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hen Marina Abramović, the most radical performance artist of the modern age and world-renowned art personality of today, performed “Rythm Zero” for the first and last time in 1974 at the Art Gallery of Naples in southern Italy to explore the concept of power between the performer and the audience, which in the paradigm of theatre represents the individual against society, she got a big white hair during those horrific 6 hours, so stressful was the performance, whose idea was very simple – to reverse and radicalize the usual roles of the performer and the audience. 

On the one hand, Rhythm 0 was her response to the criticism at the time that performance art was masochistic and sensationalist; on the other, she wanted to further her exploration of power and resistance and complete her most shocking body-oriented performance series, Rhythms (1973-1974), in which she explored her mental and physical limits by gradually surrendering power to external actors.

In Rhythm 5 (1974), Abramović lay down in the burning frame of a wooden star representing Yugoslavia. As her oxygen supply was exhausted by the fire, she lost consciousness and had to be rescued by concerned onlookers. In Rhythm 10 (1973), she thrust a knife between the spread fingers of one hand and did not pause until she cut herself with the knife, changing the position of the fingers and taking another knife until she had used up all 20.

In Rhythm 0 (1974), she asked the audience to do whatever they wanted to her with one of the 72 objects of pain, pleasure, and death she provided on a long white table. In Marina’s most radical artistic and social statement, the performer was absolutely subservient to the audience, who was empowered to make a series of choices about how to treat the performer.

After the performance, Abramović said that if you give the audience power, they will kill you.

Rhythm Zero

The objects of pain, pleasure, and death were: pistol, bullet, blue paint, comb, bell, whip, lipstick, pocket knife, fork, perfume, spoon, cotton, flowers, matches, rose, candle, mirror, drinking glass, polaroid camera, feather, chains, nails, needle, safety pin, hairpin, brush, bandage, red paint, white paint, scissors, pen, book, white sheet of paper, kitchen knife, hammer, saw, piece of wood, axe, stick, lamb bone, newspaper, bread, wine, honey, salt, sugar, soap, cake, metal skewer, a box of razor blades, bowl, flute, plaster, alcohol, medal, coat, shoes, chair, leather cords, thread, wire, sulfur, grapes, olive oil, water, hat, metal pipe, rosemary sprig, scarf, handkerchief, scalpel, and apple.

Written instructions were posted on the wall:

Instructions.

There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.

Performance

I am the object.

During this period I take full responsibility.

1974

Duration: 6 hours (8 pm-2 am.)

Studio Morra, Naples

Source: IMMA

Marina stood still in the gallery for 6 hours, not making a single voluntary movement. At first, the guests were kind and brought her a flower or a kiss. Then she was turned around by someone. Her arms were held in the air by someone. Someone touched her intimately. In the third hour, all her clothes were torn off her body with sharp blades.

In the fourth hour, the same blades began to probe her flesh. Her throat was slit so that her blood could be sucked out. Her body was subjected to a series of sexual assaults. She was carried around half-naked and chained on the table with the knife between her thighs. A protective group formed in the crowd. They wiped her tears. 

When a loaded gun was held to Marina’s head and her own finger was placed around the trigger, a fight broke out between the audience factions. Finally, someone from Gallery came and said that six hours have passed and that the performance has finished. 

Marina regained her social consciousness and with tears in her eyes, naked and bloody, began to walk towards the audience, who ran away in fear of a confrontation.

Social Experiment

Every great performance is at the same time a social experiment. While Abramović gave the audience complete control over her body to see how far they would go, the violent spectators, protected by the author’s account of full responsibility for the course of the performance, also wanted to see how far she would go. 

Just like with war crimes, aggressive individuals were allowed to act out their worst instincts because the group agreed that they would not be held accountable. The question of group action and responsibility in relation to the degree of control remains one of the most complex in human psychology, group dynamics, and social order.

Abramović said that she still carries scars from Rhythm 0 and that for a long time it was difficult to get rid of the feeling of fear. She added that through this performance she has learned where to draw the line in order not to risk her health and life again, as she did during Rhythm 0.

Collective action and personal responsibility are a theme of every great work of art, from film and comics to literature, dance, and performance art, because they are the basis for a more just, compassionate, and free society. A good artist will always create conditions in which people themselves can recognize who they are.

Today Abramović holds a strong position of control in the art world and it is hard to believe that she now walks around with a couple of bodyguards and is harder to reach than the president, but perhaps this was her silent promise to herself during the worst and most controversial six hours of her life.

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