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  • Writer's pictureViolet Freeney

The Beauty of an Object: Rhythm 0 by Marina Abramovic in the context of Womanhood and What It Means

Womanhood and What It Means, A Series (Installation 2)

Trigger Warning: Brief mention of rape and sexual assault.

What is human nature? Since the beginning of time, that has been the question. From Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment and today, so many have wondered about the answer. In a state of anarchy, with no law and no authority, what would it really be like, what would we be capable of? Thomas Hobbes believed a “state of nature” or an existence of humanity without society would result in a constant state of conflict and violence, yet is that really the truth? Would our morality prove victorious, or would it simply fade away as he suggests?

In 1973 a Serbian woman named Marina Abramović was inspired by this same question. What are we truly like, and how does that affect the relationship between art and its audience? As a performance artist, she was very interested in how an audience could influence the works she presented. In her first piece of the Rhythm series, Rhythm 10, Abramovic discovered the importance of the audience to the integrity of her work. She recalls how she and her audience were united during that performance in an excerpt from her memoir, Walk Through Walls. It was this powerful energy an audience could bring that she was fascinated with.

After three more installations in the series, Rhythm 5, Rhythm 2, and Rhythm 4, Abramovic debuted Rhythm 0. This performance piece was held in Studio Morra, Naples and lasted 6 hours. During that time Abramovic stood completely still and presented the audience with the following instructions: “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility.” The items present included things like perfume, honey, paint, razor blades, a rose, and a loaded gun, and they were all available for participants to use.

Rhythm 0 Exhibit at the Museum of Parallel Narratives in Barcelona in 2011

Photograph by Rafael Vargas

For the first few hours, participants were gentle with Abramovic, giving her flowers to hold or kisses on the cheek or simply repositioning her body, but as time went on, the audience became more aggressive. They carried her to the table where they put a knife between her legs. They cut her clothes off. They groped her. They cut her neck and drank her blood.

Photograph by Donatelli Sbarra

The performance was meant to test how far the public would go without consequence and discover what human nature truly is when shielded in a crowd. While Abramovic had intended to create a consequence-free environment, the crowd interestingly created conflict within themselves over the treatment of the artist. At one point a man attempted to rape her, but was stopped by other participants, and near the end of the performance, a fight broke out between audience members when the gun was loaded, put in the artist’s hand, with her finger on the trigger, and then held to her own head. Abramovic had no intention of resisting these actions for the sake of her performance, and one must wonder—without the backlash from other audience members, in a consequenceless world—whether our true human nature would have raped her, or killed her even.

Abramovic presented herself as an object to audience members and stood passively as others did as they desired, directly paralleling the way women have been expected to act within society for centuries. The things Abramovic endured during those 6 hours are a reflection of the suffering that women have endured under these expectations for years. While generally no one stands still and unresponsive as she did during their lives, the objectification that women have been subjected to has resulted in similar repercussions. Abramovic highlights the danger of this “objectification” through her work and denounces this expectation altogether throughout her life. She says in a separate interview, “I come from a part of the world where a woman has all the power,” but she notes that “[In America] it is so different. We are women, we give life. It’s the most powerful role, but we willingly play into this stupid fragile [stuff].” Metaphorically, the work says a lot about womanhood, but what it reveals about human nature also holds some serious implications.

If the participants of Rhythm 0 were willing to violate Abramovic in the way they did in front of a crowd, what would those same participants do in a private setting? Some may argue that the validation of the crowd is exactly what empowered them to act in such ways, or that in normal experiences a person would not passively stand still without resistance. However, the performance reveals simply what human nature is when it is allowed to run rampant. This human nature does not disappear after 6 hours and there are many instances in our lives, especially in relationships, where there are similarly little consequences.

At the end of Rhythm 0’s 6 hours, Abramovic moved towards the crowd, shirtless, covered in areas of blood and writing and it was at her return to humanity, that the audience retracted and fled the venue. They were unable to face her after the acts they had committed, and while these people know they are morally wrong, as they prove with the shame they feel, they only realize it when they are confronted with the consequence of their own empathy.

The people in the crowd were able to violate her in the way they did, yet they could not face the victim of their own acts, they could not admit to the cruelty they had empowered. Maybe this is a result of the empathy they now felt for her, but maybe it is more accurately a result of personal shame or guilt. Both emotions are caused by the knowledge that what they did was wrong, but why did they do it anyway? It is this dichotomy that also gives valuable insight into the relationship we as a society have with Womanhood. When we think about our sisters or our mothers, we see them as emotional human beings, but what happens to those we cannot give value to based on our own importance? What happens when we objectify those who we do not value in this way? In this sense and in the context of the piece, a woman is one of 2 things. She is either an object or she is human, yet she is never both simultaneously. Abramovic’s performance shows how human nature interacts with women of both categories and how their empathy shifts only to shield them from confrontation. This inconsistent, self serving empathy that does not extend to those who we objectify is at the root of violence against women and is a very dangerous thing to perpetuate.

Photographer: Unknown

As an optimistic person I would like to point out those who protected Abramovic to some extent, such as those who wiped away her tears (as pictured above), but I am also obligated to point out how those people also cut her skin and removed her clothes. We can find hope in our capability for empathy, but let us not underestimate the strength of cruelty’s temptation or forget those who society’s empathy is not extended to.

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