Lygia Clark, Marina Abramović and the Performance-Art-Architecture Complex

by Sarah Rafson*

 The white cube, an architectural model that is now so cliché as to be nearly inextricable from the institutional space of art museums, was not an inevitable development, but one that arose in tandem with the modern art that it was designed to hold. Hal Foster describes the complicated relationship between the two in The Art-Architecture Complex, noting the now unavoidable presence of  “art in the space of architecture, architecture in (what was once considered) the place of art.”[1] Foster goes on to trace the development of this “complex” through time, in particular as new forms of architecture emerged to house art that challenged institutional mechanisms. For example, Minimalism, in the 1960s and 70s, “opened a structural gap in art institutions […]  prompt[ing] the partial expansion of exhibition formats beyond the given models of the traditional salon and the modernist white cube.”[2]

Looking forward to the twentieth century, critical attention increasingly turned to performance art as a nebulous category of practices that largely elude the mechanisms of institutional presentation and collection that help to define much of the art world. But, as performance art practices develop a recorded history and broader audience largely thanks to this critical reevaluation, capitalism and the so-called ‘experience economy’ have developed new methods to reify and commodify even the most immaterial practices. Performance art’s presence is increasingly felt within the institutions that they once challenged. By specifically focusing on the spatial conditions of performance art operating within an institutional context, I will examine the implications of performance art’s increasing institutionalization. The ‘white cube,’ which first emerged with modernist practices and was later challenged by Minimalism, will inevitably continue to evolve with new practices of performance art, in its multiple and diverse incarnations, as they emerge. By closely examining how performance art is circulated, exhibited, and preserved, this paper will explore the institutional mechanisms for configuring an audience for an artistic practice built around spectacle (or lack thereof).

Today, performance is challenging institutions by imposing ephemeral practices onto an institutional framework that is designed to be object-based. The ‘white cube’ must adapt and, to understand how and why, I will examine the case of Lygia Clark (1920-1988, Brazil), and compare her with Marina Abramović (b.1946, Serbia). Because each has distinct notions of performance and attitudes towards institutionalization, a comparison of their respective practices reveals the different possibilities as to how the white cube might evolve to accommodate both. The spatial implications and institutional aspirations of these two artists can help to imagine possibilities for what a new architecture for performance artists might be.

Lygia Clark

According to critic Guy Brett, Lygia Clark’s practice developed through a progressive overturning of three conventional artistic categories: artist, art object, and spectator, offering new notions of these categories without abandoning any of them completely. She began her career as a Concrete painter, revealing the flatness of her canvas before testing the boundaries of the frame that held it. Soon she pushed the static artworks hanging on gallery walls to become interactive, manipulable objects she would call Bichos (Animals, 1960) – flexible metallic sculptures with no fixed form or orientation. The faceted surfaces of the Bichos evolved into a single Möebius strip of paper to be cut endlessly by the viewer-cum-participant with scissors: Caminhando (Walking,1962). Increasingly, Clark engaged the audience as “users” as opposed to mere spectators, creating objetos relacionais (relational objects) that are not to be perceived, but rather to be “lived,” provoking a dialogue between object and the senses. During her exile in Paris, Clark entered the late phase of her work, privileging the body and behavior, with the tangible object reduced to mere prop. She created propositions, situations to be experienced within a “collective body” such as Canibalismo (Cannibalism, 1973), in which a group forms a circle around a person lying down wearing a suit, with fruit held inside a marsupial-like belly-pouch, that the group progressively devours. In ensuing years, her work slowly evolved into therapeutic practice, and her participant into patient.[3]

