Friday, 1 March 2013


Marina Abramovic during her performance "Rhythm 0" in 1974

Art is somewhere between reality and fiction, and this is where it can sneak under your skin - it can jolt you out of your day-to-day routines and fixed behavioural patterns, as it's almost real but not quite. At best it allows you to experience new thoughts and feelings, even experiment with them, within a frame work that is usually quite safe. I think most serious artists wish to provoke, and while a lot of artistic provocation can be seen as simplistic and coarse sensation-seeking, some of it can have a real impact on a person's consciousness. Interactive performance art, for instance, can give rise to role play that helps you question your own value systems, boundaries and social facade. I would think that good art balances somewhere between pleasing and displeasing the audience.

You have to admire Marina Abramovic for her persistance in using her own body, over and over again, for over 40 years, as her main artistic medium. I still have much discover about her performance art, and so this time I will only concentrate on one idea. In fact, it's about a piece of performance that happened a very long time ago, back in 1974. What I'm interested in is the constellation "victim versus predator". It really got me thinking, when a friend brought it to my attention. 

You can hear about the piece Rhythm 0 here in this video clip. With a few objects at hand, Marina put herself in the position of "victim" by allowing people to do things to her, using the items provided. They related to pleasure and pain. After a while, the atmosphere became aggressive and quite scary. People became provocative - one person dug thorns into her belly, and another put a loaded gun to her head. 

It's easy to be judgmental of the people who gave in to their aggressions. I think there's a great deal more to this set up though. For one thing, Marina is challenging the safe framework of art itself by introducing a lot of realism by being there herself and meeting the spectator, eye to eye. This is challenging art itself, as the situation draws closer to reality than fiction. The other important thing is that we are dealing with a very deep psychological issue that runs as a red thread through all of human life - it's the constellation of victim versus predator. This constellation is so much part of our consicousness and we all have feelings connected to these archetypal energies. It's also one of those troublesome issues that tend to get out of hand not just because of the very origins of these energies, but because they are so easy to identify with. While there are some people who are survivors in the deeper sense, i.e. they have risen above the dichotomy of victim and predator, most people identify to a very large extent with one or the other. It must be noted, that this usually happens subconsciously or half-consciously. Unconscious attitudes are part of our Shadow self, as defined long ago by Carl Gustav Jung. Whatever is half-conscious naturally lingers on the edge of the Shadow. Sometimes people are truly haunted by their shadow selves... but it's not always possible to know what's going on since that's in the nature of subconscious issues!

Victimization is typical in today's world, as it's easy to blame others for our misfortunes. As long as people aren't able to take responsibility for their experiences and trials in life, they will play the blame game. The people that are blamed are of course seen as predators or aggressors in one form or another. The people "on top" often dispise the "victims", who are seen as weak and incapable of "fixing" their own lives. They are often seen as the parasites who live off society and other people. Of course, these opinions are often unfounded, and at least partly imaginary. For instance, disabled people may be weak if compared with able bodied people, as they are unable to fit into a world that is designed for the fittest. It doesn't mean that they necessarily feel sorry for themselves and would be unable to contribute to society if given a fitting opportunity. The fitter people aren't always predators either, as many people simply aren't informed about the real state of affairs in the kind of complex reality that we live in.

So how does the Shadow work in practice? Our reality consists of constellations, i.e. relationships, most notably that of opposites. The interesting thing about them, is that opposites are two sides of one coin. You cannot have one without the other. Very often this means that a person is biased towards one side but not the other. Because the other side is the opposite of what we like to believe in, we tend to shun it and avoid having anything to do with it. Ironically, the more we fight it the more likely we are to attract it. This is because opposites go together!

For example (this is using the constellation of victim/predator as an example, but the same idea can be applied to any other psychological opposites. Note that the predator could be called many things, for instance the ones "in control", or "in charge", or "on top". Generally speaking, a victim appers weak and vulnerable while the predator seems strong and invincible):

People dislike a trait in others that they embody themselves, and this makes them feel "triggered" when they come in contact with those who own this trait. In other words, it's a trait they haven't owned themselves, but in order to become more mature they ought to start seeing it in themselves. This acknowledgment of the real state of affairs is crucial to healing. In fact, reconciling opposites in our psyche is how we evolve mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Opposite traits go hand in hand. A person who has a tendency to victimize themselves have an unconscious desire to be an aggressor, or someone who is "on top". They are often passive-aggressive as opposed to aggressive. An aggressor/predator, on the other hand, has a secret "inner victim" they don't want to know about, but therefore need to embrace. People with opposite traits are drawn to each other, as like does seem to attract like (or opposites attract each other, as is naturally also the case with these constellations, depending on how we look at it). They are going to push each other's buttons and things could get really ugly... if the situation isn't acknowledged and integrated into the psyche. This is the route to world peace!

There doesn't have to be a perfect match. Appearances can also cause people to be triggered. If someone perceives of another person as a victim who is fond of victimizing themselves, it may only be half the truth. Compare this with the case of the disabled person I used as an example above - the one who may be condemned unjustly. It doesn't mean the disabled person doesn't ever feel sorry for themselves, because we all do sometimes, and it's okay, because we're human... but it may be a great deal less than an arrogant and not very clear sighted onlooker might think. Sometimes it's enough to embody just a little bit of a trait that another person hates, to make them go off. When imagination is at play, facts tend to get distorted.

Can someone trigger other people without embodying their traits at all? It's an interesting question... I think you can be incredibly intuitive and pick up on people's weak spots. Only if these weaknesses really bother you, do you have a problem that you need to think about. If not, then you've repressed that trait in yourself very succesfully, or just happen to have a knack, i.e. you're just very perceptive. You might think it's a good thing to trigger others to react, but that sounds dangerously arrogant to me.

People who are marginalized or otherwise in the position of the underdog, will feel victimized at times. This is a natural feeling, but it becomes unhealthy when there's too much of it. The same goes for the opposite, which is that people who are powerful often have bloated egos and have many weak spots that have been covered up. In the world today, this constellation is prevalent and very taught. It desperately needs resolution, but this can only be acquired through compassion towards the self and others, as well as mindfulness and awareness of one's self. Self-knowledge is the key, as it's the route to a greater understanding of one's own real strengths and weaknesses. One needs to admit, that as a member of the human race we are naturally at times victims and predators, and that feelings such as vulnerability and anger are all natural. 

In short, looks can be deceptive - some people have a lot on their plate which naturally leads to many complex emotions and inner experiences in general, and change becomes more difficult. Such a person can appear weak from certain points of view, when in fact they are incredibly strong for holding it all together. Perhaps art can help express these ideas so that people get jolted out of their habitual attitudes and behavioural patterns... whatever helps rise such issues into consciousness seems like a noble pursuit to me.