In the 1970s, Serbian artist Marina Abramović conducted an experiment: she stood motionless in one of the exhibition centres. Nearby, a variety of objects - from a hammer and a gun to watercolour paints - were lying around. People were allowed to take any of these objects and do whatever they wanted with Marina.
Marina Abramović's famous performance Rhythm 0 attracted attention due to the violent and even life-threatening interaction between the audience and the passively tolerated artist. Although it started out relatively innocuous, events soon escalated into something more sinister. The infamous work is part of Marina's Rhythm series, which consists of a group of performances that the artist created in the 1970s. Marina Abramović took considerable risks during this series to explore themes such as control, its loss and the limits of the human body. Rhythm 0″ is the last part of the series and possibly the most dangerous.
Accounts of exactly what happened during the performance, such as how the work began and ended, vary. Some say that the gallery director announced that the artist would remain motionless for the next six hours, others say that instructions were only given in the form of text on the wall. It is also unclear exactly how the experiment ended, whether because the pre-specified six hours had elapsed or because part of the audience put a stop to it.
One of the most detailed descriptions of the course of events was given by the art critic Thomas McEvilly. He was present at the performance and wrote that, at first, the audience was shy, just looking at her, giving her roses, kissing her. But then, someone started undressing her, others painted her body and even cut her up. Someone turned her around on her axis. Someone lifted her arms upwards. One man used a razor blade to make a cut on her neck. Onlookers changed the position of the artist's body. Some attached various objects to her. The men undressed her and touched her. They accompanied their actions with laughter.
On the third hour they cut off all her clothes with blades. On the fourth hour, the same blades were used to make incisions in her skin. Marina was subjected to all sorts of harassment. Someone forced her to point a gun at herself. She was so focused on the performance that she did not resist anything.
According to McEvilly, "When a loaded gun was put to Marina's head and her finger was placed on the trigger, a fight broke out between the spectators.
Abramović's own impressions of what people did to her were even more horrifying. The artist recalls:
"At first, the audience really wanted to play with me. Then they got more and more aggressive, it was six hours of real terror. They cut off my hair, stuck rose thorns into my body, cut the skin on my neck, and then put a plaster over the wound. After six hours of performance I walked naked with tears in my eyes towards the audience, who literally ran out of the room as they realised I had "come to life" - I was no longer their toy and began to control my own body. I remember that when I went to the hotel that evening and looked at myself in the mirror, I found a strand of grey hair.Marina Abramovic
Marina Abramovic's performance Rhythm 0
The question remains as to why the audience did what they most likely would not have done in their everyday lives. Abramović gave the audience permission to do whatever they wanted without any consequences, giving them instructions that read: "There are 72 items on the table to be used on me as I see fit, and I take full responsibility for this period". This does not mean, however, that the actions of the spectators met their personal standards. Most probably found their actions morally wrong, as they all left the stage as soon as Abramović regained her role as an active person after the performance.
In her book Marina Abramović, Mary Richards writes that the course of events was determined by the dynamics of group psychology. Because the audience acted as part of the collective, they were able to maintain an anonymous role within the group. According to Richards, a group fulfilling its desires is more dangerous than a situation where people would have to face the artist alone. Thus, it is not the individual but the group that is responsible. According to Richards, this may lead to group members encouraging each other to push boundaries and experiment with the objects on offer.
This work reveals something terrible about humanity. It shows how quickly a person can hurt you under the right circumstances. It shows how easy it is to depersonalise a person who doesn't fight back, who doesn't defend themselves. It shows that, if the right circumstances are created, most 'normal' people can obviously become very violent.