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Going Beyond the Extra Mile in the Name of Art

Let's talk about Contemporary Art. Yes, I'm serious. I may not be an art expert, but I am quite a fan, especially of the extremes. I find they stir up the most emotion and thought. In exploring extremes, I often end up staring at peculiar post-modern art and artists who merge time and nothingness while contemplating eternity. An ever-churning maelstrom of juxtaposition that evokes deep emotional responses, and takes ‘suffering for art’ to the next level while tackling the most prevalent question in the art world like never before: ‘Is it art?’ Some of the artists to ask and answer are Marina Abramovic, Mary Ellen Mark, Ai Weiwei and ORLAN.

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Vulnerability, Connection and Transcendence - Marina Abramovic

Manfred Werner

In the name of art, Marina Abramovic has whipped herself, cut a star into the skin of her stomach, not eaten lunch for a year in preparation of a project, and passed out from lack of oxygen during a performance. Despite challenging physical endurance, Abramovic’s most profound work brings herself and her audience to psychological extremes. ‘Rhythm O’ exposed humanity’s darker side when Abramovic arranged several benign and potentially harmful objects and encouraged visitors to do what they like using objects like a feather, a rose, a knife and a loaded gun on her. She was stroked, but she was also cut. In ‘512 Hours’ she invited over 60,000 individuals to join her for one of 64 days. During this time, the participants wore noise-blocking earphones and did nothing but stare at blank walls and remain still. Results were intense and varied between visitors experiencing elation, terror, alienation and some even experiencing total transcendence. For ‘The Artist is Present’ participants were once again encouraged to confront themselves by simply sitting opposite Abramovic while observing one another. Again, internal vulnerabilities were explored and deep connections were made. When asked about her art she once said, "I just want to create situations where people forget time."

Unblinking Compassion – Mary Ellen Mark


The faces of the women shot by Mary Ellen Mark’s camera lens reflect a kaleidoscope of human emotion. Through Mark’s unwavering resolve as photographic artist, the residents of Ward 81 were able to share their stories with the world – despite many having no desire to, or even knowledge of doing so. Some of the subjects had been lobotomized, or suffered with the devastating effects of long-term electroshock therapy. Most experienced fluctuating emotions including bewilderment, anger, joy and confusion. None of them were able to function in society. Mary Ellen Mark wanted to achieve more than a good snapshot, she was searching for profound, intimate and boldly realistic portraits so she moved into the ward. For 36 days she lived among the 20 women of Ward 81. With them she created a powerful artwork in the form of a scrapbook of poignant moments captured on film.

Activism Through Art – Ai Weiwei

Alfred Weidinger

‘She lived happily for seven years in this world’ were the words of a mother whose daughter died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. These are also the words used in the Chinese text that covered the façade of Haus der Kunst in Germany. The text was created by Ai Weiwei using children’s backpacks after several schools collapsed during the earthquake. According to the artist the schools had been badly constructed because of official corruption. Ai is famous for his acerbic criticism of the Chinese government and other contentious topics through his art. For this the artist’s blog was shut down, his studio was wrecked, he was detained in a secret location for 81 days, billed over US$1.5 million by the government for fines and taxes, and banned from leaving his country for more than four years.

Post-Human Transformation - Orlan


Self-proclaimed narcissist, Orlan claims that she wants to disrupt the standards of beauty - and she is doing so through carnal art. In a struggle against the innate, the artist altered her face with a series of plastic surgery procedures. A total of nine operations were performed while she was conscious (!) and were accompanied by music or poetry readings. The surgeries were designed to transform the artist’s face to resemble famous women in art, like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Botticelli’s Venus. Orlan’s work merges together the real and imagined body, with the emotional, social, hybrid, and mystic body and defines her identity as shifting, mutant, nomadic and transient.

So, what do you think? Is it art? Has an increasingly desensitized society, demanded that artists answer this question with shock rather than substance?

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