‘Embodiment’ generally stands for a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling. It can also be the representation or expression of something in a tangible or visible form. Embodiment in the art world, and more specifically in performance art, is the presence of the performer’s body on stage as well as the co-presence of the audience.
“…embodiment is more than corporality itself, but a ‘situated experience dependent on history and environment, unique to individuals within a collective”.
From my view point, I perceive embodiment in performance art as a situation in which the artist and most importantly the spectator give life to a work of art. Performance art can only exist at a specific time, in a specific location or setting, only with the presence of the body. Without the body, the setting where the action is/was supposed to take place in has no purpose or meaning.
This semester when I went back home to Athens, Greece during spring break, I had the chance to attend the As One program and get a taste of the Abramović Method. The Abramović Method is a performance piece by well-known Marina Abramović.
“NEON is proud to be partnering with the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) for the first time, on a major collaboration of Performance and Immaterial Art in Athens, presenting the program As One at the Benaki Museum (Pireos St. Annexe), over a period of seven weeks.”
The Abramović Method was developed over a long period of time and several stages. It is a public participatory experience designed for large groups of individuals, which allows the participants to experience the present, to reconnect with themselves and connect with the rest of individuals. In a communal space, the audience is called to perform a series of exercises and observe others doing the exact same thing.
In Athens the Abramović Method is entering a new and more mature stage of its development, offering an open participation platform of exercises/activities depending on the needs of the greek audience and the way in which they want to experience the work.
We live in an era of constant distraction. The original connection with our inner world and the people who surround us is often infeasible. The Abramović Method allows the audience to discharge from everyday distractions, so as to concentrate on the clear, timeness gallery space, where every connection is possible, and peaceful and personal time is encouraged.
When the visitors enter the gallery space of the Method , they are asked to leave all their personal belongings in a secure locker space. There follows a series of warm-up exercises with the guidance of trained assistants, in order for people’s senses to “awaken”, for their bodies to stretch and for their mind to concentrate on what is next. This preparation – which takes place in several small rooms before entering the main gallery space – allows the participants to focus their attention on being present in what is happening, motionless and connected. During the period of the whole process, each individual is autonomous in how they perceive and experience the work, and they have the necessary time to look for things they need and want from this unique environment during their stay.
Before me and my friend Stephania finally entered the main gallery space, we were advised to go through the process alone without tagging along with our friends, as we might lose track of time and it would be better to go through the experience individually. We were then provided with soundproof headphones and instructed not to talk or whisper. As we walked in, we saw dozens of people doing several different activities. Some people were sitting opposite a wall staring at colorful sheets, some were walking back and forth in a certain space with their eyes closed, some were standing still with their eyes closed, and others were sitting on chairs opposite of each other staring at each other obsessively…
There were groups of people gathered in tables counting and separating lentils from rice…
And some others were sitting on chairs covered in blankets with their eyes closed, and others were laying in beds…
At first glance, the whole scenery was pretty confusing. Luckily, the assistants guided us at first by holding our hands, so that we understand what we were supposed to do in there. My assistant took me to the stare-at-each-other section as I like calling it, I sat down and she left. There was a man sitting right next to me, another man opposite him, and a woman opposite me. We were all visitors and we had to stare at each other. If an assistant passed by us and saw we were looking elsewhere, they would make hand gestures to show us we have to stare at each other the whole time. That was one of the most awkward moments of my entire life, staring obsessively a woman I don’t even know, for no reason… or was there a reason…? I decided since I couldn’t escape the whole situation, I would stare at the the rest of her body and analyze her style, clothes, and make assumptions about who she could be. The was no way I would stare directly at her. Although there were some moments we did stare accidentally directly at each other, it was not so awkward but funny instead. I just cannot help looking at somebody right in the eyes without laughing or smilling a little. We sat there for a while, and as at first I thought that was really boring, I tried to think why I had to be staring at a random person and what the point was of it all.
I went through all of the activities; the staring-at-the-wall one, the standing-still-with-eyes-closed one, the-walking-with-eyes-closed activity, the blanket one, the bed one and the lentil-and-rice one. All kinds of random thoughts were running through my mind. There were times I would run into my friend Stephania during the, and, as it was the first time she was experiencing performance art, she would make hand gestures like “What the hell is this?” and “What are we supposed to be doing in here?”. It was hilarious how it has been ages since she lastly went to an art exhibition (maybe since elementary school?), and then years after I took her to this. I think she really liked the lentil-and-rice one though… We’ve been separating lentils from rice and counting them for at least an hour, which felt like ages, since we stayed in the gallery space and went through the rest of the activities in less than two hours. I literally got a neck ache, but it was fun… who ever thought we’d go to a museum to separate lentils from rice?
