March 14, 2010–May 31, 2010. IN2112.124. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

“I never create art to be decorative.”

Marina Abramović

For three months, from open until close, The Museum of Modern Art offered visitors an unusual opportunity: to encounter not just artworks, but an artist herself. Day after day, Marina Abramović sat motionless for eight hours in the Museum’s central atrium as members of the public took turns sitting across from her and gazing silently into her eyes. Could a simpler performance be imagined? It entailed nothing other than the artist’s presence, without action or words—and yet it was nothing short of a spectacle. Visitors laughed, cried, and attested to spiritual experiences. Thousands waited in line for their moment with Abramović, and thousands more watched the live stream online. The most mundane act of human contact had been turned, as if by magic, into an irresistible catalyst for emotion.

The performance, accompanying Abramović’s 2010 MoMA retrospective The Artist Is Present, was a culmination of her lifelong investigation into the dynamics of human encounters. What are the unspoken conventions that govern our daily lives, and what happens when those norms are subverted or break down? For Abramović, performance is a laboratory for social experimentation, a tool with which she tests the rules of art and life to the point of their collapse. The results can be unexpectedly moving—or deeply distressing, as in Abramović’s Rhythm 0. In 1974, in Naples, Italy, the artist gathered 72 objects “for pleasure and for pain” (among them lipstick, a knife, and a loaded gun) and invited the audience to use them on her inert body. “I am the object,” Abramović declared.1 The audience’s behavior was gentle at first, but slowly escalated to the point of violence. A public impulse to cruelty was unveiled and put on disturbing display.

Working first in her native Serbia—at the time, part of Socialist Yugoslavia—and subsequently in Western Europe and America, Abramović used her own body as the primary instrument in artworks calculated to scandalize and provoke. Along with her collaborator and partner Ulay, Abramović emerged as part of an international generation of performance artists who sought to radically redefine the bounds of aesthetic experience. This art reflected and responded to the turbulent backdrop of the late 1960s and 1970s, when protest movements swept across countries from the United States to Yugoslavia. “I had come to believe that art must be disturbing, art must ask questions, art must predict the future,” Abramović recalls.2 No longer could art be expected to provide mere beauty or comfort: for Abramović and her peers, art was a nail to be driven into the crumbling edifice of moral authority across political systems.

Some critics have questioned the possibility and desirability of the very term central to Abramović’s practice: presence.3 As much as she may emphasize live performance, Abramović’s work is inescapably tied to her status as a media star whose viral image spreads in the absence of her physical presence. There is also something quasi-religious about Abramović’s performance persona, with her rituals of self-sacrifice (as in the flagellation and mock crucifixion in Lips of Thomas) that recall older traditions of asceticism and saintly devotion. All this can appear paradoxical in the relentlessly modern, mediated, and secular art world. But perhaps these contradictions are precisely what give Abramović’s work its power. A silent gaze, the taut stillness of direct contact—such tranquility, it turns out, is but the flip side of the entertainment spectacle that Abramović both conjures and thwarts. “If art comes just from art, it loses its power and becomes decorative,” Abramović warns. “I never create art to be decorative.”4

Mitchell Herrmann, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Media and Performance Art

  1. Quoted in Klaus Biesenbach, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, ed. Mary Christian (New York: The Museum Of Modern Art, 2010), 74.

  2. Marina Abramović and James Kaplan, Walk Through Walls: A Memoir (New York: Crown Archetype, 2016), 80.

  3. Amelia Jones, “‘The Artist Is Present’: Artistic Re-Enactments and the Impossibility of Presence,” TDR (1988–), 55, no. 1 (2011): 16–45.

  4. Janet A. Kaplan, “Deeper and Deeper: Interview with Marina Abramovic,” Art Journal 58, no. 2 (1999): 16.

Wikipedia entry
Marina Abramović (Serbian Cyrillic: Марина Абрамовић, pronounced [marǐːna abrǎːmoʋitɕ]; born November 30, 1946) is a Serbian conceptual and performance artist. Her work explores body art, endurance art, the relationship between the performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind. Being active for over four decades, Abramović refers to herself as the "grandmother of performance art". She pioneered a new notion of identity by bringing in the participation of observers, focusing on "confronting pain, blood, and physical limits of the body". In 2007, she founded the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI), a non-profit foundation for performance art.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade (1965–70) before completing her post-diploma studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, Zagreb, in 1972. Her first significant performances began in 1973 and established a practice of exploring the physical limits of the human body. From 1976-1989 she worked in collaboration with Frank Uwe Laysiepen, known and Ulay. In 2010 she was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, titled The Artist is Present.
Serbian, American, Dutch, Yugoslav
Artist, Director, Installation Artist, Performance Artist, Photographer, Sculptor, Sound Artist, Video Artist
Marina Abramović, Marina Abramovic, Marina Abramovicz
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


57 works online



  • New Ground: Jacob Samuel and Contemporary Etching Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 176 pages
  • Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now Hardcover, 368 pages
  • Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 224 pages



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