Passive: Pain plus Pleasure

“There can be no progress without head-on confrontation.”
Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011)

A head-on confrontation is exactly how Marina Abramović ended her performance artwork Rhythm 0 in 1974. Marina Abramović was born in 1946 in Serbia, to two members of the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of  Yugoslavia. Due to her parents being highly political, Abramović’s childhood was militaristic (Douglas, 2013). This restricted upbringing enabled her to have the self-control that is evident in her performance work, which is a wonderful thing for an artist. (Abramović, 2013). The self-control she displayed allowed her to convey a deeper message through her work: one of transformation.

Rhythm 0 entailed Abramović sitting for six hours while the audience did as they desired. There was a table beside her, featuring seventy-two objects that could be chosen by the audience to cause pleasure or inflict pain. Among the objects there was a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, scissors, a scalpel and a gun with a single bullet. The six hour endeavour began with a sense of caution from the audience, but as Abramović remained passive, the actions of the audience became more violent. People from the audience cut off her clothing, painted her body and cut her skin. One member aimed the gun at her face, and another took it away (Douglas, 2013). No matter the consequence of the audience member’s action, she would remain still. This allowed Abramović to become mentally attentive to her audience. Her artworks all consist of physical pain, mental transcendence and spiritual elevation. She believes that there is always pain in life, and she has learnt to embrace it. Abramović also believes that as an artist, she does not need to create out of happiness. She can create from tragedy, from sorrow, from depression (Douglas, 2013). This had led her work to become famously confrontational. 

My art, you must understand, is not about shocking people. To make art just to shock is stupid. It has a deeper message than that.
                                    (Quoted in Douglas, 2013) 

The physical pain that Marina Abramović endured during Rhythm 0 was both confronting and disturbing. Throughout her career, she has cut and starved herself; even temporarily paralysed herself, all in the name of art. In this piece, however, the harm was thrust upon her by others. The juxtaposition of the objects drew the viewers to those objects which inflict pain. Abramović pushed the boundaries of the physical pain threshold as an art piece. The relationship between the audience and art began with caution, but as Abramović remained in a passive state, the actions of those around her became more aggressive, to the point where they physically violated her. After the performance ended, she concluded that, ‘What I have learned is that if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you’ (Quoted in Douglas, 2013). The pain that she allowed herself to encounter related to her personal belief that there is always pain in life, and it tested the morals of society. 

Mental transcendence is one of the goals that Abramović worked to achieve. She believed that through both physical pain, and meditation, the mind could be opened to another level. During her visit to Australia in 1979, Abramović stayed for a good part of the year at an Aboriginal community. ‘In that desert I spent a lot of time just sitting down: meditating, listen to the silence. This is what opened my universe.’ (Douglas, 2013). This encounter that released her mind from invisible restraints occurred after her performance, Rhythm 0. This, perhaps, may be the reason why it was far more self-destructive than her later work, The Artist is Present (2010). There is a sense of depth in Rhythm 0 that is different to the depths of her later work, because of her mental transcendence. 

The final confronting aspect of Abramović’s performance art is spiritual. This is mild compared to the physical pain and mental transcendence, but in some ways it is more personal to the viewer. Marina Abramović described one of her artworks to be, ‘…really a work about loneliness. It’s about pain and spiritual elevation’. (Quoted in Douglas, 2013). To use art as a method of spiritual development is moderately common, but the way that Abramović goes about this is what sets her apart. She places herself in uncomfortable and even life threatening situations in which she becomes an observer who is being observed. Her work was almost never solitary, with the only interaction being from the audience members. She does not use her performance art to shock people, but rather to stretch their acceptance of what art is. This is a small step towards personal development, and an even smaller step towards spiritual elevation. However, this small step allows the artwork to have a universal relevance: adaption is a part of survival. Unlike the physical strain that Abramović puts herself under, the spiritual journey that she has undertaken is respectable in modern society. This spiritual journey is far more personally confronting than physical pain, as religion is what makes and breaks some cultures. 

‘But now, you see, I’m very pleased. Restrictions are a wonderful thing for an artist’ (Douglas, 2013). For Marina Abramović, there is little more wonderful that she could have. Her self-discipline is the cornerstone of the head-on confrontation of her artwork. She has used this style to openly show that there is a deeper message in art than just to shock the audience. She has used the pains of life to perform head-on confronting art works which are both exciting and illuminating. 

Rhythm 0, Performance, Studio Morra Naples, 1974. Photograph Donatelli Sbarra. Image courtesy the artist.  

Abramović does not use her performance art to shock people, but rather to stretch their acceptance of what art is.



Douglas, T., ‘Primal performer Marina Abramović recalls her desert revelation’, The Australian, 2013. Retrieved from
Brown, J., ‘Conversation: Marina Abramović’, PBS NEWS HOUR, 2011. Retrieved from
Goldman, A., ‘The Devil in Marina Abramović’, The New York Times, 2012. Retrieved from