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Waiting for Nothing:

The experience of the live event in Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for
Godot and Marina Abramović’s performance The Artist is Present

Rebecca Camilleri

(472886 M)

A dissertation presented to the Faculty of Arts in part fulfillment of the requirements for the
Master of Arts in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Criticism at the University of Malta.

July 2015
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Abstract

The analysis of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (1953) and Marina Abramović’s

performance The Artist is Present (2010) outlines the literary and visual techniques used to

create the theatrical and performative experience. Chapter one discusses how Beckett’s text

omits dramatic representation and Abramović installs her body in an empty gallery to

challenge the spectator to actively participate in the experience of the live event. Chapter two

analyzes the staging of no ‘thing’ in the works, and the following chapter supports the

argument with a critical evaluation of the physical body in the theatrical and performative

experience. Chapter four examines the relationship between space and time in the two-act

script which was originally written to be staged in a theatrical setting and the durational

performance in the art gallery. Chapter five focuses on the space of silence which is created

in both works and observes the effect this has on their interpretation. Finally, the analysis

draws attention to the cultural value of the two case studies. The analysis supported with

phenomenological and performance theory and critiques of the discussed work acknowledges

the importance of that which occurs between performer and spectator in the experience of

waiting. The thesis concludes with the present value of Beckett’s play and Abramović’s

performance in contemporary culture, and notes that their future is dependent on the eventual

present time.
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UNIVERSITY OF MALTA

FACULTY OF ARTS

DECLARATION

Student’s I.D.: 472886 M

Student’s Name & Surname: Rebecca Camilleri

Course: Master of Arts in English (Modern and Contemporary Literature and

Criticism)

Title of Dissertation: Waiting for Nothing: The experience of the live event in Samuel

Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot and Marina Abramović’s performance The Artist is

Present

I hereby declare that I am the legitimate author of this Dissertation and that it is my original
work.

No portion of this work has been submitted in support of an application for another degree
or qualification of this or any other university or institution of learning.

REBECCA CAMILLERI

Signature of Student Name of Student (in Caps)

Date: 13/07/2015
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Acknowledgements

With this thesis I would like to thank:

My family and friends for their unconditional love and support.

The artists of the rubberbodies collective, for challenging my performance practice.

My tutor Dr. Giuliana Fenech, for her guidance and inspiration.

Melanie Thompson, for understanding the pain of being an artist pursuing an academic

career.

India, for teaching me how to live in the present and be still.


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Table of Contents

Abstract ……………………………………………………………………………………….i

Declaration ……………………………………………………………………………...…....ii

Acknowledgements …………………………………………………...…………………….iii

Chapter One Introduction ……………………………………………………………………1

Chapter Two A Space of No ‘Thing’ in Performance ………………………………….…..10

Chapter Three The Body: A Physical Representation or a Real Being? …………………..28

Chapter Four The Live Event: The Interplay of Space and Time …………………………50

Chapter Five The Spectator: A Co-Creator in the Experience of Consciousness ……….…70

Chapter Six Conclusion ………………………………………………………………...…88

Bibliography ………………………………………………………………………………..90
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Chapter One

Introduction

The comparative study of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (1953) and Marina

Abramović’s performance The Artist is Present (2010) provides an analysis of the literary

technique and the dramaturgical tools to examine the experience evoked in the live event.

The research highlights the similarities and differences of the use of objects and the

performers’ bodies in the works to demonstrate how both the avant-garde playwright and the

contemporary performance artist intentionally create a space in which nothing seems to

happen. Beckett’s script and its application in a theatre setting and Abramović’s physical

presence in a contemporary art gallery challenge the audience as the minimal use of object in

both works forms an experience which cannot be perceived rationally. Through space and

time, the artists create a sense of waiting which seeks to unite performer and spectator in a

sensory experience. How does the audience perceive the live performance event and what are

the artistic methodologies which enable these experiences?

The research analyzes Beckett’s script and Abramović’s performance content and provides a

theoretical framework to examine the roles of the object and body in the drama and

performance art piece. The study applies the work of two philosophers: Edmund Husserl and

Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the two case studies mentioned above. Husserl’s philosophy is

relevant as he established the school of phenomenology; the philosophical enquiry of

perception. It is through sensory perception that we engage with objects and events, thus

knowledge is accessible in a conscious experience. In fact, Husserl defines phenomenology

as a science developed to analyze ‘the sphere of a new kind of experience: transcendental

experience’. 1 Central to Husserl’s theory is the notion of the phenomenological reduction

1
Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (Dordrecht: Springer Science &
Business Media, 1960), p. 28.
2

which he designates to go beyond the material composition of objects. He claims all objects,

in their essence, are ‘objects of possible consciousness’. 2 His theory is relevant to this study

as it examines the physical tools of the drama and the performance as a means to facilitate an

experience of consciousness.

Following Husserl’s scientific study, phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty developed a new field

of enquiry based on the concept of an embodied consciousness. His theory is used to evaluate

the physical body in the theatrical and performative experience and explains the perceptual

experience that occurs through the relationship between spectator and performer. The

theorists’ writings support the discussion on how the experience of consciousness is

articulated through performance practice. Juxtaposing the two philosophical views, the

theoretical analysis evaluates the phenomenological aspects of theatrical representations,

outlines the effect of the two different theatrical approaches and discusses the relevance of

the artists’ work in contemporary culture.

‘Nothing to be done’ in Beckett’s Godot

Renowned as a modern classic, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is based on two characters,

Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) who wait for Godot by a tree at the side of a country

road. The scenes of the play are based on the relationship of the protagonists who struggle to

assert themselves in relation to the space and to each other. Didi and Gogo fail to find a

meaningful relation to their surrounding and are entrapped in conversations which

communicate nothing. In Edmund Husserl’s terminology, this is referred to as ‘intentional

experience’ which means that Beckett intentionally creates a play in which the object is in

fact ‘an experience […] and is nothing in reality’. 3 Husserl’s theory supports Beckett’s choice

2
Ibid., p. 52.
3
Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, Volume 2 (Oxon: Routledge, 2001), p. 99.
3

of no object in space as in the presence of no ‘thing’, the spectator unites with the

protagonists in the experience of waiting, in which they contemplate on their existence.

‘What are we doing here, that is the question’ is the quest over the duration of the play. 4 The

impossibility of finding an answer to their question leads them to realize that there is

‘Nothing to be done’. 5 Beckett lures us in the meaningless utterances without providing a

conclusive answer. Reflecting the interdependence of the two protagonists, he creates another

two characters, the deprived Pozzo and Lucky who together revive the scenes of the play

from the repetitive patterns of waiting. The contrasting couple sets a new pace to the play and

temporarily relieves the intensity of a theatre of no progress.

The play is a philosophical dialectic; the characters have no story and the only information

provided is that they are waiting for Godot in the empty space. In 1961, theatre critic and

scholar Martin Esslin identified a group of avant-garde dramatists who challenged theatrical

conventions. In his essay The Theatre of the Absurd (1962), which will be referenced at

several points in this thesis, Esslin includes Beckett’s Godot as one of the examples to portray

the shift in the trends of modern drama. Esslin notes that the play is constructed on a dialogue

that fails to provide a rational logic. As the word ceases to correspond with the action, the

‘force and poetic power of the play lie precisely in the impossibility of ever reaching a

conclusive answer to this question’ remarks the critic. 6 Although the characters are

constantly engaged in a dialogue, there is never progression and Godot never appears.

The usage of language is marked by Esslin as one of the differences between conventional

theatre and the absurd. He claims that the experience of the theatrical performance relies on

4
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 91.
5
Ibid., p. 20.
6
Martin Esslin, ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’, The Tulane Drama Review, 4 (1960), 3-15, in JSTOR
< http://www.jstor.org/stable/1124873 > [accessed 1 October 2014] (p.14).
4

that ‘which is multidimensional and more than merely language or literature, which is the

only instrument to express the bewildering complexity of the human'. 7 Thus, through the

empty space and the strong correlation between the nonsensical dialogue and the physical

activity of the performers, Beckett designs a theatrical experience which is also dependent on

the interpretative stance of the spectator. As the phenomenological theory shall illustrate, the

playwright’s technique reduces the object and triggers a mode of enquiry which leads the

spectator out of the limitations of appearance into a conscious sensory experience.

Abramović performs ‘No Doing’

Like Didi and Gogo, Marina Abramović sits in a space in which nothing seems to happen.

The performance The Artist is Present (2010) was first presented in a gallery in New York’s

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Her performance retrospective provides an insight into her

research and methodology as she exhibits the documentation and remaking of her past pieces,

allowing visitors to follow her artistic trajectory. The performance artist includes her own

body in the exhibition; she sits, waiting in stillness in one of the galleries. The space is bare

with only a table and an empty chair. The setup in the gallery invites the spectator to sit in

front of the artist. Thus, the exhibition displays the relationship between the two bodies in

which ‘there would be nothing between me and the viewer: just direct transmission of

energy’ explains Abramović. 8 The sensorial experience is dependent on the spectator who

becomes an active participant and shares a moment of direct eye contact with the artist.

Hence, similar to Beckett’s play, in Abramović’s work, the object of the performance is the

intentional experience which is created by the presence of both spectator and performer.

7
Ibid., p. 13.
8
Mary Jane Jacob, ‘Marina Abramović’ in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, ed. by Jacquelynn Baas and
Mary Jane Jacob (California: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 186-196 (p. 187).
5

Abramović’s artistic trajectory plays an important role in understanding the conceptual

strategy of The Artist is Present. In fact, the artist presents the performance as part of an

exhibition of her past experimental, featuring early interventions, installations, video works,

sound pieces and performances. As a child, the artist was raised by her parents under strict

communist discipline. Her early works reflect the intensity of this experience, such as the

performance Lips of Thomas (1975), in which the artist cuts the five-pointed Communist star

into her stomach with a razor blade. Abramović marks the ideology on her body, exhibits the

wounding process and engages the audience as they witness the risk she undertakes.

Abramović’s interest in the body as a tool in performance inspires her to research various

traditional and cultural ascetic practices. ‘In every ancient culture, there are rituals to mortify

the body as a way of understanding that the energy of the soul is indestructible’ says the

artist. 9 Like the ancient traditions, she pursues an artistic career which seeks to go beyond the

boundaries of the physical body. This is prominent in the six hour performance Freeing the

Body (1976), in which Abramović stands naked moving her body to the rhythm of an African

drum until she reaches exhaustion. The performance demonstrates the artist’s determination

in reaching a point of emptiness through the repeated extreme actions. Following her early

solo work, Abramović presents a series of works with collaborative partner Ulay. Between

1981 and 1987, the artists present Nightsea Crossing, a series of twenty-two performances

during which they fast and sit motionless in front of each other for seven hours. She replaces

the cyclical repetition with stillness and continues to place her body in dangerous settings,

this time in relation to another physical body. After a twelve year relationship, the duo split

up, and the performance artist is left to continue her own exploration.

9
Judith Thurman, ‘Walking Through Walls: Marina Abramović’s performance art’, The New Yorker, 8 March ,
2010 <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/03/08/walking-through-walls> [accessed 21 December 2014]
6

An Analysis of Methodology and Experience

As discussed in this chapter, both Beckett and Abramović work with the relationship between

the object and the performer’s body in an empty space to engage the spectator in the live

conscious experience. Although their objective of creating an experience of consciousness is

similar, their methodology is different. A crucial difference between the two works is the role

of the artists. Beckett is the playwright of Waiting for Godot, and thus relies on the choices of

the director and the skills of the performers in the execution of his script. Although Beckett’s

direction of the play stops with the written text, he commands the director through the script

which includes detailed descriptive action within the play’s dialogue. Through these

instructions, the playwright determines how the physical bodies of the performers are

required to act in the space. On the other hand, Abramović is the creator and performer of her

work. The Artist is Present is conceptual; the spatial design in which the artist’s body is

exhibited complements the idea, as in the absence of objects and action, the spectator

experiences the durational stillness. Despite this difference in approach, both artists choose to

empty the space from objects, leaving only the presence of the living body. Through the

elements of repetition, duration and stillness, the minimalist technique creates a sense of a

space in which there is nothing, but emptiness. Yet, this emptiness is not nothing.

The second chapter titled ‘A Space of No ‘Thing’ in Performance’, traces through the

dramaturgical content of both works to explain the shift of perception triggered by the space

of no object in performance. With references to the literary canon, the research outlines the

definition of the term nothing in relation to consciousness. The experience of nothing is

explained by Edmund Husserl’s theory of phenomenological reduction which goes beyond

the material element of the object and focuses on the experience of its origin. His theoretical

position provides an understanding of the spectator’s perception in the performances which

reduce the object, dismiss rationality and create works which are functional through the live
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experience. The analysis is supported by Martin Esslin’s critique of the absurd, which has

been referenced in this chapter, and an overview of contemporary life performance events by

the scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte.

The third chapter titled ‘The Body: A Physical Representation or a Real Being?’ provides an

in-depth analysis of the body in the performances. The discourse outlines the main

differences between the physical representations in the performances; Beckett creates

dramatic characters of gesture and Abramović presents bodies as objects. The

phenomenological account of Husserl’s and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theories of the body

serves to explain the function of the physical body in both live events. Husserl distinguishes

between physical body (Körper) and the living body (Leib), marking the differences between

the appearance of the physical body and the body which acts as a source to engage the

spectator to the experience. Whilst Husserl’s outlook is based on the dichotomous

relationship of the body and the object, Merleau-Ponty discusses the reciprocal relationship in

which the body forms an intertwining relationship with the world. Thus, subject and object

become one entity through the process of perception. In performance, this process is

witnessed in the exchange between performer and the spectator. The case studies are further

analyzed through the concept of embodiment and the physical presence of the actors and

performers to explain how the live experience is formed. This chapter also includes

references to the history of avant-garde theatre and performance art and studies the historical

contexts in relation to the artistic methodologies of the body.

