PRINT September 1983


IN 1975 MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ and Uwe F. Laysiepen (Ulay) met in Amsterdam and recognized each other as Tantric collaborators. In Tibetan Buddhist lore, which along with theosophy and alchemy has influenced them both, the recognition of a karmic acquaintance is a natural experience, not something unlikely or bizzare. Born on the same date (though he is three years older), Marina and Ulay, as they are usually referred to, exhibit remarkable similarities of physiognomy, personal style, and life-purpose. Since that meeting they have entered an artistic collaboration that has emphasized mediations and balancings of the male and female principles. Previously, each of them had done work that cut away the conventional shapes of the self; painfully at times, they had created the inner openness through which Tantric processes are said to operate.

Marina Abramović’s early work had publicly confronted the fears that arise from identification of the self with the body. She bears the scars of premeditated self-investigation with the knife. One early work, Rhythm 0, attained extraordinary clarity. It was in Naples, 1974. At an evening performance Marina was presented to an audience as a totally passive object. Near her was a table covered with instruments of pleasure and pain. For six hours, the audience was told, Marina would not exert her own will. The piece was a classic of passive provocation. It began tamely. Someone turned her around. Someone thrust her arm into the air. Someone touched her somewhat intimately. The Neapolitan night began to heat up. In the third hour all her clothes were cut from her with razor blades. In the fourth hour the same blades began to explore her skin. Her throat was slashed so someone could suck her blood. Various minor sexual assaults were carried out on her body. She was so committed to the piece that she would not have resisted rape or murder. Faced with her abdication of will, with its implied collapse of human psychology, a protective group began to define itself in the audience. When a loaded gun was thrust to Marina’s head and her own finger was being worked around the trigger, a fight broke out between the audience factions. Perilously, Marina completed the six hours.

The piece synthesized, in a form as simple and dynamic as, say, the lighting of a match, the leading themes and questions of the time: the use of the art event as an instrument of both social and psychological criticism, the breaching of the proscenium arch to force the audience to relate to the work in extraesthetic ways, the expression of a life-and-death commitment to a process out of one’s own control, the substitution of the artist’s person for his or her work, and so on.

Ulay’s work prior to their collaboration was, if anything, even more uncompromising in its confrontation with the problem of selfhood and personal identity; his own self-image was the art material he manipulated. For two years he dressed continuously as a female and entered the social milieu of transvestites and transsexuals. For another year he presented himself as mentally defective and sought out the company of people with extreme physical abnormalities, miming their self-image to erode his own. The photodocumentation of these activities was both rigorously carried out and permanently withheld from exhibition, as part of the piece.

Ulay’s first public exhibition, at De Appel Foundation in Amsterdam in 1975, shortly before he met Marina, synthesized these years of self-study in the theme he calIs “photodeath.”1 Nine photographs of Ulay in a wooded environment were prepared. In the first he was foregrounded and the environment was not seen. For each of the following eight, he retreated nine paces from the camera, at last disappearing totally into the environment. Unfixed prints of these photographs, each one meter square, were hung in the darkened gallery. When the visitors at the opening had been admitted to the darkened space a bright halogen lamp was switched on. As the viewers gazed at them, the photographs of Ulay darkened quickly to black, the process taking about fifteen seconds. The viewers’ reactions were photodocumented. With this event the gallery closed for the summer. When it opened in the fall, the same black squares hung in the same darkened room; but now the room also held a table with a photo album and a reading lamp on it. The album contained unfixed prints of the photodocumentation of the previous event. Responding to the invitation implicit in the environment, visitors switched on the lamp, leafed through the album, and found these pictures, of themselves in a previous time looking at darkening pictures, also darkening quickly to black. Photodeath emphasized the transiency of human selfhood through an infinite regress of mechanical reproduction.

In the same year Ulay began giving public performances. One was a self-and-double piece which perhaps presages the recognition-meeting with Marina. Two mirrors were cut to the size and shape of his body. One was attached to him as he stood upright with the mirror reflecting the viewers;. the other lay on the floor at his feet like a shadow. After standing motionless for about an hour he fell flat forward, the mirrors shattering on impact.

