I just realized today that I never made a post recognizing my homey James and his great new bio of Marina Abramovic. That is maybe because he has been rocking the house so thoroughly lately, receiving love from The New Yorker , The Guardian, and even Bjork herself, who called the book magnificent and “an invaluable document in the hard-to-document world of performance art.” Salute. But also BUY – out now from MIT Press, available at all bookstores that know what’s good for them.

Here’s one really nice piece from the book release media blitz that I want to put up because it features both James and another friend Shumon. It’s from Tank Magazine and it goes like this:

Performance art is not for the fainthearted. James Westcott explains to Shumon Basar how it all started with starving saints and may well end in our age of obsessive re-enactments.

It has often been art’s unique privilege to sanction those eccentric behaviours that would in any other circumstance call for police action or the intervention of a local asylum. Performance art is especially notorious. Its protagonists famously use their bodies and increasingly, the bodies of others to shock, stimulate, sicken and show off bits the rest of us keep behind locked doors. James Westcott is the author of the new biography When Marina Abramovic Dies. It’s a frank appraisal of an artist who has referred to herself as “the grandmother of performance art” and has been called its “empress” by others a status acknowledged by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which this year awarded her a major retrospective, the first they have given to any performance artist. Abramovic, like her contemporaries Vito Acconci and Carolee Schneemann, pioneered a tradition of performance in the 1960s and 1970s that foregrounded endurance, suffering and personal peril: a reminder that regardless of wealth or poverty, fame or wretched fate, we all begin and end with our bodies. Basar asked Westcott to outline performance peaks in the 20th century and to bring us up to the present moment where, to paraphrase Don DeLillo, the suicide bomber’s deadly performance eclipses the so-called radicality of today’s most shocking artists.

Shumon Basar faces a mirror and begins to walk back and forth along its length mumbling to himself. He stops and takes a seat next to James Westcott.

Shumon Basar: James, can you recall the first performance piece you saw and the effect it had on you?

James Westcott: It was Marina Abramovic’s 2002 performance The House with the Ocean View, for which she lived in a gallery for 12 days without eating or speaking. Her only nourishment came through sustained eye contact with the audience, and I returned to the gallery every day in the hope of repeating the amazing eye contact we’d had on my first visit. It was also like keeping a vigil for the dead or the dying I saw the fluctuations in Marina’s strength as she starved, how her skin changed colour. Like watching a captivity-weary animal in a zoo: the slightest variations in her obsessively repetitive behaviour became disproportionately fascinating.

Was there a religious provenance to these kinds of minutely repetitive gestures?

She was inspired by the Hindu vipassana meditation technique of repeating the most fundamental human physical actions sitting, walking, lying with extreme slowness and a kind of blank concentration. She was both robotic and somehow excruciatingly human.

And this “vigil” was how your interest in the medium began?

I had only discovered the existence of performance art a week earlier, reading about Marina’s 1988 performance The Lovers.

What did it entail?

She started walking at the eastern end of the Great Wall of China, and Ulay, her lover and performance partner since 1976, began walking at the western end, in the Gobi Desert, at the same moment. They simply walked towards each other along the Wall until they met in the middle 90 days later.

They had an infamously fractious and volatile relationship, didn’t they?

When they conceived the performance, in 1981, they thought that they would get married when they met in the middle. But by the time they managed to actually do it, their relationship had disintegrated and their meeting ended up as a kind of divorce ceremony, marking the end of their love and work together.

What is it about this piece that got you thinking that performance art was significant?

It was the way their best-laid plans went to waste that really blew me away: at the end of this epically romantic and heroic adventure, which demonstrates what you can do as a human being interacting with planet Earth, things went “wrong.” Marina and Ulay were looking for the limits of their power and they found them. I was enthralled by their attempted rebellion against the given-ness of life.

James jumps out of the second-floor window and returns, hobbling, a few minutes later.

Unlike other media – from tempera painting to video art – performance art doesn’t rely on some technological invention. Do you think it’s at all useful to assert that performance art began at some specific moment in time, with a particular piece or artist?

Some people say it started at the Cabaret Voltaire with the Dadas during the First World War. But of course you can trace it back to religious theatre and the self-inflicted agonies of the saints… and I’d much rather do that, because there was conviction and authenticity in the stuff they did – sitting on a pillar for 39 years (St. Simeon Stylites), trying to talk to the birds (St. Francis of Assisi) rather than the nihilism and banality of the Dadaists.

Western art history (naturally) emphasises the significance of New York in the 1960s when it comes to the invention of a new attitude towards the use of one’s body in an artistic practice. Is it a coincidence that in parallel you had an explosion of avant-garde dance: Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti and the Judson Dance Theatre?

Dance was also extending the definition of art to cover the banal and the broken-down: simply walking in a funny way or collapsing could be a kind of dancing, so doing something boring or painful or ugly could likewise be a kind of performance.

Shumon climbs under an inclined plank. Sounds of dubious shuffling can be heard. James hands him a box of Kleenex.

I feel a lot better now. What else was there in the milieu that contributed ideologically to the generation of artists including Abramovi´c, Acconci, Burden and Schneemann in New York?