The fourth chapter titled ‘The Live Event: The Interplay of Space and Time’ highlights the

artistic methodologies with regards to the visual representations of space and time. The

interplay of the two elements manipulates the live event to enact the experience of

consciousness through the character of Godot and the presence of the artist. This is explained

through Husserl’s theory which claims that the object is perceived in the unity of one space
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and one time. Alternatively, Merleau-Ponty suggests that it is the experience which unites the

spectator with the performing body that enables the sensation of present time. Therefore, the

experience of time is dependent on the presence of the living body. Beckett’s script and

Abramović’s performance are studied in relation to the contextual meanings of the selected

spaces to explain why the artists choose empty space. The research looks into different

productions of Godot to draw attention on how the varied interpretations of Beckett’s

minimalist style do not affect the thematic structure of the play. The Artist is Present is

discussed in light of the social meaning of the gallery to demonstrate how the choice of space

affects the reception of the performer’s body in the exhibition. Thus, this chapter explains

why the fixed spatial composition is necessary to construct the experience of waiting.

The fifth chapter titled ‘The Spectator: A Co-Creator in the Experience of Consciousness’

focuses on the space of silence that is present in the theatre and performance works. Beckett’s

narrative continuously runs with moments of silence, whilst in the performance piece

Abramović is silent throughout. The analysis confirms that the interpretation of the live event

is dependent on the experience generated not simply through the artistic methodologies but

simultaneously on the spectator’s perspective. The chapter highlights Beckett’s use of silence

depicted through the character of Godot and the physical stillness of the performers in

Abramović’s exhibition and explains the effect this experience has on the spectator. The

application of the phenomenological theory to this discussion outlines how in the live events

the body is a present consciousness. Therefore, the spectator perceives consciousness through

his own living body. In this process, the spectator is not only aware of the consciousness of

the performer, but also of his own consciousness in the presence of the performer’s body.

Examining the role of the spectator and the interpretation of the works, the study goes on to

investigate the contemporary value of these two productions. Drawing examples of Beckett’s

production and looking into Abramović’s work following The Artist is Present, the
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arguments sustains that the subject of the nature of consciousness is universal and therefore

inspires different modes of artistic representations.

The discussion of object, body, space and time in the course of these chapters formulates a

study of Beckett’s and Abramović’s artistic methodology to explain the nature of the

experience in the live events. The analysis of style, genre and context is supported by

Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological theory, performance critiques and

interviews. The research combines practice and theory to explain why Beckett’s script and

Abramović’s performance succeed in engaging the audience in the experience of the live

event.
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Chapter Two

A Space of No ‘Thing’ in Performance

Performance, as a medium of expression, depends on the relationship between performer,

spectator and the space in which this encounter happens. The physical space brings to life

formal or conceptual ideas through physical, textual and visual elements. Thus, the theatrical

space is designed and structured in a specific way to form relationships between the

performer, the surrounding objects and space and the audience who witnesses the event. As

the artistic ideas and concepts come to life, they are perceived through the spectator’s sensory

perception to create a live experience. In Waiting for Godot and The Artist is Present, the

artists choose to work with empty space. Beckett’s script and Abramović’s concept are

mediated through a live performance event, staged in a space with a minimal set. How does

their artistic choice contribute to the theatrical experience?

The object is present in space to represent something; thus its presence has an important role

in the experience of the live event. In theatre and performance, the prop and the object are

mediums perceived through their relation with other objects, the space and the actors or

performers. In Beckett’s play, the only object which the characters and the spectator can

relate to is a tree. Similarly, Marina Abramović builds a set in the art gallery with two chairs

and a table in between. Even in the presence of a minimal number of objects, the space

contains visual information which composes the spectator’s experience. The minimal set in

Beckett’s and Abramović’s work shifts the attention from that which is visible onto the

experience of no ‘thing’. The artists’ methodology intentionally reduces the object to

accentuate the bodies of the performers in the live event. In the works of Beckett and

Abramović, the space of few objects is reflected onto the action and movement of the

performances. The space of minimal object is thus a reflection of Beckett’s narrative of


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existential void and Abramović’s conceptual idea of emptiness. The artists develop their

themes through physical emptiness. The lack of object requires the spectator to engage to the

presence of the performer in relation to the space of no ‘thing’. The visual scene together

with the action and movement stimulates the spectator’s sensory perception. Thus, the

spectator perceives the space of no object through the live bodies which relate to the world to

create a live experience. In the live event how does the space of no ‘thing’ contribute to the

dramaturgical aspect of the works?

Before delving into the analysis of the case studies and the theoretical research, it is important

to specify the significance of the term nothing during the course of this discussion.

Meditations in classic literature demonstrate that since early Western philosophy, writers

used the term nothing to make reference to human consciousness. Plato, in the Apology of

Socrates, claims ‘he knows something, although he knows nothing’. 10 The philosopher’s

assertion demonstrates that being conscious of knowing nothing paradoxically implies man is

aware of his own consciousness. Thus, beyond intellect, there is an intuitive knowledge.

Nothing also reverberates in Shakespeare’s King Lear. ‘Nothing can be made out of nothing’

(1.4.127) despairs Lear as he witnesses the disintegration of his kingdom. 11 This line from the

play is essentially connected to consciousness. One might argue that as man’s presence in the

world represents a human body with a conscious awareness of himself and others, the

presence of a living body cannot mean nothing. Therefore, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy

dwells on intellectual knowledge and states that ‘All we can know is that we know nothing.

And that’s the height of human wisdom’. 12 This wisdom is fundamental in the experience of

10
Plato, ‘Apology’ in Page By Page Books
<http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Plato/Apology/APOLOGY_p3.html> [accessed 12 September 2014]
11
William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. R.A. Foakes (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005) I, 4. 130.
12
Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, War and Peace (Auckland: The Floating Press, 2008), p. 879.
12

being human as it acknowledges an immaterial presence in man. This presence is

consciousness. To follow the tradition of the literary canon, as demonstrated in the selected

references, nothing shall be used to refer to the nature of consciousness.

Dramaturgies of Nothing

Beckett’s Godot features homeless characters who struggle in the space of no object

‘Recognise! What is there to recognise?’ says Estragon, in an outburst which demonstrates

the human desperation of the need to identify with the familiar. 13 The absurdist playwright

cruelly strips the play from a familiar setting and abandons the characters in a self-battle,

struggling with the emptiness of the space.

The tree has four or five leaves.


Enter Vladimir agitatedly. He halts and looks long at the tree, then suddenly begins to move
feverishly about the stage. He halts before the boots, picks one up, examines it, sniffs it,
manifests disgust, puts it back carefully. Comes and goes. 14

Throughout the play, Beckett works with similar descriptions based on the interaction of the

characters with each other, the few objects which they own and the space around them. The

staging of the script creates a world where ‘There’s nothing to show’15, ‘Nothing to be

done’ 16 and ‘Nothing we can do about it’. 17 The space creates a sense of doubt and is

reflected through the agitation which haunts the protagonists. Beckett’s literary practice

challenges the spectator’s engagement in the experience of the drama as the content of the

play does not focus on the image it creates, but on the doubt which it evokes. Thus, instead of

13
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 67.
14
Ibid., p. 62.
15
Ibid., p. 4.
16
Ibid., p. 5.
17
Ibid., p. 20.
13

a theatre of representation, Beckett’s drama is based on uncertainty. If the script is

intentionally based on a plot in which there is nothing to see and nothing that is happening is

comprehensible, then what is the function play?

As stated in the introduction, in the Theatre of the Absurd, the narrative technique is based on

the irrational. The plot in which nothing happens follows the absurdist technique defined by

Martin Esslin as a method of expression based on the ‘sense of the senselessness of the

human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of

rational devices and discursive thought’.18 Thus, to implement the genre of the absurd, the

dramaturgical content of irrationality is constructed on a space of no object. In Godot, the

lack of symbolic representation is evident in the space as the only physical forms are the tree

and the protagonists. This creates a sense of dislocation as without an object of

representation, the protagonists cannot relate to the space. This is demonstrated in the script

through the consistent illogical dialogue between the characters. Their words communicate

nothing meaningful and have no effect on the progression of the narrative.

ESTRAGON: They’re not mine.

VLADIMIR: (stupefied). Not yours!


ESTRAGON: Mine were black. These are brown.
VLADIMIR: You’re sure yours were black?
ESTRAGON: Well they were a kind of gray.
VLADIMIR: And these are brown. Show.
ESTRAGON: (picking up a boot). Well they’re a kind of green. 19

18
Martin Esslin, ‘Introduction: The Absurdity of the Absurd’ in Waiting for Godot - Samuel Beckett, New
Edition, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008), pp. 25-32 (p. 29).

19
Beckett, p. 75.
14

The above extract highlights the pattern of the script. The information provided in the

dialogue of detailed descriptions contains nothing which enables the spectator to engage to

the plot of the play. As such, the play appears to lack a dramaturgical structure. However, this

is definitely not the case as Beckett’s skill has been recognized by both theatre directors and

critics and the play is an accredited masterpiece still being selected by directors and staged in

theatres. One of the current literary critics of The Guardian newspaper Nicholas Lezard

describes the absurdist playwright as an ‘author who was irreverent, scatological, yet

profound; and also completely uninterested in the conventions of literature yet able, just

through language, to sustain our interest despite nothing actually happening’. 20 Beckett strips

the drama from object and the bareness of the stage is sustained through the irrational content

of the dialogue. Hence, the text and the space complement each other to enable the

experience of no ‘thing’.

The ambiguity which is evoked by the no ‘thing’ is also present in Abramović’s The Artist is

Present. The performance features the artist waiting for her audience; she sits motionless in

front of another chair and a table in between. With a minimal number of objects and nothing

literal to grasp, the performance is dependent on the powerful physical presence of the artist

who sits in the same position for seven hours, five days a week. The artist’s body acts like an

art object in space. Her physical presence is not only part of the collection in the exhibition,

but an object of the performance. Abramović’s body is a tool for the spectator to interpret the

durational live performance of no script and no movement. The spectator is unable to

perceive the work through logic or form as the created image communicates nothing. With

no object and no words, Abramović lures us into a repetitive structure in which the only

20
Nicholas Lezard, ‘Waiting for Godot taught me the difference between being smart and being intellectual’,
The Guardian, 10 August 2014, Books section
<http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/10/waiting-for-godot-book-that-changed-me-nicolas-
lezard> [accessed 21 November 2014]
15

movement is that created by the spectators in the space. ‘At the lowest level, there is nothing.

For a performance artist this is the most powerful tool. Then the art is truly the artist and not

about the objects or props’ she highlights in an interview. 21 Abramović manipulates the

objects and her body in a fixed image. As the viewer’s senses become accustomed to the

image of no representation, the performance becomes an experience of no ‘thing’. ‘It's the

public and me and nothing else […] This is as immaterial as you can go’ states Abramović. 22

Thus, in the performance art piece the spectator is totally dependent on the presence of the

performer in the empty space. The spectator is invited to sit in front of the artist and through a

non-verbal dialogue experience the nature of consciousness.

Theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte, who has published widely across the fields of theory of

literature, art, and theatre history, contemporary theatre and semiotics and performativity,

discusses theatre’s materiality. The scholar’s discussion is relevant to the comparison of the

selected case studies because she investigates the spectator’s relationship to both theatre and

performance events. Fischer-Lichte points out the evolution of a theatre which emerged from

an elitist culture and was viewed as a textual art, to an art event which constituted of a social

nature and through the relationship between spectator and performer created a social

community. ‘Textual culture and performative culture were thought of as extreme opposites’

claims Fischer-Lichte. 23 The theatre of fixed text shifted to a new performative culture

‘where human beings are understood as embodied minds’ explains Fischer-Lichte. 24 The

21
David Ebony, ‘Marina Abramovic: An Interview’, Art in America, May 2009 < http://prod-images.exhibit-
e.com/www_skny_com/MA_2009_05_Art_in_America.pdf> [accessed on 2 November 2014]
22
Emma Brockes, ‘Performance artist Marina Abramović: 'I was ready to die'’, The Guardian, May 12, 2014,
Art and Design section < http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/12/marina-abramovic-ready-to-
die-serpentine-gallery-512-hours> [accessed on 21 October 2014]

23
Erika Fischer-Lichte, Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual: Exploring Forms of Political Theatre (Oxon: Routledge,
2005), p. 22.

24
Ibid., p. 64.
16

scholar’s argument is based on the transition of theatre making; artists withdrew from the

conventional drama which told a story and sought for a reactive audience. Through the use of

the performers’ bodies, they ‘created a community between spectators and performers’. 25

This trajectory of theatre making is evident in both Waiting for Godot and The Artist is

Present. Although the Beckettian play is scripted, the text narrates a story in which nothing

happens. Similarly, the performance art piece transforms the still Abramović into an object in

the gallery. She has nothing to tell and nothing to narrate. Thus, both artists require the

spectator not simply to engage with work through the text, the action or the object, but to

experience the work through a conscious awareness

Fischer-Lichte’s argument outlines the importance of the physical presence of the performer

in relation to the spectator’s experience. In the discussion of the case studies, the relationship

of the performer and spectator has already been noted as an active role in the experience of

consciousness. The scholar draws her argument on the ephemeral element of the live

performative event which happens in a space in the here and now. Simultaneous to the

discussion of the presence of the body of the performer in the theatrical space, she writes

about the role of the object in space. Her approach on the subject is that what appears to be

fixed in nature is in fact transitory. The theorist revives the materiality of the object and

highlights the organic nature it possesses in a performative context. ‘Objects can command

space and attention and qualify for the strong concept of presence’ she states. 26 In other

words, the static object is still active in the performative space. The spectator perceives the

appearance of the object and creates an interpretation based on its presence in relationship to

the other objects, the actors and the space. Therefore, the object’s function is not simply

25
Ibid.
26
Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics (Oxon: Routledge, 2008),
p.100.
17

attached to its physical structure but is also dependent on the environment in which it is

placed and on the individual experiencing the object. She treats the use of object in

performance as a trigger to the experiential element of the performance. If the object in

performance has such a dynamic quality, why do Beckett and Abramović choose to develop

their script and concept in an empty space with almost no objects?