Starting in 1976 Marina and Ulay collaborated on the series of important performances called “Relation Works.” On one level these were mystical-philosophical approaches to the concept of the two-in-one, the mutual dependence of opposites—even, finally, the interchangeability of opposing forces, This type of thought was a dominant approach to world-modeling in Sumerian religion, as in much classical Greek and Indian thought, and has left its trace everywhere in the occult traditions and initiations of the West. In different contexts, most of which Marina and Ulay have investigated to some extent, duality has been imaged as male and female, solar and lunar, light and dark, subject and object, and so on. The pair’s innate quality as male and female doubles or complements, as well as the scattered parts of mystical lore each had imbibed, produced the Relation Works as with a kind of inevitability. Esthetically these works are simple and pure to an extraordinary degree while having subtle and complex ramifications. Characteristically minimal, they yet combine several genres, delicately balancing on interfaces. In a sense, of course, they are performance; but in another sense their proper art historical context would be iconography.They are symbolic rites and actual ordeals; they are theater that uses architecture as a material. They are like Tantric or alchemical cartoons of the Great Work of unifying the male and female principles.

In Rest-Energy, 1980, Marina held a bow, Ulay the arrow, notched to the string and aimed at her heart; both leaned back in a comfortable tension and stood motionless. This is a dynamic illustration of Heraclitus’ dictum that the universe is a strung bow. Further, it embodies the life-and-death intensity of the male-female relationship, with its potential for both physical and Tantric types of birth and death and rebirth. In Witnessing, 1981, Ulay sat motionless for several hours on the floor while Marina, standing on a raised platform, pointed at him. Visitors saw this primal duality of subject and object as a timeless and still monument in the midst of a process of change; first washed in rich afternoon light, the two continued until darkness had filled the room, and for some time after. For Relation in Movement, 1977, they had been assigned a space in the Paris Biennale. Bringing their car into the space, Ulay drove for 16 hours in a counterclockwise circle; Marina, sitting in the passenger seat, counted off the circles (2226). The inscribing, through a massive form of action painting or action sculpture, of a circle in the assigned square produced a remarkable primary shapes performance print, as it were. Philosophically this, like all the Relation Works, was a cosmogram, or metaphysical picture, based on the kinds of ancient thought that became the permanent underpinnings of the occult schools. Plato’s teaching that all eternal things move in circles is relevant, and even more so is Aristotle’s mind-that-knows-itself, endlessly circling in its self-awareness.

Aside from the esthetic purity and the clean philosophical expressiveness of these works, they involve a remarkable kind of architectural or architectonic choreography. The arrangements and movements of Ulay and Marina’s bodies are formalized in relation to the large classical spaces in which they usually perform. Some pieces have involved running and colliding in predetermined architecturally ordered ways; others have introduced random principles of movement that will interact intimately with the architecture in the process; still others have stressed the monumentality of a place by their assuming an immobile iconic pose at a central point or axis. Combinations of these three patterns have also been used. In Three, 1978, Marina and Ulay and a snake triangulated the space until sounds that Ulay and Marina produced by blowing across the mouths of bottles roused the snake to alter the geometry of the arrangement. In Go . . . Stop . . . Back . . . Stop, 1979, Ulay moved about the space in response to commands announced unpredictably by his own voice on audiotape, while Marina, seated near the center of the large arena, removed bits of swansdown from a pillow and counted them out one by one as she dropped them on the floor. These and other pieces turn large and resonant architectural interiors into quasi-cosmic spaces in which seemingly primal movements cut the unhewn volume into its first differentiations; concepts like the cabalistic Zim-zum, of a primal space rich in potentiality but as yet unformed, apply; within these spaces duality dramas emerge and transpire like dances of the sun and moon in the original sky. These works perform something of the establishing of a center that Mircea Eliade talks about, which ritually returns a space to the primal moment, erasing its historical past.