Clark’s oeuvre challenged Western notions of the artist as “a uniquely expressive being who solves poetic needs of others;” instead (in her words) “giv[ing] everything to the other, even the authorship of the work,” and later becoming “[an] emptying of the art object’s fetishistic value…[an] integration of the object in the experience of the subject.” [4] Her material had no value unless activated and experienced by the viewer. Her propositions were created collectively with her students at the Sorbonne in Paris and performed collectively, refusing the traditional boundaries of the concept of “spectator.”[5] Clark’s ephemeral, unconventional works went unrecognized by the art world until ten years after her death. Now, as her work circulates internationally in exhibitions, Clark has gained acceptance posthumously and the insertion of her work into the institutional context necessarily raises questions as to how it should be displayed and how it can be preserved. The propositions were born within the artists’ home studio and the Sorbonne, espoused as transformative collective experiences that explicitly reject the formats “performance” and “spectacle,” and, as Brett rightly asks:

What will happen to Lygia Clark’s work now that she is dead? Will we see the gradual institutionalization of a body of work which rejected the institutions of art, (the museum, the market of artworks, the artist as producer of unique objects) and searched for another destiny for its practices and insights? Can it maintain and renew its efficiency as a ‘life-act’? Where does it belong and where can its proposals be most effective? Was Lygia an ‘artist’ in the current sense of the term, or do her discoveries call for a new name which has not yet been found?[6]

In order to examine her legacy and address these questions, we must look critically at current institutional mechanisms and analyze the challenges and opportunities inherent in displaying and preserving a difficult medium—all the while provoking questions for what new options might exist.

Mechanisms of display

It is ironic that a work conceived in defiance of art world conventions would be lionized within it, and critic Yve-Alain Bois rightly assumes that there is “no other artist whose oeuvre a curator would find more difficult to present.”[7] Thus the mechanisms of display concerning her later propositions — the most immaterial and elusive chapter of her work, which is increasingly circulating worldwide — have become the subject of debate and speculation.  In face of such a challenge, The World of Lygia Clark Foundation has managed Lygia Clark’s legacy and archives since it was founded in May 2001 with the goal of minimizing the perversion of the meaning of her work when it is exhibited. The Clark Foundation, located in Rio de Janeiro, houses the artist’s archives and the most extensive records of her career, owns the original relational objects, the objects Clark used in her propositions, the specifications used to create authorized replicas of these objects, and copyrights to all of the documentation of the propositions that exist. With such a collection, the Foundation regulates the loan agreements to ensure that curators cannot exhibit Clark’s participatory works purely through documentation, or without encouraging the public to manipulate replicas of the relational objects for themselves. Stand-alone objects, like Clark’s relational objects, are easier to display and regulate than the collectively performed propositions, which are not quite performance and require more commitment from the visitor than simple manipulation of an object.

While the question of displaying the propositions first arose in the context of the São Paulo Biennial of 1994, it was not until 1997 that the Fundació Antoni Tápies in Barcelona became the first art institution to take on the task of curating a comprehensive retrospective of Lygia Clark’s work, which included the relatively unknown works made during the latter two-thirds of her life. The Tápies Foundation retrospective brought Clark’s later work to the consciousness of the contemporary art world more generally and positioned her as a key player in the development of body art and performance. The catalogue from the exhibition remains a key text within the scholarship on her practice.[8]

Disappointingly, however, viewed in this context of the Tápies Foundation exhibition, the propositions were reduced to mere spectacle. On the opening night of the retrospective, eight of Clark’s propositions were performed for an audience as well as her work Máscaras sensoriais (Sensorial Masks, 1967) and a reading of excerpts from Clark’s diary.[9] Choreographer Lia Rodrigues noted that she faced significant challenges in transforming Clark’s work into a show. The most complicated work presented that evening was Baba Antropofagica (Anthropophagic Saliva,1973), a human sensorial installation in which the participants, lying on the ground, are covered by lines of string drawn from reels that are in the mouths of others.[10] At the Tápies Foundation, the audience watched from a distance around a room in a large gallery; this configuration of the spectator was in direct opposition to the work as it was conceived.

A key question is whether the propositions could be exhibited and experienced as freely as her relational objects are by the public, rather than reduced to a television monitor playing video footage of her practice alongside a reconstruction of her therapy couch, as was done at the Tápies Foundation. The meaning in Clark’s propositions, as with her relational objects, lies in the experience of the work itself. Can the propositions be preserved purely as historical documentation, or can only be preserved as experiences?

