Rhythm 0

“Rhythm 0” – A Look at Marina Abramović’s Performance Art

The Marina Abramović 1974 art performance, Rhythm 0 (Rhythm Zero), is one of the most famous performance art pieces done by this Serbian artist. Many art critics and historians argue that it is this piece that put Abramović on the art map and set her up for the extraordinary career she has had thus far. What made this performance art piece so incredible? What took place during Rhythm Zero (1974)? What was the outcome of this Marina Abramović 1974 art performance? In this article, we will discuss all the listed questions in a detailed Rhythm 0 analysis.  



Marina Abramović’s 1974 Art Performance

To understand why the Rhythm 0 (1974) performance art piece had such an impact on Abramović’s audience as well as on the art world, we need to look at the work she created before 1974 and the career context in which the artwork was created.


Marina Abramović: The Story of Her Early Art

Marina Abramović is known for using her body in experimental, controversial, and sometimes upsetting ways in performance art instances for over four decades. She has always been interested in how she might learn to control her body through the practice of endurance art (a subcategory of performance art).

Her meditative performances have always been long, strenuous investigations into the nature of the self, the relationship between subject and object, the limits of the body, consciousness, the responsibility and resistance of the audience, violence, politics, death, and life.

Where did it all start and why are her performances so incredibly intense? Marina grew up in Yugoslavia during the Communist dictatorship. Her parents were closely connected to the regime. Her father left their family and Abramović lived with her strictly orthodox Serbian grandmother. Her mother, although stern and sometimes violent, was an art historian for the communist regime, and she supported her daughter’s love for art.

Rhythm ZeroMarina Abramović in Stockholm, 2017; Frankie Fouganthin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Abramović’s life as a child was full of contradictions, and it is almost as if her performances as an adult are so dangerous and extreme as a means of cleansing and releasing these earlier experiences. From 1965 to 1970, a young Abramović studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade. She then continued her studies from 1970 to 1972 at Radionica Krsto Hegedusic, Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. It was during this period in Zagreb, in the early 1970s, that she started making performative art pieces.

At first, she created sound pieces in the form of installations, but her fascination with the body’s limitations and the interaction between artist, subject, and the audience quickly moved her to experiments with performance art (a very new art movement at the time).

During this time of early experimentation and just after finishing her second round of studies, Abramović was teaching at the Academy of Arts, the University of Novi Sad from 1973 until 1975. It was in this time frame that the Rhythm series (1973 – 1974) was created.


Context: The Rhythm Series

Marina Abramović’s 1974 art performance was part of a series called the Rhythm Series. It started with the 1973 Rhythm 10 performance in which Abramović used performative action and sound art to create a visceral art piece about violence and pain. She then did the next performance, Rhythm 5, in 1974 and finished the series with Rhythm 0 in 1974. Before we do an analysis of Rhythm 0 (1974), we will briefly look at the other performance art pieces in this series to understand their context.


Rhythm 10 (1973)

In this hour-long performance art piece, Abramović set the tone for all her work to come. In her very first performance, she stabbed the spaces between her spread-out fingers, using 10 different knives. Each time she stabbed or hurt her hand during the rhythmic stabbing, she would pick up a different knife and continue the action.

The first half an hour of the performance was recorded. She stopped after half an hour, played the recording, and then repeated the same actions done in the first half an hour, using the sound to stab the knives at the same places at the same time as before.

She repeatedly stabbed her hands in the same places and continued until the recording stopped. Of course, what was interesting about this performance was the audience’s resistance to watching her perform the self-harming actions they knew would come in the second half of the performance.

This performance is so characteristically Abramović, as she threw caution completely in the wind and recreated a Russian and Yugoslav drinking game played by peasants. In the game, instead of taking a different knife when you stab yourself, you need to take another drink. The more you drink the higher the chance of stabbing yourself.

To her, this game, similar to Russian roulette, is about bravery, darkness, despair, and foolishness – “the perfect Slavic game”.

To Abramović, art is about life and death, and Rhythm 10 was the start of this life-long exploration. An exploration that centered on the electrifying feeling she got during that first performance art piece. She said that the danger in the room had made her and the audience one, it was the first time that she had ever experienced it – her group of onlookers were dead quiet and completely involved, everyone completely present. She would chase and recreate that feeling for the next four decades of building a performance art empire.


Rhythm 5 (1974)

The next iteration in the Rhythm series, Rhythm 5 (1974), took what Abramović learned and experienced during the first performance art piece and pushed it a little further. The rhythmic movements and sounds were swapped for the use of ritualistic action. In this performance, she wanted to explore the limits of consciousness amongst other things.

Later in her career, the use of meditative states during her pieces would become a characteristic of her work.

Here we can see again how the Rhythm series and its discoveries really formed the foundation of her entire body of work. Rhythm 5 (1974) constituted Abramović creating a big star shape out of wood chips and gasoline. She lit the star on fire and clipped her hair and nails into blazing shape. After performing this ritualistic action of offering parts of her body to the fiery star, she lay down in the middle. As the fire was burning, Abramović lost consciousness due to getting too little oxygen. Concerned onlookers dragged her from the smoke and flames when it was clear that she had passed out.

