Marina Abramović Meets Bonita Ely/ Contemporary Female Performance Artists

Essay by Luke Foster

“I am only interested in the ideas that become obsessive and make me feel uneasy. The ideas that I’m afraid of.”

Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic born November 30 1946 is a Serbian performance artist. Her work explores the relationship between performer and audience and performer, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind. Being active for over four decades Abramovic refers to herself as the ‘grandmother of performance art.’ She pioneered a new notion of identity by bringing the participation of observers, focusing on “confronting pain, blood, and physical limits of the body”.

Wiki Art Website

Bonita Ely and Joan Grounds were my favourite artists and lecturers in the sculpture department at College of Fine Arts in Sydney in the nineties. Both were interested in deeply personal work that also associated with saving the environment and feminist issues.

Joan Grounds installing an Installation

It’s interesting as my sculpture was quite terrible in second year when I had Bonita as a lecturer and it took years for my work to improve. I remember I was reading Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider and mentioned to Bonita that I wasn’t sure if I should be a visual artist or a writer and she said I needed to decide and choose one. But here I am decades later doing both. Maybe I still need to choose one and focus on that. But I am not sure.

Bonita was always kind to me as I was always broke, and I remember she paid me to help construct a wooden sculpture at her warehouse in Paddington once.

I think the link between both Marina and Bonita is that they were deeply influenced by my favourite artist Joseph Beuys. Bonita made a performance: Dog Woman Makes History reminiscent of Beuys performance artworks and Marina actually restaged the iconic Beuys performance: How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.

Beuys once stated: For me, the Hare is a symbol of incarnation, which the hare really enacts- something a human can only do in imagination. It burrows, building itself a home in the earth. Thus, it incarnates itself in the earth: that alone is important.”

Beuys was interested in empowering women and was one of the first international environmental artists including his installation 7000 Oaks where he planted oak trees around Germany with a basalt rock next to each tree.

Beuys 7000 Oaks

I consider both artists are feminist in nature and the icon of feminist philosophy is the Australian Germaine Greer who wrote the book the Female Eunuch.

“It takes a great deal of courage and independence to decide to design your own image instead of the one that society rewards, but it gets easier as you go along.” 

― Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

Joseph Beuys How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare 1965
Bonita Ely
Marina Abramovic appropriating the Joseph Beuys performance: How to explain pictures to a dead hare

I am also six degrees of separation with Marina Abramovic as my late artist friend from COFA too was Katthy Cavaliere who died of cancer ten years ago who worked with Marina and she was Katthy’s mentor.

Katthy Cavaliere performance at Artspace Sydney

I found the recent performance documentation of Bonita’s performance Slip Step 2022 on her fantastic website and visually it was amazing but there was no explanation but I wonder if its about pollution in Australian waters like her earlier work Murray River Punch 1980 about the pollution of the Murray River.

Slip Step 2022 a recent performance piece by Bonita

I did some research to find the Marina performance I liked the most and found this one.

Marina Abramovic’s Carrying the Skeleton

“To write about Marina’s Carrying the Skeleton is impossible without mentioning one of her most notable performances – Nude with Skeleton. In this performance, the artist uses a replica skeleton to symbolize confrontation with death. The work refers in part to an ancient Tibetan tradition in which Buddhist monks meditate on life, death and mortality by sleeping with skeletons of various stages of decomposition on consecutive nights. As Abramović explains: The work is really about facing your own mortality. It’s something that in our life we fear the most. It is about fear of pain and fear of dying.”

Wiki Art Website

I can relate to the ideas behind: Carrying the Skeleton as I also fear my own mortality a lot and of the ones I love. I also have a deep interest in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

I briefly looked at the topics in Bonita’s PHD thesis and one of her interests seems to be Taoism. So, both Bonita and Marina have a deep interest in spiritualism.

The following is a fitting Taoist quote:

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Lao Tzu

While visiting GOMA in Brisbane a few months ago I was excited to see Bonita’s installation The Locust People 1975. It was great to see as I hadn’t seen much of her early work.

“The family are watching polluted sunsets on TV in their lounge room. The video fills the space with haunting city sounds. The TV was originally angled to lure viewers into the installation. The lounge room’s decor is based on natural motifs – we LOVE nature The male is a grey puppet, his locust body has a camouflage pattern. The female and baby girl are dolls.”

This was the explanation about the installation on Bonita’s website.

In conclusion Bonita and Marina are amazing performance art pioneers but their art also crosses over other mediums. Both artists are internationally acclaimed and I recommend international art collectors to buy Bonita’s work particularly her photographic documentation of her performance art.

This is a interesting short interview with Bonita Ely James C Sourris AM Collection of Artist Interviews 2019 2020.

Here is a brief interview with Marina before a show at MOMA in New York.