For six long hours, performance artist Marina Abramovic put her life and body completely in the hands of strangers, turning herself into an object to be used as one wished. During this time she agreed to remain completely passive until the experiment was over. For the audience, there were no immediate consequences. What do you think happened?
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you left your fate completely in the hands of strangers? What if you lost your ability to decide for yourself, and even worse, what if you lost your ability to say “no” altogether? To a greater or lesser degree, many of us do this every day without realizing. We care so much more what strangers think that we tend to be more courteous, caring and polite to people we barely know, than we are to the people we claim to love. We care so much about strangers that we change the way we talk and dress just so they won’t judge us. We let strangers tell us what we can and can’t do, what we’re capable of achieving, and worst of all, we do it without batting an eye. But what if we took this example to it’s ultimate extreme?
In 1979 Marina Abramovic, an as yet unknown performance artist living in Soviet Russia, created one of the most controversial, fascinating, and dangerous performance pieces in art history. She called it Rhythm 0, and it was as much a work of daring contemporary art as it was a massive social experiment that pulled the veil on human nature, and laid bare the consequences of leaving ourselves, our bodies and our lives in the hands of strangers.
A variety of objects were placed on the table to be used as one wished. Roses, feathers, chains and even a gun. It was as much a work of daring contemporary art as it was a massive social experiment that showed us the terrifying consequences of leaving ourselves, our bodies and our lives in the hands of strangers.
During the performance Abramovic became willfully passive, turning herself into a living object for the sake of art. She decided that she would stand quietly in the gallery for six hours, during which time audience members were invited to use one of 72 objects on a table in the room to interact with her. The objects ranged from feathers, chocolate cake, olive oil and roses, to a knife, a pair of scissors, a gun, some bullets and chains. The instructions on the table read: Performance. I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility. Duration: 6 hours.
For six hours, she put her life and body completely in the hands of strangers, turning herself into an object to be used, as one wished. During this time she agreed to remain passive, and unresponsive until the experiment was over. Abramovic decided that she would just quietly and limply observe. For the audience, there were no immediate consequences. What do you think happened?
“In the beginning the public was really very much playing with me,” remembers the artist. They were gentle, placing a rose in her hand, kissing her and feeding her cake. But then, “it became more and more wild” as the public became increasingly aggressive. “It was 6 hours of real horror,” says Abramovic solemnly, “They would cut my clothes, they would cut me with a knife close to my neck, drink my blood and put a plaster over the wound. They would carry me around half naked put me on the table and stab the knife between my legs into the wood.”
A night at the gallery quickly turned into a horror show. They took the scissors off the table and cut off all her clothes, one man tried to rape her, another loaded the pistol with the bullet and pointed it at her head, another still cut the skin on her neck and drank her blood.
They took the scissors off the table and cut off all her clothes, one man tried to rape her, another loaded the pistol with the bullet and pointed it at her head. A night at the gallery turned into a horror show. “It was a really difficult piece,” she explains, “because I just stood there in front of the table” while the public continued their assault.
Anyone who knew the artist could have predicted how far the performance might go. Marina was known to be completely committed to her craft. So committed, in fact, that she would have let audience members take her life if it ever got to that point. “There was a pistol with one bullet, so basically if the audience wanted to put the bullet in the pistol they could kill me. And I really wanted to take this risk, I wanted to know what the public is about, and what they are going to do in this kind of situation.”
“After 6 hours, which was like 2 in the morning, the gallerists came and announced that the performance was over. I started moving and start being myself, because until then I was there like a puppet just for them, and at that moment everybody ran away. People could not confront me as a person.”
But after the six hours was up, the moment Abramovic went from passive object to active agent again, the audience was horrified to remember that they had been dealing with a human being all along. They could not confront the traces of torture they left on her body, they could not face their own horrific actions. As she walked towards them dripping with blood and tears, they all ran from her.
These were regular people who probably set out to see a work of art that evening, but ended up torturing the artist. The moment she went from passive object to active agent, the audience was horrified to remember that they had been dealing with a human being all along. They could not confront the traces of torture they left behind on her body, as she walked towards them dripping with blood and tears.
After it was all over, Abramovic had this to say after the performance: “What I learned was that… if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you…I felt really violated.” It is a terrifying yet fascinating lesson in the consequences of passivity.
It is difficult to talk about Rhythm 0 without considering the impact Abramovic’s gender had on the outcome. For all of written history, and probably much longer than that, femininity was defined in opposition to what it was not. It was not strength, it was not stability, it was frail, delicate and changeable. “Girls can never do anything,” said Margaret Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, “Men can ride about the countryside and do things. Girls have to sit and wait for things to happen.” Passivity, they used to say, was woman’s most charming quality, and in many parts of the world passivity remains a primary characteristic men search for in a partner.
Critics have observed that this kind of extreme passivity, paradoxically, can be seen as aggressive, since it is frustrating to audiences. They argued that observers could not psychologically deal with the removal of all boundaries separating the body from the public space. Some reacted by punishing the artist for her stubborn silence as their expectations about appropriate human reactions were systematically shot down, while others stood on guard and acted as her surrogate will, creating boundaries, wiping away her tears, and generally making sure things didn’t get out of hand. An interesting argument, but one that comes uncomfortably close to victim blaming. After all, the only thing the artist was truly guilty of is just standing there. Ultimately, the gallery attendees had full agency over their actions, and if they were feeling frustrated by Marina’s extreme passivity, they could have simply walked away.
Meaning is created by each individual in real-time – a woman standing silently in a gallery could just as easily be seen as calmly meditating, as she can be aggressively silent. It is the viewer who decides who she is, and that meaning has absolutely nothing to do with the woman herself. Or as author Jarod Kintz put it in his book I Love Blue Ribbon Coffee: “I drank the coffee because I was tired. I also drank the coffee because I was dominant, and it was passive and put up no fight.”
It is clear that under no condition should a performance piece like Rhythm 0 ever be repeated again. If it wasn’t for a handful of vigilant civilian guardians, the artist may not have survived that night. If the point of Rhythm 0 was to hold up a mirror to the darker corners of human nature, then the performance piece was a huge success. Not only did it reveal the true price of passivity, it hinted at what submissive women might really be up against when they leave themselves in the hands of strangers.
In 1965 at Carnegie Hall in New York City, a full decade before Abramovic’s performance, Yoko Ono performed a similar artistic experiment called “Cut Piece.” She sat onstage with a pair of scissors, and the audience was invited onstage to cut a piece of her dress. Eventually she stood there with nothing but shreds. But this had none of Rhythm 0’s violence. Somehow, by inviting viewers to cut her dress, intentionally or not, she was placing firm boundaries on what they could and could not do. They could cut. And nothing else. It is only in the case when all boundaries disappear completely that all hell breaks loose.
If the point of Rhythm 0 was to hold up a mirror to the darker corners of human nature, then the performance piece was a huge success. Not only did it reveal the true price of passivity, it hinted at what submissive women might really be up against.