Articles Tagged with: Billy Childish

Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0

Marina Abramovic – Rhythm 0

Words and illustration by Benjamin Murphy – Originally published in AfterNyne Magazine

Marina Abramovic - Rhythm 0

Sketch by Benjamin Murphy

In 1974, twenty three year old Serbian-born artist Marina Abramovic created the most poignant and shocking performance artwork to date. Rhythm 0 was a captivating social experiment, and one that has still not been surpassed 43 years later.

 

Gallery visitors were met with a standing but immobile Abramovic, beside her a table containing a plethora of seventy-two seemingly unconnected objects. Some were clearly intended to give pleasure: a rose, grapes, perfume, and a feather were included. Some others were more sinister: a whip, nails, a razorblade, scissors, a pistol, and a single bullet.

The audience was then asked to explore the objects and use them upon her body in any way they wish, whilst for the next six hours all responsibility for their actions was assumed by Marina.

 

 

Placed upon the table was the following text.

Instructions.

There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.

Performance.

I am the object.

During this period I take full responsibility.

 

Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am)

 

At first, the crowd was sheepish and their actions innocuous, giving her the rose to hold and generally not doing much. After a while, mob-mentality took control and the crowd got more vicious. With tears streaming down her cheeks Abramovic stood immobile and stoic whilst her clothes were cut off (in a similar way to Yoko Ono’s Cut Piecefrom ten years before) and her neck was sliced with a razorblade. The man who cut her then leant forwards and placed his lips to the fresh wound and drank her blood. It left a scar that she still has to this day. She was touched in intimate places, and according to art critic Thomas McEvilley “…she would not have resisted rape or murder”.

In the post-apocalyptic dystopia we see so often in books and films, once state authority is removed society becomes feral and vicious.

 

One visitor put the bullet in the pistol and placed it in her hand pointing at her own neck, no doubt willing her to pull the trigger. At this point even the gallery staff thought the work had gone too far, and “went crazy”, grabbing the gun and throwing it out of the window. All the time Abramovic never moved.

She was picked up and carried to a table, placed upon it, and had a kitchen knife thrust between her legs into the wood of the table, in a symbolic gesture that symbolizes both rape and murder.

Abramovic’s ability to transcend physical and psychological pain through sheer mental strength is astounding, but it is not the main focal point of this work.

Marina Abramovic - Rhythm 0

What makes this work so frightening is that it took a simple absolution of guilt for this randomly collected cross section of society to resort to viciousness and disregard for human life. It calls to mind the Milgram experiment, in which volunteers were informed that they were required to electrocute another volunteer. The volunteers were unaware that the experimenter and the person being electrocuted were in cahoots, and any response to electrocution was staged. The confederate would be asked questions, and any incorrect answer was met with an electric shock – increasing in power for every subsequent shock.

 

In this experiment, the volunteer was absolved any responsibility, and therefore continued to obey the instructor, despite the obvious danger. Many of the participants showed visible signs of distress throughout, and were clearly complying begrudgingly.

It was an experiment to see if obedience to authority would overrule the volunteer’s conscience, and their natural fears for another’s safety. It questions whether the volunteers could be considered accomplices to the act, and was inspired by the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, just three months before.

 

In Rhythm 0 however, not only did the viewers enact ‘real horror’, but they did so with relish. The audience was not acting under orders from an authority figure as they were in the Milgram Experiment, but were given the authority to act autonomously. In the Milgram experiment, most of the volunteers protested the instructions and showed many signs of extreme distress, but in Rhythm 0 they seemed to enjoy what they were doing.

 

One would expect that the participants would display reticence to act freely due to the Hawthorne Effect (the modification or dilution of ones natural behavior due to the knowledge that one is being observed), but this is actually not the case, as the participants showed an eagerness to experiment in ever increasing gradations of severity.

It is also possible that the absolution of responsibility allowed the spectators to play out some of their darkest fantasies. The symbolic hematophagy is suggestive of the participant assuming power or control over Abramovic, and asserting their dominance.

