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Embodying the Sacred: Marina Abramović, Transcultural Aesthetics, and the Global Geography of Art


In 2014 Marina Abramović (1946- ) was repeatedly recognized by the international art press as the most powerful woman in the world of Contemporary art, achieving creative significance greater than ever before. Abramović’s global prominence is unquestioned, yet major art historical surveys foreground trauma and her youth in communist Yugoslavia rather than her extensive investment in non-Western culture and religion as her most significant, creative influences. This study, argues the career of the artist as a paradigm of global Contemporary art based on her transcultural performance aesthetic with emphasis on religious sources developed through worldwide travel. This study establishes how her work brings a new set of bodily practices into use, uniting sacred and secular across cultures and religions on five continents, transforming how the public encounters diversity.

Abramović’s performance aesthetic has three major phases of development that receive phenomenological analysis in terms of her experience of intersubjective contact. Her early works highlight the instability of boundaries between art and life through the repeated interventions of the public in her work. Collaboration with partner Ulay expanded her engagement with others through their exploration of ritualized intimacy. Her late solo works diversify this engagement with participatory works that include the public, resulting in an open aesthetic that secularizes spiritual experience across religious traditions.

Nine chapters survey Abramović’s career with specific attention to embodiment as the paradigm of transculturation. Her body as the medium of art is at the center of forces of climate, geography, indigenous peoples, transnational diplomacy, religious practice, and intimacy, which this study demonstrates are influences on her performances of long duration. The project’s wide scope relies on scholarship and methods from anthropology, art history, digital humanities, geography, literature, performance studies, and philosophy to articulate the origins and outcomes of Abramović’s aesthetic pluralism. I trace the influences Abramović introduced into her aesthetic as expressions of her experience of landscape and culture, detailing the religious dimensions of ritual in her performance. The dissertation places events in their global spatial context of landscape, institutions, and digital mediation to argue her practice participates in cultural globalization as an agent of transculturation.

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