Marina Abramović and Ulay’s Adventurous 1970s Performance Art Pieces

Mari­na Abramović, who in her over forty-year career has put her­self through count­less har­row­ing works of per­for­mance art — involv­ing knives, fire, unpre­scribed med­ica­tion, and ardu­ous­ly long peri­ods of motion­less­ness — does­n’t do things by half mea­sures. “Once you enter into the per­for­mance state,” she once said, “you can push your body to do things you absolute­ly could nev­er nor­mal­ly do.” It makes sense that she would con­nect with peo­ple who think and feel sim­i­lar­ly about the artis­tic poten­tial of endurance (or the endurance poten­tial of art), and no such con­nec­tion has had as dra­mat­ic an impact on her career as that with her fel­low per­for­mance artist Ulay.

After meet­ing in Ams­ter­dam in 1976, Abramović and Ulay entered into a twelve-year roman­tic rela­tion­ship and artis­tic col­lab­o­ra­tion that brought them togeth­er into what they for a time described as a “two-head­ed body.” In the form of this “col­lec­tive, androg­y­nous being,” says one blog devot­ed to Abramović’s work, they “ques­tioned the social­ly defined iden­ti­ties of both fem­i­nin­i­ty and mas­culin­i­ty, and encour­aged view­ers to par­tic­i­pate through their own explo­ration of gen­der rela­tion­ships.” At the top of the post, you can see a video of their 1977 piece Rela­tion in Time, which shows a cou­ple min­utes of the six­teen hours they spent tied togeth­er by their hair, nev­er mov­ing. The video just above shows a few moments of that same year’s Impon­der­abil­ia, in which they naked­ly formed a nar­row human cor­ri­dor through which every audi­ence mem­ber want­i­ng to enter the gallery must pass.

“ ‘We are kneel­ing face to face, press­ing our mouths togeth­er,” say Abramović and Ulay by way of intro­duc­tion to Breath­ing In/Breathing Out. “Our noses are blocked with cig­a­rette fil­ters.” This piece, which they also put on in their evi­dent­ly pro­duc­tive year of 1977, had them pass­ing one anoth­er’s breath back and forth, breath­ing noth­ing else, for as long as they found human­ly pos­si­ble. The fol­low­ing year’s AAA AAArather than begin­ning with mouth-to-mouth con­tact, cul­mi­nates in it: “Abramović and Ulay stand oppo­site of each oth­er and make long sounds with their mouths open. Grad­u­al­ly, they move clos­er and clos­er to one anoth­er, until even­tu­al­ly they are yelling direct­ly into each oth­er’s open mouths” in an “explo­ration of aggres­sion between phys­i­cal­ly present fig­ures.”

Back in 2013, we fea­tured a clip of Abramović’s The Artist Is Present, a much-pub­li­cized 2010 piece in which, for a total of 736 and a half hours, she sat silent­ly in the atri­um of New York’s Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, oppo­site a chair in which any­one who cared to could sit across from her. 1,545 peo­ple, some hav­ing stood in line overnight, seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty, one of the ear­li­est par­tic­i­pants being Ulay him­self. Alas, things have since soured. Ulay and Abramović have had a con­tract meant, accord­ing to The Guardian’s Noah Char­ney, “to man­age their joint oeu­vre.” It’s owned by Abramović with 20 per­cent of the prof­its for all “saleable work” derived from it going to Ulay. But last year, sus­pect­ing that the for­mer oth­er half of the “col­lec­tive, androg­y­nous being” has vio­lat­ed that con­tract and “is try­ing to write him out of art his­to­ry,” Ulay mount­ed the ulti­mate endurance test: a law­suit.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In Touch­ing Video, Artist Mari­na Abramović & For­mer Lover Ulay Reunite After 22 Years Apart

Yoko Ono Lets Audi­ence Cut Up Her Clothes in Con­cep­tu­al Art Per­for­mance (Carnegie Hall, 1965)

Watch Chris Bur­den Get Shot for the Sake of Art (1971)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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