As the Relation Works went on, the theme of immobility became increasingly pervasive. In Relation in Time, 1977, the two sat motionless back to back for 16 hours, tied together by their hair. (“Hair is a kind of antenna, like air roots of trees,” Ulay says.) The audience was admitted to watch the 17th and final hour of motionlessness. What was being exhibited in the immobility pieces was not a waxworks; these were mute and unmoving monuments, yet seething with inner life and sentience, will and activity. It was that inner life transpiring invisibly within the immobile body that was the object exhibited—“something that comes into being but remains invisible,” as Marina and Ulay have described the intended subject of their work.2 This inner life was not a matter of day dreams or trances; like Buddhist vipassana meditators, Ulay and Marina strove, in their immobility performances, to keep their attention continually alert upon the present moment as it unfolded around and within them.

In 1980 Ulay and Marina went into the Central Australian desert and approached the aboriginal tribes people. Finding that the aborigines would not relate to them, they established a separate campsite and lived for three months in isolation in the summer heat. Through the openness of their personalities, what they regard as a shamanic experience began to occur: the desert became their teacher—and what it taught, they increasingly perceived, was immobility, silence, and watchfulness. “In the desert one thinks ten times before moving,” Marina says. “The company of a lizard is enough—to watch its throat pulsing,” says Ulay. For several weeks they sat silent and motionless not merely for a few hours on one day, as in previous Relation Works, but for the greater part of every day. Anyone who has practiced prolonged silent immobility knows the excruciating discomfort of it—not merely the discomfort of the body when it is not moved, but the dreamlike and terrible discomfort of where one goes when one sits still; there is not a single unhappy spot of one’s own character, not one weakness of the will, not one hidden corner of the personality.that one is not forced to scrutinize with uncanny clarity and at nightmarish length. This is a dark journey that one does not see the end of when embarking upon it, because one will not be the same person at the end. “Motionlessness,” says Ulay, “is the best thing I have done. It synthesizes everything. It is the homework.” After three months of learning from the desert, Marina and Ulay found the aborigines communicative.

Back in Sydney they began, as an expression of the desert’s teaching, the major performance piece Nightsea Crossing, which is still in progress. For 16 days they sat publicly, for a 7-hour period each day, gazing motionlessly at each other across a table; for the same period they fasted and maintained silence 24 hours a day. Such conditions enforce a drama of their own, as the boredom and stress of sensory deprivation intermit with periods of bright clarity that may seem charged with higher meaning. This drama has been presented in subsequent performances in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Kassel (at Documenta 7), Toronto, and elsewhere. When the total of days spent in public immobility reaches 90, Nightsea Crossing will be over as a performance. It now stands at 73.

Nightsea Crossing is not, however, to be regarded strictly as a work of Endurance Art or an act of public self-therapy. The piece has unfolded with a powerful visual history also. Always, the architecture is important, and grand classical forms are preferred; the event is understood as transpiring very much within the space of a building, held by it, contained by it—the whole building is a space that the work must relate to. One changing element of design is clothing color; each always wears a solid color, the combinations varying for each event. The tables at which they sit are serious design objects in their own right, created with shamanic attention to materials, numerological relationships, and so forth. In the center of the table some object is placed, to serve as both a visual focus and a symbolic center. In Sydney it was an aboriginal boomerang with a living snake coiled around it; the snake remained on the table, more or less in the center, for the entire piece. At Documenta 7, various objects—four boomerangs, a sheaf of 13 golden spears, a water cooler with gold leaf floating in the water—were arranged with great elegance about the spacious room.