To answer these questions, the experiential element in Beckett’s and Abramović’s work must

be analyzed through the content of the script and the performance respectively. The

minimalist choice in both works signifies that neither one can be interpreted literally as they

do not offer an object of representation. The disappearance of the material object from the

scripted play is evident in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Both acts of the play are set in a

desolate stage with a single tree, however the stage is never really empty as the playwright

fills the space with the presence of the characters. He creates a space of waiting time which is

filled with the narration of the dialogue, but since what it communicates has no effect on the

staged situation, the sense of emptiness emerges even more. Like Beckett, Marina Abramović

sets her performance art piece in a gallery with the minimum required objects. Unlike the

active protagonists in Beckett’s play, the performance artist does not speak nor move. Her

still presence becomes an extension of the static objects in the gallery. If the performance’s

description is based on its visual appearance, it would claim that it is an empty performance

in which nothing is told and nothing is moved. Choosing to withdraw from the use of objects,

she commands the space with her own physical presence. Despite the different artistic

methodologies, both artists intentionally reduce the objects in space to stimulate the

spectator’s perception and create an experience which operates on visual emptiness. Since

objects are reduced, the spectator is not guided by objects of representation and the live event

becomes a perceptual experience of an empty space. What is the value of this experience?

How can the performative experience of no object be explained?


18

Husserl’s Method of Phenomenological Reduction

As conscious beings, our relationship to the world is expressed through the engagement with

physical objects and events. This process involves a perceptual experience, meaning that

through our senses we are able to interpret the object or the situation, and this gives us a

sense of being in the world. Theatre and performance are models of this experience as the

spectator engages with visual presentation of text and body through sensory perception. For

example, in the presence of two actors on stage dressed up in rags, the spectator perceives

two characters who are poorly dressed. In a performance art piece which consists of a female

physical body sitting on a chair in the middle of an arts gallery, the spectator perceives the

woman in relation to the space around her. Thus, the perception of a thing or an event is a

result of the relationship between the object, which is a representation of something, to the

space and activity around it.

Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl bases his theoretical discourse on the object as the source

of the experience. As already noted in the introduction, Husserl treats objects as means of

consciousness. In other words, any object which exists can be experienced and the experience

itself is a reflection of one’s consciousness. ‘Every possible object of a possible

consciousness is however also an object for a possible originarily giving consciousness; and

that we call, at least for individual objects, “perception”’ he explains. 27 Husserl’s concept of

the object transcends the material element which forms it and focuses on the experience

which originates through the process of perception. As man relates to the object, it

immediately becomes an object of consciousness. If according to Husserl, through the

perception of a thing we experience an object of consciousness, in the space of no ‘thing’,

what do we perceive?

27
Edmund Husserl, The Essential Husserl: Basic Writings in Transcendental Phenomenology (Indiana: Indiana
University Press, 1999), p. 230.
19

It is relevant to question the intention of the artists’ works to get an insight into the

methodology and understand what is required for the creation of an experience which is not

simply a spectacle, but is dependent on the spectator’s engagement. As already discussed in

this section, Husserl treats objects as acts of consciousness. The theorist marks a

phenomenological distinction between ‘the actual’ object and ‘the intentional’ object, for

which he uses the terms noesis and noema respectively. Noesis is ‘the “meaning” (in its

widest sense) of the judgement as experienced’ states Husserl. 28 The idea of meaning occurs

through the action of thought. Thought produces the interpretive content of an act which

forms part of the experience of the object. Applying Husserl’s argument to the experience of

watching a performance, the real content of the event is determined by the performers’

actions and the spatio-temporal dynamics of the act. Thus, Husserl’s theory explains how in

the case studies, the artists intentionally shift the attention on the experience by minimizing

the object in space. In the space of no ‘thing’, the noesis is the immediate interpretation the

spectator forms. In the live event, the spectator initially creates thoughts based on the visual

appearance as that is the habitual method of relating to theatre and performance. As

spectators, we attend the event and engage to the work visually and rationally.

However, in the discussed works, what appears cannot be understood and therefore the

spectator relies on the experience of the event. Husserl describes the noema as ‘the “meant

objective just as it is meant”’. 29 Thus, the noema is the intentional object, explained by the

phenomenologist as the object which ‘can become an Object of consciousness; its essence

involves the essential possibility […] in the form of a new cogitatio’. 30 To expand further on

28
Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (Oxon: Routledge, 2013), p. 272.
29
Ibid., p. 364.
30
Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy (The
Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1982), p. 78.
20

Husserl’s definition, if one looks into the experience of a theatre play, the spectator goes

beyond the appearance of the object and through sensory perception identifies the intentional

content of the object. In the case of Godot and The Artist is Present, the content of the work

is not constructed to be understood; instead, it is devised to be experienced. Hence, the

methodology of the artists treats the noema as a product of the live event; meaning that the

experience of the theatre play and performance art piece is made possible through the

perception of the space of no ‘thing’.

The noesis and noema correspond to each other just like the action of perception and the

object of perception; both are part of the experience of the live event. Husserl claims that in

the phase of perception ‘consciousness makes possible and necessary the fact that such an

“existing” and “thus determined” Object is intended in it’. 31 In other words, the perception of

the object is possible as in the sensuous experience, consciousness is present. Beckett’s and

Abramović’s works produce images of empty space through the use of minimal objects and

action. The Husserlian theory goes beyond theatre as a symbol of representation and treats

the image as an object of consciousness. Even though the artists create a space of no ‘thing’,

they still invite the audience in a space. The image of the space to be perceived is in fact the

source of the experience. With or without object, the live event presents an image which in

the sensory experience is treated as the object of the performance. Therefore, the experience

is possible through a consciousness which is directed towards an object of consciousness.

In the discussion on man’s consciousness in relation to the object, the Husserlian theory

explains that although the theatre presentation is not ‘real’, the spectator still participates in

the representational structure of the image of consciousness. The experience of watching

theatre or performance, involves the mind processes of thought and imagination. According

31
Edmund Husserl, The Essential Husserl: Basic Writings in Transcendental Phenomenology (Indiana: Indiana
University Press, 1999), p. 110.
21

to the theorist, these too are objects of consciousness. In ‘the mode of the “as-if”, the

spectator’s experience of the theatrical act is enabled by consciousness which ‘occurs in and

characterizes actual experience’. 32 Husserl specifically examines the perceptual experience

which is a result of the engagement of the spectator with the theatre event.

I remember a lighted theater—this cannot mean that I remember having perceived the
theater. Otherwise, this would imply that I remember that I have perceived, that I perceived
the theater, and so on [. . .] I remember the lighted theater of yesterday, i.e., I effect a
“reproduction” of the perception of the theater. Accordingly, the theater hovers before me in
the representation as something actually present. 33

An act of representation is composed by the object and the action it contains. In the case of

the discussed works, the object is the presence of the props and the performers’ bodies. The

action is the activity of movement or stillness and the dialogue between the performers and

the object. The spectator of the art object is conscious of the fact that the staged object and

action is a choice made by the director to represent something. Beckett’s script is written to

be translated into a staged production, whilst Abramović stages her body in an art gallery.

Both works are set in spaces which are empty of object and are presented to an audience to be

experienced. If the Husserlian method is applied to the theatre’s spectorial mode of

perceiving objects and actions, in the two case studies the space of no ‘thing’ is occupied by

the intangible experience. The spectator’s relationship to the empty space creates an object of

consciousness i.e. the experience of the live event. Husserl elaborates the study of object as

consciousness through the technique of the epoché or bracketing; a practice which reduces

the study of the existence of the world around me, and shifts attention from objects in the

32
Edmund Husserl, Phantasy, Image Consciousness, and Memory (1898-1925) (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005), p.
606.
33
Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893–1917) (Dordrecht:
Springer Science & Business Media, 1991), p. 27.
22

world to my consciousness of objects in the world. Thus, it sets aside the knowledge which

is provided by the senses, and replaces it with the intuitive knowledge.

One might argue that in the two case studies, the artists choose to minimize the object and

thus limit the information, to stimulate the spectator to connect with the experience

intuitively. Husserl explains that the ‘phenomenological experience as reflection must avoid

any interpretative constructions. Its descriptions must reflect accurately the concrete contents

of experience, precisely as they are experienced’. 34 If one examines Godot and The Artist is

Present as phenomenological experiences, it is clear that the spectator is more likely to

experience, rather than interpret the live event. Husserl explains man’s intuitive faculty and

argues that ‘Immediate “seeing”’ is ‘not merely sensuous experiential seeing, but seeing in

the universal sense as an originally presentive consciousness of any kind’. 35 He notes the

limitations of the empirical methodology which is committed to that which the senses can

perceive, and develops a notion of experiencing which he later defines as ‘eidetic seeing

(ideation)’. 36 This term refers to intuitive process by which one experiences a thing or event.

The result of the process is eidetic knowledge: ‘The essence (Eidos) is a new sort of object.

Just as the datum of individual or experiencing intuition is an individual object, so the datum

of eidetic intuition is a pure essence’ he claims. 37 Therefore, Beckett’s and Abramović’s

work require an engagement based on that which no words can describe and no object can

represent.

34
Edmund Husserl, The Paris Lectures (Dordrecht: Springer Science & Business Media, 1991), p. 13.
35
Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy (The
Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1982), p. 36.
36
Ibid., p. 8.
37
Ibid., p. 9.
23

Since the birth of philosophic tradition, the search for the essence has been a core subject.

The notion of essence is closely linked to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle who

searched for the essential nature of things. Plato’s inquiry looks into the true existence of the

object which according to the philosopher is defined through the experience. In the famous

piece The Allegory of the Cave, Plato offers an analogy of our perception of the world and

challenges the material existence with what appears ‘to be nothing else than the shadows of

the artifacts’. 38 The philosopher’s discussion on the essence illustrates that he acknowledged

the immaterial as that which precedes existence. On the other hand, the Aristotelian essence

is an intrinsic principle of the object. Aristotle seeks the essential nature of things to make

reason out of that which exists. He asserts that ‘the substance or essence [...] should exist; for

if neither essence nor matter is to be, nothing will be at all, and since this is impossible there

must something besides the concrete thing’. 39 These early philosophers recognize the

transcendental element which lies beyond idea, form and matter. They offer a comprehension

of what constitutes nature and that which connects us with the phenomenal world. In the

critique of the selected case studies, these early discussions are significant as they highlight

the value of experience over the material object, which is a common feature in both Waiting

for Godot and The Artist is Present.

The Live Experience of an Object of Consciousness

Husserl’s phenomenological reduction can be adopted as a critical framework to analyze the

phenomenological nature of the literary experience of Beckett’s play and Abramović’s

performance art piece. In the reception of the performance event, in the spectator participates

in the work of representation through sensory perception and creates a conscious experience.

38
Plato, ‘Extract from “Book VII”, The Republic’ in Visual Culture: Histories, archaeologies and genealogies
of visual culture ed. by Joanne Morra and Marquard Smith (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), pp. 3-5 (p. 3).
39
Aristotle, The Metaphysics ([n.p.]: Roger Bishop Jones, 2012), p. 35.
24

Within the space of no ‘thing’, he overcomes the boundaries of the fixed object and

experiences the presence of essential structures of consciousness. In the analysis of the

performances, Husserl’s epoché is valid as his method ‘is a praxis whose aim is to elevate

mankind through universal scientific reason according to norms of truth of all forms’

describes Husserl. 40 By opting for the intuitive perception of the object, the phenomenologist

transcends the visual representation and traces the origin of the eidos.

Beckett’s methodology too aims to create the experience of the eidos. Professor of Theatre at

the University of Reading Anna McMullan investigates the elements of representation and

experience in Samuel Beckett’s drama. She writes on the perceptual experience as a

collaborative process between spectator and performer. On Waiting for Godot, she states:

We could talk forever about its meaning but I actually think, like Beckett, it is about
experiencing the play. You go and take your seat in the theatre and you absorb what's
happening. The characters that are in front of you are waiting and while they are waiting we
share the same time, the same space and we watch the human beings as they interact on
stage.41

From a rational point of view, the play presents characters who are waiting for Godot in a

bare environment. Whilst they wait, they have nothing to do. Their conversation has no affect

on the situation and thus the experience seems meaningless. Beckett’s method reflects the

Cartesian epoché; through the lack of appearance of Godot. Although the spectator never sees

Godot as he never appears in the play, he is an important character in the play. His presence

40
Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to
Phenomenological Philosophy (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1970) p. 283.

41
Anna McMullan, 'When Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot he really didn't know a lot about theatre', The
Telegraph, 5 January 2013, Theatre section < http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-
features/9780077/When-Beckett-wrote-Waiting-for-Godot-he-really-didnt-know-a-lot-about-theatre.html>
[accessed 20 November 2014]
25

is experienced through the script as he is the subject of the dialogue. Defined by the dramatic

critic Esslin as the ‘anti-literary character’ of the absurd theatre, Godot highlights the

experience of consciousness in the play. 42 The effect of this character on the experience of

the live event will be further analyzed in the fifth chapter, but at this stage it is important to

note that Beckett does not rely on the physical presence of the character, but instead guides

the spectator to intuitively search for the eidos through the experience of no ‘thing’.

Similarly, Abramović devises an art piece in which the performing artist sits beside a few

objects of furniture in the space. Abramović’s presence triggers the spectator to create an

experiential event. In a description of the experience, Abramović says:

I give people a space to simply sit in silence and communicate with me deeply but non-
verbally. I did almost nothing, but they take this religious experience from it. Art had lost that
power, but for a while Moma was like Lourdes. 43

Whilst Beckett’s theatre is a staged representation of the script, the performance art piece is

real. The word real refers to the fact that Abramović is not acting out a role. In Waiting for

Godot , the spectator is aware that the bodies on stage are performing a role. However, in

Abramović’s work, the spectator experiences the artist through the spiritual silence which

surrounds the space. The nature of the work enables the spectator to engage with the artist in

the creation of a unique experience. Abramović’s methodology reflects the phenomenological

practice as she exposes herself in the process of eidetic reduction to create an experience of

consciousness.

