I used to show my writing students documentation from Marina Abramović’s early performance work. Rhythm 0, often, or Rhythm 10. They were intrigued, often shocked, some of them put off by the nudity, the violence.
In Rhythm 10, the first in the series, Abramović is on her knees on a stage, in all black, with an array of knives spread in an arc on the floor in front of her. She takes a knife and stabs the floor in between the fingers of her spread hand as fast as she can. Every time she cuts her hand she changes to a different knife.
In Rhythm 0, Abramović is in a closed room for six hours with an audience. On a table are an array of items: grapes, a flashlight, medications, wire, razor blades, makeup & comb, wine, a flute, a polaroid camera, a rose, a loaded gun. Seventy-two objects. Her performance notes say, I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility. By the end of the performance, Abramović stood naked, bleeding where she’d been carved into with rose thorns, her nipples covered with rose petals, her eyes red and her face streaked with mascara.
When I began to explore Abramović’s later work, often silent, focusing on the interpersonal gaze, on presencing, I understood her earlier works in a different light. That going to the body’s edge is not unlike becoming fully, baldly, silently present to what is. Finding the edge of an audience’s discomfort with witnessing nudity, sexuality, pain, not unlike asking them to meet the eyes of the artist for minutes or longer without breaking.
Of Nightsea Crossing, for example, which Abramović and her partner Ulay performed 22 times between 1981-87, she writes,
We are sitting motionless at either end of a rectangular table facing each other, our profiles turned to the audience.
Conditions of the performance.
During the entire period in which the performance takes place both inside and outside the museum we remain silent and completely abstain from food, only consuming water.
Recently I discovered Abramović’s 100 Pisama / 100 Letters: 1965-1979, an artist’s book put out by onestar press in Paris in 2008. To call this project an artist’s book is in fact misleading; there is little autobiographical narrative to be found here. Instead, what we find are the first sentences of the many letters Abramović received while living in Belgrade, Yugoslavia: sometimes tantalizing, often intriguing, at other times downright baffling. The text’s use of redaction moves it far beyond the realm of the traditional, documentary-oriented artist’s book.
In Abramović’s artist’s statement, she writes, “I kept every single letter, from the first notes received from my mother, in I965, up to the time I left Belgrade forever in I979. I decided to chronologically write down the first sentence from all of these letters, without noting the name of the senders.”
The choice of first lines emphasizes their disparity; like poetry that chooses the framework of form, working against this constraint makes the dissonance and contrast between the letters’ tone and content far more fascinating. Though Abramović notes that the letters are arranged chronologically, chance has offered powerful curation: the lines’ sharp tonal contrasts and juxtaposition of content seem heightened as though by intentional placement, setting Williams Carlos Williams-esque lines like Dear sweetie, There is yoghurt, milk, cheese, butter and eggs in the fridge against others such as Dear Marina, I regret that I was obliged to call the police to trace you.
The letters begin with all sorts of salutations---Honey, My dear Marina, Dear Comrade, Ma chere Marina, or most intriguingly To Sekica—or with none at all. In fact a scattering of lines with no salutations offer a sort of interspersed commentary:
I no longer have an opinion about anything.
Listen! I have no more strength to look for you or not to look for you.
Send the play to Pittsburgh if you have possibilities.
Who are you to give orders to me?
In general, the project’s lines move between mundane biographical information (Dear Marina, we are writing to you as we are on the vaporetto “Arrow”), seemingly-random interpersonal correspondence (Everything is fine now. We have heard from you and that is quite enough.), and historical/contextual information (Respected Comrade, we have postponed the date for the opening of the May exhibition.)
These former categories provide a backdrop for other, more fascinating categories of lines. Letters whose opening lines seem to hint at fraught relationships, interpersonal tensions, such as Marinice, I will never forgive you for not wanting to travel with me by bus. Or Dear Marina, Your silence has been going on for almost a year.
Lines with concise poetic statements: Many thanks to your mother for having given you your name.
Lines of political tension or foreboding: Comrade Abramović, The executory decree of the first municipal court of Belgrade no 4802/69 of 1965 condemns you to pay the fine. Or Comrade Marina Abramović, We remind you one more time that you have not accomplished your obligations toward the group.
Or lines such as these, where the letter-writer enacted literary moves reminiscent of Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man:
Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina, Marina.
The book has little sense of ongoing dialogue; it hardly seems to accrue even short narrative threads of any one story or interaction. Occasionally, readers can deduce who is speaking---one line mentions “Grandma,” another is addressed to both Marina and Velimir, who we learn from an earlier letter is her brother---and eventually, finally, tiny hints of story-like shadows do begin to take shape---her relationship to the communist government, or to her family---but so many of the other relationships are narrative dots rather than lines, tiny pinpricks of light on a dark canvas, or points plotted on a graph, rather than the full arc. The most interesting moments are those of total strangeness that break the scatterings of mundane moments and correspondence, or those where we are given only a philosopho-poetic fragment of thought----
---moments such as these, which are Fellini-esque in their surrealism:
God! I no longer realize what’s going on, I cannot find time to write you, everything is like in a dream, I don’t understand a thing.
Dear Marina, I cannot write to you right now, the musicians won’t let me concentrate.
My little girl! It’s me in the letter.
Dear Marina, Breeding worms.
Respected Comrade, We kindly ask you to make it possible for us to re-record your birds for our needs.
I am delivering a baby right now and as usual I don’t know what to write to you.
--- these are the moments that cause the project to open and open; that allow us to revel in the language and to embellish what is left unsaid. Inside these strange and filmic moments, we find the same call to attention that is present in Abramović’s art; like the most bizarre moments in a black & white Fellini scene, they demand the engagement of our direct gaze.
Each letter opens onto a spread of two pages: on the right, the original line in Serbian, on the left, its English translation. The book was initially printed in a run of 1000 copies, which onestar press sold at 50 € each. Now, a google-search tells me, they go for $2070 on Artspace.com. (Thankfully, the pdf can be downloaded for free on the onestar press website.) Upon reaching the end, I discovered that in fact there are only 97 letters, and I savored Abramović’s boldness in blatantly disregarding this limiting truth in favor of the wholer number for her title.
I am left, at the end of the book, with the obvious question: why these choices? Why make this project, in this way? My girlfriend Anna theorizes that it’s a commentary on how audiences react to art, always wanting the full story, a full explanation, rather than allowing their imagination to play. Perhaps a more relevant question is why it is interesting to us as readers, this collection of lines that hardly cohere. Is it pure voyeurism, small peeks into interpersonal dramas and other life moments of this artist who has become, in recent years (particularly due to her 2010 MoMA retrospective/ performance, The Artist is Present), a more widely-known and intriguing figure? There is certainly a degree of this at play: her performance pieces offer us such raw intimacy, and yet to see glimpses of the non-performative moments of her life---the mundane moments, the personal tensions, the mysteries—is something different altogether. But prurience alone is not enough to carry a project like this entirely, and offers little of literary or intellectual interest.
No, voyeurism aside, what is interesting about this book is that---like Jenny Boully in The Body, comprised entirely of footnotes to a non-existent text, or in Book of Beginnings and Endings, comprised of exactly what it sounds like---Abramović has created a new structure and form for the essay: one which is engaging, surprising, humorous, and intriguing---in short, successful. Like any good essay, it raises questions, offers us new angles of insight, and like any good poem, it leaves wide open spaces for our imaginations to sprawl.
Arianne Zwartjes’ book of lyric essays, Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2012. She is the author of three collections of poetry: The Surfacing of Excess, Disem(body): A Tracing, and (Stitched) A Surface Opens. Visit her online at ariannezwartjes.com.