The increasingly theatrical design of the pieces, along with the increasing physical separation of the audience from the events, reflect a gradual transition that the work of Ulay and Marina has undergone in the direction known loosely as post-Modernism. Ulay’s early private work totally negated the proscenium arch by avoiding the art context altogether. Marina’s early works, like the piece in Naples, constituted direct attacks on the arch, within the art context. Some of the Relation Works also denied the audience its separate world. In lmponderabilia, 1977, for example, Ulay and Marina stood facing each other, naked, in the narrow entrance to the museum. Every visitor had to brush between their bodies sideways and, in order to do so, had first to decide which of them to face. Most of the Relation Works, however, and especially the immobility pieces, found Ulay and Marina doing something and the audience watching them. The first episode of Nightsea Crossing, in Sydney, was carried out with no barrier separating the sitters from the public. Numerous interruptions that were disturbing to the rhythm of long concentration discouraged this. Thereafter, the audience was separated from the seated artists in various ways, and the settings in which they were viewed, often from behind a theater-type rope, became like stagings. The exquisite staging and distinct separation from the audience at the Documenta sitting is the clearest example.

The most recent work, Positive Zero, 1983, not only leapt behind the arch completely, being presented to the public on the ornate stage of the Theater Carré in Amsterdam, but also eliminated the element of ordeal or personal challenge that had been, to their small group of loyal enthusiasts, their trademark. Nothing in Positive Zero was originated by the artists: here they showed not what they made but what made them. It was an ethnological collage of cultural found objects functioning both as homage and ritual celebration. Positive Zero arose from a collaboration among thirty or so participants, musicians and performers, who lived together in a Tibetan meditation center in the countryside near Amsterdam during the weeks in which the piece developed. The rural meditation center and the elegant urban theater were the two poles, inwardly and outwardly directed, of the experience. Two Australian aboriginal artists played the didjeridoo, an ancient shamanic instrument on which a variety of buzzing overtones can be attained; and six Tibetan lamas sang in their complex overtonal style. Sound is of course an omnipresent example of “something that comes into being but remains invisible”; overtones are even more ghostly presences. Positive Zero saturated the audience with the mysterious hovering aura of the overtone series for an hour and a half. Meanwhile, the ten performers, accompanied by theatrical lighting effects and changes, adopted immobile tableaux vivants upon the stage like a 3-D Tarot. In terms of occult and Tantric theory, sound reality produces image reality, according to the basic tuning of the Great Chain of Being. Positive Zero was an art-historically based intuitive approximation of this occult process. In this case the sound aspect produced a stream of found elements from the whole sweep of cultural history. One saw Raphael’s angels gazing at a megalithic pietà (Ulay the dead god motionless in Marina’s lap), while Tarot images (the hoodwinked Two of Swords, the milling Eight of Staves) passed by. Certain parts of the piece, such as the presentation of immobile human figures in careful stagings, clearly derived from the earlier work. In other ways, however, Positive Zero is either an aberration or a turning point in its emphasis on sensuous expressiveness.

People have sat, and been silent, and others have watched them sit, and be silent, since, no doubt, Australopithecine evenings. The implications of such activity vary with context. Pilgrims still climb to certain Himalayan caves to watch certain yogis sit silent. Southern Buddhist lore includes definitions of 23 kinds of silence. The late Sankaracarya of the Vedantin order of India maintained mowna, or religious silence, for the last several decades of his life; in context, this was appreciated as a communicative gesture. Yet our culture at large has not provided a context in which such gestures can function as communication, and has often regarded them as solipsistic. At the present moment, especially, when expression is (again) the rallying cry on all sides, we are in danger of losing the rich communications of silence.

The Nightsea Crossing will be completed in 1983 or early 1984. Beginning sometime in 1984 another difficult and lonely journey is planned which, if realized, will expand the simplicity of the Relation Works, as well as the theme of movement in relation to architecture, to a near-cosmic scale. The difficult and lonely “homework” is not over, and its value is now greater than ever. Ulay and Marina will make a year-long walk of the Great Wall of China—he starting, unaccompanied, at the northern end; she, unaccompanied, at the southern. They will meet, after a walk of five thousand kilometers each, at the midpoint. Through an agreement between Landsat and Polaroid, it will be photo-documented from outer space.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum.



1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Marina and Ulay in this article are taken from conversations with the author.

2. In a flyer distributed in connection with the work Positive Zero, Amsterdam, June 1983.