There is an underground connection I think between performance art and the political and existential climate of that time: how activists and artists were somehow turning the horror of the Second World War and Vietnam onto themselves, how self-expression and freedom were something Boomers had to fight for, and how maybe they imposed new rules upon themselves as a result of the sudden absence of societal rules, which they had successfully demolished.

What about with the advent of conceptual art? Was there something in common with early performance art?

The freedom that could be found in the imposition of arbitrary rules. But while conceptual art aimed to depersonalise art, performance art is inextricably linked with the charisma of the artist. That’s the reason Vito Acconci gave, years later, for stopping performance in 1974 and turning to sculpture and architecture: “It started to seem strange to me that everybody who knew a piece of mine knew what I looked like… I started to feel that my work was about the formation of a kind of personality cult rather than the doing of an activity.”

Whereas some artists thrive on this focus?

Marina is more than happy with the formation of a personality cult around her.

Cults are a kind of mass performance in a way. I’m thinking of those incredible Moonie Weddings, or the ritualised suicides at Waco…

Or the Mass Games in North Korea, which are unbelievably seductive. In a way they are the opposite of performance art because it’s about obedience and about subsuming individuality in a collective sublime. But I think performance covers the whole spectrum from activities that exult human-ness and strive for perfection and unity, to doing something totally skill-less, self-harming or simply quotidian, like brushing your teeth Allan Kaprow said that brushing your teeth could be conceived of and carried out as a kind of performance. I have time for both ends of the spectrum.

Shumon flosses his teeth repeatedly until the entire box of floss is empty.

Can you tell us about another piece from the 20th century we should not forget?

Chris Burden, 1971, December 21-24: Disappearing – “I disappeared for three days without prior notice to anyone.”

What’s unforgettable about this?

Well, can you imagine trying to do that today, bound as we are by constant digital ties? People wouldn’t only immediately think that we were dead in a ditch; they would probably take our unannounced disappearance as offensive.

James disappears for three days. He eventually returns and resumes the conversation.

Thanks for coming back James. Do you draw lines around gallery-sanctioned performance art and other kinds of contingent actions that take place in everyday life?

Outside the official realm of performance art, I think Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final might be the greatest performance of this century, and it must not be forgotten.

Why so?

Zidane was sacrificing what was most important to him – winning the World Cup for France in his last-ever game of football – and also taking some satisfaction in defying the fairy-story ending to his career everyone wanted to write. He was “taking a strike at himself.” This is the phrase Slavoj Zizek uses in The Fragile Absolute to describe an apparently irrational and self-destructive act: “This act, far from amounting to a case of impotent aggressivity turned against oneself, rather changes the coordinates of the situation in which the subject finds himself: by cutting himself loose from the previous object through whose possession the enemy keeps him in check, the subject gains the space of free action. Is not such a radical gesture of ‘striking oneself’ constitutive of subjectivity as such?” This is an excellent definition of performance art.

Shumon hands James a pair of scissors. James randomly cuts away at Shumon’s clothing, leaving it in tatters.

Ouch. If you had to re-enact one of Marina’s seminal performances, which would it be?

The Lovers, and I’ve already tried to do it. I spent a long time persuading a woman I was in love with to join me in this re-enactment: I would start walking from the northern tip of Manhattan, she would start walking from the southern tip, and we would meet somewhere on Broadway.

What happened?

In the end, she didn’t want to do it, so I just walked the entire length of Manhattan by myself.

Do you consider it a successful performance then?

There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.

James begins living with a coyote huddled under a blanket, for three whole days.

That was very moving, when you hugged each other at the end. In 2005, Marina Abramovi´c re-enacted five famous performances by other artists at the Guggenheim New York. There seems to be a lot of re-enacting going on today. Doesn’t it somehow undo the powerful historical singularity of the original works?

Yes. I don’t think you can turn performance art into a performing art because the pieces are so tied to the personality of the original performer. And the whole point of performance art was supposed to be that they are not performances in the traditional sense: they are unpredictable, unrepeatable, real acts.

Theorists of the genre are calling it “reperformance,” right?

Reperformance is a noble and brave effort to preserve the history of performance art but I just don’t think it works. And I think it undervalues the beauty and strength the aura of the documentation of old performances that you never saw but have to imagine.

What about the last 10 years? Has performance art managed to renew itself from those halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s?

In a way we don’t need performance art as such any more because it has seeped into the culture so successfully: reality TV, extreme dieting, people living by ever more elaborate sets of self-imposed rules, the endless possibilities of surveillance, acting out and global amplification that are granted by the internet. An evolved, new kind of performance art might also be able to offer an antidote to all this by giving us an unadulterated experience of time, and a (maybe old-fashioned) sense of authentic experience. But it hasn’t happened yet.

James and Shumon re-enact this conversation in exactly 20 years time with female actresses who bear an uncanny resemblance to their former selves. It does not happen in a museum but in a pub in the East End of London.

When Marina Abramovic Dies is published by MIT Press and out now.

Return to Top