As historical documentation, the propositions are preserved at the Clark Foundation in a variety of forms: photographs documenting the events (testaments to the existence of a “viewer” outside of the work); journal entries of Clark detailing the events; specifications of the objects (as technical drawings); and the original objects themselves, which were first used by Clark and her collaborators. But since her granddaughter Alessandra Clark opened the Clark Center in 2010, offering the Foundation and archive a new space, the propositions are now preserved through monthly reanimations, free and open to the public in the Clark Center’s gallery. During the restaging of the propositions in the small square gallery of the Clark Center, the Center’s collection of design objects remain on display within the gallery walls and diffuse track lighting is turned on. A thin layer of foam covered by cloth is placed in the center of the room to cushion the participants from the cold concrete floor. Every month, participants with first-hand experience with Clark’s proposals or special expertise on her work are invited to deliver historical reflection or interpretations as a preface to the proposition and occasionally perform their own interpretive works. Advertisements and press releases go out to local media. These re-stagings of the propositions reveal both the limitations and possibilities offered by the gallery atmosphere in preserving the spirit of Clark’s propositions. Reviving the works in their experiential capacity plays an important didactic role, yet it raises questions regarding the reproducibility of an action, which turns the propositions into “performance.” In the gallery of the Clark Center, the propositions are presented as “Lygia’s Greatest Hits,” fixed works that can be repeated endlessly, following a script, thus undercutting the “propositional” nature of Clark’s original intention.

And if the problem of proposition remains, so too does the problematic presence of an audience. Although Clark explicitly rejects the separation between audience and action, the very documentation of the original events that the archive holds suggests that even the original artworks might not have been purely participatory. The existence of a photographic and filmed record of her propositions affirms that there was an onlooker who remained disengaged in the proposition. However, in the gallery setting the experience of spectacle is heightened in a way that was never intended. In the Clark Center, the audience’s disengagement is not encouraged, but is inevitable. There are no chairs provided but the padded surface, which only partially covers the gallery floor, creates a clear delineation between stage and audience space; subsequently, the non-participants gravitate towards the edges of the room. The question is whether or not a spatial configuration that could intervene is possible, breaching the distance between spectator and actor.

One method of redressing the perversion of Clark’s propositions-as-spectacle was offered by Suely Rolnik, psychoanalyst, curator, scholar, as well as Clark’s friend and collaborator: no performance at all. As someone intellectually close with the artist, Rolnik argues that the propositions can never be reanimated in a way that would be true to the spirit of their original creation. After seeing Clark’s relational objects displayed on a pedestal at the Queens Museum of Art, Rolnik resolved to preserve the propositions as a lived experience by creating an extensive record of interviews with those who had lived it. The exhibitions she curated in Nantes, France and São Paulo in 2005 used these interviews as the core content. Visitors passed by monitors with the interviews as they entered the gallery, a room dedicated to the interviews, which, she says, were well-attended. The interviews communicated the transformative power of Clark’s work as it is manifest in lived experience; and while any reproduction or representation would compromise the nature of the propositions, the video is well-suited to museum viewership.

Spatial implications

Beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, museums have been built in increasingly diverse architectural styles and forms. Hal Foster writes that this recent wave of museum construction is ostentatious in that it is inherently “so performative or sculptural that artists might feel late to the party, collaborators after the fact.”  If Lygia Clark’s propositions do not operate within the logic of the white cube, what would a new architecture look like that did operate within the logic of her work? The propositions themselves have spatial and sometimes explicitly architectural qualities that could be telling in imagining a new home for Clark’s legacy. They are collective experiences mediated by objects, and in the case of Rede Elastico (Elastic Net, 1973), the object becomes a canopy and the participants’ bodies comprise the structure.