This piece, symbolizing the occult and Communism in Yugoslavia, was stopped when audience members saved her from the fire as her clothes started burning.


Rhythm Zero: What Happened?

Reading about these pieces that came before Rhythm 0 (1974) almost makes you hold your breath in nervous anticipation. This is also the reputation that started forming around Marina Abramović’s 1974 art performances. In Rhythm 0 (1974), she took what was most exciting to her from the first two experiments and incorporated them into a career-changing artwork.

In this piece, the audience participation, responsibility, and moral involvement were pushed to their limits.

Abramović placed 72 objects on a table in the Galleria Studio Morra in Naples. A notice on the table read, “I am the object”, “one can use me as desired”, and “during this time I will take full responsibility”. The audience was invited to use the objects on the table to do to her body whatever they wished. The performance was six hours long and became an extreme experiment that reflected societal norms around the objectification of women and the use of violence.

The objects on the table could roughly be split into two groups: objects of pleasure and objects of pain. Among them were a rose, a pen, a gun, a feather, rosemary, sugar, a saw, a book, a band-aid, wine, a hammer, honey, salt, a bullet, scissors, paint, a coat, and a whip. The audience’s chosen actions started as gentle and neutral actions, for example, someone stroked Abramović with the rose.

However, it quickly escalated when it seemed like a part of the group forgot about the shared humanity they have with the artist even though she made herself available as an “object”.

The audience split into two, those that tried to protect her and those that wanted to push the open invitation as far as they could. Those that tried to protect her fed her bread and honey, wiped her tears and argued with the members of the audience that hurt her.

The other part of the audience, which went into a violent frenzy, cut her skin with the thorns of the rose, sliced her with the knife, and drank her blood. Gallery staff interfered as one of the participants put the rusty gun to Abramović’s temple. The artist started moving and walked toward the audience members. The frenzied energy evaporated from the room as those that harmed her regained a sense of consciousness and guilt that was lost for six hours.

They could not look her in the eyes and all fled the gallery.



A Rhythm 0 Analysis

So, what was this upsetting and unsettling performance titled Rhythm 0 about? Marina Abramović wanted to push tensions between control and abandonment, which was at the heart of the Rhythms (1973 – 1974) series, even further.


Symbolism and Repercussions

The Rhythm 0 (1974) performance was about vulnerability and human response to the vulnerability of others. Abramović wanted to transcend any limits to vulnerability and exposure. She had an idea in mind and could not know how the instructions to engage in the performance would be received.

The way the audience’s actions played out exposed dark truths about human nature: that even when someone is unmoving, silent, and available, some will take advantage to do the worse, and those that have compassion and mercy are often outnumbered and overpowered.

By giving her deliberate consent, Abramović took an empowered vulnerable stance, making herself the object and subject of the participants’ desires. Both duality and tension are echoed in the fact that her body became the object of male desire and sexuality, as well as the subject of an emancipated statement about liberating herself from this normative position. Her body became a tool to challenge the objectification of the male gaze and uninhibited action, affording her the possibility to express this position of vulnerability women have (and still) experience in a patriarchal world.

Marina AbramovićMarina Abramović (with the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art she received in 2008) at the screening of Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present during the Vienna International Film Festival in 2012; Manfred Werner / Tsui, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By defining the beginning and end of the performance with a predetermined time (six hours), choosing the objects, and giving her direct consent, Abramović maintained a sense of power over how with what and for how long it would take place. Even though this performance art piece can be read with a feminist view, Abramović has always rejected such classifications of her art and, therefore, she acted in tension with the feminist art movement that was taking place at the same time and into the 1990s.

However, what transpired exposes fascinating themes reflected by this movement the artist rejected to be a part of.

And most art writers and critics argue that if the art created deals with female sexuality, expression, and position in society, it is feminist art. Although Abramović started the performance from an empowered position, as the one dictating how the performance was set up, the actions of the audience and how they responded to this open invitation stripped her from power for the duration of the performance.

Stating that she takes full responsibility for what takes place during the artwork, released the audience from holding back and made apparent the underlying violent wishes of the crowd. Because the artist resists her art being read exclusively as feminist art, other lenses such as military authority, self-harm as part of religious practice, mythology, resilience, and catharsis come into play. This makes her work more dynamic and the results thereof complex.

By offering her body in the act of performance, she investigates how the body’s limit of fear, consciousness, and pain might be transcended.

The level of personal risk, in addition to emotional and physical suffering, allows the artist and the audience to encounter artistic and spiritual experiences together that go above the ordinary. The wine, salt, honey, bread, and the table reflect this sense of ritual and the quasi-sacred nature of her work. These recognizably religious and spiritual elements make the Rhythm 0 (1974) experiment even more interesting, as religion and violence are so often intertwined even though religious systems (especially Christianity) promote mercy and compassion. Rhythm 0 (1974), therefore, further exposes the precarity of human peace, love, mercy, and self-control.


