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How Far Can Violence Go? Performance Art and Social Experiment

Marina Abramovic is one of the famous performance artists who defines herself as the grandmother of performance (Christiane & Weidemann, 2008). There is a lot to write about her artworks. Each can be a separate discussion topic and makes people think about mind and body duality once more. In many articles and books, scholars defined her artworks as pushing the limits of the mind and the body. She started her art with the series of Rhythm and she was testing her consciousness and the endurance of her body. After her experience in the series Rhythm 10, 5, 2, and 4, she realized the loss of her consciousness affects her performance and in order to continue her performance, she needs an active mind (Abramovic, 2002). Therefore, for the last work of the series, she added the public as a part of her performance in an active way and turned them from the ‘viewer’ to ‘doer’. Abramovic’s works were discussed many times within the scope of feminist art but in this article, the discussion is the suppressed violence in humans in general rather than a gender-based debate.

A photo was taken during her Rhythm 0 Performance, Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović. Photo: Donatelli Sbarra

In the case of body art/performance art, using the body of her/himself is a challenge not only for the artist but also for viewers. In the traditional way of exhibiting the artworks, a viewer faces solely the final state of the art piece. The lack of an artist’s presence does not create any tension or connection with art (Renzi, 2013). Additionally in performance art, the reality of the artist is the artwork her/himself adds another layer to the complex relationship. Artist creates the art and becomes the work of art at the same time. The subject who is the artist makes the object, which is the artwork but again the artist, and besides another subject: the viewer by observing all these processes. Martin (1995) interprets Abramovic’s performances as an exchange of the body and emotional experiences via empathy that discomforts and sometimes irritates the audience. What can be added to his statement is the performance becomes a collective one by sharing one of the universal values: pain. About the Rhythm 0 performance, the questionable part is the absence of empathy when an audience changes his/her role from passive observer to active doer. How can giving people the power of taking one's decisions make them more violent?

Abramovic performed her piece ‘Rhythm 0’ in Naples in 1974. There were 72 objects on the table that would be used by the audience and she added she is one of the objects of the performance on the note that she gave the instructions to the audience about her art.

There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.
Duration: 6 hours (8pm–2am.)” (Abramovic, 1974).

The objects varied from harmless ones such as a rose, a scarf, a handkerchief, grapes, a book, among other objects, to the dangerous ones an axe, a box of razors, scissors, a gun, and a bullet. However, the category of the objects changed depending on the intention of the user. For instance, at first, the rose was given to the artist as a kind gesture, later on, its thorns were used to stick into her skin. Here, it can be seen that the responsibility of our actions cannot be projected on objects and their purpose of creation. Do the objects around a person trigger his/her inner motives (are they guilty) or do people use them as an expression of their inner world? Perhaps objects may shape the possibilities of human behaviours. If there were other objects in this performance, different scenarios could occur and likewise with the existence of the other audiences. However, the act of violence may remain the same.

Renzi (2013) poses two interesting questions about Rhythm 0 that compel readers to think. The first one: would any attempt from the audience to protect Abramovic ruin the artwork and to what extend people can consider an intervention is damaging the performance? However, if these questions were specifically based on Rhythm 0, everything was left to the audiences’ decision. It created the possibility any kind of intervention would be regarded as a part of the performance.

Still Images from Rhythm 0 video: Marina Abramovic on performing "Rhythm 0" (1974)- uploaded by

Marina Abramovic Institute on 5 March 2016,

According to one audience, an art critic, Thomas McEvilley:

“It began tamely. Someone turned her around. Someone thrust her arms into the air. Someone touched her somewhat intimately. The Neapolitan night began to heat up. In the third hour, all her clothes were cut from her with razor blades. In the fourth hour, the same blades began to explore her skin. Her throat was slashed so someone could suck her blood. Various minor sexual assaults were carried out on her body. She was so committed to the piece that she would not have resisted rape or murder. Faced with her abdication of will, with its implied collapse of human psychology, a protective group began to define itself in the audience. When a loaded gun was thrust to Marina's head and her own finger was being worked around the trigger, a fight broke out between the audience factions.” (Ward, 2012, p. 120)

From his statements, it can be deduced there was tension not only between the artist and the audience but also between the audience about what to do and where to stop.

The second one: if she was killed during her performance what would it be a suicide or a murder? Ward (2012) explains “It is clear that the work depends on a form of passivity, and in the performance art of the period passivity often appears provocative or aggressive, as it stymies and frustrates audience expectations”(p.122). The passivity of the artist aroused the curiosity of until where she can tolerate it. While she was testing how far the audience can go, the audience was also testing her and expecting some reactions. The interesting part happened after the performance was over. Abramovic (2009) explains that:

After six hours, at 2 in the morning, I stopped, because this was exactly my decision: six hours. I started walking to the public and everybody run [sic] away and never actually confronted with me. The experience I drew from this piece was that in your own performances, you can go very far, but if you leave decisions to the public, you can be killed. (p.30)

When she left her passive state and became a ‘human’ again, the audience realized that she is not an object and felt uncomfortable with what had just happened. The change in human behaviour is the topic of many experiments in the psychology field such as the famous Stanford Prison Experiment by Zimbardo in 1971. Recently its validity is disputable but even so, it was one of the main textbook experiments that have influenced many others. To briefly mention, in the experiment participants were assigned to two groups, prisoners and guards. The experiment was meant to be 2 weeks but had to finish earlier due to extreme role-playing of guardians (they started torturing the prisoners) and consequently over-stress of prisoners (McLeod, 2020).

Around Us in All Forms

Both in the experiment and the performance the given power exposes the hidden violence of the people towards someone in an inferior position. Even these two seem extreme examples; we can say the lack of presence in social media creates almost the same effect on people’s way of expressing themselves. There are many hate speech or verbal violence to individuals or certain groups. In fact, it is seen among people who do not know each other and do not really have a problem. Therefore this hidden side of humans can come to the surface in our daily lives and it shows how important to draw the line between oneself and others.


Abramovic, M., Vettese, A., Di Pietrantonio, G., Daneri, A., Hegvi, L., & Societas Raffaello Sanzio.(2009). Marina Abramovic. Milano, IT: Charta.

Martin, T. (1995). Marina Abramovič. Third Text, 9:33, 85-92, DOI: 10.1080/09528829508576581

McLeod, S. A. (2020). Zimbardo - Stanford prison experiment. Simply Psychology.

Renzi, K. (2013). Safety in Objects: Discourses of Violence and Value—The "Rokeby Venus" and "Rhythm O". SubStance, 42, (No. 1), 120-145.

Ward, F. (2012). No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience. New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press.

Weidemann, C., Larass, P. and Klier, M. (2008). 50 Women Artists You Should Know. Munich: Prestel.


Author Photo

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