42
Martin Esslin, ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’, The Tulane Drama Review, 4 (1960), 3-15, in JSTOR
< http://www.jstor.org/stable/1124873 > [accessed 1 October 2014] (p.12).
43
Sean O'Hagan, ‘Interview: Marina Abramović’, The Guardian, 3 October 2010, The Observer
<http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/oct/03/interview-marina-abramovic-performance-artist>
[accessed 21 October 2014]
26

In the two case studies, the method of reducing the object also implies a reduction of

historical presuppositions. Both artists build a work of art which is independent from any

historical information. Beckett does not offer details about where the characters are coming

from and where they are going. They are only present, waiting for Godot. Similarly,

Abramović’s work lacks a narrative. She is an object waiting in space. Instead of generating

meaning through concrete knowledge, the artists awaken the intuitive knowledge of the

spectator to make sense of the experience. As the Husserlian phenomenology explains, in the

space where the spectator cannot relate to the action or the object, there is a process of

reduction. Thus, the aim of the work becomes the experience. In a world with no form or

representation, the focus is on the process of perception and this becomes the experience

itself. Beckett’s theatrical scenes and Abramović’s presence in the gallery activate the

sensuous intuition. They reduce the object and dismiss rationality and create works which are

functional through the live experience

As the study is supported by the course of the philosophic tradition, it is worth mentioning

philosopher Gaston Bachelard. His work brings together philosophy and science in

meditations on the experience of physical and material spaces to create poetics of

imagination. Bachelard rejects the Cartesian rational methodology and develops his own

theory based on the intuitive. The philosopher regarded sensory experiences and images as

obstacles in the process of attaining truth. Positioning himself against realism, he breaks

away from the coherence of constructive knowledge and favours the intuitive over the

intellect. His discourse is built on the essence which is ‘not bordered by nothingness’ but

‘who invite us to the finesses of experience of intimacy, to "escapades" of imagination’. 44

Thus, according to his discourse, in the analysis of Beckett’s and Abramović’s work, it is best

to focus on the space which evokes an experience of intimacy, rather than on the image of no

44
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 215.
27

object. Instead of a theatre or a performance event based on storytelling or entertainment, the

artists’ works function through the spectator who engages in a relationship with the

performer. The intimacy is found in this exchange as the interaction is not based on the

physical elements of the event but on the transcendental experience which is a creation of

both.

To summarize the contributions of the philosophers mentioned in this study, the

phenomenological approach provides an interpretation of the artists’ choice of emptying the

space from the object and creating a work with no subject. Beckett strips the theatrical act

from décor and builds a plot on a character which never appears. Abramović exhibits herself

in a gallery in a sitting position with no expression or movement. Their work is neither

symbolic of an idea nor representing a place. The critical evaluation demonstrates how the

sensory faculty fails to experience the staged work as the artists do not rely on that which is

visible. Instead, the spectator is invited to engage through intuitive knowledge and interact

through a non-verbal and non-physical live experience. This form of experience cannot be

framed into an object, as it is transcendent and dependent on the moment of the here and

now. Therefore, the appearance of no ‘thing’ is a reflection of the transcendental

consciousness which is evoked in the presence of the spectator and the performers.
28

Chapter Three

The Body: A Physical Representation or a Real Being?

A common feature in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Abramović’s The Artist is Present is

the presence of the physical body. Beckett writes a play to be performed by four principal

actors, whilst Abramović uses her own body in the durational performance. As the previous

chapter demonstrates, the artists do not create a work which is confined to the use of the

object in space. Instead, they employ a minimalist style and activate the spectator’s sensory

faculty to engage with the space of no ‘thing’. With no object or subject to relate to, the set

becomes a meditative space. The performers’ bodies become prominent in the empty space as

there is nothing which distracts the attention away from the physical presence.

The comparative study shows that whilst Beckett’s fictional literature is based on characters

that perform physical exaggerations of action, Abramović exhibits her motionless body.

Beckett composes a precise notation of gesture and Abramović rules the space with her

physical presence and intense gaze. Therefore, in the play the bodies are representing

dramatic characters, whilst in Abramović’s piece it is the artist who is present in space.

Despite this variation in the applied techniques, both the staged text and the live performance

involve an interaction between performer and spectator. In the live event, the performer’s

physical body, in the presence of the spectator’s body engages in a dialogue which is

independent from language or physical contact. Thus, the common factor behind the artist’s

opposing methodologies is that the exchange is actualized and experienced through the body.

To understand the function of the physical bodies of both performer and spectator, one must

investigate the phenomenology of the body and why it has a fundamental role in the theatrical

and performative experience.


29

Gesture and Bodily Habit in Beckett’s Text

The theme of the body is evident in Beckett’s Godot. In the script, in between the short

sentenced phrases of the characters’ illogical dialogue, Beckett inserts lengthy and precise

gestural descriptions. These detailed stage directions dictate the physical score of the

performance. The following extract from the play demonstrates that Beckett’s intricate

instructions of the physical and spatial presence of the body.

ESTRAGON: Nothing to be done. (He proffers the remains of the carrot to Vladimir.) Like
to finish it? A terrible cry, close at hand. Estragon drops the carrot. They remain motionless,
then together make a sudden rush towards the wings. Estragon stops halfway, runs back,
picks up the carrot, stuffs it in his pocket, runs to rejoin Vladimir who is waiting for him,
stops again, runs back, picks up his boot, runs to rejoin Vladimir. Huddled together,
shoulders hunched, cringing away from the menace, they wait. 45

The detailed descriptions of the body within the script illustrates that the play is more than a

series of dialogues. Through its dramatic structure, Beckett offers the spectator information

about how the characters are feeling, through gesture and movement. Therefore, within the

physical style of the theatrical play emerge themes of the body.

From the beginning of the play, Beckett introduces the two protagonists through opposing

physical dynamics; the agitated Estragon and the assertive Vladimir. The playwright

manipulates the scenes of waiting through their physical action. Estragon holds a boot and

‘pulls at it with both hands, panting’. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again’. 46 Whilst

Estragon struggles, Vladimir ‘stiff strides, legs wide apart’.47 Beckett commands the direction

of the actors’ movements, postures and gestures and creates the dramatic situation through

45
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 17-
18.
46
Ibid., p. 2.
47
Ibid.
30

the actor’s body. Similar acts occur repeatedly over the duration of the play. At the end of the

second act, Estragon is still struggling ‘with his boots in vain’ 48 whilst Vladimir ‘goes

feverishly to and fro, halts finally at extreme left, broods’.49 Such sequences of stage

directions reinforce the sense of fixed time in the ongoing process of waiting. With no place

to go and nothing to do, the characters’ bursts of activity are unable to change the physical

situation of the space.

In the appearance of the empty space, the spectator’s attention is drawn towards the action of

the body. As both space and dialogue fail to provide information or meaning, the dialogue is

intertwined into the characters’ actions in the scenes of waiting. Thus, the focus shifts on the

physical execution of the action.

VLADIMIR: Listen!

They listen, grotesquely rigid.


ESTRAGON: I hear nothing.
VLADIMIR: Hsst! (They listen. Estragon loses his balance, almost falls. He clutches the arm
of Vladimir who totters. They listen, huddled together.) Not I. Sighs of relief. They relax and
separate.
ESTRAGON: You gave me a fright.
VLADIMIR: I thought it was he.
ESTRAGON: Who?

VLADIMIR: Godot. 50

As already mentioned in the introduction, the Theatre of the Absurd is based on a text which

challenges meaning through a juxtaposed image. This means that the actors’ movements,

48
Ibid., p. 104.
49
Ibid., p. 105.
50
Ibid., p. 15.
31

postures and gestures go against the dialogue and thus the meaning of the lines is lost. In the

above extract the dialogue gives a sense that Godot is appearing in the scene, however the

action does not affect the situation. The characters are still waiting; stuck in their roles,

Vladimir dominantly commands and Estragon anxiously questions and follows. Theatre critic

Martin Esslin describes this form of theatre as ‘multidimensional and more than merely

language or literature’. 51 The critic explains why the absurdist theatre does not follow logic in

the course of action. He highlights that the action provides ‘contradictory and bewildering

clues’ which puts the spectator in a state of tension and uncertainty. ‘instead of being in

suspense as to what will happen next, the spectators are, in the Theatre of the Absurd, put into

suspense as to what the play may mean’ claims Esslin. 52

Whilst providing an analysis of the absurdist theatre, Esslin’s critique offers contemplation

on the relationship between literature and performance. Although Beckett’s tragicomedy

originates from written text in the form of a script, its power lies in its non-literary element.

The evidence of this lies in the continuous descriptions of body gesture and physical action.

Since the dialogue does not affect progression in the play, the text of recurring physical

movement creates a situation of absurdity. The actions of the body in relation to the

conversation between the protagonists is irrational and ‘eventually the spectators are brought

face to face with the irrational side of their existence’ states Esslin. 53

The irrational element is reflected in the habitual mannerisms which the characters own. In

the scenes of waiting, the protagonists display habits of expression. As they have nothing to

do or talk about, the state of uncertainty comes across through the medium of the body. The

51
Martin Esslin, ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’, The Tulane Drama Review, 4 (1960), 3-15, in JSTOR
< http://www.jstor.org/stable/1124873 > [accessed 1 October 2014] (p.13).
52
Ibid.
53
Ibid., p. 5.
32

characters’ roles are based on repetitive action and dialogue. They depend on each other to

pass time and thus engage in actions of repetition which become intrinsic to their nature.

VLADIMIR: Off we go.


Vladimir hops from one foot to the other. Estragon imitates him.
ESTRAGON: (stopping) That’s enough. I’m tired.
VLADIMIR: (stopping) We’re not in form. What about a little deep breathing?
ESTRAGON: I’m tired breathing.

VLADIMIR: You’re right. (Pause.) Let’s just do the tree, for the balance.
ESTRAGON: The tree?
Vladimir does the tree, staggering about on one leg.
VLADIMIR: (stopping) Your turn.
Estragon does the tree, staggers. 54

Beckett’s critical essay Proust (1930) gives us an insight into why the playwright’s writing

technique includes what he calls the ‘creature of habit’. 55 Beckett explains that habit

functions as a tool of sensuous perception as it ‘turns aside from the object that cannot be

made to correspond with one or other of his intellectual prejudices’. 56 Therefore, over the

course of the play, the habitual behavior enables the spectator to withdraw from the visual

experience and engage in an experience of absurd reality.

The repetitive aspect of the characters’ relationship is manifested through the verbal and

physical actions. Beckett’s protagonists are unable to escape the vicious loop of habitual

action. ‘We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’ says

54
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 86-
87.
55
Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1931), p. 11.
56
Ibid., p. 12
33

Estragon.57 His assertion confirms the symbiotic relationship between the two characters;

based on their repetitive physical action, it distracts them from the existential turmoil which

they are experiencing. Since the text is void of intellectual discussion, the actors’ actions and

gestures are crucial for the interpretation of the performance. Through each other they are

able to perceive their own relationship to the material world, and simultaneously this

relationship enables the spectator to experience this fictional reality.

The previous chapter discussed that in Beckett’s drama the spectator is guided to actively

engage to the work through sensory perception to experience consciousness. The spectator’s

experience is a result of the staged relationship of the characters with each other and the

world. As highlighted, Beckett’s characters depend on each other to perform the repetitive

action. Hence, the experience of the characters is a result of the recurring action which forms

their relationship. In this process, ‘their awareness of their own self continues relentlessly’

argues the critic Martin Esslin. 58 Esslin investigates how it is the relationship between the

material body and the material world that enables the experience of consciousness. He states

that ‘self-perception plays an important part. Consciousness cannot conceive of itself as

nonexisting and is therefore, only conceivable as unlimited, without end’. 59 Therefore, the

relationship of the perceiver with his body and its relationship to the world and others create

the experience of consciousness. Esslin notes that in the plot it is the eternal recurrence that

affects the characters experience of consciousness. The extract below demonstrates how the

repetitive feature of the physical body is embedded in choreographic scores of action

57
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 77.
58
Martin Esslin, Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1965), p. 7.
59
Ibid.
34

VLADIMIR: Hold that. Estragon takes Vladimir’s hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky’s hat on his
head. Estragon puts on Vladimir’s hat in place of his own which he hands to Vladimir.
Vladimir takes Estragon’s hat. Estragon adjusts Vladimir’s hat on his head. Vladimir puts on
Estragon’s hat in place of Lucky’s which he hands to Estragon.60

Beckett constructs series of physical action; through a choreographic corporeal score, he

unites the characters’ bodies. The above notation is an example of how the actions of one

character depend on the presence of the other. Disoriented in a space with no context, the

characters console each other. Since they depend on each other, they are also dependent on

habitual patterns of behavior.

The mutual dependency is evident in both character pairs of the play. Pozzo and Lucky

represent a master-slave relationship. Pozzo is authoritative and Lucky submissive. The

former is blind and the latter is dumb. On the contrary, in the relationship between Vladimir

and Estragon, neither one is dominant. Didi plays with his hat and Gogo is in a continuous

struggle trying to take off his boots. The former is philosophical and the latter is emotional.

Whilst the ritualistic waiting ties them together, it also unfolds their opposing character traits.

The analysis of the script demonstrates that duality is characteristic in the theme of the body.

The duality is reflected through the two couples who are tied in a subject-object relation in

existential experiences of disintegration and wholeness.

In the spectacle of theatre, the body is treated like text, meaning that the spectator attempts to

make meaning out of the presented visual images. Since Beckett’s play of no ‘thing’ is

constructed on a dialogue of no meaning, the physical body is a significant tool in the

experience of the drama. In the play, the tool of the body is operated through a character;

hence the appearance of the actor represents a specific role through the expression of his

physical body. As this analysis highlights Beckett’s direction of gesture and movement, it is

60
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 80.
35

necessary to reflect on the spectator’s engagement to these actions. As spectators, how do we

perceive and relate to the body of the actor?

