In 2010, Serbian artist Marina Abramović had the honor of being the subject of a popular retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Throughout the show, Abramović performed a grueling piece entitled “The Artist Is Present,” sitting in the museum’s atrium and inviting the swelling crowds of viewers to sit directly opposite her, in silent dialogue. Abramović was no stranger to challenging performances. By the time that MoMA staged the retrospective, the then 63-year-old artist had engaged in countless taxing exhibitions, earning her self-given title, “the grandmother of performance art.”
In her first performance at 27, Abramović explored the idea of ritual by playing a knife game on camera, stabbing the surface between her splayed fingers with a knife and occasionally hurting herself; she would then watch a video recording of the violence, and attempt to replicate it. Subsequent performances included her explorations of consciousness through the ingestion of pills for catatonia and depression; another comprised a 1974 incarnation of her MoMA performance, where Abramović sat passively before a table littered with objects for six hours, inviting the audience to put them to use on her person (of this piece, Abramović says, “What I learned was that… if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you… I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach…”)
In 1976, Abramović met Ulay, a West German artist who would become her lover and collaborator for the next twelve years. The duo fell into an impersonal abyss, losing their selfhoods and attempting to become a single entity through arresting performances such as Breathing In/Breathing Out, where they locked mouths and breathed each other’s exhaled breath, eventually filling their lungs with carbon monoxide and falling unconscious. By 1988, their romance had run its course; in typically atypical fashion, the pair decided to part by walking from opposing ends of the Great Wall of China until they met in the middle, and then said goodbye.
On the opening night of Abramović’s retrospective in 2010, the erstwhile lovers were reunited. The video above shows Abramović, sitting and steeling herself for her next silent interlocutor. Ulay approaches, and Abramović, a veteran of such difficult performances, looks up to what may have been the single most unexpected sight of the night, jolting her dignified composure. Their reunion is a deeply tender scene.
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.