So, what was the point of it all? Honestly, I got out of the gallery space with more questions than answers. Yes, it was a self-exploratory experience. Yes, it was awkward staring at strangers and observing them doing weird things. Yes, it was relaxing to do all these things in a clean and peaceful environment. But did we really get away from the everyday distractions Abramović refers to?
Personally, during the experience I was more concerned with analyzing in my head the reasons why the Method was designed this way. I started thinking how performance art can be so multilayered as far as the aspect of the body is concerned. What exactly is embodiment? Does it refer exclusively on the artist’s body? The Abramović Method has the answer: absolutely not. The performing body can vary from the artist’s body and a hired actor’s body, to the spectator’s body.
“I introduced something very different: performance as the public performing. Here, in the Marina Abramović Method, I’m not even there anymore. I only create the tools for you to have an experience …
“I’m interested more and more in working with masses, with a much larger community. My work is kind of going away from the trendy art public.”
-Marina Abramović, http://www.spikeartmagazine.com/en/articles/i-will-never-do-it-again
In most of Marina Abramović’s performances the performer is Abramović herself, sometimes accompanied by her ex partner Ulay. However, there are a few performances of hers where the performer is not only her, but the audience as well. Below is the description of her performance called Imponderabilia (1977):
“At the opening of an exhibition in June 1977 at the Museum of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Bologna, Abramovic/Ulay stood naked at the entrance opposite each other in such a way that the people streaming in had to squeeze singly through the gap between the two, unable to avoid physical contact. The crucial factor was that everybody had to decide whom to look at as they passed. The video focuses on both the complete view and the half-length portrait in order to capture the different reactions of the audience. Most people were looking straight ahead to avoid a direct gaze, squeezed through with a lot of physical contact or tried bumping into the bare skin of the two as little as possible. Some also held on to the artists’ shoulders. Abramovic/Ulay kept looking at each other motionless like statues flanking an entrance. In this Performance, they are forming a physical frame, confronting the involuntary participants passing through the “birth canal” with the experience of touch, the decision which side to face, and exposing them all to an unfamiliar bodily sensation between shame and an awareness of their own bodies, and to close physical contact with another human being which is generally considered disturbing between strangers. The gap between the two protagonists constitutes the actual Performance space in which the viewer plays an active part. It is fitting that this action is placed in a museum where people go as spectators, learning at the very entrance that they are involved themselves. A text on the exhibition wall stated: “Imponderable. Such imponderable human factors as one’s aesthetic sensitivity/the overriding importance of imponderables in determining human conduct.” The text refers directly to the viewer as a protagonist of the Performance who – as is so often the case with Abramovic/Ulay – is denied the opportunity of direct observation.”
In her manifesto she also notes the following:
“In a way offering our body for our public, that’s the ultimate gesture. They are not just looking into the spectacle, they are part of the spectacle, and there’s a big difference.”
Watch Marina Abramović’s An Artist’s Life Manifesto (2011) below:
In such art, it is often the experience of the audience that becomes the true object or subject of the work. There is a wide variety of participatory performance art that features relatively passive involvement, to mild interaction, such as in Félix González-Torres’s cellophane-wrapped candies…
…to a more active and dynamic involvement of the public into the art, such as in Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (first performed in 1964), where the audience members cut off Yoko Ono’s garments until they left her completely naked…
…to Marina Abramović’s dangerous Rhythm 0 (1974):
…to releasing pent-up aggression and frustrations in David Belt’s Glassphemy! (2010):
We are wholly accustomed to interactivity, and art that reflects such reciprocation and proactive involvement emanates deeply in us. For those works that act as channels to our emotions, artists have provided an outlet for self-exploration, connection with others, and even memories and feelings. There are times we need a getaway from everyday distractions, as Abramović suggests. Art – let alone the interactive side of it – is often the getaway we seek for.
So, what do these emotions, memories and feelings have to do with embodiment in performance art? It’s all these that constitute embodiment. Because, without them, performance wouldn’t exist. It is the personal experience of each individual that gives substance to the performance – not just the artist’s, but the spectator’s, as well. Without the body, there is no act to be performed, there is no story to be told.