Marina Abramović: Rituals of Breath, Voice and Void | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU
From Eastern philosophy to western culture, from primitive rituals to stage performance and from agonizing actions to silent and still contemplation, Marina Abramović has studied every possible inch of the performance act and has embodied it in her art. Her art spans for four decades, during which she has produced an impressive body of work, where voice, breath and every bodily aspect has turned into an element of expression.Since her first performances the ritualistic element has been very strong. In Rhythm 5 she had created a star from wood chips that she set on fire; first she cut her hair and nails and threw them in the fire and then she lay inside the star, with fire burning around her; a few minutes later, she passed out from lack of oxygen and had to be rescued. The process of the performance brings to memory traditional rituals of cleansing the spirit through fire and smoke, that are common in different cultures.
The idea of purification is prominent in her Freeing the Body (1976) performances, three different acts that sought to empty the memory, the body and the voice. In Freeing the Memory she spoke out words aloud, until, after an hour and a half, her mind went completely blank; in Freeing the Body she danced for eight hours to the rhythm of an African drum, until collapsing; in Freeing the voice she screamed until –three hours later- she lost her voice completely.
In Freeing the voice we see the artist lying on her back, with her head hanging low, and her mouth wide open. She takes deep but abrupt breaths and then lets them out by screams. Her screams start from monotonous, repetitive voices, like a mantra, and escalate to cries of agony, desperation. Her body stretches throughout the screams and for a moment, when each scream dies and before she takes the next breath, it deflates completely with a slight spasm. It is an agonizing process, that “frees” not just her voice, but also her mind and her body. Because it is not just the voice that is under strain, but the entire body that struggles to produce it, the vocal cords that are being damaged and her mind that is emptied completely, as her thoughts get covered by her screams. As her voice drains her body and her mind, it becomes the real sound of her body, without any thought or intention behind it. In the end, the voice becomes the artist.
What Abramović succeeds by these exhaustive performances is to empty her body out of any form of energy –mental or bodily, until there’s nothing else but void.
But for Abramović this is a positive emptiness:
The Tibetans have a nice word for emptiness: when they speak of “full emptiness” There is a void but it’s a positive void.
Emptying the body and the mind is a concept that is often repeated in Abramović’s work, but as time goes by, it acquires a different character: Whereas in the early 1970s she tried to reach this void through extreme actions, with self-inflicted pain, humiliation and trauma, little by little her performances take a more esoteric turn, dominated by repetitiveness, silence and meditation. The catalyst for this change was meeting fellow artist Ulay in 1975 and embarking on a long term relationship and collaboration with him.
During their first years, they performed together a work based on Freeing the voice, facing each other and screaming. However, in AAAA-AAAA (1978) the dynamic is very different. First they start in a calm manner, as if they were saying out loud a prayer, with synchronized voices and breaths; then, as they start to increase the intensity of their screams, the two performers express a competitive mood, trying to outdo each other in tone and persistence. They open their mouths wide open, like two animals that try to scare each other away. In the end, Ulay gives up, leaving Abramović alone before her voice wears out.
More than a battle for predominance, the two performers seem to act out a form of dialogue, where words have been obliterated, leaving only voice to express their thoughts and take out their bodily vital energy. The process of the transformation of breath into voice becomes apparent as they stop to take breath and release it as raw screams. These screams become more and more uncontrolled, turning out into animal growls. As the tone of their screams escalates, their faces get closer and closer, creating an ambiguous feeling of underlying erotic passion and aggression.
It is the same feeling that pervades Breathing In, Breathing Out, which was performed twice, in Belgrade (1977) and Amsterdam (1978). For this performance the two artists blocked their nostrils with cigarette filters and pressed their mouths together, so that one couldn’t inhale anything else but the exhalation of the other. As the carbon dioxide filled their lungs, they began to sweat, move vehemently and wear themselves out; the viewers could sense their agony through the projected sound of breathing, which was augmented via microphones attached to their chests. It took them nineteen minutes in the first performance and fifteen in the second to consume all the oxygen in that one breath and reach the verge of passing out.
Something tender and violent at the same time emerges from the performance: the couple are decided to stick together despite the effort, the danger, the damage; but this kind of interdependence can harm the two parties involved, so it cannot last for very long.
However, even for just a few minutes they came to a great achievement: they became one Being, like the mythical creature described by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, an omnipotent Androgynous creature with round shape and four hands and legs; these Androgynous –meaning, man and woman- creatures felt so confident of their power, that they committed the sin of hybris –arrogance towards the gods-, so Zeus punished them by splitting them in two halves, condemned to keep looking for their other half for eternity:
This is the reason, our human nature used to be one and we were a whole; and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. There was a time, I say, when we were one, but now because of the wickedness of mankind God has dispersed us.
By sharing the same breath Abramović and Ulay step on the fine line dividing eros and thanatos, love and death. At the same time, they remind us that we all breathe through the same air and share each other’s breath.
As the two artists moved on with their relationship and their collaboration, they started to act as one –like that mythical Androgynous creature- naming their unified egos the other. They began to explore non-European cultures, mostly Tibetan, Indian and Aboriginal, and incorporated their philosophies into their artworks; these philosophies instilled into their work the concepts of stillness, the void, zero.
