I’ve been pretty silent here for a while. There are reasons, of course; there always are. But I would like to be saying more in this space. It’s just that the things that are happening to me in the kink realm seem increasingly private, and it’s hard to talk about them in a space where so many people know my real name.
Instead I’ll talk about the woman in the Firefox window I’ve had open for a month, Marina Abramović.
For those who don’t know (because I certainly didn’t), Abramović is a performance artist who began her career in the 1970s. Her work was explicitly about the body: what it can take, and to whom it belongs. She did work that was grueling, painful, and sometimes close to lethal. In what was likely her most famous piece, Rhythm 0, she stood completely passive and silent for six hours near a table full of objects: chains, feathers, olive oil, razor blades, cameras – and a loaded gun. Audience members were invited to do whatever they liked to her, and while at first people were reluctant, by the end a spectator was holding the gun to her neck until another group of audience members stopped it.
Throughout her career, she has demanded that the audience engage with the art directly – and she has demanded endurance and discipline of herself which, reading about her, made me think of the most extreme forms of submission and service. In this latest exhibition, she sits in a chair, completely silent, and stares into the eyes of whomever cares to sit across from her and look. She did not speak for three months. In older works, besides the extremity of Rhythm 0, she played the point of a knife between her splayed fingers as fast as she could, sometimes missing and cutting herself. When she would complete a cycle, she would attempt to repeat it exactly – including the cuts. With her long-term partner, Ulay, she did a piece where he held the string of a bow, with an arrow pointed at her heart; she held the bow itself, and the two of them leaned back, balancing each other. (A video of this and other pieces is here.) She did a piece in which she lay in the midst of a burning five-pointed star, and one in which she lived on platforms raised high above the gallery floor for twelve days without eating or speaking. The only way down was via ladders, the rungs of which were upturned butcher knives.
The dedication and grace with which this great artist has put herself through privation, suffering and humiliation are admirable in a stark way, that moves me as a person interested in the extremes of human experience. It offers, to me, another window into why we do what we do. Sometimes – often, in fact – it is about sex. But not always. Sometimes, it feels to me, we are reaching for something more: a spiritual cleansing, a direct encounter with our own limits, the kind of fear that allows one to walk the line between life and death without falling in, because the guide, your partner, is there. Watch this to get a sense of that peculiar terror, the predicament that you’ve entered into willingly.
She performed these pieces to say a number of things: about the body, about limits, about Communism and the terror under which she grew up. But it still strikes me, the way we still do these things ourselves: the way we subject ourselves to suffering in order to learn something about ourselves and what we can take. To show ourselves that suffering has meaning.
Because we all suffer, each in our particular way, from the most abject to the most privileged among us. Not many of us can claim the kind of suffering Abramović endured under Tito – but perhaps that’s exactly why we put ourselves through what we do.
I don’t believe, as some do, that kinky inclinations are the result of a diseased mind. But I do imagine that most kinky people are in semi-privileged positions – and for those of us who have never known what it’s like to starve, live in war or occupation, or really hurt people for a living, it can be very intriguing to get close to violence, to put yourself through the kind of challenge that humans who live indoors and have TiVo are rarely called to anymore.
Sure, kink is sexy. Sure, power play is hot. But for me, at least, there’s something more to it. It’s about overcoming fear – or about seeing that fear in someone else’s eyes. It’s about seeing how much pain I can take before I break. It’s about finding my limits. It’s about knowing myself – and stretching the definition.
More of Marina here.