Gaining Authorship of your Legacy: an Examination of Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic Institutions in the Light of Tadeusz Kantor’s Influence



Performance art has always been a unique experience that has evolved from its early formation in the early 1960’s avant-garde to the artistic mainstream. For both performance art and theatre there is a place of secret passage where the world of the living becomes explored through the use of catharsis (Kobialka, 1995: 160). To examine the influence of Tadeusz Kantor’s legacy I will explore how it has crystalized into two differing educational institutions: Robert Wilson’s school The Watermill Center and The Marina Abramovic Institute. The essay also investigates how the intricate dramaturgies of Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic’s evolved: first to examine the notion of the object, light and slow movement in performances and its ability to reach into all aspects of life. Secondly I will identify Kantor’s echoing influences in Wilson and Abramovic’s methodological foundations. I will show that all three began their artistic career as painters with a painterly use of object, light and then movement became the core of their performances. Kantor’s central incentive did not revolve around the artist however, the process of presenting the live experience of the performance were the key element in his creations. Kantor’s ever-expanding quest of true experience in performance was adapted in both Wilson and Abramovic’s practices and is still an exercise which is practiced in their institutes. It has evolved into a concept much more meaningful than the painterly use of the object, movement and light. Kantor’s idea of a mental and physical transformation for both the performer and spectator is each artist’s prime attempt to gain authorship of Kantor’s legacy (Abramovic, 2013:43).

Tadeusz Kantor, Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic

Tadeusz Kantor’s first performances where inspired by Marionette theatre, mechanisms of memory and a style which aimed to entertain the audience with the use of interposed dramatic burlesques (Kleist, 2015: 2). Before being trained as a theatre designer he was a painter and believed that the tradition and history of painting was valuable to the modern day theatre. Beginning with The Dead Class (1975) Tadeusz Kantor’s unusual formula for his Theatre of Death created sequences of imaginary embodiments, fragmentary of events, an obtrusive return of scenes as absurd situations as an artistic illustration for mechanisms of memory.

Robert Wilson is also considered as one of surpassing characters in experimental theater whose work also derives from a painting background and as an explorer of the uses of time and space on stage. Growing up in Texas restrained Wilson from expressing his full creative potential. Before his career as a director Wilson’s desire for painting was a secretive passion: a result of his troubled relationship caused by his father’s expectations, disapproval of his homosexuality and an undervaluing view of art (Bernstein, 2006). Wilson came to the realisation that his painting could not allow him to express himself fully but he also realised he could achieve his true passions as a director (Holemberg, 1996: 117). Theatre as envisaged by Wilson merges movements, painterly visualizations, stylized formulation of script to combine into a post-modern, neo-Surrealist vision (Safir, 2011: 45).

Marina Abramovic was born in Belgrade and her parents were national heroes who fought the Nazis during World War II. This upbringing played a role in the use of performance and durational endurance in her work with the body having an authority on stage, questioning notions of time and duration (Abramovic, 2006: 10). Painting was also Abramovic’s first artistic approach to her creative desires until she moved towards performances where the spectator was compelled to envision her as if she was a painting: this was Abramovic’s entry into performance art.

The Object, Light and Slow Movement

The exploration and transformations of the object in relation to the performance was a dynamic in the stylistic qualities of all three’s performances. Sacred, valuable, invaluable, commodity, relational and aesthetic: the object beholds a mass of significances in the poetics of their performances (Clark, 2007: 1). In The Theatre of Death (1975) in particular Dead Class, Kantor’s principle is to position the performer as the object. This creates an ethereal space between the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ because human as performing object forces us to view the work in relation to our familiar and memory perceptions of objects (Freud, 1919: 21). In Panoramic Sea Happening (1967) on a Baltic seashore Kantor positions himself as the conductor of the waves of the ocean. He places the audience in tiered rows as if it they where in the setting of a theatre. Light, movement, object and sound are all derived from the ocean and articulated into the performance. This type of reality in performance can be referred to Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory, by treating the everyday behavior into a performative action (Schechner, 2003: x). We can clearly see the influence of Kantor’s legacy forty-six years later when Wilson and Abramovic conducted a homage to Panoramic Sea Happening by performing alongside each other—this nevertheless uses Kantor’s conception that performance becomes the reality, the given reality being the sea (Wien, 2005:119).