The synchronism between Clark’s sensorial exploration and architectural thought became clear in the propositions around 1969, although the “organic lines” of her early Concrete-style painting suggest a spatial quality.[11] The propositions and other works of her later period expand her practice to not only behavior, but to “environmental anti-art experiments,” which critic David Sperling describes as “focusing primarily on the open possibilities of behavior – more than the open structures of the object.”[12] Sperling summarizes Clark’s conceptualization of architecture as having three facets. The first is architecture’s experiential and transformational capacity. Within this dimension she used architecture to influence users through the senses, as she did with the relational objects that viewers could wear. The second facet is temporal: ephemeral and temporary spatial configurations are the architectural equivalents of her participatory works that used disposable materials, like the paper Caminhando. Finally, the third facet is the ability of her architectural work, like the artwork, to implicate the spectator as actor and co-author.[13]

Both Clark’s architectural ideas and the logic of the Bichos, her malleable metallic sculptures, found their architectural equivalent with her design for a home entitled Construa vôce mesmo o seu espaço a viver (Construct Your Own Living Space, 1960). This wooden model (102x57x19 cm), painted white with a thin Plexiglas roof, exemplifies an architectural system that challenges the architect-client relationship just as Clark challenged the artist-viewer relationship in her sculpture. In these houses, the kitchen and the bathroom are the only two fixed spaces in the structure, along with the flat, rectangular floor plate raised on a platform, and an equally minimal modern slab as a roof. The house’s walls are flexible, rolling along a grid of tracks inscribed into the ceiling, to be manipulated and reconfigured by the user at will. In this house, space becomes the record of the body’s actions, linking the architecture directly to the time of movement. Critic Ferreira Guillar eloquently describes Clark’s architecture: “time spatialized, and space is temporalized.”[14]

Perhaps ‘construct your own living space’ could become ‘construct your own museum.’ Alessandra Clark, in an interview in Rio de Janeiro, discussed nascent visions for a possible future house for Clark’s legacy. Discussing her grandmother’s architectural experiments, she says: “Oh yes, the build-it-yourself houses. That was our dream, to have a museum, Clark’s museum, with a permanent exhibition, a really big exhibition with this plan that she produced… these works will be there in three-dimensional form, objects to be manipulated [along with] everything in that space.”[15] While neither Alessandra Clark nor the Clark Foundation has indicated any plans to implement this imagined Lygia Clark Museum, it is an interesting provocation to the spatial implications of the artist’s work that should be taken seriously as a proposal for changing notions of the institution as “white cube.”  However, if we do take this provocation seriously, the agency of the viewer in arranging the space will be an important consideration in configuring the relationship between the artwork and the space in which it is presented and preserved. Clark never intended her work to be viewed as a fetishized art object; displayed in a building with the same malleable logic, perhaps it wouldn’t be. If entry into the white cube transformed the propositions into performance, the architecture would provoke a new kind of participation that might make the entire museum experience a “proposition” of sorts. Perhaps we should imagine a museum that would engage Clark’s architectural thought beyond the architectural model she already built in order to develop a new spatial strategy that draws on her notion of impermanence, relationship to the body as structure, collective authorship, and immersive sensorial experience.

Marina Abramović

The issue of developing an institutional architecture for performance art is a timely one; the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) is collaborating with Marina Abramović to design the Marina Abramović Institute of Long Duration Performance Art in Hudson, NY. The design has not yet been made public, but it has been described in interviews with the artist and architect.[16] Like the Dia, which Foster uses as an exemplar in The Art-Architecture Complex, the Abramović Institute will be one of a growing number of arts venues flowing upstream and upstate, and is a landmark collaboration in the (performance) art-architecture complex.  Only one of a number of collaborative projects in progress, OMA has been commissioned to translate Abramović’s performance practice and theory into architecture as begins to curate her legacy.[17] The center will be an institution and venue for long-duration performance, which according to Abramović, entails works of performance at least six-hours long. She states, “This is what I really want to leave as my legacy, an Institute for Long-Duration Performance Art.”[18] The conversion of an old theater, built in 1936, will focus on educating the public, and the architecture will contribute to that mission. As both an institution and performance venue, OMA partner Shohei Shigematsu describes what they envision as minimal intervention of the exterior, “insertion of a monastic box within the existing former theatre. [surrounded by] supporting programs.”[19]

