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 AAA, rather 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.
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.