 

They saw Marina as an object, and they played with her sadistically like a cat with a mouse. They were also required to use their own creativity when deciding in which way the objects were used, and it is surprising how quickly they abandoned the safe objects in favor of the truly dangerous ones. The dehumanization that occurs is in part due to Abramovic’s immobility, in part due to her silence, and in part due to the acts of objectification enacted upon her by other members of the crowd. It is in part because the spectators saw their contemporaries enacting hostilities that they felt able to also.

She took some of the ideas originally explored just 13 years prior, and took them to their most extreme point.

 

Marina Abramovic - Rhythm 0

Marina Abramovic – Rhythm 0

 

Performance art is similar in many ways to theatre, but as Abramovic has shown there are some subtle but definite differences. Horror within the theatre is inauthentic, but at least in some cases, within performance art it is real.

 

In 1891 Oscar Wilde explored this topic in his essay The Critic As Artist.

“…Art does not hurt us. The tears that we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotion that it is the function of art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded. We grieve, but our grief is not bitter.”

 

Almost a hundred years later, Abramovic proved this to be incorrect.

 

For more critique by Benjamin Murphy

Chris Burden – Dormant Chaos

Santiago Sierra – The Strangeness of Reality

Conversation with Billy Childish


Conversation between artists Benjamin Murphy and Billy Childish.

 

Billy Childish is an artist who is as prolific in painting as he is in poetry, prose, and music, all of which coalesce to form a coherent body of work that would take most people four lifetimes to create.

His work transcends the gossip about his character, be it his involvement with a prominent YBA or his short-lived membership of a certain art movement.

His work is created from a conceptually free mindset, and his work shuns the pretentiousness enacted by the more self-conscious. He believes that art should be autonomous and that the viewer must read each work as they see it.

On top of all of this, Billy Childish is one of the most genuine and well-mannered men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Below is the transcript of a conversation I had with him last year before his solo exhibition The House At Grass Valley at Carl Freedman Gallery.

 

BM – What relevance does the House at Grass Valley have, to both yourself and this body of work?

BC – Most of my paintings come from an immediate response to images, this was in response to a photograph of their house in Grass Valley California. My friend Johnny’s father built the house and I have visited there with my wife who is from California. My work is carried out very quickly, the response is very automatic. There’s little mental process, just this quick reaction – it’s how most of my work is undertaken. It’s not important that there is a real house Grass Valley. People might want to know the story but a painting is in another world that lives beyond the location. The ‘real’ almost becomes immaterial.

BM – Why did you choose to include the works of Russian Literature: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Gogol etc.?

BC – These people had a visceral engagement with life, and decent human integrity. I like people with moral depth and intelligence. All of these things are not bound in time; I believe a painting collapses time. That sounds grandiose in a way…

BM – You mean its universal?

BC – Yes, the paintings are difficult to place, you could place them anywhere in the last hundred years, but I would also counter that they are very modern. They acknowledge their history if you like, and wear their hearts on their sleeves. I declare my loves and celebrate my influences, which is something that artists used to do.

BM – I think the reason most artists these days are more reluctant to share their inspirations is because they are trying to claim that they have entirely original ideas.

BC – Yes, they want to pretend that they have invented everything themselves. We’re in this situation where art is tied to fashion. Art is almost trailing behind fashion, rather than leading from the front, so people are hugely worried about how to find themselves and how to be original rather than authentic. It’s very adolescent.

BM – A lot of artists don’t become relevant until long after they’ve died and society has had a chance to catch up.

BC – Absolutely, you can be so far ahead of the curve that you appear to be behind it – I’m one of those guys. It can be a problem if you’re career minded, but lucky for me I’m not. I paint the paintings that I want to paint when I want to paint them, I don’t do anything for an audience. There’s nothing more dated than the contemporary.

BM – Would you say you were an obsessive, is it a compulsion?

BC – I think that we’re all obsessive and compulsive. Whether it’s: somebody who’s obsessive about working in a bank; or tidying their house; or someone who’s obsessively creative.

