On Marina Abramović and Pornography

“Simone was tall and lovely. She was usually very natural; there was nothing heartbreaking in her eyes or her voice. But on a sensual level, she so bluntly craved any upheaval that the faintest call from the senses gave her a look directly suggestive of all things linked to deep sexuality, such as blood, suffocation, sudden terror, crime; things indefinitely destroying human bliss and honesty.”

Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye (1928)
Marina Abramović: Presence and Absence (film still; 2022). Courtesy the artist and Pitt-Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Recently I visited Marina Abramović’s exhibition Gates and Portals at Modern Art Oxford, and what surprised me most was how the experience reminded me so strongly of my (almost forgotten) state of mind during an 8 day hospital stay in January this year. The hospital and the performance art elicited the same feeling in me, though they are very different contexts: it was a calm but out-of-control feeling, not unpleasant, but also not quite relaxed, very rooted in the moment of existence – ‘mindful’, or mind-full, I suppose some would say. The hospital is when I really had to accept relinquishing any power or autonomy I may have had, and practised allowing fear to simply ebb away. Physically my senses were overwhelmed, which allowed for a tranquil submission to the nurses and doctors, an uncanny experience which resurfaced, like deja-vu, with a similar submission to the gallery staff who led me through the Abramović exhibition.

I was thinking about writing this blog most of the time I was in the exhibition, which slightly went against the silent meditative state the visitor was supposed to embrace. I also noticed, about every two minutes, I would have forgotten to breath and had to take a big deep inhalation. I would then tell myself to breathe normally and regularly and focus on my breathing, but I would almost instantly forget and move on to other thoughts.

The artist and the crystal/LED portal as part of the exhibition Gates and Portals (Modern Art Oxford, 2022)

During my visit to Oxford I was also reading my new book, Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille, a fascinating, violent pornographic work of Surrealist literature. The story, though short, is accompanied by a psychological deconstruction of its recurring symbols and primary inspirations (eggs, eyes, urine and testicles) by the author himself, an essential addition. Following this were two essays by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. It is the Susan Sontag essay on pornography that I was reading after visiting the Abramović show that linked both the exhibition and the Bataille story in my mind.

Sontag starts her essay on the pornographic imagination with separating the species of pornography into three distinct breeds: the historical (a society’s attitudes towards sexual behaviour), the physiological (the effects the depiction of sexual acts has on the body) and the artistic (an ambiguous world of sexually explicit works of art which “utilise extreme forms of consciousness that transcend social personality or psychological individuality,” as Sontag later writes). Works of literature such as The Story of O, Naked Lunch, and Story of the Eye itself fall into this last tricky category.

Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye with cover design by Michael Werner (1979)

It made me think, here are three modalities of depicting the sexual body for three different ends, and these three modes can also be used for the ill/sick/injured body, in its equal overwhelming physicality. My experience in the hospital and in the gallery were both rooted in the body, trying to escape from the body perhaps, and the overarching quality of the experience could also be split into three categories: the medical (a broken leg), the recreational (a yoga class) and the artistic (the exhibition). All of the above bring in questions to me about choice: choosing to put yourself in these places, to allow these things to affect yourself in different ways, or if not a choice then ideas of transcending or metamorphosing these physical states; exerting control over the uncontrollable, the biological, the automatic responses of the body, whether the external stimulus is sex, pain or something else like grief or love; whether the results are traumatic, ecstatic or somewhere in-between.

Here is something else that occurred to me while I was in gallery: Simone from Story of the Eye or any of the Marquis de Sade’s libertines would not be able to stand in a room in silence, blindfolded, for an undetermined amount of time. These characters do not know ‘human bliss and honesty’, the things Abramović has attempted to achieve through her curated experiences. The libertine in the pornographic imagination is a vacuum, a slave to their insatiable libido, the drive to overwhelm the senses, to destroy the mind, to scream into the void. Pornography (by which I mean pornographic literature) is a literature of bodies, a language of sensory extremism to express chaos, nihilism, obsession, ecstasy. It is all about using bodies to break through into altered states, to intoxicate and transcend. Abramović’s work does something similar in an opposite way; focusing inwards, using the body, breathing, meditation to achieve higher states of consciousness. Pornography aims to achieve lower states – or different states. The differentiation between higher and lower states of consciousness is to me a little arbitrary; perhaps it is more accurate to say they are using similar techniques for different ends; one to relinquish the body to the mind, the other to release the mind to the body.

As a final thought, I wanted to address Marina’s interest in shifting energy, energy from ancient sacred objects either created or discovered. The artist has, simultaneously, a presentation at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford complementing the MAO show, and there are vitrines and a film about this work that you can see after leaving the main gallery space. This work, as can be seen in the first image at the top where the artist is passing her hands over something called a ‘witch stick’ from the Pitt-Rivers collection, adds an interesting dimension concerning the role of objects and their relation to the body in ancient wisdoms and philosophies. The energy of the eye, the egg, physical symbols of transcended states beyond the body. The title of the exhibition, Gates and Portals, is very important here: it describes a violent or gentle transcendence from the body into ecstasy, into the loss of the self, and those objects or sensory experiences as gates and portals to altered consciousnesses.

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