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The Violent Viewer: Rhythm 0 and Subjecting Oneself to Dehumanization

Marina Abramović in Stockholm in 2017.
Marina Abramović in Stockholm in 2017. By Frankie Fouganthin/Wikimedia Commons
By Ella A. Anthony, Contributing Writer

Trigger warning: mention of sexual assault and violence

In 1974, Marina Abramović’s “Rhythm 0” pushed the bounds of performance art as it had been previously understood. While she had engaged in acts of violence against herself in past projects — including the series of performance pieces that led up to “Rhythm 0” — she recognized that performance art genre was much broader than people realized. The resulting piece was one of Abramović’s most controversial works, with Abramović serving as a canvas for the audience’s desires. The performance came to highlight a more dangerous reality: the potential sadism of the audience when nothing is off limits.

Abramović was born in Serbia and is known for her provocative works that pushed the boundaries of physical and psychological endurance. Born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, she grew up during a tumultuous time in the country’s history, marked by the aftermath of the invasion by Hitler’s Germany and World War II. It was against this backdrop that Abramović began her career as an artist.

Her Rhythm Series — beginning with “Rhythm 10” and ending with “Rhythm 0” — tested her ability to endure mental and physical pain. In Rhythm 5, for example, she fell unconscious after lying in the middle of a wooden star that she lit on fire.

“Rhythm 0” was unique though, because it did not feature any self-inflicted violence, but rather violence inflicted upon her by strangers. In this project, she stood still for six hours, allowing audience members to choose from 72 items on display to employ them however they chose. The instructions she laid out were, “I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility.”

The items she chose either fell into the category of pleasure or pain. Some of the items in the pleasure category included perfume, flowers, and lipstick. Some of the potentially dangerous objects included a gun, a bullet, an ax, a scalpel, and scissors. The potentiality here is a pivotal part of the performance because the objects, when laid out in front of the audience, are harmless. Yet, when put to use by the audience members, they have the potential to be instruments of violence.

As the performance progressed, the audience’s reactions to the objects began to evolve. Initially, people were hesitant to use any of the dangerous items presented. However, as time went on, the audience became more emboldened, beginning to use the objects to test if Abramović would either resist or react to the pain they inflicted upon her.

One of the main reactions the audience members aimed to elicit was fear, reflecting the power dynamics at play between the artist and the audience. The audience members were aware that there would be no consequences for their actions against Abramović. This lack of consequence contributed to their increased willingness to use the objects in more extreme ways.

Within three hours, her clothes had been cut off. Those same weapons were used to cut her skin, including her neck, and some people drank her blood. Others took advantage of her, removing her clothing and touching her inappropriately. One of the participants even loaded a pistol with the bullet and held her finger over the trigger, waiting to see if she would respond. By relinquishing all control over her own body, Abramović highlighted how far people would go without the threat of accountability.

In 2009, 35 years after the performance, Abramović said, “The experience I drew from this work was that in your own performances you can go very far, but if you leave decisions to the public, you can be killed.”

Abramović was not the only artist to question the bounds of human nature in this way. Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” is another notable example of performance art that invited audience participation in a way that subjected the artist to violence. Ono’s performance predated Abramović’s by ten years, taking place in 1964. It involved Ono kneeling on a stage with a pair of scissors and inviting the audience to cut off pieces of her clothing and keep them.

Like Abramović, Ono did not defend herself. By allowing the audience to participate in the act of cutting and taking pieces of her clothing, Ono forced viewers to grapple with their potential for harm and to question the ethics of participating in acts of violence or exploitation. By intentionally creating a sense of discomfort and unease among non-participating audience members, Ono also reinforced the idea that inaction can be just as harmful as action.

Abramović and Ono grew up in environments marked by war and violence, and this had a profound impact on their artistic practices.

For Ono, who was born in Japan during World War II, her work often reflects her experience of war and the trauma that it caused. “Cut Piece” can be seen as a commentary on the destruction and violence of war, and how people can be objectified and dehumanized in times of conflict. Abramović’s upbringing in Yugoslavia similarly informs her work, informing her exploration of human nature when normal societal expectations are removed.

Both artists’ works speak to the ways in which gender intersects with other forms of oppression and power. By inviting the audience to participate in the performance, both Ono and Abramović are challenging traditional power structures and raising important questions about consent, agency, and the boundaries between performer and audience.

Both “Cut Piece” and “Rhythm 0” are powerful and thought-provoking works of art that continue to challenge our assumptions about power, violence, and the limits of artistic expression. By contextualizing them within their broader social and historical contexts, we can gain a deeper understanding of their significance and relevance today.

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