Einstein on the Beach may well be Wilson’s main work where the dilation of time is thematically intertwined. For Einstein, as a moving body’s velocity approximates the speed of light, time slows down (Safir, 2011: 137). Wilson uses this theory as a methodology often by slowing down stage time and making an uncanny flow in relation to how one perceives that moment of time. Gradual gestures are amalgamated with masses of rapid movement combining the notion of vast division. Abramovic adapts this practice of slow movement into her exercises and it inevitably become part of her work. In a performance where the speed of production is reduced, it creates a reality that even the minute movements are portrayed as motionless (Richards, 2010: 130). Kantor had previously symbolized the hypnotic figure with the use of gradual movement in Dead Class, where statue-like figures are carried by each other in slow gestures (Sepp, 2010: 334). Kantor’s technique of the creating the uncanny in slow movement is a deep influence on Wilson and Abramovic’s characteristic takes on reality, that when moving in a gradual pace the performer learns to become in control and gain authorship of their existence (Safir, 2011: 32).

For Wilson light also plays a fundamental role in relation to his view, that without light there is no space—somewhat analogous to Einstein’s ‘space time’. Light is one of the fundamental elements in Wilson’s performances with colour generating sentiment through infinitesimal changes, as he ‘paints’ the stage with his light, to give audiences the beauty of what the saturation of light can provide. It determines what the audience perceives and feels when experiencing the performance. It assuredly becomes Wilson’s ‘magic wand’, as valuable as gold and a primary mechanism used for the composition of the space (Holemberg, 1996: 121). Wilson uses the element of light to not only to convey an emotional shift, but to evoke an emotional response. This technique of ‘catharsis’ the freeing of emotional state descends from the Greeks and is described as ‘cleansing’. Kantor dramaturgically deploys catharsis within the use of light in the expressionism of theatre using light as an emotional cleansing to purify the experience of the performance (Clinard, 2014: 9). The use of light is not the main component in visualizing the performance, however it becomes the lining used to arrange a certain reflective boundary (Innes, 2013: 164-165). For Abramovic once the performance starts, time is somewhere else. She leaves behind all notions of machinery, technology or contact with people. This is the moment when she enters the performance’s ‘duration’. Working with time in a manner where everything begins to slow down, is also an aspect of the approach taken, so that the performer and the audience can go through a spiritual transformation together. Henri Bergson reflected on the concept of time in relation to memory and duration whereby the moment of memory when one performs durationally is concurrent with the conscience (Tymieniecka, 2009: 41). Abramovic states that time stops existing when performing a durational, gradual movement by allowing her to exist in that moment. Time in the approach to the spiritual moment becomes a necessity —for with duration, performance becomes the life experience itself (Safir, 2011: 146-292).

Analysis of their Legacies

While The Watermill Centre (TWC) is a laboratory where new visions can be tested, critiqued and evaluated, there are some distinct differences to Wilson’s TWC and The Abramovic Institute (MAI). Both centers facilitate certain procedures, be it signing a contract for the duration of time one spends there or having to make your everyday gestures into a dramaturgical approach. In TWC regulations and rules are enforced on the creative practice and that is how everything functions. According to Goffman’s The Presentation of Everyday Life reality is coexisting when performed, this similar dramaturgical tactic is used throughout Wilson’s center (Goffman, 1959: 35). Wilson’s mantra is art in everyday life where everyday objects such as food, cooking, sleeping becomes art. The Watermill transforms art between mythical history and modern civilization (Bernstein, 2006: 247). In MAI prior to all performances the participant is made to sign a contract where they commit to the full duration of time in the space and all material belongings are taken away. By signing a contract committing to perform for duration, the spectators give MAI time and in return receive experience (Abramovic, 2013: 128). However, Abramovic wants everyone to create their own space and to become one with the nature of the institute. If we are to assess their response to Kantor’s legacy in these institutions it should be observed that Kantor used the term ‘emballage’ in a bid to strip all performers away from any logic of the voyeuristic gaze. This enables the audience and performer to articulate a meaning through a state of multiple possibilities and is a more phenomenological approach to the true experience (Rodosthenous, 2015: 6). This stripping the performer away from their familiarities is used in order to create an environment where everyday gestures open up a spiritual and more sincere movement in the world of performance. ‘Emballage’ is a technique used by Kantor, which Abramovic applies in both her performances and exercises conducted in MAI. In particular her work in The Serpentine, London 512 Hours (2014) consisted of the audience and performer being ‘emballaged’ or stripped of all notions of objects or emotional attachments to traditional conductions of performances. Wilson also incorporates the ‘emballage’ into his center by creating an environment where the performers use everyday objects and movements as a part of their performances. The use of their everyday routines gives this notion of the true experience of performance.