The Experience of the Exhibited ‘Abramović’

As the title suggests, the body is the focus of Marina Abramović’s exhibition The Artist is

Present. In the MoMA galleries, the artist presents a selection of her live performances, re-

performed by other people and a new original work performed by Abramović. In all the

performances, the body is used as a primary medium and means of visual expression, during

which the viewers encounter a body doing something in the here and now. Thus, in the live

performances, the body is experienced as subject and object in space.

The emergence of the artist’s body in the genre of performance art initiated in the 1960s.

During this period, artists created a radical postmodernist movement in reaction towards the

conventions of established art. RoseLee Goldberg, an American critic and curator of

performance art, defines the genre as the type of art in which ‘the live presence of the artist,

and the focus on the artist’s body, became central to notions of ‘the real’’. 61 The critic notes

that by the early seventies, artists were choosing to work with the body as material to explore

the experience of time and space. This was reflected in ‘conceptual art’s rejection of

traditional materials of canvas, brush or chisel, with performers turning to their own bodies as

art material’ explains Goldberg. 62 The body as a materialized art concept can be traced in

Abramović’s early works.

Between 1973 and 1974, Abramović produces a series of five ‘Rhythm’ works in which she

tests her physical endurance and mental limits. She uses the body as an object in space and

61
RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011), p. 9.

62
Ibid., p.152
36

translates concepts into live appearances. Therefore, the viewer can gain insight into the

experience through her physical demonstration. The last performance in the series was

Rhythm 0 (1974), in which the artist offers her body to the audience together with ’72 objects

on the table that one can use on me as desired’. 63 Using her body as material and pushing the

boundaries of her physical and mental limitations, the artist claims ‘I am the object’. 64

Documentation of the interactive event portrays Abramović being threatened physically and

mentally by her audience. In a commentary about her experience in Rhythm 0, Abramović

describes the abuse she receives from the audience as she tests ‘how far you can push the

energy of the human body’. 65 After six hours, the risk-taking performance becomes too

dangerous as the audience starts to use the objects like weapons on Abramović’s body. ‘I start

moving, I start being myself because I was there like a puppet just for them’ states the

artist. 66

Following such intense experiences, The Artist is Present features once again the artist in

space, yet this time there is no object. Abramović exhibits her body; like an object, she sits in

stillness at the centre of the atrium. The artist describes, ‘I gazed into the eyes of many people

[…] I give people a space to simply sit in silence and communicate with me deeply but non-

verbally. I did almost nothing’. 67 Through her presence, the artist is an instrument of the

aesthetic experience. The empty chair in front of Abramović is an invitation to the witness to

participate in the interactive piece. A visitor of the performance describes the experience of
63
Klaus Peter Biesenbach, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (New York:The Museum of Modern Art,
2010), p. 74.
64
Ibid.
65
Joanie Nguyen, Marina Abramovic on Rhythm 0, online video recording, YouTube, 16 March 2015 <
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtKytXEfbXs> [accessed 19 April 2015]
66
Ibid.
67
Sean O'Hagan, ‘Interview: Marina Abramović’, The Guardian, 3 October 2010, The Observer
<http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/oct/03/interview-marina-abramovic-performance-artist>
[accessed 21 October 2014]
37

being part of the installation. ‘I was focusing so hard I was exhausted by the end of it. Your

body is working so hard from being still or trying to be still’. 68 The description of the

experience confirms that the artist’s presence skillfully triggers the participant to be equally

physically and mentally engaged in the process. Therefore, unlike in the previous works in

which the artist was simply an object and material of the performance, The Artist is Present

frames the exchange which occurs between the two physical bodies. The conceptual work

concentrates on Abramović’s body and over time, the witness experiences the body as an

object becoming a live event.

Body as a Physical Tool for a Lived Experience

To understand the experience of Beckett’s theatrical script and Abramović’s live

performance, it is important to analyze the methodology of the medium of the body in

performance through phenomenological studies of the body. Phenomenology provides a

profound analysis of the body in relation to other bodies and the world. Philosopher Edmund

Husserl writes that the body (Körper) is ‘a mere material thing’; it is a spatial object with a

specific physical structure. 69 Focusing on bodily perception, he argues that the body is

fundamentally ‘a bearer of sensations [...] a thing ‘inserted’ between the rest of the material

world and the ‘subjective’ sphere’. 70 In other words, the body is an object through which the

subject appears in the world. Through movement, the subject’s consciousness perceives the

moving object and forms an experience. Therefore, consciousness functions through the

subject’s body which is able to perceive and interpret the world through sensations.

68
Julia Kaganskiy, ‘Visitor Viewpoint: Marina Abramović’, The Museum of Modern Art, 29 March 2010,
Viewpoints section <http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2010/03/29/visitor-viewpoint-marina-
abramovic>[accessed 5 November 2014]
69
Edmund Husserl, The Essential Husserl: Basic Writings in Transcendental Phenomenology (Indiana: Indiana
University Press, 1999), p. 180.
70
Ibid., p. 185.
38

In the discussed performances, Husserl’s body (Körper) is the body of the performer. In

Beckett’s scripted play, the physicality of the actors enables the audience to have an

experience of the spatial environment of the play. If the stage was just bare, the spectator

would perceive an empty space; therefore, it is through the physical presence of the

characters, that the spectator can interpret the scene. In the famous essay Samuel Beckett,

or Presence on the Stage (1965), literary critic Alain Robbe-Grillet writes that the two

characters seem to appear on stage without a role to play. The few rags and torn shoes which

dress the characters together with their actions and text provide details which enable the

audience to engage with the narrative. ‘The dramatic character is on stage, that is his primary

quality: he is there’ argues the critic. 71 Therefore, it is through their bodies that the spectator

experiences the play.

In the performance of no narrative, Abramović has no character, yet the spectator is still able

to have an experience. The artist’s physical presence transforms the art gallery into a

performance space. Peggy Phelan is a current performance art critic who published thorough

research on the concept of presence in performance. She forms a critique on the live

performance event, the experience it produces and the meanings it provides. Basing her

argument on the function of the body, she claims that ‘Identity is perceptible only through a

relation to an other’. 72 Her argument suggests that the meaning of the body changes

according to the context in which it appears.

In both the theatrical performance and the live performance event, the presence of the body is

a reference for the spectator. The analysis demonstrates that both Beckett and Abramović

explored the body not simply as an instrument which communicates through the character or

71
Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1963), p.
111.
72
Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 13.
39

role it plays. Out of the staged human body, the artists create an experience in which the

spectator witnesses the object that forms part of his being. To elaborate further on this

experience, it is worth examining Husserl’s idea of the body. The philosopher makes a clear

division between the physical body (Körper) and the living body (Leib). ‘Körper means a

body in the geometric or physical sense; Leib refers to the body of a person or animal’

explains the theorist.73 Whilst he uses the term Körper to identify the body as an object,

Husserl also notes that what we perceive as a body image is also a living body which is aware

of its own existence. The living body is ‘perceptually bound to a [general] situation in which

physical objects appear’ says Husserl. 74 Therefore, it is via the living body that the subject’s

consciousness can relate to other physical bodies. To summarize, in the performances, whilst

the appearance of the physical body defines the space, the living body is the source which

engages the spectator to the experience.

As already discussed in the second chapter, both Beckett and Abramović encourage the

spectator to engage to the work not simply intellectually, but also through intuitive

knowledge in the live experience. Beckett’s directions of the actor’s body in the script breaks

the boundaries between literature and reality. It is through the physicality of the actors that

the spectator understands that and in the situation of waiting, the characters struggle with the

environment around them. In a review on the staged Waiting for Godot directed by Ron OJ

Parson in Chicago’s Court Theatre, critic Catey Sullivan writes that ‘director Parson demands

of the audience: complete surrender’ through the ‘alternately clownish and mordant delivery’

73
Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to
Phenomenological Philosophy (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1970), p. 50.

74
Ibid., p. 107.
40

of the actors’.75 The spectator becomes a witness of the anxiety and is absorbed into the

puzzling reality of no answers. Similarly, Abramović requests the intensive participation of

her audience. The artist manages this simply through her gaze. Intrigued by the silent moment

of interaction, Abramović explains that scientists have proved that ‘there is an incredible

amount of activity that happens when you take the time to really look at another human being

without any verbal exchange’. 76 Therefore, through the interaction of the physical bodies, the

participant experiences the living body.

The analysis demonstrates that the Cartesian dualist approach serves to explain the function

of the physical body in the live experience. Husserl transforms the notion of the physical

structure of the body from object into a ‘privileged object in the surrounding world’. 77 Thus,

the early phenomenological account refers to the body which functions like an object and to

the body which is able to form relationships and experience the world. In the studied

performances, the dual nature of the body that is outlined by Husserl is evident through the

physical appearance of the body in space and the artistic methods of staging the body. The

research shows that with the body as a vehicle of performance, both Beckett’s drama and

Abramović’s concept create an experiential live event. Yet, what is the value of the

immaterial experience which is created from the spectator’s relationship to the physical

appearance of the body in space?

75
Catey Sullivan, ‘Waiting for Godot’, Theatre Mania, 4 February 2015, Reviews section
<http://www.theatermania.com/chicago-theater/reviews/waiting-for-godot-court-theatre-review_71584.html
[accessed 2 April 2015]
76
Stephanie Spiro, ‘An Interview with Marina Abramović: Art, Science and the Marina Abramović Institute’,
Huffington Post, 23 October 2013, Arts &Culture section, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephanie-spiro/an-
interview-with-marina-_b_3792175.html>[accessed 13 December 2014]

77
Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to
Phenomenological Philosophy (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1970), p. 323.
41

The Exchange between Performer and Spectator

Expanding further on the phenomenological approach to the body, one finds that Maurice

Merlau Ponty’s examination of Husserl’s theory is relevant to the study of the body in

performance. Husserl defines the living-body as ‘an organ of perception’; the medium by

which one experiences the surrounding world. 78 Merleau-Ponty too was interested in the

perceptual ability of the body to create experiences based on the relationship with its

surrounding. Contrary to the Cartesian account which argues of a dichotomous relationship

between the living body and the object, Merleau-Ponty discusses the reciprocal relationship

in which both the body and the world are objects and subjects of the experience. He suggests

the possibility of ‘co-functioning’ 79, as we form part of a common world and thus ‘function

as one unique body’. 80 Thus, in the process of perception, the body is a subject experiencing

the world as an object. At the same time, the world is a subject of the objective body. ‘Our

own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism; it keeps the visible spectacle

constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system’. 81

In the metaphorical statement, Merleau-Ponty contemplates on the lived body as an

instrument of perception in relation to the world.

In his book The Visible and the Invisible (1968), Maurice Merleau-Ponty includes a whole

chapter titled ‘The Intertwining- The Chiasm’. In this chapter, he provides an enquiry of the

body’s relation to the world and explains that we come to know the world through an

78
Edmund Husserl, The Essential Husserl: Basic Writings in Transcendental Phenomenology (Indiana: Indiana
University Press, 1999), p. 227.
79
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes (Evanston: NorthWestern
University Press, 1968), p. 215.
80
Ibid.
81
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962), p.
235.
42

intertwining relationship. As the living body observes and senses, it is capable of

transcending its physical structure and become part of the world. In this sense, the world is

made up of both the perceiver and the perceived. According to Merleau-Ponty, this sense of

unity occurs through the flesh which is ‘not matter, is not mind, is not substance […] The

flesh is in this sense an “element” of Being’. 82 His analysis alters the traditional sense of the

body as he invites us to inhabit the body differently, and not simply through the physical

sense. The ability to perceive unites the perceiver and the perceived, hence, the subject and

the object, into one. Merleau-Ponty defines the experience formed when the two bodies come

together as the chiasm; ‘the metamorphosis of the one experience into the other’. 83 Therefore,

the totality of the experience forms a new phenomenological body.

This is meaningful to the study of the performances as Beckett’s dramatic play and

Abramović’s performance are built on situations which seek a physical engagement from

both performer and spectator. The analysis of Godot’s script shows that Beckett created

character roles which in the live theatrical event are expressed by actors. Therefore, the actors

embody a role and a character to deliver the narrative of the text. In 2008, the actor Randy

Harrison represented Lucky in the staging of Waiting for Godot by The Berkshire Theatre

Festival. He shares his experience in an interview and says that process of rehearsing for the

play ‘is like living in a different world as a group [...] to inhabit this bizarre and fascinating

place together’. 84 The actor describes it as an organic process in which ‘line readings then

grow out of the situations [...] You follow the script, and the audience will project what is a

82
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes (Evanston: NorthWestern
University Press, 1968), p. 139.
83
Ibid., p. 148.
84
Larry Murray, ‘INTERVIEW: Talking with Randy Harrison about Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”’,
Berkshire on Stage and Screen’, 16 March 2015, Reviews section
<http://berkshireonstage.com/2015/03/16/interview-talking-with-randy-harrison-about-samuel-becketts-waiting-
for-godot/> [accessed 1 April 2014]
43

personal meaning for them’. 85 Therefore, through presence, physicality and skill, the actor

embodies Beckett’s text and in the relationship with the spectator, as outlined by Merleau-

Ponty, forms the intertwining experience of perception.

Whilst Beckett directs through his detailed scripted instructions in the script, Abramović’s

work has no written text. The concept which originates from her mind is executed through

her body. Abramović uses the body not simply as a sign for human emotions, but as a

structural material which can be used for whatever it needs to represent. In the exhibition The

Artist is Present, she restages her past performance pieces by employing other artists to be

part of her work. The performers replace Abramović’s body as they take over her past roles.

As the artist passes on her work to other performers, she acknowledges that this implies that

her work becomes dependent on the physical and mental state of the performer, and thus it is

likely to differ in some respects from her original work. Deborah Wing-Sproul is a performer

in Abramović’s retrospective at the MoMA. In an interview, she describes the experience of a

performer’s relationship to Abramović’s work.

