing the hiking boots that she had worn during her crossing of the Great Wall of China, the last performance piece that she was to perform with her professional and romantic partner, Ulay.  Thus, she added her own transformative element to the ones that were utilized by Beuys, with the boots representing the end of a romantic partnership as well as the transformation of her own career from working as a couple to becoming a solo female performer once more.[36]

The essence of the female experience that Abramovic brings to the performance becomes even more important when related to Beuys’ theory of the artist as a social structure.  This concept, which consisted of lengthy conversations with large assemblages of people in different milieus, was grounded in his belief that the definition of art had to be broadened beyond that of a specialist activity that was performed by a key few.  Beuys wanted artists, in constructing ‘social sculpture’, to rally the underlying creativeness of every individual person, which he felt would in due course shape the social order of the future.[37]  Thus, the concept of the ‘social sculpture’ was both participatory and interdisciplinary in nature.  In our contemporary culture, innate understanding and spiritual practice have tenuous relationships with science, religion and education.  Beuys held the belief that if it had not been for art, humanity would have wasted these life-affirming forces.  In this belief Beuys was positioning art as the gatekeeper for metaphysical consciousness.  In effect, it was art alone that had the capability of rescuing the future of humanity.[38]

Linda Weintraub argues that in using both traditional and untraditional materials, as well as nonmaterial ingredients such as sound, Beuys’ works become positioned as sculptural ‘social structures’, but she misses the opportunity to relate this idea to any of Beuys’ specific works.[39]  I would argue that How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare is a work that specifically becomes cast and sculpted into a representation of a ‘social structure’ that includes such elements as education, agriculture, manufacturing and politics.  Education is specifically demonstrated in the act of explaining the meanings of the pictures to the dead hare.  The notion of bees creating honey is representative of the elements of agriculture and manufacturing.  Politics is referenced in the linkages to his experiences in the Second World War.  In effect, Beuys had created an artistic model that was based on traditional patriarchal models with the male authority figure controlling the key social elements.

The best way to test this argument is to travel back into the future to Marina Abramovic’s restaging of the performance.  What she ends up creating is a female model of the ‘social structure’, in which Abramovic casts herself in the leadership role.  In the vernacular of the game of chess, ‘queen has taken king.’  Thus, the same artistic materials become representative of the feminine experience within the social elements.  Abramovic has clearly shown that the materials can exude different meanings in their functions of change, yet still ultimately form a ‘social sculpture’ as had been defined by Beuys.  She evokes the element of education in talking to the dead hare, although the message is clearly on art in general as opposed to her own oeuvre.  The honey solidifies the element of politics in its references to oppression suffered under a communist government, as well as continues Beuys’ associations of the material to agriculture and manufacturing.

Another key element in the re-performance by Abramovic is found in Beuys’ act of explaining his own art to the dead rabbit he had cradled in his arms.  Instead of showing the hare her own artwork, as Beuys had done, Abramovic used three blank chalkboards which she moved into different positions as she whispered into the hare’s ear.  The chalkboards become materials that transform into physical representations of the historical canon of Western art. I would argue that she is explaining the history of art from the feminine viewpoint while echoing Beuys’ theme that the dead hare was better able to comprehend his message than mankind.  In effect, she was explaining the very nature and history of art to the dead hare in a way that could be seen as a visual representation of the key arguments that Linda Nochlin posed in her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” that was responsible for the beginning of the application of feminism to the notions of art history and genius. Of particular relevance to this performance is the notion of the traditional “White western male viewpoint,”[40] which Abramovic seems to be subverting in her critique to the dead hare while displacing it with her feminist view in its stead.

In addition to these two re-performances, some scholars have positioned the entire performance cycle as an appropriation of the masculine.  In an essay written for the exhibition catalogue, Erica Fisher-Licthe argued that “by citing, and, at the same time, transforming, even subverting the scheme of Genesis, the female artist Abramovic in a way, ridicules the idea of the male artist as a God-like creator.”[41] By looking at the issue of gender appropriation from the level of the entire week of performances as well as at the individual performances themselves, it is easy to see that the gender appropriation as enacted by Abramovic can function on many different levels.

* * *

In the past, feminist scholars such as Judith Butler and Sandy Stone have set out to challenge the traditional binary notions of gender.  In her 1992 essay “The Posttranssexual Manifesto”, Stone argued that the cultural intelligibility of the gendered body is in fact a “medically constituted textual violence.”[42] She also writes that there is work to be done with both the medical and psychological communities need to identify a better understanding of gender identity and its ultimate relationship to the human body.

I would posit that the work created by Abramovic in this performance cycle is extremely important within the framework of dismantling the subjective and invalid binaries that are associated with the male and female roles within society. She has accomplished this by subverting the long-established way in which these binaries have been applied by creating completely new roles and options for both male and female artists and spectators in her performative appropriation of what was traditionally part of the masculine.  Janet Wark has argued that it is not necessarily the existence of a feminist intention behind art that is important, but rather the political connotations of the art and whether or not these implications engage in a feminist discourse.[43]  Abramovic does not openly express that she is a feminist artist.  In fact, if she were to do so, perhaps this would only serve to set up an opposition in where the performances are now seen as something that is female.   Her accomplishment with regard to gender is that that she has subverted the western canon of art by not being essentially male or female, but by simply being the artist as the performing, human, genderless body.


[2] Jessica Santone, “Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces: Critical Documentation Strategies for Preserving Art’s History,” Leonardo, 41.2 (2008): 147.

[4] A video of the 1972 performance by Acconci is available at http://www.ubu.com/film/acconci_seedbed.html

[6] Hopkins, After Modern Art, 191

[7] Reynolds, Marina Abramovic, 37.

[9] Chicago and Shapiro, “Female Imagery,” 53.

[10] Reference from catalogue

[11] Theresa Smalee, “Not What it Seems: The Politics of Re-Performing Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972),” Postmodern Culture 17 (2006): accessed October 6, 2011, doi: 10.1353/pmc.2007.0009.

[12] Ibid

[13] Marina Abramovic, Seven Easy Pieces (Milan: Chartra, 2008), 70.

[14] Smalee, “Not What it Seems,” 4

[15] Janet Kaplan, “Deeper and Deeper: Interview with Marina Abramovic”, Art Journal, 58.2 (1999): 14.

[16] Abramovic, Seven Easy Pieces, 82.

[17] A video of the 1965 performance by Beuys is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4ZkR1X6s7E

[18] Santone, “Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces,” 148.

[20] Kathleen McQueen, “Survival in a Post-Apocalyptic World: Joseph Beuys’ Performance and Pedagogy,” Art Criticism 19 (2004): 16.

[22] Tisdale, Exhibition Catalogue, 101.

[25] Tisdale, Exhibition Catalogue, 101.

[26] Hopkins, After Modern Art, 90.

[27] Caroline Tisdale, Joseph Beuys (London: Phaidon, 1979), 105.

[28] McQueen, Survival, 8.

[30] Ibid

[31] Moffitt, Occultism, 151.

[32] McQueen, Survival, 8.

[33] Hopkins, After Modern Art, 90.

[34] Westcott, Marina Abramovic, 82.

[35] Ibid

[36] Westcott, Marina Abramovic, 295.

[39] Ibid

[41] Abramovic, Seven Easy Pieces, 35.

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