Artist in Context: Liliya Lifanova

By: Eliana Blechman

Liliya Lifanova's 2009 performance Anatomy is Destiny examined the role of free will within the construct of a scripted chess game, the stand-in for a structured society. In Study for L'Attente, a study for the sequel performance to Lifanova' s earlier Anatomy is Destiny, the artist allows the chess pieces to interact away from the structure of the game. As an allegory for the destruction of society, Lifanova poses the question "What happens to the chessmen in the coffer?", or what happens when the rules and roles of society are discarded? How do individual moving pieces react to the breakdown of social hierarchies and guidelines?

Liliya Lifanova, Anatomy is Destiny, 2009.

A jarring example of this deconstruction of rules is visible n Marina Abramović's controversial 1974 performance Rhythm 0. In this performance, Abramović placed 72 items on a table and allowed the audience free reign to use the objects on her body. Among the objects were a feather, a whip, a rose, a scalpel, a gun, and a single bullet, among other items. Over the course of six hours, the audience grew more and more aggressive while Abramović remained passive, taking full responsibility for any actions an audience member took towards her. The performance revealed how quickly social norms and interactions broke down once the rules and immediate consequences were removed. Abramović later said, "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." Once Abramović broke down the rules within the artwork, the social disruption extended beyond the confines of the work. As soon as the work was completed and social rules reinstated, participants were unable to face the artist or each other as individuals responsible for their actions.

Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0, 1974.

Pedro Reyes' 2013 People's United Nations (pUN) confronted the opposite hypothetical, constructing artificial rules and structures of political representation onto its participants. In this experimental conference, the 193 nations in the United Nations were represented by 193 locals who were somehow connected to the country they spoke for, either via family ties or birth. The participants were asked to engage with a set of global proposals from the future. Reyes wrote, "If pUN is a naïve role-play game, it is precisely the light-hearted spirit of play that will allow its participants to engage in subjects whose magnitude is otherwise overwhelming." As opposed to examining the breakdown of society once the rules are artificially removed, Reyes' work examined the results of implementing artificial structure onto an unstructured group.


Pedro Reyes, People's United Nations (pUN), 2013.

Through both the breakdown and construction of societal rules, performance art is able to create a dialogue between artist and audience. These shifts in the paradigm create valuable commentaries on the role of the individual in society and the value placed on social structures.

Learn more about Liliya Lifanova's installation here.

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