I can’t be her body. I feel like when I enter these works I’m bringing all of whom I am. I feel
that having witnessed her performing multiple times was helpful to me, a guide…I needed to
experience her energy…She had variation in her gaze, breath, a range of body positions. It
was extremely powerful. 86

Whilst Beckett’s script clearly dictates what the actors have to do, Abramović’s motionless

appearance replaces the use of text. Abramović explains that the performance artist has to

understand that there is ‘a structure of the performance that you can see and then you make

85
Ibid.
86
Carrie Stern, ‘The artist is present in the bodies of any: Reperformng Marina Abramović’, Agôn, 2013, La
Reprise < http://agon.ens-lyon.fr/index.php?id=2739> [accessed 12 April 2015]
44

your own interpretation and have your own experience’. 87 Therefore, the body acts as a blank

page to create a space for the exchange between herself and the spectator.

Embodiment and Presence in the Live Event

In both case studies, the performing bodies are present in space to construct images.

Contemporary scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte, whose writing addresses key issues in

performance, discusses the function of the performer’s body through the concept of

embodiment. She explains that ‘embodiment creates the possibility for the body to function

as the object, subject, material, and source or symbolic construction, as well as the product of

cultural inscriptions’. 88 Through their physical presence, the actors and performers are able to

embody roles and concepts to become a source of meaning and experience. Thus, in the live

event, it is through embodiment that the spectator can experience. Art theorist and critic

Amelia Jones traces through performance history and studies live art practices, recognizing a

shift in the use of body between the genres. She asserts that body art and performance art are

a ‘fundamental subversion of modernism’s assumption that fixed meanings are determinable

through the formal structure of the work alone’. 89 Whilst in theatre, the actor embodies the

role of a dramatic character and becomes body of representation, in performance art the body

is treated simply as presence. Hence, in the discussed works, textual meaning is delivered by

the actors who present character roles on stage and performance artists embody concepts.

Abramović explains what it means to be a performance artist, thus outlining the difference

between performance art and theatre. She asserts:

87
Ibid.
88
Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics (Oxon: Routledge, 2008),
p. 89.
89
Amelia Jones, Body Art/performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p. 21.
45

To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre […] Theatre is fake […] The knife is not
real, the blood is ketchup, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the
knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. 90

Therefore, the performance artist embodies conceptual art and creates a visual expression out

of the human experience. Although Abramović asserts that performance is real, the presence

of the body in a performative event immediately implies that the body is representing

something or someone. Cultural scholar and art critic Philip Auslander argues that the

postmodernist performing body is ‘always both a vehicle for representation and, simply,

itself’. 91 Abramović’s body in The Artist is Present presents the real body of the artist,

however, as suggested by Auslander, since the body is also a performing body, this means

that its presence is also constructed. This is verified by the observations of one of the

reperformers of Abramović’s work on the experience, who notes that the artist ‘had variation

in her gaze, breath, a range of body positions’. 92

To understand better this shift in performance practice, it is significant to once again look into

Fischer-Lichte’s study which asserts that theatre practitioners challenge the concept of the

body in performance creating ‘a correctional shift in methodology away from such

explanatory concepts as “text” or “representation”’. 93 She employs techniques of both

semiotics and phenomenology and divides the body in two: the semiotic body and the

phenomenal body. Whilst the semiotic body is a ‘representation of a dramatic figure’, the

90
O'Hagan.
91
Philip Auslander, From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism (London:
Routledge, 1997), p. 90.
92
Stern.
93
Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics (Oxon: Routledge, 2008),
p. 90.
46

phenomenal body is ‘an energetic body’. 94 She explains that in theatre, the material existence

of the body is used as a sign. On the other hand, in performance, embodiment occurs through

the body of the performer and creates energy which is central to the experience. Similarly,

Abramović explains that performance art practice is ‘all about energy which is invisible […]

you elevate your consciousness, and that really affects the audience’. 95 In the piece,

Abramović’s body is an art object that is subject to the interpretation of the viewer’s which is

formed by thoughts, experience and knowledge in relation to the world and others. In the live

performance, the artist is an image and a concept; passive through stillness and active in her

gaze, she is a physical body, an exhibited artwork and a human being who is intimately

engaged in a shared experience with her audience. To analyze further the function of the

body, it is useful to study Abramović’s performance in relation to the discussions raised by

phenomenologists and contemporary performance critics.

Erika Fischer-Lichte notes that the presence of the live body in performance has the ‘ability

to generate energy so that it can be sensed by the spectators as it circulates in space’. 96

Therefore, the concept of presence means that the performer’s body which appears is

perceived through a state of presence. ‘the spectator experiences the performer and himself as

embodied mind in a constant process of becoming’ elaborates the scholar. 97 Fischer-Lichte’s

discourse complements Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the flesh in the process of perception.

As highlighted earlier in this chapter, the process of intertwining unites that which appears

separate; through the senses the perceiver connects with the object to create the experience.

94
Erika Fischer-Lichte, ‘Appearing as embodied mind – defining a weak, a strong and a radical concept of
presence’ in Archaeologies of Presence: Art, Performance and the Persistence of Being ed. by Gabriella
Giannachi, Nick Kaye, Michael Shanks (Oxon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 103-118 (p. 112).
95
Biesenbach, p. 211.
96
Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics (Oxon: Routledge, 2008),
p. 98.
97
Ibid., p. 99.
47

According to Merleau-Ponty, the flesh of the object facilitates self-consciousness; as the

perceiver becomes aware of his senses, he is open to sense the other. In this process, the

experience is based on ‘truth – which prejudges nothing [...] there is presence, that

“something” is there, and that “someone” is there’ states the phenomenologist. 98 In The Artist

is Present, both performer and spectator are conscious of the presence of their own body and

the body of the other. Describing the experience, Abramović says ‘I gazed into the eyes of

many people who were carrying such pain inside that I could immediately see it and feel it

[…] I become a mirror for them of their own emotions’. 99 The artist’s words demonstrate that

the experience is not solely on the presence of the physical bodies but also on the presence of

consciousness.

Theorist of performance studies Peggy Phelan discusses the alternative approaches to theatre

in light of the comparative analysis between the ‘representation’ and the ‘real’. She suggests

that performance avoids representation by creating the real. ‘The real inhabits the space that

representation cannot reproduce – and in this failure theatre relies on repetition and mimesis

to produce substitutes for the real’ states Phelan. 100As previously examined, Beckett’s script

is full of repetitive dialogue and action. The staging of Beckett’s theatrical script means that

the text becomes embodied expression. On the other hand, Abramović’s motionless body in

the live event becomes an object in space – ‘body as a machine’ says the artist, as she avoids

theatrical representation. 101 ‘but there is something more Buddhist now about the

performances’ she highlights. 102 The artist’s preparation towards the performance involves

98
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes (Evanston: NorthWestern
University Press, 1968), p. 160.
99
O'Hagan.
100
Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 126.
101
O'Hagan

102
Ibid.
48

training and discipline which is inspired from Eastern philosophy of attaining emptiness; ‘the

artist should be empty and vulnerable, available and accessible’ remarks Abramović. 103 The

purpose of this training is for the performer to reach a state which projects nothing, but

simply to be.

Although Abramović avoids symbolic representation, Phelan argues that her ‘art is

fundamentally theatrical in the sense that it depends on an audience’. 104 ‘Performance

implicated the real through the presence of living bodies. In performance art spectatorship

there is an element of consumption […] the gazing spectator must try to take everything in’

asserts the critic. 105 Abramović engages the audience in a process which Phelan describes as

‘an experiment in intersubjectivity’. 106 What happens within the intersubjective experience is

the same experience marked out in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomonelogical theory on the flesh.

Thus, both the art theorist and the phenomenologist clarify how Abramović’s performance is

an experience of presence that functions through two bodies who share one moment. The

transitory element of the art genre is manifested through the live interaction between the artist

and spectator. Thus, the performance only exists in the present.

The evaluation of Beckett’s script and Abramović’s unscripted performance demonstrate how

the body in performance can be used as a tool of representation or can serve to create an

experience through presence. In the discussion on presence, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion

of the flesh offers a clear explanation onto why both works depend on the physical bodies of

103
David Ebony, ‘Marina Abramovic: An Interview’, Art in America, May 2009 < http://prod-images.exhibit-
e.com/www_skny_com/MA_2009_05_Art_in_America.pdf> [accessed on 2 November 2014]
104
Peggy Phelan, ‘Marina Abramović: Witnessing Shadows’, Theatre Journal, Vol. 56, No. 4 (2004), 569-577,
in JSTOR < http://www.jstor.org/stable/25069529> [accessed 23 October 2014]
(p.574)
105
Phelan. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993) p.148
106
Ibid.
49

performer and spectator. Through the performer’s body in the space and the spectator’s

conscious enagagement, the performance becomes a creation of both artist and audience.
50

Chapter Four

The Live Event: The Interplay of Space and Time

To interpret Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Abramović’s The Artist is Present, it is

necessary to investigate how theatrical and performance space is created. Beckett’s script

combines dialogue and stage directions to create a fictional world for a possible theatre

production. The play’s text is based on conversations between the characters and includes

descriptions of action and gesture, intended for staged bodies in a designed set. The play is

divided into two acts representing two days. On the other hand, Abramović’s performance art

piece does not follow a narrative, but a concept which she projects through the presence of

her body in a contemporary art gallery. As part of the exhibition which showcases the origins

of Abramović’s work, the performance artist invites the spectator into the installed setting of

an art piece to sit and in silence make eye contact. Although the content, genre and style of

the two case studies are different, both Beckett and Abramović use the relationship between

space and time to create an environment that evokes an experience in the presence of

performer and spectator. This chapter will thus argue the function of the empty space and

how time in the live event affects the nature of the experience.

Before examining the artistic methodologies, it is important to study the relationship between

space and time through a phenomenological perspective as the spectator interprets the live

event through the experience of the spatio-temporal dimension. Observing Husserl’s

philosophical reflection on the object, it is evident that the theorist treats the object as an

entity which belongs to a space and time. He writes that ‘All individual objects have a

temporal duration and position; they are extended with an essential content over the original

continuum of time’. 107 Husserl’s phenomenological theory is relevant to the study of theatre

107
Edmund Husserl and Ludwig Landgrebe, Experience and Judgment (Illinois: Northwestern University Press,
1973), p. 184.
51

and performance practice because like the object, the synthesis of the live event can only be

determined through the duration of a situation in a space. In Godot, the duration of the two

act play portrays the effect of the relationship of space and time as the actors are stuck in the

same place in what seems to be an eternal waiting. The interplay of these factors controls the

protagonists’ behaviour and engages the audience in the experience of waiting. Abramović,

together with the other performers, sustains the same action over the duration of the

exhibition. In the gallery space which culturally is used to present objects of art, the

performance pieces break the illusion of a fixed sense of time by exhibiting the ephemeral

effect through their body. The above analysis demonstrates that both the drama and the

performance have no beginning and no end; they start and end in the same way as nothing

happens in between. Since the live event is perceived within the spatial coordinates and can

only exist in time, the visual representation in Beckett’s theatre and the body in Abramović’s

performance cannot be separated from the temporal dimension.

Referring one again to Husserl’s discourse, the theorist highlights the unity between the

object and space and time. He insists that ‘there can exist only one Objective world, only one

Objective time, only one Objective space, only one Objective Nature’. 108 This explains why

the visual representation in Beckett’s play appears to be paused in time. Since there is no

change in the protagonists’ actions, there is no apparent change in space and time, and vice

versa. Similarly, as the ‘things’ in Abramović’s exhibition do not change the nature of their

action, space and time seem to be static. Conversely, as nothing changes in space or time, the

performing bodies remain in the same pose doing the same action. Hence, what Husserl refers

to as ‘one’, in the ‘Objective’ experience of the theatre and performance event is that which

108
Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (Dordrecht: Springer Science &
Business Media, 1960), p. 140.
52

unfolds through the unity between the performing body in space and time. Therefore, the

sense of a whole experience is the present moment.

As discussed in Chapter three, Beckett’s theatrical scenes and Abramović’s exhibition create

an experience through the presence of the performers’ bodies. Thus, the object in both live

events is a living body. This means that even though in the performances the body’s

relationship to space and time does not change, it remains a fact that the body is alive. In fact

Husserl explains that all objects are temporal objects as ‘they belong to a unique order of

becoming and can be represented only in the reproduction of this order in the representation

of becoming that is constitutive of time’. 109 The dependence of the object on time is reflected

in Beckett’s play as Pozzo recognises that they are victims of ‘accursed time [...] one day we

shall die, the same day the same second’. 110 Therefore, although the waiting creates the

sensation that time has stopped, the characters also experience the progress of time through

the physical discomfort of their bodies and their mental struggle in the awareness of the

suffering. Abramović describes that ‘when people come into that zone they actually forget

about the time’, however the performing bodies are exposed to the time factor as they are

witnessed enduring physical and mental extremities in public. 111 The artist explains that the

pieces exhibit ‘the life force inside of you’ as through time, the vulnerable body is exposed.
112
No matter how many times she repeats the performance, Abramović admits that ‘I have to

109
Edmund Husserl and Ludwig Landgrebe, Experience and Judgment (Illinois: Northwestern University Press,
1973), p. 185.
110
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 103.
111
Daniela Stigh, ‘Marina Abramović: The Artist Speaks’, MoMA Inside/Out, 3 June 2010
<http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2010/06/03/marina-abramovic-the-artist-speaks> [accessed 17
November 2014}
112
Helen Walters, Marina Abramović on Humor, Vulnerability and Failure, online video recording, TED, 16
March 2015 <http://ideas.ted.com/marina-abramovic-on-humor-vulnerability-and-failure/> [accessed 28 April
2015]
53

deal with it every day. I never get used to performing’. 113 Therefore, both case studies are

based on the passing time but in one space, they manage to capture the experience of the

present moment.

