As 21st-century humans, we like to think of ourselves as highly intelligent and morally developed beings. But every so often comes an artist who holds up a mirror so close to our face that we can see the fragile veneer of civilization crackle and slowly come off. Marina Abramović is one such artist, and in her 1974 performance Rhythm 0 she exposed humanity in all its primordial glory.
What was initially just a piece of performance art quickly turned into a dangerous anthropological experiment. In the attempt to understand what happened in Rhythm 0, I find the Freudian concept of emotional ambivalence particularly helpful. Abramović’s piece is a great illustration of some of the ideas expressed in Totem and Taboo (1913), and can provide an excellent introduction to Freud’s later works.
The performance took place in an art gallery in Naples. For the performance, Abramović simply stood in the gallery space, fully clothed; the only other thing in the room was a table that had 72 objects laid out on its surface. The piece was based on the promise that she would not move for six hours, from 8pm to 2am, and that she would take full responsibility for everything, no matter what happened. As Abramović says, the objects on the table were “very carefully chosen” and they included a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, a knife, razor, and a loaded pistol. They were objects for pleasure, objects for pain, and objects that could bring about one’s death. On the table she also placed the following instructions:
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.
In the first few hours, gallery-goers were relatively peaceful. “Someone turned her around. Someone thrust her arms into the air. Someone touched her somewhat intimately” (Ward 2012, p.120). Then, their gestures turned into slightly more exploratory forms of touch and then proceeded to the removal of her shirt.
From hereon, things escalated quite quickly. Members of the public cut off her clothes with razors. People started writing on her body, poured water over her head, and stuck rose thorns in her stomach. Somebody cut her throat, drinking blood from her neck. Others performed minor sexual assaults on her body. Others wiped her tears away.
At one point someone placed the loaded gun in her hand, put her finger on the trigger, and pointed it to her neck. At this point, another person tore the gun away and a conflict broke out between two factions: those wanting to protect Abramović and those wanting to hurt her even more (Todd, 2015).
When six hours passed, Abramović ended the performance and started walking toward the audience. Reflecting on that moment, she writes:
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 (2009, quoted in Todd, 2015, p. 57).
The gratuitous violence Marina was subjected to might seem difficult to understand, but in the Freudian logic of emotional ambivalence it makes a lot of sense. For Freud, humans are ambivalent beings, capable of fostering feelings of both hatred and love, contempt and admiration, sometimes simultaneously. In Totem and Taboo he explores the roots of this ambivalent structure, and traces it back to our earliest forms of social organization.
Totem and Taboo rests on the premise that there is an equivalence between the behavior of what Freud calls “primitives” (the earliest, simplest human forms of social organization or contemporary human societies that live under similarly basic rules) and the human psyche (specifically, the mechanisms that may lead to neurosis).
A totem is, widely speaking, a symbol common to a group of people. It serves to strengthen the identity of that group and mark who belongs to it and who’s an outsider. Interestingly, Freud suggests, although one would expect such “primitive” societies to have few or no moral rules, strong taboos are in place against certain actions. In-breeding or murdering members of the same totem, for example, are strongly prohibited. Quoting psychologist W. Wundt (1906), Freud defines the taboo as the “oldest unwritten code of laws” (p. 22).
Taboos are characterized by the fact that they contain a strong interdiction in themselves, and don’t need to resort to an external justification for their efficacy. A taboo carries within itself the moral conviction that something catastrophic will unavoidably happen should the rule be violated.
Freud points out that the ambivalence characterizing the human psyche is present in the very word “taboo.” It simultaneously refers to the sacredness and extra-ordinariness of the object or person considered “taboo,” together with the connotation of unclean, impure, dangerous, forbidden.
The prohibition cannot be separated from the the desire that it prohibits. “There is no need to prohibit something that no one desires to do and a thing that is forbidden with the greatest emphasis must be a thing that is desired” (pp. 80–81). Therefore, Freud goes on to assume, “the desire to murder is actually present in the unconscious” (p. 82). This idea would later become of historical importance as Freud develops it further in Civilization and Its Discontents. “Neither taboos nor moral prohibitions” he continues, “are psychologically superfluous but… on the contrary they are explained and justified by the existence of an ambivalent attitude toward the impulse to murder” (Id.).