Abramović’s work depends on an audience. As Abramović describes her work, “I could never do this alone. I always need the public to look at me because [this] creates an energy dialogue. You can get an enormous amount of energy from the public to cross your physical and mental limits.”[20] And if Clark’s experiential works have entered the white cube with trepidation, Abramović flourishes there. Her recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Artist Is Present (2010), was a blockbuster success (attracting 850,000 visitors over three months, more than any living artist in MoMA’s history) [21] and a chance for her to articulate her approach to performance, a nebulous and diverse genre. Her new institution will further her pedagogical initiative to create an audience for her work, and architects are co-conspirators in her mission.

Abramović’s performances are intended to have a transformative power over the audience, as she has them watch her inflict violence over her own body; scream until she loses her voice; or in the case of the primary attraction of The Artist is Present, spend 700 hours seated in MoMA’s atrium, staring with an unwavering glance at viewers seated before her.[22] She explains, “I always believe the artist’s function is to connect the disconnected society and give them some kind of awareness, not just spiritual but about what they live, awareness of the temporality… There’s some kind of chemistry that happens between the performer and the observer, but they both have to be in the present time.”[23]

Although Abramović’s work will not be performed at the Institute, the configuration of the Institute will manifest spatially the performer-audience chemistry that is vital to her performance. Unlike Clark’s propositions, Abramović considers performance an object (or text), which can be repeated, reanimated, quoted and/or re-performed by either the artist or others. In this way, she departs from the unique, time-based elements upon which much performance art has been based.[24] Several artists re-performed Abramović’s seminal pieces in her retrospective The Artist Is Present as an exploration of  “how performance can be present in the museum, live” and, it seems, her future Institute.[25] According to OMA’s Shohei Shigematsu, translating long-duration performance art into architecture involves two primary considerations: the stage and the seats that will structure the relationship between artist and audience. Shigematsu states, “Typically in a theatre space there’s the performer and the audience, but we’re trying to make it almost side by side so that wherever you are, you can always look into the performance. You choose your level of involvement, but wherever you are, you are always connected to the performer.” [26] The tyranny of the performer over the space of the Institute recalls Abramović’s reign over MoMA’s monumental sculpture gallery during The Artist is Present, intended to be viewed from multiple viewpoints throughout the museum, even providing spectators telescopes to do so. [27]

Shigematsu explains that the architects are developing “the chairs together with Marina – some kind of a chair that allows people to sleep but also move around. We want to develop something with her that would allow people to sleep and also roll over.”[28] Abramović’s account of the seating design emphasizes the comfort of the spectator:

If you’re watching something, you feel sleepy you pull out a blanket and you fall asleep. You wake up and the piece is still going on. On the left side of your chair you have a cooler so you can have a drink. And on the right side is a hot meal so you can eat. And then you can renew your energy to observe the work and see what’s happening. So that you’re really surrounded by art and that it becomes a new existence for you.”[29]

The attention to comfort she describes for the audience seems deeply ironic as they eat, drink and sleep while watching the performer negotiate their own physical limitations on stage. Inviting sleep seems to counteract the performers’ need for the audience’s energy to perform for such long-duration, physically demanding pieces. Unconfirmed rumors are circulating that the audience’s chairs will roll around the floor, to different zones depending on whether they are asleep or awake. Here the audience is activated and irrevocably connected to the performance by proximity to the performer and yet pacified in the glorified La-Z-Boy chairs.

Clark, Abramović and other artists whose primary medium is immaterial, are giving architecture an important provocation, expanding our notion of what constitutes architecture, how it can be a conduit for behavior and perception, and most importantly, how it can be produced. Clark’s art performs a type of architecture, while Abramović calls on architecture to preserve performance, practices increasingly adding complexity to the art-architecture complex. The new architecture of performance, like the art itself, responds to and directs the behavior of the people in a way that expands what is possible within the white cube. A new concept of space challenges the objecthood of architecture the way it contests the conventional notions of an art object. Neither the architecture nor the art need be a singular, fixed form, but a participant in a dialogue with its users that, like Clark’s propositions, must be inhabited to be fully understood.  While the details of the Abramović Institute are still to be revealed, the architects have devised a telling dichotomy within the monastic box that houses dynamic space. If performance art shifts its audience from a passive into an active role, a new architecture must shift its focus from the walls that define space to the interaction within them. In this way, the expansion of performance art is re-conditioning an audience to experience both art and architecture.


