The Genteel
April 22, 2021


Marina Abramović sitting on a chair for several months as part of her 'The Artist is Present' exhibition. Source:

Since the early 1970s, Belgrade-born, New York-based performance artist Marina Abramović has been shocking unsuspecting crowds while performing particularly sensational and "hardcore" acts in public. Her repertoire of works include those challenging states of consciousness, pushing the limits of experienced emotions, and even harming her body until severely wounded, bleeding or even seizing.

Marina Abramovic Performance Art

Performance Artist Marina Abramović.

Her recent show at the 2013 Toronto Luminato Festival has reignited public interest in the genre of performance art. It is perhaps unsurprising; Abramović's work is intriguing and stimulating and viewers and journalists alike can't seem to take their eyes off her. 

Her most notable work to date has been her 2010 exhibition, "The Artist is Present," at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), viewed by an audience of more than 850,000, breaking previous MoMA attendance records. The exhibit included five of her past installations re-enacted by young performance artists, along with the piece de résistance, Abramović sitting in a chair, completely still for months on end. 

The exhibition was so well-received that the masses camped out, celebrities stopped by (James Franco, Alan Rickman, and performance artist herself, Lada Gaga), various websites strictly dedicated to the exhibit surfaced, the house of Givenchy hosted a dinner in her honour, not to mention a feature-length documentary film, The Artist Is Present (2010), was made covering the comprehensive process. 

Earlier this June, I also came across an article published in Toronto Life, entitled "The Argument: Why We Can't Stop Gawking at Marina Abramović's Pain." Written by Rachel Heinrichs, the article elucidated Abramović's fascinating history and her current work in the autobiographical opera, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović.

The more I learned about Abramović (all I really knew was that her character was portrayed in season six of Sex and The City), the more I realised how many uncanny similarities exist between performance art and everyday fashion on the street.

Specifically, I saw five parallels between personal style and the presentation of performance art. Firstly, a costume is necessary for both. Whether it is nudity (which Abramović so frequently chooses to use) or a vintage, weathered, leather jacket, costume frames the act.

As [Joanne] Entwistle stated in her book, "The social world is a world of dressed bodies".

Secondly, both personal style and performance art use the body as their medium. The latter manipulates the body as a tool to communicate a message, while fashion, as Joanne Entwistle wrote in her 2000 book, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, "is about bodies: it is produced, promoted and worn by bodies. It is the body that fashion speaks to and it is the body that must be dressed in almost all social encounters." While the messages of performance art and personal style may dramatically vary, they both share the body as their medium. 

Thirdly, both forms of art develop through one's mind. As Abramović acutely put it in her documentary, performance art is all about a state of mind. Thus, an efficacious performance art show is contingent on the narrative of the mind. According to Heinrichs, Abramović's narratives have varied from demonstrating the complexities of war guilt through acts of scrubbing "bloody, maggot-infested cow bones" clean and challenging conventional notions of beauty through brushing one's head until it bleeds. The same instruction is true for personal style. Despite fashion's evident dependence on aesthetics, the wearer's individual story must be orchestrated. Without a confident narrative (both in strength and quality), viewers will lose interest. 

Fourthly, in addition to conceiving a narrative, a current state of mind is critical; being present (both physically and mentally) allows the character to play a successful show. Take the title of Abramović's exhibit for instance, "The Artist is Present". It highlights the value she places on the artist being focused on the here and now. Likewise, being in the moment is the basis of fashion. The very definition of being "in fashion" is based around the idea of being in the now. Sure, there are cyclical trends and inspirations from previous eras that influence current trends, but these have evolved and modified into "today's version" of the past through updated silhouettes, mixing and matching eras, and/or incorporating selected outdated pieces with contemporary wear. Thus in order to be "in fashion" now, one cannot simply drape themselves head-to-toe in garments from the past, but rather use them in a post-modern way.

Marina Abramović performance art cleaning the mirror
 'Cleaning the Mirror I' (2005) by
Marina Abramović. Source:

Finally, performance art and personal style both ultimately depend on having an audience. Fashion is a social experience that simply does not function without people. Fashion, or personal style for that matter, needs an audience; without people there is no medium for fashion to transmit its message. As Entwistle stated in her book, "The social world is a world of dressed bodies." The same is true for performance art; without people to receive the performance, it loses its utility.

In addition to these similarities, fashion and performance art have both been criticised for not being legitimate forms of art. Both have a lengthy history of struggling to validate their practice as worthy of serious, artistic consideration. These art forms have either been considered to be too frivolous, too scandalous, or too simple to reach true "art" status. However, with the rise of museum appreciation for both art forms (Abramović and Alexander McQueen exhibitions breaking record attendances at the MoMA), performance art and fashion have finally begun to gain recognition.

So, next time you see someone walking down the street with a certain sense of style, take a step back and witness the performance taking place. Like in the depths of an Abramović exhibit, it is a performance founded in the harmonious relationship between costume, body, mind and audience. If we are to understand fashion in this way - as a performance - perhaps it explains why so many people fear owning a personal style; they do not fear fashion itself, but rather the risk of a bad show. 



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.