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April 18, 2021

Marina Abramović and Ulay Performing ‘Breathing In, Breathing Out’ (1977–1978)

Breathing In, Breathing Out is a performance piece by Marina Abramović and Ulay. It was performed twice, in Belgrade (1977) and Amsterdam (1978).

For this performance the two artists blocked their nostrils with cigarette filters and pressed their mouths together, so that one couldn’t inhale anything else but the exhalation of the other. As the carbon dioxide filled their lungs, they began to sweat, move vehemently and wear themselves out; the viewers could sense their agony through the projected sound of breathing, which was augmented via microphones attached to their chests.

It took them 19 minutes in the first performance and 15 in the second to consume all the oxygen in that one breath and reach the verge of passing out.

During the 19 minutes of the Performance at the Studenski Kulturni Centar in Belgrade, one hears the noise of their breathing in and out. Ulay commented on the Performance: “I breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.” Abramović: “I breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out carbon dioxide,” and Ulay repeated Marina’s sentence.

The second part of the Performance took place in November of the same year at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Here, breath as the giver of life becomes a symbol of keeping one another alive, of interdependence and of the interchange between male and female principle.

In 1976, after moving to Amsterdam, Marina Abramović met the West German performance artist Uwe Laysiepen, who went by the single name Ulay. They began living and performing together that year. When Abramović and Ulay began their collaboration, the main concepts they explored were the ego and artistic identity. They created “relation works” characterized by constant movement, change, process and “art vital”. This was the beginning of a decade of influential collaborative work. Each performer was interested in the traditions of their cultural heritage and the individual's desire for ritual. Consequently, they decided to form a collective being called “The Other”, and spoke of themselves as parts of a “two-headed body.” They dressed and behaved like twins and created a relationship of complete trust. As they defined this phantom identity, their individual identities became less accessible. In an analysis of phantom artistic identities, Charles Green has noted that this allowed a deeper understanding of the artist as performer, for it revealed a way of “having the artistic self-made available for self-scrutiny.”

The work of Abramović and Ulay tested the physical limits of the body and explored male and female principles, psychic energy, transcendental meditation and nonverbal communication. While some critics have explored the idea of a hermaphroditic state of being as a feminist statement, Abramović herself denies considering this as a conscious concept. Her body studies, she insists, have always been concerned primarily with the body as the unit of an individual, a tendency she traces to her parents’ military pasts. Rather than concerning themselves with gender ideologies, Abramović/Ulay explored extreme states of consciousness and their relationship to architectural space. They devised a series of works in which their bodies created additional spaces for audience interaction. In discussing this phase of her performance history, she has said: “The main problem in this relationship was what to do with the two artists’ egos. I had to find out how to put my ego down, as did he, to create something like a hermaphroditic state of being that we called the death self.”


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