The Role of the Audience

It is obvious that the performance art pieces Marina Abramović creates would not be possible or as impactful without the audience. The concept or “message” of the artwork is created out of the reactions, actions, and interactions of the audience.

Abramović’s public vulnerability communicates the trust between her and the audience and almost constitutes a pact of collaborative experimentation.

The contradictory nature of this “pact” and trust is exposed first by the artist’s choice of objects, many of them related to violence. Even though some of the objects are connected to pleasure, the seriousness of implication in the invitation to “do as you desire” is mirrored in the objects used to create pain (like the chains and whip) and in the objects connected to death (the gun and the knife). It is almost as if Abramović dared the audience to be honest about their wishes if death and destruction are on the table.

Marina Abramović 1974 Art PerformanceMarina Abramović performing Artist is Present at the Musem of Modern Art in New York City in May 2010; Shelby Lessig, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The concept of love and death is blurred and the tension between sexuality or pleasure and destruction is made apparent. All of these tensions are only possible if there is someone that chooses to act on the artist’s invitation. Abramović created this piece (outside of the influences listed above, including her family and birth country’s background) as a way to rethink the use of performance art and the role the audience plays in an artist’s work.

After receiving harsh, masochistic, and sensationalist criticism of her first two performance art pieces, she wanted to push the limits of the audience’s involvement even further.

Although Abramović stayed quiet still during the performance, she was not passive in the making of the meaning that came out of Rhythm 0 (1974). As said above, she dictated the scene where the performance was to take place, but her inactivity throughout the performance is most definitely also an active way of participation. She was there, conscious and witness to all that took place in her body.

This pull between being active or passive culminated at the moment the artist started moving after the six hours were finished. Her taking of the violence done to her during the time caused some of the audience to forget about her humanity.

However, she reminded them of her power and agency when she started confronting them by moving towards them at the time she predetermined.



The Influence on Future Performance Art

Rhythm 0 (1974) and the Rhythm series was the beginning of a meta-reflection on the role of the audience, the gaze, and the participant in Marina Abramović’s work. A year later, in 1975, she started collaborating with the German artist, Frank Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay). Their work looked mainly at gender identity, but the influence of long-lasting meditations that pushed the limits of the body and consciousness was evident in their art. The piece they did together that related most to Rhythm 0 (1974) was Imponderabilia (1977), in which the two artists stood naked, facing each other in the doorway of a museum.

The audience had to choose to either turn towards Ulay’s naked body or Abramović’s naked if they wanted to pass and access the exhibition.

Since Marina Abramović and Ulay separated in 1988 her work started engaging the audience again in large-scale public experimentations. The House with the Ocean View (2002), had a very similar sense of vulnerability to Rhythm 0 (1974) as the artist lived in a gallery installation for 12 days where audience members could watch her every move. The only access to and from the three exposed cubes mounted onto a wall (her living space for the duration of the performance) was a ladder made of knives.

Rhythm 0 AnalysisMarina Abramović and Frank Uwe Laysiepen performance advertisement in 1978; Marina Abramović and the CODA Museum, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the most famous and striking work by Abramović in terms of audience participation was done in the MoMA in 2010. Abramović sat quietly in the museum as audience members came to sit in front of her. She would open her eyes and gaze at the person across from her, close her eyes and wait for the next participant. This performance art piece engaged a similar vulnerability of being exposed, as Rhythm 0 (1974), but the power and exposure were mutual throughout the performance as the artist gazed at the audience members, the audience members gazed at the artist and the room full of viewers gazed at both in the center of the room.


Through the Rhythm 0 analysis in this article, it is clear why Marina Abramović has such an undeniable influence on the world of performance art. Even though she only became world famous later in her career, the powerful performance Rhythm 0 (1974) (part of the Rhythm series (1973 – 1974) with which she launched her career) had a great impact on the artist she has become. The experiments in power, presence, agency, vulnerability, and audience engagement explored during Rhythm 0 (1974) set the tone for an impactful body of work.  




Frequently Asked Questions


Was Rhythm 0 (1974) Marina Abramović’s First Performance Art Piece?

Rhythm 0 (1974) was not Abramovic’s first performance art piece. It was the third in the Rhythm series with which she started her career. Before Rhythm 0 (1974), she performed Rhythm 10 (1973) and Rhythm 5 (1974).


Does Marina Abramović Still Create Art?

Marina Abramović is one of the only performance artists that started creating performance art when the movement and medium began, and she still creates art today. She has become world famous since her retrospective exhibition at the MoMA in 2010 and has founded the Marina Abramović Institute. Today, she is one of the most influential artists alive.


Did Someone Shoot Marina Abramović During Rhythm 0?

Abramović was not shot during her performance piece in 1974. However, an audience member did pull the gun that was part of the exhibition on her, but the gallery staff interfered before anything tragic happened.