Returning to the phenomenological study, Merleau-Ponty criticises Husserl’s view claiming

that his definition of time is ‘dependent on the convention that one can represent the series of

nows by points on a line’. 114 In the case of the discussed works, although the theatre and

performance are events that exist in a specific space at a particular point in time, the

experience they create seems to be independent of the two factors. Where and when the event

happens does not have a crucial effect on the experience; in the live event, what matters is the

unity of the performing body in present time. In the play, the characters have nowhere to go

and all they seek is to know when Godot is coming. As Godot never appears, the play

revolves around the protagonists’ waiting in present time. Abramović’s performance art is

also about the present moment as she creates an event in which the spectator sees living

bodies in space and participates in the experience of the still moment.

The two case studies produce the experience that is irreducible to space and time. Merleau-

Ponty explains this sensation through a time chiasm in which past and future overlap into ‘a

single movement’ in which the perceiver is aware of himself in time. 115 Since I am ‘time

which is aware of itself’ 116, therefore ‘I am myself time’. 117 The phenomenologist explains

that being aware of time means that one goes beyond the perception of past or future. Using

the concept of the flesh that is explained in the third chapter, he suggests that ‘flesh is in this

113
Ibid.
114
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes (Evanston: NorthWestern
University Press, 1968), p. 195.
115
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962), p.
487.
116
Ibid., p. 495.
117
Ibid., p. 489.
54

sense an “element” of Being [...] adherent to location and to the now’. 118 Merleau-Ponty’s

reflection is relevant to this study as in both works the object is the actor or the performer;

thus, a human being who through the body is able to perceive the nature of his consciousness

in relation to space and time. Thus, the spectator undergoes the experience of his own Being,

as his flesh unites with the image in a space and time. For this reason, Merleau-Ponty calls

the notion of time ‘a dimension of our being’. 119 In the live event, the moment of unity in

which the spectator perceives the experience and simultaneously is conscious of his own

Being having this experience, creates the sensation of the present moment.

A Space of Meaning

The phenomenological discourse is relevant to the research as it explains how the artists stage

the dichotomy of time’s movement and stillness in space. The space that frames the

performance event not only captures the sensation of time; it also gains its meaning through

the objects of performance and the audience within a set of boundaries. As outlined in the

second chapter, in the two case studies the presence of no ‘thing’ makes evident the empty

space and in the live event, the audience relates to the setting of the space.

Space is semiotic; it embodies pre-defined meanings based on historical, social or cultural

contexts. In the book The Production of Space (1991), philosopher and sociologist Henri

Lefebvre notes that the nature of the space varies according to the inter-relationships that

space creates. Lefebvre’s contemplation on space is important to this discussion as even

theatre and performance space produce a place in which relationships between living bodies

form. ‘(Social) space is a (social) product’ he states, meaning that physical space cannot be

118
Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Ted Toadvine, The Merleau-Ponty Reader (Illinois: Northwestern University
Press, 2007), p. 400.
119
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962), p.
483.
55

separated from its social relations. 120 In theatre and performance, the physical space is an

environment in which the performing body and the spectator meet. This encounter which is

subject to space and time determines the theatrical and performative experience. ‘Space is

social morphology: it is to lived experience what form itself is to the organism’ writes

Lefebvre. 121 What the sociologist means is that we experience space as a representation of

something. Even the performance space comes with a set of rules, function and meaning,

hence, the theatrical or performative content is interpreted through its relations with its

surroundings. If every space comes with its own physical representation and social meaning,

theatre and performance cannot avoid becoming a form of cultural text. Whether or not the

artistic activity is based on a literary text, through the space it inhabits it becomes an activity

that provides a human experience in a cultural and social context. What spatial choices does

Beckett make in the structure of the literary text and how does Abramović use space to

construct the spectator’s experience?

Staging Beckett’s Godot in Empty Space

Waiting for Godot is a literary text full of action and direction created to function in a theatre

setting. The term theatre originates from ‘theatron’, a Greek word used to describe a place for

viewing. 122 Since the early stages of dramatic performance, theatre is used to refer to the

social practice of performance in which performers gather in an empty space to act, sing and

dance. Over the course of the theatre tradition, theatre space changed from a Greek

amphitheatre to Elizabethan theatre to the proscenium theatre stage. Eventually the

institutionalization of theatricality, led to urban and rural spaces converted into theatrical

120
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 26.
121
Ibid., p. 95.
122
Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictonary, online dictionary, (2001-2015)
<http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=theater> [accessed 12 May 2015]
56

spaces. The physical construction and contextual meaning of the theatre spaces might be

different, yet what is common to all forms of spaces is the empty space. Theatre director

Peter Brook describes how any place can become a space of theatre. ‘I can take an empty

space and call it bare scene. A person crosses this empty space while somebody else looks at

him, and this is what is necessary for a theatrical action to be undertaken’ describes Brook. 123

Therefore, if the construction of space occurs through the interplay of movement and time,

then all spaces are possible sites of theatre.

The first descriptive words of Beckett’s script clearly outline the physical space, providing

details of a place and time.

A country road. A tree.


Evening. 124

The scenic description suggests that the play occurs in a nocturnal and bare place. He orients

us in the space by placing the protagonists on a country road. The road, which represents a

place between two spaces, suggests that the characters are coming from somewhere or

heading somewhere, yet he doesn’t offer suggestions to where the road leads. The bare space

contains a tree.

ESTRAGON: What is it?

VLADIMIR: I don’t know. A willow.


ESTRAGON: Where are the leaves?
VLADIMIR: It must be dead. 125

123
Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate (New York:
Simon and Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 9.
124
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 1.
125
Ibid., p. 8.
57

Placing the dialogue in the context of the opening lines of the play, the tree of few leaves

gives a sense of bareness just like the space. However, at the beginning of the second act,

Beckett specifies: ‘The tree has four or five leaves’. 126 The tree is a metaphor of life and

earth. In the moment Estragon despairs, Vladimir commands ‘Look at the tree’. 127 He

observes that ‘yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with

leaves’. 128 In the dead scenes of empty space in which nothing happens, the tree gives a sense

of hope and orientation. The second act represents the second day of waiting for Godot.

Beckett instructs that the characters are in the same place and time. ‘It’s evening, Sir, it’s

evening, night is drawing nigh [...] I have lived through this long day and I can assure you it

is very near the end of its repertory’ announces Vladimir. 129 The situation does not shift and

over the duration of the scenes of waiting, the landscape and atmosphere of the space do not

change either.

As discussed at the beginning of this chapter, the effect of the setting enables the experience

of the present time. The sense of now draws attention to the physical space of emptiness

which is filled by the physical presence of the characters. The sense of no place is reflected in

the anonymous characters as it is through their physical appearance, their costume and their

behaviour in the space that the audience perceives them as tramps. Their ragged clothes and

torn shoes reflect their social belonging which is connected to the time and place of when the

play was written. Costume designer Elizabeth Whiting of Auckland Theatre Company’s

Godot explains that her role is dependent on the playwright’s script. ‘The text is the starting

126
Ibid., p. 62.
127
Ibid., p. 66.
128
Ibid., p. 73.
129
Ibid., p. 98.
58

point for all design’ she states, ‘I need to understand the references in the text and understand,

as much as possible, the intent of the writer.130

VLADIMIR: No, I mean why did you throw them away?


ESTRAGON: (exasperated). Because they were hurting me!
VLADIMIR: (triumphantly, pointing to the boots). There they are! (Estragon looks at the
boots). At the very spot where you left them yesterday!
(Estragon goes towards the boots, inspects them closely). 131

As explained by Whiting, the text and descriptions in the script demonstrate how Beckett

sensually intends to immerse the audience into the space. In the minimal setting, the

characters with poor clothing stand out. There is no visual division between the characters;

they are all dressed up in rags. Thus, the characters become an extension of the barren stage

environment. As explained at the start of this chapter through Husserl’s theory, the characters

are temporal objects. In fact, between day and night, the characters are affected by the spatial

conditions they inhabit. ‘My clothes dried in the sun’ 132 says Estragon and as the night

approaches, Vladimir remarks ‘I’m cold’. 133 The discomfort caused by the cold environment

seeps through their poor clothing and is reflected through their emotional agitation. They

function with respect to their spatial situation and therefore it is through their presence that

we can imagine the space.

130
Elizabeth Whiting, ‘Waiting for Godot’, The Arts Online [n.d]
<http://artsonline2.tki.org.nz/resources/lessons/drama/godot/design_e.php> [accessed 20 May 2015]
131
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 75.
132
Ibid., p. 58.
133
Ibid., p. 81.
59

Beckett complements the descriptive scenic details with the textual element of the play, to

create the narrative structure of the fictional world. The playwright challenges mimesis by

avoiding decorative details of the space and thus the characters could be in any place. Enoch

Brater, a specialist on modern and contemporary drama, writes an article on why Beckett’s

dramatic work remains successful. He explains that Beckett avoids references to places; the

characters waiting on the country road are ‘nonetheless, somewhere; that somewhere turns

out to be a stage, the stage, any stage, every stage’ he says. 134 Since the play is constructed in

empty space, it can be produced in any spatial context and therefore the strength of the play

lies on that which enables the experience of waiting. ‘His scenography is anything but

abstract [...] In Godot we don’t have to know precisely where we are in order to recognize

exactly where we are’ claims Brater.135 Hence, to produce Beckett’s literary text, the director

is not limited to a specific physical space as the scenes of waiting can be produced in any

place through the relationship between space and time.

The different productions of Beckett’s Godot across the globe prove that the script’s minimal

setting can operate in multiple spaces. This is important as like Lefebvre’s argument of social

space noted in this chapter, any space is social space and similarly any empty space can hold

a theatrical event as theatre is a means by which social relations develop. In 1957, the play

was staged in San Quentin Prison: ‘in the North Dining Hall on an improvised stage in front

of 1,400 convicts, with guards posted all around, rifles at the ready’. 136 In 2007, the Classical

Theatre of Harlem staged the play outdoors for the communities which suffered the

destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Actor Wendell Pierce describes why the play is significant

to this context:
134
Enoch Brater, ‘The Globalization of Beckett's "Godot"’, Comparative Drama, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2003), 145-
158, in JSTOR < http://www.jstor.org/stable/41154182> [accessed 12 January 2015] (p.150).
135
Ibid., p. 151.
136
David Bradby, Beckett: Waiting for Godot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 102.
60

Godot also symbolised our very existence which had disappeared; our neighbourhood was no
longer there, and we feared it would not return. After Katrina, many survivors were asking
'Should I give up?' and Waiting for Godot offered the answer, 'We must go on.’ 137

Both productions demonstrate not only how the play functions outside of the conventional

theatre, but also how the directors are able to negotiate the meaning of the text as the

spectator interprets the work of art through the spatial context it inhabits.

As highlighted at the beginning of this section, although Beckett’s text is directorial, it is not

dictatorial. The playwright’s minimal instructions guide the director, yet they do not restrict

theatre practitioners to stick to any form of empty space and thus creates possibilities for the

exploration of spatial compositions. A review of the production directed by George Tabori’s

in 1984 shows that the staging techniques can go against Beckett’s stage directions.

The play was staged in the round with the enclosed performance space defined by a round
area of sand [...] Two joined tables surrounded by eight chairs stood in this arena. A black
working light hung above the table with a black wire dangling from it, which turned into a
green, leafy twig after the interval: a remnant of Beckett’s tree. 138

Instead of leaving the space bare, the director places the actors in a scene which appears

similar to their rehearsal space. Together with the stage manager, the director and the

designer, the actors drink coffee in the space until their names are called out and the play

starts. As the description shows, the only thing which resembles Beckett’s description is the

impression of the tree. In the scenes, the actors are indoors and through their dialogue they

make reference to the outdoor surrounding, prompting the spectator to imagine the place of
137
David Smith, ‘In Godot we trust’, The Guardian, 8 March 2009, The Observer
<http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/mar/08/samuel-beckett-waiting-for-godot> [accessed 12 May 2015]

138 Antje Diedrich, ‘PERFORMANCE AS REHEARSAL: George Tabori's Staging of Beckett's "Waiting for
Godot" and "Endgame"’, Editions Rodopi B.V., Vol. 15 (2005), 147-160, in JSTOR
<http://www.jstor.org/stable/25781509> [accessed 19 January 2015] (p.148).
61

their waiting. According to theatre scholar Jonathan Kalb, ‘Tabori’s production is not merely

a mimesis [...] but a meditation on mimesis’. 139 Tabori’s approach reinvents the setting of the

play proving that Beckett’s minimalist style creates a fictional world and inspires its

representation through innovative spatial compositions.

Displaying Abramović’s Body in a Gallery

Whilst, theatre plays are based on a structure which offers the director details on how to

design the theatrical environment, in performance art there is no narrative. Artists turn to their

bodies as art material and base their work on process rather than on creating a product.

According to critic RoseLee Goldberg, ‘conceptual art implied the experience of time, space

and material rather than their representation in the form of objects’. 140 Hence, as performance

art breaks traditions of representation, it reforms spaces by making work which is directly

related to the context of the place which it inhabits.

Abramović’s The Artist is Present is a scriptless performance presented in New York’s

Musuem of Modern Art (MoMA). In the art museum, Abramović outlines her artistic

trajectory and presents five historical pieces together with The Artist is Present. The gallery

looks like a film set; the performance space is marked out at the centre of the space with

white tape and highlighted with what the artist calls a ‘square of light’. 141 The spectator is

literally invited into the exhibited art object which consists of the seated artist, an empty chair

with a table in between. The artist engages in an intimate encounter with the audience

through her gaze in a public space. Abramović presents her body just like an art object in the

139
Jonathan Kalb, Beckett in Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 92.
140
RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011), p.
152-153.
141
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, directed by Matthew Akers (HBO Documentary Films, 2012) [on
DVD]
62

gallery; through her still physical presence, she reflects the closed parameters of the gallery

which stores fixed objects. Her conceptual approach negotiates possibilities of meaning and

challenges the public’s behaviour in the space which is inscribed with a set of regulations.

Abramović criticizes the museum’s boundaries and argues that ‘the public has been very

passive and just a voyeur of the art work [...] you don’t touch the art work [...] you never

really interact’. 142 In the space, she builds an interactive structure in which the spectator is

witnessed responding to the art ‘object’, the artist herself. Therefore, Abramović goes beyond

the representation of the gallery space and creates an art work which can only exist as an

experience created in real space in present time.

