Marina Abramović and the Height of Performance Art

The hits ring out across multiple floors of the Southbank Centre’s back hallways before going quiet for a long, tense moments of silence. It isn’t until the crowd thins that one can see, around the corner, the man in an all-black combat outfit with his face disguised by a black ski mask. Holding a dark police baton, he drags the instrument across the white walls, leaving a trail of rubber marks in his wake. Down one way, he lazily draws his weapon. Crossing to the other, the fabric of his gloved hand against the wall creates a menacing friction sound. The dread mounts. Without warning, he draws back and uses the baton to strike the wall as hard as he can with a deafening thwack. The drywall breaks. Observers visibly flinch, hearts thrumming, terrified to walk past. 

One of ten radical performances on display at Marina Abramović’s Southbank Centre Takeover in London, Because the Knees Bend by Paul Setúbal showcases both the best of performance art and the best of Marina. From from October 4th to 8th of 2023, artists (who had trained at the Marina Abramović Institute) performed around every corner of Queen Elizabeth Hall for eight hours a day: one sawing his way through a box in the lobby; one, naked, tied to a flagpole in the auditorium; and one beating the wall in a hallway. Walking through theaters and green rooms, viewers were confronted with the undeniable presence of the performer before them, sitting with them to peel potatoes and making eye contact when they moved. It was almost impossible not to feel as strongly as they were. 

Marina is having something of a moment right now in London – this takeover ran in tandem with the Royal Academy of the Arts’s current blockbuster retrospective, celebrating her most iconic work, and the November opening of her opera, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. The takeover, as critics have pointed out, is uniquely urgent and energetic, undoubtedly the highlight of the three.

It is hard to describe her as anything less than revolutionary. 

She, herself – the artist behind Rhythm 0, where she placed 75 objects on a table for audiences to use on her how they wanted, and The Artist Is Present, where she sat at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for three months across the table from audience members – is generally considered one of the most important artists of the last century, and for good reason. Her pioneering usage of her body as object and indelible commitment to artistry, even when it put her at risk, sculpted the field of performance art from something with potential to something powerful and transformative. A man put a gun to her head, and a section of her hair turned gray. She still has the scar from where an audience member cut her neck to suck the blood. It is hard to describe her as anything less than revolutionary. 

The Southbank Centre takeover, then, may be what we have learned to expect from Marina, by which we mean to say synonymous with profound emotion. An opera singer in the same foyer singing while viewers peeled potatoes, a group of women with daisy-painted faces and black hoodies simultaneously reciting the traumas of strangers, black performers naked from the waist up moving against each other on top of podiums. All provoke a reaction, even if it is not one that you are consciously aware of. These performances are uniquely durational: critics present on opening night saw a block of ice in one performance that had been melted by body heat and disappeared by the following day. Each moment was different than the one before. 

Click image to enlarge. Click here for a short clip of the performance.

Perhaps there is no better example than A Key, a performance in the foyer where artist Yiannis Pappas stayed trapped within a clear box for five days (pictured below). Yiannis progressed through a series of six walls, divided into cells by carving the plaster with a single key. Small holes in the glass allowed for viewers to slip things in to him – bottles of water, political statements, and even a brownie rendered inedible by the drywall coating it. By Saturday afternoon, the glass in the first section was opaque with dust, and Pappas had covered his mouth and nose. The very last cell, with only a pound coin, was locked from the outside, escape only possible with the help of an audience member’s help. As he continued his slow, methodical sawing, viewers surrounded him on all sides like visitors to a zoo. 

The question becomes, then: why are we drawn to this?

The question becomes, then: why are we drawn to this? What is it about A Key that kept bringing us back, checking on how much more drywall had fallen to the ground? Part of it is certainly the myriad of meanings that we can find – the back-breaking labor in pursuit of a single coin, a kind of personal confinement within the self, the futility of exclusion.

The same goes with Because the Knees Bend (a piece with a loaded title) that has an undeniable political interpretation with the baton, an instrument of police brutality. To describe these pieces just in terms of their social commentary, however, would be to do a great injustice. Neither of them can exist without the presence of the indescribable element of presence, of you, existing in the same space as the performers, and its profundity of feeling. We cannot look away from Paul Setúbal slamming the wall not because we are considering the violence of policing, but because we are personally experiencing the very essence of violence itself. 

Marina is often considered the founder of performance art, but not enough people call her what she really is: a producer of emotion, from unease to pleasure to fear.

Marina is often considered the founder of performance art, but not enough people call her what she really is: a producer of emotion, from unease to pleasure to fear. If it is true that art is able to make what was fictional or flat into something real and raw, then performance art takes manufactured emotions and makes them the truth. Standing in front of you, watching a man carve his way through drywall with the serrated edge of a key, there is no fourth wall or suspension of disbelief – there is only genuine experience, emotions and all.

I am not sure I had ever been truly afraid until I heard the way my heart pounded when Setúbal brought his baton close to my head, as when my entire body shook when it collided with the wall. Fleeing visitors had such visceral feelings they refused to go back. Marina has been able to capture in this piece, and in the takeover as a whole, the absolute height of what performance art is capable of. She has made you truly, authentically, feel.  

© Catherine Sawoski (1/21/24) – Special for FF2 Media

Click image to enlarge.


Get a copy of Marina Abramovic’s memoir here.

Watch a short clip of Paul Setúbal’s performance artwork Because the Knees Bend.

Check out the Southbank Centre takeover and the Royal Academy Exhibition.

Find other examples of Marina’s most prominent pieces from Wide Walls.

Learn more about Marina’s opera 7 Deaths of Maria Callas.


Featured photo: Marina Abramovic attends the Keep A Child Alive’s 11th Annual Black Ball at Hammerstein Ballroom on October 30, 2014 in New York City. Photo Credit: Storms Media Group / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: KWBHR8

Middle photo: Paul Setúbal stands at the end of the hallway, police baton in hand during his performance artwork titled Because the Knees Bend at Marina Abramovic’s Southbank Centre Takeover in London. Photo credit: Catherine Sawoski

Video clip: Paul Setúbal walks down the hallway during Because the Knees Bend at Marina Abramovic’s Southbank Centre Takeover in London. Video credit: Catherine Sawoski

Bottom photo: Yiannis Pappas breaks through drywall with a key in his performance artwork titled A Key at Marina Abramovic’s Southbank Centre Takeover in London. Photo credit: Catherine Sawoski

Tags: 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, Catherine Sawoski, Marina Abramovic, Paul Setúbal, Performance art, Rhythm 0, Royal Academy of the Arts, Southbank Centre, The Artist is Present, Yiannis Pappas

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Catherine Sawoski is an art critic specializing in theater, literature, and visual arts. She is a senior at Barnard College at Columbia University studying English and Philosophy, and a Deputy Editor for Arts and Culture at the Columbia Daily Spectator. She has covered everything from Off Broadway shows to emerging poets and gallery exhibitions from young female artists. In her free time, you can usually find her at a show somewhere in the city or with her goldendoodle, Amber.
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