Inhaling theory, exhaling art: From Antonin Artaud's word to Marina Abramović's action | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU



Marina Abramovic, Cleaning the Mirror II >Click on link/images2+4 to watch video

Images 1 and 3: Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Breathing In, Breathing Out (1977)
Images 2 and 4: Marina Abramovic, Cleaning The Mirror II (1995)

_Breath as a means of altering consciousness: Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty

Respiration has been stimulating human thought even from the time people interpreted their bodies and their surroundings through the nebula of myth. From ancient times, breath was something more than just air in and out of the body; it was a vehicle of life, thought, inspiration. As such, it bridges different fields of human thought and action: to philosophy a breath can be the pretext for a research into the depths of conscience; to art breath can become prime material or subject matter for creation.

Starting out with breath and crossing the bridge between philosophy and visual arts, I will look into Antonin Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty" and see how it somehow anticipates performance art. Through specific examples, two performances by Marina Abramović, I will outline how performance art connects to the public by evoking primordial fears and feelings.

Artaud accepted that theatre's function is to represent, but yet visualized a new theatre, where representation wouldn't be the only objective. He believed that theatrical text and action restricted the meanings that could be expressed and the feelings that could be explored. According to him, there was a deeper, almost mystical force in theatre, which could lead the actors and the audience to their innermost psyche. He claimed that by breaking the bonds, which keep theatre attached to representation, the theatrical stage could become a doorway leading the audience to the "known or unknown fields of consciousness"1.

According to Artaud "every mental movement, every feeling, every leap in human affectivity has an appropriate breath"2. This means that every physical, mental and psychological vibration affects our breath.

This is an observable fact: our breathing rate alters according to our thoughts and actions indeed -being regular in a state of calmness and intense in a state of anxiety or hyperactivity. If the body movements and feelings all have their parallel breathing, there comes forth the need to explore the interconnections between a movement or an emotional state and its parallel breathing.

This could lead to a new kind of theatre, where the actor can affect the public directly, only through controlling his/her body and breath, without the use of logos.

Following the opposite direction Antonin Artaud investigated how we can control our mind or feelings by altering the rhythm of our breath consciously.

Through breath control you alter the body's sensations; you begin to feel its functioning and its connection to the world and the others. Thus, through breath control one can alter one's state of consciousness. This is a commonplace practice in religions and cultures from all over the world: it saturates Muslim, Buddhist, Judaic and Christian prayers and constitutes the nuclear in oriental medicine, meditation and martial arts.

Inspired by religious and medical practices of the Far Orient, such as the Cabbala and acupuncture, Artaud asserts that by using certain tempos of breathing patterns the actor can "make use of his emotions like a wrestler makes use of his muscles"3. He also suggests that the actors should direct their breathing inwards, in a way that they stimulate memories and feelings.

In contrast to practices that stem from the religions and the philosophy of the Orient, Artaud doesn't give specific instructions on breathing patterns. Even though they're hardly enlightening, his words are particularly important because they seek to direct the actors towards their interior, with no intention to mould their thought or limit their liberty whatsoever. No mise-en-scene, no costume, no word to prop them: just body and mind.

Considering that every change in the breathing rate or intensity stimulates and alters our thought and thymikon, focusing on breath can turn out to be a unique means of expression and self-awareness. So, the focus on breath is presented as the first step to explore the unknown fields of consciousness5.

Artaud introduced the term Theatre of Cruelty4 in order to define this kind of theatre where the feelings and the meanings are transmitted not through words, but through action, by the transferring of energy from actor to audience. By the word "cruelty" he wasn't referring to violence, but to bare truth, an inner truth in theatrical act that is directly transmitted from actor to audience without the intervention of words.

According to Derrida's analysis of the term, the theatre of cruelty is not representation. "It is life itself, in the extent to which life in unrepresentable. Life is the nonrepresentable origin of representation"6. Derrida interprets Artaud's theory as a proposal for a repetition without reference, a kind of performance that refers to itself and not to reality, the same way that life doesn't represent anything else but itself; this kind of performance evokes a higher level of consciousness.

_Performance art as a Theatre of cruelty: Marina Abramović breathing and asphyxiating

Although the majority of theatrical productions today are still based on text and representation, this kind of non-referential "original" performance suggested by Artaud does exist in performance art.

