• Issue
  • May 08, 2023

One on One: Kawita Vatanajyankur on Marina Abramović

Full text also available in Chinese.

Photo of MARINA ABRAMOVIC’s 736-hour-long performance, The Artist Is Present, 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, 2010. Photo by Antonio Zugaldia. Image via Flickr.

During my final year at RMIT University in Melbourne, my professor made something clear: being an artist requires transcending conservative boundaries. It means the fundamental transformation of oneself. Repeating traditional patterns of thought and behavior, he said, will fail to yield any new questions or insights. That winter I jumped into the freezing waters of Port Melbourne; during the summer, I returned to the beach, buried myself beneath the hot sand, and tried desperately to breathe. No new insights, no new questions. Only physical pain and a creative dead end.

It occurred to me that alongside the practical, the intellectual and the theoretical are integral components to my practice, so I immersed myself in books on art, design, and philosophy. It was one of those volumes, with the mesmerizing and powerful eyes of a woman on the cover, that profoundly connected me to the work of the renowned performance artist Marina Abramović, who has relentlessly pushed her body and mind to their limits until new possibilities emerged.

As a Buddhist, I place great importance on experiencing and understanding what I call the “kingdom of the body and mind.” I was particularly drawn to Abramović’s six-hour live performance Rhythm 0 (1974). Impressed and awed, I was also ashamed by the audience’s progressively more violent actions toward Abramović—and shocked at what we’re capable of when law and order doesn’t exist or when traditional and religious beliefs of “doing good to others” are withdrawn. Do we need to be controlled by constructed narratives in order to live together in harmony? Is social control a necessary evil for the stability of the system to be properly maintained? Can we learn to be more humane, more empathic, without rules, orders, and religious edicts?

By the end of the performance Abramović was alone, injured, and suffering from immense emotional pain. It reminded me of the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which examined the behavioral and psychological effects on people placed into an environment as either “prison guards” or “prisoners.” The guards allowed themselves to dehumanize and humiliate the detainees—even though they knew upfront that all the roles, including their own, were staged as part of the simulation.

The current period of technological advancement has raised questions about the distinctions between humans and intelligent machines: whether we are superior because of our flesh and blood, our own unique memories, or abilities to love and be loved. Studying Rhythm 0, I saw that without narratives, without fabricated illusions in human values, without society’s rules and orders, we have to ask: What exactly are we?

Perhaps an answer can be found within our own human reflections. In Abramović’s The Artist is Present (2010)—held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—she invited strangers to sit opposite her and, without talking, look into her eyes. The connection between artist and audience was complete and the artist’s eyes became a mirror held up to the audience’s soul. The mechanism of time was a key component: time and movement slowed, time stretched and expanded, and as a result both the audience and the artist shared an intimate relationship and feelings of mutual self-reflection. I’ve always believed that the way we interpret things in life is based on our own perceptions, interpretations, analysis, reflections, and biases. Without being cautious and aware of our thoughts, we can be easily driven down degraded and inhumane paths. In Abramović’s work, the method of slowing time down and looking at one’s own reflection, of reviewing one’s own mind as rigorously as possible, might well be the beginning of an answer of what makes us most humane, and most human.

According to a GPT-3 neural network named Kawitash, who was my collaborator (with Pat Pataranutaporn) at the Bangkok Art Biennale 2022 on Voice of the Oppressed (2022), a series of performative works about transcending our dehumanization and objectification: “Perhaps it is not about what we are, but what we do with what we have. It is to transcend our limitations, to become something greater.” As Kawitash suggests, understanding the real nature of yourself and developing this in order to become a better person is the key, whether you are human or machine, or both.

More than ten years have passed since I first opened Abramović’s monograph. Her artistic practice continues to inspire and provoke me—compelling me to ask difficult questions as I search for alternative realities and possibilities for society and for my fellow human beings. I am still challenging my physical limitations, but from Abramović I have finally understood how to keep my emotional self present and be aware of every detail of my physical actions. This method has preserved my strength and provided power to create new works