Both artists’ want to create a global establishment for the visual arts based on authorship of their legacies together with the movements that have drawn their inspiration from Kantor. Abramovic will not present any of her works there; but she wants to leave behind her name, her legacy, like a brand for performance art, like Coca-Cola etc. (Abramovic, 2015). It is not run by Abramovic, but by curators and directors and it addresses all types of performance art. She wants people to teach about performance, young artist’s to create new works and a reduction for the public. The public is to be informed how to look at performance art in terms of how the audience and the performer are the body, they become unified, and that kind of unit is so fragile, so important. It is not just the audience or just the performer: one would fall down with the other (Safir, 2011: 301). The Watermill functions similarly to MAI, a laboratory with the motive to instill performance, theater and visual arts. Aiming to provide a unique environment for a global community of emerging and established artists. It functions as a community, directed not only by Wilson but also the participants and his colleagues who accommodate him in a proposition to gather and explore new ideas collectively. It draws inspiration from all areas of the visual arts and breaks traditional forms of representation and cultural specifics with the adaption and use of cultures, social, human, and natural sciences (Bernstein, 2006: 246).


What has happened in the last 30 years in the visual arts is that entertainment has become more predicable, more conservative and that idealism within the visual arts has fluctuated. The avant-garde, neo-romantics and symbolists shaped Kantor’s legacy. His main objective was controlling the actions of illusion and reality in relation to performance: while working beyond the boundaries of art he gained a profound authorship of the pioneering visual arts (Klossowicz, 1986: 98-111). This notion of challenging the boundaries of traditional theatre methodologies is a construct used by Kantor in a bid to fragment and test the marginal into the mainstream (Kobialka, 1986: 153). Wilson shows us through the use of the object, slow movement and lighting that we are faced with crisis of modernity, to think of the universe as having no particular meaning or sense; then sense is something we have to construct out of our contradictory perceptions (Safir, 2011:138). Abramovic concludes this sense of reality in relation to the realistic as opposed to the false. If you hold a knife to theatre the knife can’t kill; if I hold a knife in performance, the knife can kill, and the blood is real. It is that kind of reality that the audience needs to become familiarized with (Hailand, 2011:1). This idealism of the visual arts therefore becomes relevant to assessing how Abramovic and Wilson’s interpretation of Kantor’s legacy has become refined (Safir, 2011: 106).

Quantum theory changed the way we view the universe: it demanded another way of viewing it. Like Wilson’s work it recognized the invisible, the minute, and the infinitely small particles of which the visible world and movement are made of (Safir, 2011:32). When a performer gets rid of their sense of self, therefore the moment when the performer becomes the spectator, this is time when illusion is reborn. This is all signified with the use of ‘catharsis’ in relation to the object, light and slow movement being the sole authors behind the purifying objectives of performance art. Gaining authorship of such an avant-garde practice beholds a key to this form of practice. The audience, are not there to comprehend the meaning of the performance but to occupy the performers consciousness, the idea is to put your mind and body of the audience into the mind and body of the performer. It is at this point where the true mental and physical experience between the performer and spectator is more meaningful than the performance itself (Abramovic, 2006:19). When this ethereal yet real presence is achieved, then it is powerful.


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