Rhythm O and Lord of the Flies


Many years ago, in 1974, pre-moniker Godmother of Performance Art, a young artist, Marina Abramović, stood stock still, within the walls of Studio Morro in Naples, for her performance entitled Rhythm O. During the next six hours she would be the object and art would occur when the audience interacted with said object.Her instructions were very clear. She would take full and exclusive responsibility for everything that occurred during those six hours. The audience members were instructed that they could do whatever they wanted to her within the designated time frame. They were to interact with her using any one of the 72 objects she had laid out on a table nearby. Objects that ranged from a feather to glue and from a rose to a gun and one bullet.

WHY? To test her bodily and mental limits and to explore human nature (FYI, today at age 74 she is still at it).

After the performance this is what the artist stated:

“What I learned was that … if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you … I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”

I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between this experience and a much loved book of mine, Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

In Lord of the Flies the author explores the two impulses present in human beings: good vs. evil. This internal conflict is explained through the story of a group of young British lads that remain stranded on an uninhabited island and must govern themselves. Power, morality, selfishness, violence, the greater good and more are represented via these young boys.

Think about it. The good versus bad and right versus wrong conflict begins right from our get go. We are exposed to/become aware of these opposing forces through our religion, general education (parents and school) and through visual media where good and evil are depicted as the good fairy versus the evil witch or as a little devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. A constant battle wherein one must choose between order or chaos, rules or anarchy, being civilized or savage.

The transformation of proper British boys into “animals” within Lord of the Flies could be the synopsis for Rhythm O, with two main and shocking differences. Firstly, during the performance of Rhythm O there was no discernible reason for the escalation from civilized to savage behaviour. No one was in imminent danger, no one was being coerced, there was no need for self defense. Secondly, this transformation from law abiding citizen to outlaw occurred within a brief few hours.

So what unfettered the beast?

I believe it was the condition of TOTAL FREEDOM. No rules and no boundaries. In a situation wherein you are given the “all clear” (in this case via the artist’s disclaimer) you use this “permission” to justify your actions (or make them oddly okay). Furthermore, the knowledge of no repercussions (you will not be judged nor punished) adds another layer of acceptability, exempting you from any potential feelings of shame or guilt.

The difference between individual reactions will be based on the discipline/control exercised and the level of belief in the choice.

In this case, thank goodness the groupthink phenomenon was shattered by those audience members that reacted to the gun being pointed to the artist’s temple and her fingers being wrapped around the trigger.

To explore further together..

Was the artist prepared to die in the name of art and learning?

How do you explain the cowardice of the audience when the object “came back to life”?

Why do you think it was so easy to behave as the audience did?

2 thoughts on “Rhythm O and Lord of the Flies

  1. Lissa Manganaro

    As I read this, I started thinking of the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath, the latter being more erratic, rage prone and unable to lead much of a normal life and when they do engage in criminal behaviour they do so without concern about the consequences. A psychopath leads a “normal” life, minimal risk in criminal behaviour. So, perhaps the people who behaved “badly” could be categorized as sociopaths and the others that tried to stop this behaviour are the sociopaths. I realize that this is a generalization; however, it could have some truth to it.

    Also, I always believe that we all have good and bad in us and we are all capable of doing bad things. However, those of us who don’t do bad things are people whose moral compass and values are stronger than that side of us that could do bad things. Also, because we see and consider consequences, we are more prone to behave in a more accepted manner where those who can’t balance good and bad, moral and immoral, are those who would pick up a gun, poke someone, hurt someone, just for the mere “pleasure” of reaction or to see what would happen. Those of us who have strong moral compasses, even though we are told there are no consequences to our actions, would not engage in the bad behaviour and even go so far as to stop the immoral behaviour.

    It’s like the age old question, if you found a wallet with a million dollars in it, would you keep it or try to return it. No one knows about it. What would you do?

    If no one would find out and you wouldn’t get punished . . . would you or wouldn’t you?

    We all have some level of fascination (not sure if that’s the right word) with tragedy, e.g., almost all of us have slowed down to get a glance at a car accident, have watched a scary or violent movie, etc. Some of us will experience this and it won’t affect us and for others it may further feed a dark side within them that they cannot control

    In this case, is the artist willing to die? I’m not sure she thinks it would ever go that far. Even though she said that she would take full responsibility for what happens to her, she cannot control the reaction of the audience to each others’ actions and in the end, if she did get seriously injured or dies, there are witnesses and there are laws outside this environment that would come into play. And that I think is why no one did anything detrimental to her physically.

    Food for thought.


  2. S. Wheeler

    There’s a part of me that can not conceive of anyone using real bullets with a real gun for this type of exercise. To remain so calm in the face of an uncertain outcome speaks to there being a fail safe measure in place – unknown to the audience – or faith in the inherent goodness of man (which I’m completely lacking) or a total commitment to one’s perception of their art.
    What other circumstances were in place to enable the individual who wielded the gun? Total freedom can indeed bring out the worst in many, so many wars and conflicts prove that very point, but this was performance art. And no signed declaration of non-judgement or repercussions can truly negate an individual’s actions. The aggression perpetuated against the artist isn’t so surprising. It’s that impulse to test boundaries, figure out limits. When will she react? What will break down her performance? A variation on “who will laugh or blink first” games. And as she remained immovable it escalated to provoke a reaction.
    Her returning to an interactive state, walking towards the audience, now forces the perpetrators to acknowledge consequences. I would describe their going away in broader terms: fear of consequences, guilty conscience, lack of interest now that the “performance” is over.
    For me personally, this isn’t art but rather an experiment studying human behavior. And a launchpad for a discussion on the topic of total freedom. When you are dealing with “group think” mentality, by its very concept, the idea of total freedom is negated.


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