A zero with a positive charge.
In Positive Zero (1983) Abramović and Ulay staged a sound-performance bringing together Tibetan lamas and Australian aborigines –perhaps for the very first time in the history of these cultures. The tableaux vivants presented on stage, that represented the four stages of life, were livened up through the chanting of the Tibetan lamas and the didgeridoos of the Aborigines.
Within the same period, from 1981 to 1987, the two performers presented their Nightsea Crossing performances, during which they sat still looking at each other for seven hours a day, for many days in a row. Throughout this experience Abramović’s senses were so heightened, that her consciousness and her way of perceiving reality was altered:
I was looking at Ulay directly in front of my eyes and he completely disappeared –there was a shell of light and absolutely no body. […] For a long period of time, he absolutely didn’t exist except in the form of a light shell.
This kind of experience brings to mind breathing and meditation techniques that are common in different religious practices, such as the Sanskrit tradition, Islamism, Orthodox Christianity and Judaism, which often lead the practicant to see what is described as a “divine light”.
These series of performances by Abramović and Ulay required a high level of concentration, in order to overcome the physical fatigue and pain. But the artists knew that if they went beyond this limit, they could reach a higher mental state: ‘It’s like a gate to me, when the body gives up’.
Inspired by Eastern meditation techniques and religious practices, Abramović found new ways of exploring consciousness through performance art, by means of her voice and breathing. She was taught these techniques during her journeys and explorations; for example, during her stay in a Tushita monastery, she was set the task of repeating a phrase for up to 6,000 times a day; as her entire body and breath became synchronized with the tone of the chant, she started to experience a sense of equilibrium with the body.
Sharing the knowledge that she has acquired during her life trajectory, she applies the same meditational techniques when teaching in workshops, in order to initiate her students in the idea of art as a ritual.
The main idea is to present the students with a different way of experiencing the world. Firstly, she encourages them to follow an ascetic lifestyle throughout the workshop; this prepares them for the next step, which is a set of exercises that aim to enhance their perception: these include meditation, new ways of viewing familiar surroundings, methods to heighten their senses, repetitive actions and breathing techniques.
The exercises, as detailed in Abramović’s books Unfinished Business (1999) and The Student Body, and synopsized by Mary Richards show how traditional breathing practices are adapted for the use of performance art:
You can stand or sit to try this exercise. If you choose to sit, make sure that the upper body is upright and that your torso feels open and free.
Breathe through your nose and feel the breath reaching down into the abdomen and your upper body gently rising – but do not force it to do so.
Exhale gently through the mouth through soft lips.
Repeat until you feel comfortable, relaxed and more alert.
Now add a hum to the exhaled breath – start gently and continue to be aware of how the body is responding. Take your time and do not rush this transition.[…]
By combining controlled breathing with repetitive voice sounds, Abramović seeks to change the level of energy in her body and her surroundings.
Ultimately, Abramović’s work is not about suffering, pain and agony, but about ‘opening the doors to perception’ and ‘surfing different mental states’. Having immersed herself into the cultures of the East, mostly during her repetitive stays in Tibet and Australia, she tries to give this energy to the public and create a link between those cultures: “As an artist I want to be a bridge”, she says.
 Goy, Bernard (1990), “Interview with Marina Abramović”, Journal of Contemporary Art, June 1990. Accessed: September 2011. http://www.jca-online.com/Abramovic.html
 See also: Christina Grammatikopoulou, “Inhaling theory, exhaling art: From Antonin Artaud’s word to Marina Abramović’s action”, Interartive, #3, October 2008. http://interartive.org/2008/10/artaud/
 Plato, Symposium, 192e-193a. The ancient text reads: “τοῦτο γάρ ἐστι τὸ αἴτιον, ὅτι ἡ ἀρχαία φύσις ἡμῶν ἦν αὕτη καὶ ἦμεν ὅλοι· τοῦ ὅλου οὖν τῇ ἐπιθυμίᾳ καὶ διώξει ἔρως ὄνομα. καὶ πρὸ τοῦ, ὥσπερ λέγω, ἓν ἦμεν, νυνὶ δὲ διὰ τὴν ἀδικίαν διῳκίσθημεν ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ”.
 Abramović, Marina (1998), Denegri, Dobrila, Performing Body, Milan: Charta, p.402.
 Richards, Mary (2010), Marina Abramović, Routledge: New York, p.99.
 Carr, Cynthia (1997), ‘Marina Abramović seeks the higher self through the body in extremis’, Village Voice, New York, 25 November, p.69.
 For more details on the effect of breath and voice on the body, see Christina Grammatikopoulou, “Words of Air: Breath, Voice and Poetry”, Interartive, #37, November 2011. http://interartive.org/2011/09/words-of-air-breath-voice-and-poetry/
 Abramović 1998, p.40
 Richards 2010, See chapter “Practical explorations and their origins”, pp.114-133.
 Abramović 1998, p.410.
 Goy 1990, ibid.