Performative Bodies: Serbian Female Artists in Post-Modernist Self-Identity in the Works of Marina Abramovic and Tanja Ostojic

By Stokic, Jovana | Serbian Studies, Summer-Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Performative Bodies: Serbian Female Artists in Post-Modernist Self-Identity in the Works of Marina Abramovic and Tanja Ostojic


Stokic, Jovana, Serbian Studies


In this paper I will discuss the notion of performativity as employed in the critical interpretation of performance and body art performed by female artists. I propose a model of performativity that explains the dynamic relationship of the artist within her own representations. According to this model, a painting or a performance cannot be a mere reflection of an artist's experience, but a performative action in which an artist actively performs not only her experience, but also creates her identity. A reading of specific art works as performative strategies is meant to establish them by transcending the categories of illustration, reflection, or personal testimony. To interpret these artistic operations as performative would signify that they are constituted as a dynamic cipher of the artist that functions in two ways--created by the artist, they create her identity in the performative action itself. I use as case studies the art practice of two female artists that deals with their own bodies: Marina Abramovic and Tanja Ostojic. The body enters a performative act as a main site of exchange--both of the viewing powers and the construction of self-identity (fig. 1).

I want to expose the processes of exposing oneself. This particular self is not a neutral, cerebral one. It is a gendered, sexualized self that has represented the female subject over roughly the last four decades, a period that coincided with the feminist movement. This trajectory should be understood only as one possible history--a history of female response within performance art--of the category that constituted art and aesthetics through the ages, i.e., the beauty of the human body. The artists I chose represent the main protagonists of these tendencies on the Yugoslav art scene from the 1970s until the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The Body Beautiful

The terror imposed by the "Ideal" of beauty was constructed in the absence of a "real" woman. But it would be simplistic to construct a debate in such an oppositional manner--as a dichotomy of real woman versus her ideal image. The feminist contestation of images of women in cinema and advertising constructed political reaction against the oppression and instrumentalization of the female body. (1)

The anger of the women's movement in the early 1970s was directed toward objectification as a strategy of oppression by patriarchal institutions. The issue of beauty as such played a minimal part in the initial feminist debates about images of women. The notion that women must reclaim beauty as something that is their choice and their judgment--not in the eye of the beholder, but in the mind of the beauty--is characteristic of the phase that dealt with the issue of the objectification of female subjects. (2)

My aim in this narrative is to introduce the body, and the ways it is understood in our postcolonial, postfeminist epoch. It is also notable that the end of modernism was signified by a beauty that reemerged in light of the postcolonial and feminist critique of race and gender. (3) The body that reemerged in all its dirty glory is a sexed, gestured, painted, and performed body. I will try to follow not only the discipline of art criticism, but larger discursive fields constructed around the notions of feminist aesthetics (feminine beauty), gender studies (gendered body), and psychology (body image). To make an argument for this reemergence of the unruly female body, I will use particular examples of artists' practices. These artists exposed themselves because that was the only way to expose patriarchal oppression. I limited my choice to two artists who, in my opinion, in a uniquely distinguished way succeeded in challenging the myth of beauty by exploiting their own.

My own critical intervention follows the strategy of displacement, as French theorist Francette Pacteau puts it, "from attributes of beauty to the attribution of beauty." (4) The site where, I believe, this displacement is enacted over and over again is the body: the artist's body, and the critic's body as well. …

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