BM – A lot of your inspirations (Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, Munch) make works about isolation. I see that same isolation in a lot of your work, be it painting, prose, poetry etc. Is that a concern or an inspiration for you?

BC – I suppose I have been trying to work out who I am and what that might mean, it takes lot of introspection. I was not given a lot of good information as a young man, and I come from quite a fractured background. I was finding maturity and a path through all of that. I now know the value of being here and the value of integrity, truth, and honesty. It’s taken a long while, and its not through my cleverness or my abilities, its through luck and grace.

BM – You had a tough upbringing in certain ways; do you believe that artists who have suffered some kind of hardship are naturally better artists?

BC – I think a lot of expression, and trying to understand the world can come from dysfunction. If somebody is burdened with suffering it can be a very valuable tool for them.

I’m sure art encourages mad men, and I’m sure it helps some mad men.

BM – So would you say that these works are more autonomous than your early works?

BC – I’m in them, but I don’t use the same piece of brain as I used to. The hand that drew in the caves is the hand that draws now, there’s no gap. It’s primal, because its unconscious and it’s beyond time. Beauty is highly underrated, and so is craft and aesthetic. I often say to people I don’t make art I make pictures; I leave art to the artists.

BM – That’s the opposite of what a lot of contemporary artists would say.

BC – That’s because I’m being sarcastic and in fact they’re not artists. If something needs to be in a gallery to be recognized as art, it very possibly isn’t.

BM – With conceptual art, do you not believe that the crafting of an idea is enough rather than the crafting of a material?

BC – Anything can be enough; I don’t have any problem with conceptual art. I’m happy for Tate Modern to be full of conceptual art, for it to be a Sunday outing for families, and for it to be like an amusement park.

But I would also say that a lot of conceptual art has devalued its own language through overuse. The same can be said of abstract art. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t have relevance or value but if you have a diet of only chocolate it makes you sick.

Society and art are all so diabolically mundane because it is very easy to big up rubbish and very easy to dismiss the real. Very few people can tell the difference. But the real will always survive and will eventually raise itself to the surface in good time.

When I talk about this stuff people think what a dark view, but I have a total optimism in this.

BM – Do you think that the art world nowadays is too celebrity-focused?

BC – Society is obsessed with celebrity, and there’s no reason why art would be excluded from that. It’s that adolescent trend, the decadence of the world we live in. The art world personifies that decadence. It’s all greed; greed is borne of a lack of confidence, and a lack of spiritual belief. It’s not because these people are bad but that they lack self-confidence. We feel that we’re in competition with each other, and that’s because we’re a spiritually bankrupt decadent society. But truth and goodness will always survive.

BM – A lot of your work is quite melancholy, would you agree?

BC – Melancholy is underrated; there is a very melancholic feel to the world. A lot of people misunderstand melancholy; in a way it can be an introspective and calm place. It’s not going to obliterate you, it just tones everything down – its not misery. We’re such a mixed bag of emotions, and we have to understand that we live beyond them. There are a lot of quite dark things in my poetry because one of my favorite things is a black humor. Often people are surprised that I’m quite lighthearted.

BM – Do you think that for you your work is a way of excising some past demons?

BC – I think it does happen, it’s all tied into this existential feeling of being lost and alone without god.

It doesn’t matter where the problem is it’s just how much you identify with it. And being able to not identify with those aspects of ourselves, just recognize them. The ones who find it difficult are the ones who get stuck in identifying themselves as a particular aspect or qualification; they become defined by events that have happened to them, or their abilities.

The things we are always looking for is freedom, either by controlling others or by greed and money and power. But we’re seeking what we already have, and causing mischief for others in the process by looking in the wrong places. It stems from a lack of confidence in ourselves and a lack of self-awareness. One of the main jobs in life is loving yourself; you don’t have to become some kind of saint, you just have to have the guts to get to know yourself, and realize that your problems and defects are perfectly ok.

(Originally published in This Is Tomorrow Magazine)