In 1979 Marina Abramovic, an as yet unknown performance artist living in Soviet Russia, created one of the most controversial, fascinating, and dangerous performance pieces in art history. She called it Rhythm 0, and it was as much a work of daring contemporary art as it was a massive social experiment that pulled the veil on human nature, and laid bare the consequences of leaving ourselves, our bodies and our lives in the hands of strangers.
For six hours, she put her life and body completely in the hands of strangers, turning herself into an object to be used, as one wished. During this time she agreed to remain passive, and unresponsive until the experiment was over. Abramovic decided that she would just quietly and limply observe. For the audience, there were no immediate consequences.
At first, only photographers were going near her.
The premise of “Rhythm 0” was deceptively simple: Abramovic would stand still for six hours straight while the people who came to see her were urged to do whatever they wanted to her using one of 72 objects that she had placed on a table.
Abramovic stood in the middle of the room with a notice board containing these words:
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 (8 pm – 2 am)
Among the things on the table were “objects of pleasure” and “objects of destruction.” Among the harmless objects were feathers and flowers. The dangerous stuff included a knife, razor blades, and a loaded gun.
There were those who changed her position.
What happened in the next six hours was horrifying, to say the least.
“In the beginning the public was really very much playing with me,” remembers the artist. They were gentle, placing a rose in her hand, kissing her and feeding her cake. But then, “it became more and more wild” as the public became increasingly aggressive. “It was 6 hours of real horror,” says Abramovic solemnly, “They would cut my clothes, they would cut me with a knife close to my neck, drink my blood and put a plaster over the wound. They would carry me around half naked put me on the table and stab the knife between my legs into the wood.”
They took the scissors off the table and cut off all her clothes, one man tried to rape her, another loaded the pistol with the bullet and pointed it at her head. A night at the gallery turned into a horror show. “It was a really difficult piece,” she explains, “because I just stood there in front of the table” while the public continued their assault.
Anyone who knew the artist could have predicted how far the performance might go. Marina was known to be completely committed to her craft. So committed, in fact, that she would have let audience members take her life if it ever got to that point. “There was a pistol with one bullet, so basically if the audience wanted to put the bullet in the pistol they could kill me. And I really wanted to take this risk, I wanted to know what the public is about, and what they are going to do in this kind of situation.”
“After 6 hours, which was like 2 in the morning, the gallerists came and announced that the performance was over. I started moving and start being myself, because until then I was there like a puppet just for them, and at that moment everybody ran away. People could not confront me as a person.”
These were regular people who probably set out to see a work of art that evening, but ended up torturing the artist. The moment she went from passive object to active agent, the audience was horrified to remember that they had been dealing with a human being all along. They could not confront the traces of torture they left behind on her body, as she walked towards them dripping with blood and tears.
After it was all over, Abramovic had this to say after the performance: “What I learned was that… if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you…I felt really violated.” It is a terrifying yet fascinating lesson in the consequences of passivity.
Listen to Marina Abramovic talk about her frightening experience.
“This work reveals something terrible about humanity. It shows how fast a person can hurt you under favorable circumstances. It shows how easy it is to dehumanize a person who does not fight, who does not defend himself. It shows that if he provides the stage, the majority of ‘normal’ people, apparently can become truly violent.”