The influence of Marina Abramovic on Franz Kafka

by on Jun.29, 2011

abramovic 1977

Marina Abramovic 1977

Nietzsche in The Gay Science: The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the cloaks of the objective, ideal, and purely spiritual goes to frightening lengths—and often I have asked myself whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body.

Foucault: To follow the complex course of [historical] descent is to identify the accidents, the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents.

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Over the years, I’ve read a few pieces on the retroactive aspect of influence, of new or at least newer works of art influencing how we see older works of art: for example, it is probably difficult for most of us to read Nietzsche without thinking of the way his thought has been written about by writers like Foucault, and I know that personally I have a hard time reading Cervantes without thinking about Nabokov and Borges. One line of thought argues that we should try to erase those later works from our reading, and I can see the value in attempting to reach back, to think in modes that are basically extinct (even if this type of thinking might be largely a contemporary fiction).

But I am interested in how the idea of retroactive influence can be a move against our linear and patriarchal sense of cultural inheritance. One example is that of the influence of Marina Abramovic on Kafka (or, rather, how her work might radically alter our sense of Kafka). In “The Hunger Artist,” Kafka’s protagonist is striking in his purposelessness: his feat is ignored by the public, and his torturous performance overflows any clear allegory. He does say, when he is finally taken from the cage, and right before he dies, that he never found a food that satisfied him, and that if he had, he would have eaten as much as anyone. But even this, which has been interpreted in many spiritual and political ways, holds itself away from any conceptual framework. In fact, no matter what interpretation we have for “food” in this context, it seems to lessen the power of the story. Maybe the most radical reading would be to take “food” literally in all of its blatant materiality.

Similarly, I’ve sometimes heard people wondering why Marina Abramovich would put on a performance in which she takes a pill for catatonia, as she does in Rhythm 2, from 1977, or, maybe most notoriously, her performance in Naples in 1974, where she placed various implements on a table (blades, a gun, a bullet, etc.) and put up a sign telling the audience that they could do what they wanted to her (Rhythm 0). What is the point? might be a banal question, but it also reveals something fundamental to both Kafka’s Hunger Artist and Abramovic. With both we see the way Art, by undermining our usual, casual assumptions about healthy responses and reasonable calculations, can expose how the ground at our feet is based on little, almost nothing…And to get back to influence: Abramovich, I would argue, shows us a new Kafka, our at least a new Hunger Artist, that is impossible to forget.

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