Such aggressive impulses define the ambivalent attitude “primitive peoples” have toward their rulers. The two sides of ambivalence are complementary rather than contradictory, and they are perfectly summed up by J.G. Frazer’s words “a ruler must not only be guarded, he must also be guarded against” (1911b, 132 quoted by Freud, 1913, p. 48). Kings and chiefs spur feelings of envy and jealousy because of their privileges and arouse conflicting feelings of ambivalence in their subjects. The king is seen as a spring of dangerous, contagious power that, if “caught,” can bring about destruction and catastrophe. Like electricity, this power is transmitted to whoever comes into contact with it, but bears death and destruction on those who are not ready to receive it.
Generally, the tabooed power is attributed to people considered to be either exceptional (kings, priests, or newborn babies) or in exceptional states (menstruation, puberty, or birth) (p. 26). The higher you find yourself on the social scale, the stronger the taboo. Ambivalence persists because
Both the prohibition and the instinct persist: the instinct because it has only been repressed and not abolished, and the prohibition because, if it ceased, the instinct would force its way through into consciousness and into actual operation (p. 34).
Keeping our destructive instincts at bay is what we need to do if we wish to preserve the fabric of our society, and prohibitions are the price we pay for our civilization.
By projecting her gaze forward, through and above everyone in the room, standing erect and fearless in her complete artistic and human (in)vulnerability, my contention is that Abramović projected an image of one such exceptional, regal figure. Abramović’s biographer notes that throughout Rhythm 0, “she maintained a perfect thousand-yard stare through and beyond anyone in front of her” (Westcott, 2010, p. 76). He goes on to interpret this as one of the main reasons why the audience became violent: “eye contact would have reminded them of Abramović’s humanness and the responsibilities that follow” (id.). But I think her gaze provoked the audience to more extreme acts also due to the superiority implied in such a stare, a look projected perfectly above everyone else. Additionally, the status of the artist and particularly the performance or conceptual artist often elicits feelings of envy and resentment amongst the public, who feel their intelligence is being questioned. The performance artist is often perceived as someone who is illegitimately trying to elevate themselves to a superior social status. This can be seen in laypersons’ reactions to performance art in general and Abramović in particular. As the comments to this article show, she is oftentimes dismissed as a “fraud,” as somebody who’s just substituting shock value for real creativity or even “masquerading bullshit as real art.”
As Freud points out, in the case of people we perceive to be more privileged than us, “alongside of the veneration, and indeed idolization, felt towards them, there is in the unconscious an opposing current of intense hostility; … in fact, … we are faced by a situation of emotional ambivalence” (1913, p. 57). Indeed the twofold mechanism of ambivalence can be seen in other human manifestations as well, such as fandom, our obsession with fame and the cult(ure) of celebrity.
The intense hostility mentioned by Freud as well as our attempts to atone for it were perfectly captured in the two factions that formed around Abramović. The incident in the performance also serves to illustrate a wider social tendency. The violation of the prohibition, Freud points out, triggers swift and severe reprimands from the other members of society, as violating a taboo is a great social threat. Negative feelings of aggression and envy pervade through the entire community and as soon as one member of the society breaks the rule there is the imminent danger of everyone else following suit. On a deeper level everyone wishes to imitate the aggressive behavior, and it is precisely this desire that triggers the outrage and immediate punishment of the transgressor. “If the violation were not avenged by the other members they would become aware that they wanted to act in the same way” (1913, p. 39). However, acting in the same way would dissolve our social structures, and so every effort must be made to discourage such behavior.
Abramović’s performance, read in this Freudian key, poses greater questions about the human psyche, as well as the nature, purpose, and effectiveness of human morality and civilization. At the end of the performance, Abramović might have been left with no clothes on, but it was she who stripped the public bare to its most rudimentary impulses. If at our most basic level what we’re left with is ruthless aggression coexisting with love, repentance, and a desire to protect, is civilization doing a good job of softening our violent edges and annihilating our socially destructive tendencies? Or is it just putting a lid on our deeply human instincts, condemning us all to neuroses, ineffective mechanisms of displacement, and imminent violent outbreaks à la Fight Club? Is humanity capable of progress or are we doomed to get stuck in the battle between violence and guilt, caught in a strange space between torturing the other and wiping off their tears? Freud himself attempts to answer some of these questions in his larger and more significant work Civilization and Its Discontents. You can read the book online here and there is an entire PEL podcast episode on it that you can listen to here.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer and researcher living in Brighton, UK. You can follow her on Twitter @annasandoiu.