Performance art could be perceived as an "original performance", which has broken the bonds with reality and representation, because it has surpassed the theatrical tradition and word; the visual arts performers use their bodies as a vehicle to explore consciousness and to have a direct impact on the public with very little or no reference to word or representative action. Performance art is what Artaud would call the "theatre of cruelty"; so, Artaud's suggestions of reaching a level of abstraction in performance, where the bonds with logos are severed and expression originates from the body and the inner self, sound very up to date in contemporary art.

Performance art isn't representation, but life itself.

And most often, life on the verge of death; that was the case for many performance artists of the 1970s, like Marina Abramović. As she says, during the first years of performance, the artists were constantly "testing the body [...], which had a lot to do with pain and injuriousness in order to push the body to its border, even to the border between life and death"7.

In an attempt to release the public from its usual passive stance towards art, she even encouraged it to harm her -see, for example, her performance "Rhythm 0", which ended when a viewer threatened her with a gun. Other times, she manages to arouse the public's conscience just by making it face the fragility of the human body and death.

In her performance with Ulay "Breathing in, breathing out" (1977) one sees how two people can absorb each other's life, literally and metaphorically. 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, wear themselves out; 17 minutes later they both passed out because of lack of oxygen.

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 as is the case with human relations of this kind of intensity, they end up with violence, pain, and a part of each other "dead". It is the idea of interdependency portrayed to its extreme.

Death has a strong presence in Abramović's performance "Cleaning the mirror II" (1995) 8, where the artist places her naked body beneath a skeleton9. It's a reversed version of the memento mori: usually the skeleton appeared on the inferior part of the image, to remind the viewers of the finiteness of life, of the fact that death will come eventually, disregarding any wealth or glory.
Here death occupies the whole scene: the skeleton lies above the artist, immobilizing her and transmitting a part of its deadliness onto her living flesh. And yet, the score in this battle between life and death is even: the artist's respiration makes her chest pulsate and gives a constant movement to the skeleton, thus transfusing an element of life to it.

Like an illustration of Martin Heidegger's words, death is presented like a constant presence in life10. But death cannot obscure life completely; at the same time, the work acts as a memento vivi, a reminder that life lies beneath all illness and loss.

Abramović emphasizes that an artwork -coming from any time period and genre- is supposed to have a special kind of energy that goes beyond reason: "a good work of art [...] must have that energy which cannot be rationally understood"11, which the viewer should be able to sense just by being in the same room, even without looking at it12. So, her performances are about transferring energy from artist to public, something that echoes Artaud's vision of theatre as a "frightful transfer of forces from body to body"13.

In performances like the ones presented -and in many works of performance art, one sees Artaud's Theatre of cruelty coming to life: a performance which is life itself, far from any element of representation. The performance artists, without any use of logos and only by controlling their bodies and breath manage to affect the audience and to lead it to the unknown fields of consciousness, where the concepts of love and destruction, life and death are carved by experience and carve the collective and personal experience and action.


1 Antonin Artaud, Theatre and its Double, London 1930, p.30.

2 Joseph R. Roach, The player's passion: Studies in the science of acting, Michigan 1999, p.89.

3 Richard Lee Gaffield-Knight, Antonin Artaud in Theory Process and Praxis or For Fun and Prophet, New York 1993, p.35.

4 Sreenath Nair, Restoration of Breath, Consciousness and Performance, Amsterdam 2007, p.40.

5 Artaud, op.cit.

6 Jacques Derrida, "The Theatre of Crue and the Closure of Representation", in: Philip Auslander (ed.), Performance, Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, New York 2003, p.5.

7 Journal of Contemporary Art, An interview of Marina Abramović by Bernard Goy on June 1990, , webpage consulted on October 2008.

8 VVAA, Marina Abramović, Artist Body, Performances 1969-1998, Milano 1998, p.38.

9 Chrissie Iles, "Cleaning the mirror", VVAA, Marina Abramović, Objects, Performance, Video, Sound , Oxford 1995, pp.21-25.

10 For Heidegger death is a constant presence in life; since we are born we begin to march towards it. So in order to understand life, we have to accept the fact that it is finite. See: Havi Carel, Life and Death in Freud and Heidegger, 2006, Amsterdam/New York, p.186.
11 Journal of Contemporary Art, op.cit.
12 Ibid.

13 See Nair, p.39, op.cit.