Design by Jennie Vang

Content Warning: Contains descriptions of violence.

Who do we become when no one is looking? Who are we when everyone is? Oddly enough, the distinction is often blurred. A foggy windowpane, a dirty windshield, a cracked mirror. A persona is a persona regardless of the lens through which it’s being looked — it reveals itself so long as you let it. A magnifying glass, a crack on the wall, the barrel of a gun. 

What do we do when we are given the liberty to do anything we want? Alas, the purge. In a fickle game of reticence and caprice, human beings reveal their tendency towards sin. The story seems to have been written for us, and we allow it. From the comfort of ignorance and the warmth of bliss, effort seems like a foreign language and growth is narrowed down to losing our milk teeth. If we were given the chance to write our version, how would the narrative change?

This is precisely what the postmodernist movement carried around like a ball and a chain. Literature about literature, writing about writing, attitude as art, the audience as the last puzzle piece. A shift in the relationship between the creator and the outcome, where the two become one, or none. Fluxus, the “anti-art” that will “purge the world of bourgeoisie sickness …” as the American artist George Maciunas put it. Performance art becomes that shift in the narrative — metafiction at its finest. No longer mere spectators; we are part of the outcome. Where one might appreciate a Delacroix for its heroic aura, someone else might see despotism; where one might feel empowerment through Picasso’s “Demoiselles,” another might feel violation. It’s all about how far we stand from the canvas — physically and emotionally.

In 1974, the artist Marina Abramović placed 72 objects on a long table with the instructions: “one can use me as desired.” Among those were a feather, rosemary, sugar and wine, but also, a hammer, a kitchen knife and a whip … for six treacherous hours, the artist allowed herself to be Immanuel Kant’s living proof that human nature is inherently evil. She became the medium — no line to draw between the brush and he who fiddles with it. A canvas in flesh and bone.

There were those who tried to protect her, who gave her bread and honey or wiped her tears away. And those who slit her neck and drank her blood, like hungry leeches —the same whose actions put an end to the one-man show: a rusty gun to her temple. Was it because she was a woman? Perhaps it was the Serbian in her blood, or maybe it was a mere product of discomfort, from a menial man who salivated viciousness like a feral beast. 

Unsurprisingly, the instructions “I am the object, during this period I take full responsibility” turned into a chronicle of mortal corruption. It proved that no matter how vulnerable and small one made themselves to others, mercy is a scarce talent and empathy is a gift few possess. 

After six hours of being jerked around, Abramović regained her senses and began walking towards the audience. The chapter had been written, but the authors were now fleeing the scene. Those with the nerve to cut her open couldn’t gather up the courage to look her in the eyes. The freedom to choose had made them turn visceral, violent, vile. No, their life hadn’t depended on it, nor had they had to sacrifice something to acquire that power. They had chosen, among an infinite array of possibilities, to hurt. 

To me it seems like an act of banality — the class clown in full bloom. A poorly written play, a satire, the world where words go when we are lost in translation. Because before the gun came the razor, not honey; before the sixth hour were five of slowly boiling blood. Not Abramović’s, but that of some pretentious “art lovers” who signed themselves up for an afternoon of “playing intellectual” and got a reflection of their inhumanity.

Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at