[1] Hal Foster. The Art-Architecture Complex (New York: Verso, 2011), vii.

[2] Ibid., 110-111.

[3] Guy Brett. “Lygia Clark: Six Cells,” in Lygia Clark (Barcelona: Fundació Antoni Tápies, 1997), 18. To date, Alvaro Clark, Clark’s son, estimates that 26 psychotherapy schools in Brazil teach the Clark technique.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lars Bang Larsen and Suely Rolnik, “On Lygia Clark’s Structuring the Self,” Afterall 15 (2007), accessed April 29, 2012.

[8] Suely Rolnik, Interview, March 31, 2012. Skype.

[9] Cristian Klein, “Nenhum homem faria o que fiz,” unidentified source, Clark Foundation Archives.

[10] Cristian Klein, “Novas visões para a ‘Baba cósmica’ e reflexes de Lygia lembradas em voz alta,” 1998. Unidentified source, Clark Foundation Archives.

[11] David Sperling, “Body + Art = Architecture: Propositions by Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark,” in Fios Soltos: a arte de helio oiticica, ed, Paula Braga. Trans, Benjamin Kohn (Sao Paulo: Perspectiva, 2008), 136 &142.

[12] Ibid., 136. These architectures included spatial installations such as “Arquiteturas Biologicas” (Biological Architectures), and “A Casa é o Corpo: Laberinto” (The House is a Body: Labyrinth, 1968). The House is a Body was an installation that spatially interpreted the process of conception and birth, leading visitors through a symbolic of “rebirth.”

[13] Ibid., 144.

[14] Ibid., 142.

[15] Interview: Alessandra Clark, Rio de Janeiro, March XX, 2012.

[16] The Institute’s design will be made public in May 2012. See: Janelle Zara, “It Reflects Her Obsession”: OMA’s Shohei Shigematsu on Building Marina Abramović’s Performance Palace.” ArtInfo, Feb. 23, 2012 and “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present/ Institute For Long Duration Performance Art,” Dir. Howard Silver for FLY16X9, available http://www.fly16x9.com/art/index.php?id=99.

[17] Janelle Zara, “It Reflects Her Obsession”: OMA’s Shohei Shigematsu on Building Marina Abramović’s Performance Palace.” ArtInfo,February 23, 2012, accessed online.

[18] “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present/ Institute For Long Duration Performance Art,” Dir. Howard Silver for FLY16X9, available http://www.fly16x9.com/art/index.php?id=99

[19] Zara, “It Reflects Her Obsession.”

[20] David Elliot, “Balkan Baroque,” in Marina Abramovic: objects performance video sound, ed. Chrissie Iles (Oxford, U.K. : Museum of Modern Art Oxford ; Stuttgart, Germany : Edition Hansjorg Mayer, 1995), 63.

[21] “Marina Abramović: The Abramović Method,” Bonsai TV, March 20, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyq-0uPBTMI

[22] See, The Artist Is Present exhibition website: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/marinaabramovic/

[23] “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present/ Institute For Long Duration Performance Art.”

[24] Elliot, “Balkan Baroque,” 63.

[25] “Live at MoMA,” MoMA interactive video, accessed online: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/marinaabramovic/. April 29, 2012.

[26] Zara, “It Reflects Her Obsession.”

[27] “Live at MoMA,” MoMA interactive video.

[28] Janelle Zara, “It Reflects Her Obsession.”

[29] “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present/ Institute For Long Duration Performance Art,” Dir. Howard Silver for FLY16X9, available http://www.fly16x9.com/art/index.php?id=99

*Sarah Rafson is a first year student in the MA Program in Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at Columbia University.