I’m in the bathtub, my body floating a few inches below the water, lifeless. You watch me from a distance unsure what to do next. I asked you to come to my house, but this is not what you were expecting. The text message was urgent, implying an emergency. There could be no other excuse for the typo I let slip. You know me to be slightly unhinged, but this has crossed all limits. You are angry and curious in equal parts. And when you notice I’ve not moved at all, you are fearful. You walk slowly, uncertainly, your footsteps muffled by the crimson carpet in the bathroom. That’s when you realise that the person in the bathtub is not me. Her eyes are shut, her face tipped towards the ceiling, her painted mouth forming a slight O. And long black hair engulfing her body like tentacles. You look around the bathroom for some sign of discordance. That’s when you notice me standing behind the door. Our eyes meet briefly before we go back to gazing at Marina Abramovic. Because the artist is always present.
We are transfixed, we are shocked, We are fascinated. We are slightly disgusted. We are no longer sure what we are, who we are. She is standing in a circle of fire now, using a razor to trace a star on her stomach. It draws blood, and the fire stings my eyes. I want to look away but I can’t. I wipe the tears and stand my ground. And like everyone who has come across Abramovic’s work, my first question is: why is this art? But the tone shifts from disdain to awe and almost back. It’s disbelief and it’s reverence. It’s everything mixed together to form the bile rising in my throat. I should have looked away. But how does one look away from such naked passion for life? So eager to live that one is unafraid to die. I shudder to think what would have happened if an audience member hadn’t interfered when she lay down in a star of fire, the petrol soaked rags sucking away the oxygen from the center and leaving her passed out. I would have assumed it was part of the act. A performance that ends in death.
I hadn’t heard of the artist till Netflix suggested I watch her documentary titled The Artist is Present. I conceded, my battle with Netflix was long lost. I watched it till the end, and I was left mesmerised, her installation at MoMA the cause for my unadulterated admiration. 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, 3 months straight, the chair opposite her occupied by thousands of people, day in and day out. 15 minutes for each guest, an opportunity to hold gaze with Marina, to allow her to burrow into your soul, to feel your pain and your happiness, to sit stoic as you burst into tears. At first I thought it was just a tad bit dramatic, for people to start crying. But that was before I realised how long it has been since the last time someone truly looked me in the eye. Intent, curious, concerned. Someone who cared enough to not look away when I asked them to. Who held my gaze long enough to see everything I was trying to hide. To not be embarrassed for me, but instead smile and place an arm around my shoulders, as I let my eyes reveal my worst fears, my deep aches and my gashing truths. And to remain, without ever threatening to leave.
I don’t understand performance art. But I understand her. I understand her need to be understood. To be loved. I understand her desire to be desired. Her hopes for this world, her faith in us, her faith in art. I understand how it must feel, to be ignored as a child, to never be hugged by your mother. I understand that her art isn’t about her, it’s about me. It’s what I take from her and make mine that interests her, and what I take is her will to never give up. To keep fighting through years of misunderstanding till she finally had a chance to save us from ourselves. I might not stand for her art, but I do listen carefully when she talks about being an artist.
When she finally steps out of the bathtub, dripping on the carpet, I know her enough to know she doesn’t need assistance. So I go back to my book, enthralled by this gone girl and her very sketchy husband. He cheats on her so I don’t like him. She forces him to remember things he possibly couldn’t so I don’t like her either. I watch their marriage fall apart and it creates fear in my heart. Surely if they couldn’t make it, how could I ever hope to? But the book is too compulsive to stop now. To stop ever.
Trigger warning for Marina’s work: Nudity, self-harm, violence, inappropriate language.