In a discussion which questions the meaning of the term museum, American performance

artist and theoretician Allan Kaprow asserts that museums ‘provide canned life, an

aestheticized illustration of life. “Life” in the museum is like making love in a cemetery’. 143

It is important to mention Kaprow in this study as he is renowned for establishing the

concepts of performance art. Supporting Kaprow’s argument, Abramović challenges the

permanence of art in the museum through her body. Whilst she sits in ‘dead’ stillness like an

object, she radicalises the social meaning of the space. A gallery represents a geometric

structural space which contains artworks; it possesses them, exhibits them and sometimes

sells them. In the book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1999), art

critic Brian O’Doherty comments on the artistic practice within the specific context of post-

minimalism and conceptual art of the 1970s. He presents a thought provoking critique of the

spatial practice within the gallery space and states that the ‘white, ideal space [...] clarifies

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Marina Abramović- Volume 23 of Conversation Series (Cologne: Verlag der
142

Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010), p. 19.


143
Kynaston McShine, The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999), p.
214.
63

itself through a process of historical inevitability usually attached to the art it contains’. 144 He

claims that behind the walls, the object is isolated and ‘conventions are preserved through the

repetition of a closed system of values’. 145 Therefore, the gallery’s identity is determined by

the work which it exhibits. Abramović installs her art piece in the MoMA. The museum’s

mission statement states that it aspires to ‘create a dialogue between the established and

experimental, the past and the present, in an environment that is responsive to the issues of

modern and contemporary art’.146 As the artist’s work has provoked conventional aesthetics

and meanings and raised questions on what is art, setting her performance at the MoMA

implies that the genre of performance art is significant to the progression of the art industry.

Passing Time in Godot

Another fundamental element of the dramatic text and the performance art piece is time. A

crucial difference between space and time is that whilst space is multidimensional, time is

singular. As demonstrated in the above analysis, space can alter its meaning through the

artists’ compositional choices. On the other hand, there is only one time, polarised by past

and future. In theatre and performance, the spectator perceives the space over the duration of

the event and through this experience creates meaning.

In Waiting for Godot, time seems to be fixed as nothing happens. The empty space contains

no knowledge of past or future. With no relation to space or time, the present moment

becomes unbearable for the characters and thus they occupy themselves with action and

nonsensical dialogue. The playwright prolongs time, whilst the protagonists try to kill it.

144
Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube:The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco, The Lapis Press,
1976), p.14.
145
Ibid.
146
The Museum of Modern Art (“MoMA”). Mission Statement (2014) <www.moma.org/about/index>
[accessed 10 October 2014]
64

VLADIMIR: How time flies when one has fun!


Silence.
ESTRAGON: What do we do now?
VLADIMIR: While waiting.

ESTRAGON: While waiting.


Silence. 147

The feeling that there is no end to this experience is emphasized through the pauses and gaps

in the script. The pauses isolate the words and phrases and create space in between the

conversation. More empty space draws attention to the stillness of time. The characters pass

time through tedious and monotonous repetitive actions, transforming the anxiety into action.

‘We could do our exercises’ suggests Vladimir, but the ‘movements’, ‘elevations’,

‘relaxations’ and ‘elongations’ do not free them from the waiting time. 148

The duration of the play is tied to the non-arrival of Godot. Waiting is an action experienced

by staying in the same place over a course of time. In the play, the action does not start nor

finishes. In between the passages of hope and despair, the characters move from left to right,

never leaving the space.

VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?


ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go!
They do not move. 149

147
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 86.
148
Ibid.
149
Ibid., p. 59.
65

The dialogue between the characters at the end of the first act gives the impression that there

will be a development in the situation which they inhabit, yet, there is no progression in the

plot. As nothing changes, ‘in the midst of nothingness’ the characters struggle with the

duration of time. 150 ‘We wait [...] we are bored to death, there's no denying it’ admits

Vladimir. 151 Yet, until the end, Beckett maintains the same scene of waiting. In fact, the

second act ends exactly like the first act.

The overview of the play shows that both the characters and the audience are captured in a

time bracket with no content about either past or present. ‘They are there from beginning to

end of the first act [...] standing alone on the stage, superfluous, without future, without past,

irremediably there’ states the critic Alain Robbe-Grillet. 152 All they know of is the present

moment of waiting. ‘To wait and not know how to wait is to experience Time’ asserts

performance theorist Richard Schechner. 153 In this statement, the theorist pins down the

concept of the play. In the experience where time stands still, all that matters is the present.

The experience of no progress is highlighted in Pozzo’s utterance at the end of the play.

POZZO: Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When!
When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one
day we’ll go deaf, one day were born, one day we shall day, the same day, the same second,
is that not enough for you?’ 154

The emergency in this line confirms that as time appears and feels fixed, there is only ‘one’

moment. With no changes in the situation of waiting, Beckett heightens the characters’
150
Ibid., p. 92.
151
Ibid.
152
Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1963), p.
121.
153
Richard Schechner, ‘Godotology: There’s Lots of Time in Godot’ in Modernism in European Drama: Ibsen,
Strindberg, Pirandello, Beckett : Essays from Modern Drama ed. by Frederick J. Marker, C. D. Innes (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1998), pp.191-199 (p.196).
154
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 103.
66

struggle to bear with the conditions of the space, forcing the audience to surrender into the

present situation. As Estragon declares, ‘all we have to do is to wait on here’. 155

Abramović’s Durational Performance

The time factor is an essential component of Abramović’s performance art work. Her

methodology is based on the ephemeral quality of time which she portrays through durational

performances that require disciplined mental concentration and physical stamina as the artist

performs the same action in space.

The exhibition presents durational performances like objects in the museum. The

performances last for over a total of 700 hours spread over three months. Five of these

interventions are past works of Abramović re-performed by other performing bodies.

Luminosity (1997) presents a human body seated on a sawhorse, naked and motionless with

arms slightly raised at a distance from her side. Light is projected on her body as she holds a

strong gaze looking at a fixed point in the distance. For this exhibition, the performing body

is placed on a bicycle seat 10 m feet high against a wall. The adaption demonstrates how the

work is adjusted to the context of gallery, as the light frames the body against the wall, just

like an art object in a museum. Relation in Time (1997), originally performed by Abramović

and her partner Ulay, features a motionless couple, sitting back-to-back with their hair

braided together. The two human bodies are connected through their hair becoming a singular

static object. This durational piece was originally performed for 17 hours. Imponderabilia

(1997) is another duet performance based on two naked bodies standing opposite each other

in the museum entrance, forcing the public to enter the museum through the limited space.

Thus, the spectator interrupts the time-based constraint.

155
Ibid., p. 57.
67

Since her early pieces, the artist explores the physical body and mind over extended periods

of time. The influences to her work include a research study on ascetic practices from Eastern

and Western philosophical and mystical traditions including Buddhist and shamanistic

cultures and the Aborigines tribe. The artist is interested in ‘the illumination of the state of

mind’ which is achieved in the repetitive and ritualistic ceremonies. 156 She recreates the

experience, arguing that ‘performance is the very tool with which this can be done [...] you

have to deal with time. There has to be long-durational pieces’. 157 The performance in the

gallery ritualizes the mundane to create an experience that is independent of time; it is simply

about the present moment.

In The Artist is Present, Abramović goes a step further by inviting the spectator into the

experience of time. Through the piece she explores ‘how you can bring the performer and

audience in the same state of consciousness, here and now’. 158 The artist explains that the

experience initiates before the actual viewing.

...the waiting to sit is a very important part of the piece, because it’s not just about being there
in the front, it’s about taking that time, and going through the process. To me, the waiting and
the sitting itself are actually complementary. 159

Therefore, the people queuing for the performance, as well as the people moving around the

gallery witnessing the encounter are creators of this experience. The piece portrays the

transitory element of time through the ongoing movement created by the visitors of the

museum and the participants who choose to sit in front of the artist. On the other hand,

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Marina Abramović- Volume 23 of Conversation Series (Cologne: Verlag der
156

Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010), p. 19.


157
Ibid.
158
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, directed by Matthew Akers (HBO Documentary Films, 2012) [on
DVD]
159
Daniela Stigh, ‘Marina Abramović: The Artist Speaks’, MoMA Inside/Out, 3 June 2010
<http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2010/06/03/marina-abramovic-the-artist-speaks> [accessed 17
November 2014]
68

Abramović reflects the other aspect of time; the stillness of the present moment. The curator

of the exhibition, Klaus Biesenbach describes that Abramović ‘visualises time, using her

body in the space with the audience. By the duration she brings time in a wait, just imagine

time as an unbearably large object you cannot move and you are caught in’. 160

The documentary film The Artist is Present (2012) captures scenes from the performance

event showing the interaction between performers and audience. The spectator is seen

captivated by the process-based works. Some even spend long hours, becoming as still as the

performances that they witness. Abigail Levine, one of the performers involved in the MoMA

exhibition, describes the experience of being part of the durational work. She says that daily

for three months, she was there ‘like a painting [...] And there was a sort-of pleasant

quotidianness about it’. 161 Bruce Hermann, a visitor of the exhibition, shares his experience

and similar to the performer makes reference to the mundane quality of the work. ‘You’re

drawn in by watching people stand or sit or do things to themselves or each other, and after a

period of time I found myself going to a subconscious place’ he describes. 162 Therefore, the

exhibition ties the performance art pieces into a holistic experience in which the sense of

moving time unites with the present moment.

Now that the review of the two case studies shows how the artists compose the experience of

the live event through the interplay of place and time, it also confirms the explanation

provided by Husserl and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological study on the perception of space

and time. Waiting for Godot is based on a fictional world which portrays characters in an

empty space. On the other hand, Abramović’s performance is installed in an arts gallery. The

160
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, directed by Matthew Akers (HBO Documentary Films, 2012) [on
DVD]

Carrie Stern, ‘The artist is present in the bodies of any: Reperformng Marina Abramović’, Agôn, 2013, La
161

Reprise < http://agon.ens-lyon.fr/index.php?id=2739> [accessed 12 April 2015]


162
Julia Kaganskiy, ‘Visitor Viewpoint: Marina Abramović’, The Museum of Modern Art, 29 March 2010,
Viewpoints section <http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2010/03/29/visitor-viewpoint-marina-
abramovic> [accessed 5 November 2014]
69

dichotomy of the transitory and fixed element of time mentioned in the phenomenological

study explains how both artists situate the body in an empty space tied to a time-constrain to

produce an experience of waiting. Simultaneously, whilst the performance activity is

happening in a real space, it also creates a fictional place as it is created with the intention to

represent something. This experience engages the audience to a sensation of continuous

present, which like the nature of consciousness that perceives it, is ephemeral.
70

Chapter Five

The Spectator: A Co-Creator in the Experience of Consciousness

The analysis of the two case studies portrays the centrality of the spectator’s role in the drama

and the performance art piece. Beckett’s and Abramović’s methodologies are similar as they

both create a stage and platform that is empty of object to shift the focus on the performing

body. Beckett’s script is full of instructions of movement and gesture, whilst Abramović sits

motionless in empty space. The mode of representation fails to provide meaning and over the

duration of the play and the performance, the spectator waits for something to happen. Since

the play is without a storyline and the performance art piece has no narrative, the

interpretation of the live event does not rely on empirical knowledge but is instead

constructed to be experienced.

The word experience comes from the Latin experiential meaning ‘a trial, proof, experiment;

knowledge gained by repeated trials’. 163 Both works are cyclical; through space and time, the

artists manipulate the performing bodies and create a sense of waiting. The examination of

Beckett’s script and Abramović’s exhibition shows that within the space of waiting, the

spectator has time to reflect on the recurrences of the event. As discussed in the previous

chapters, the dialogue in the play’s plot is meaningless and Abramović’s exhibiton is

conceptual. Therefore, the interpretation of the works is possible through the spectator who is

conscious of his own body witnessing the performing body. In this process, the spectator not

only sees the action, but is also conditioned to surrender to the situation of waiting. Hence,

both works are not confined to the spectacle of object and body in space but instead inspire a

163
Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictonary, online dictionary, (2001-2015)
<http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=theater> [accessed 12 May 2015]
71

sensory experience. To evaluate the level of engagement of the lived experience, it is

important to look once again at the artistic strategy which enables this experience.

Beckett’s Theatrical Silence

Beckett’s drama revolves around the waiting for Godot, a character who in the play never

arrives. Beckett must have understood the psychology of the human analytical mind as he

strongly embeds the investigative nature in the characters.

VLADIMIR: We’re in no danger of ever thinking any more.


ESTRAGON: Then what are we complaining about?
VLADIMIR: Thinking is not the worst.

ESTRAGON: Perhaps not. But at least there’s that.


VLADIMIR: That what?
ESTRAGON: That’s the idea, let’s ask each other questions. 164

Caught up in the pattern of unanswered questions, the characters find themselves profoundly

contemplating on their existence. Vladimir reflects on the long hours of waiting ‘which may

at first seem reasonable […] But has it not long been straying in the night without end of the

abyssal depths?’ 165 The questions apparent in the dialogue of the protagonists temporarily

conceal the haunting desperation of the empty space. The characters speak compulsively to

escape the fear of the experience of silence. Yet, Beckett’s methodical play evades answering

164
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954), p. 71.
165
Ibid., p. 91.
72

the questions which are raised over the duration of the play. ‘We are waiting for Godot’ is

thus synonymous to we are waiting for nothing. 166

As the play draws attention to the limitations of the human mind to find meaning, the

playwright runs the risk of becoming too reductive to sustain the attention of the spectator.

He develops the scenes of waiting through tension and action tied together with moments of

silence.

VLADIMIR: Say something!


ESTRAGON: I’m trying
Long silence.
VLADIMIR: (in anguish) Say anything at all!

ESTRAGON: What do we do now?


VLADIMIR: Wait for Godot.
ESTRAGON: Ah!
Silence. 167

As this extract clearly shows, although Godot is never seen by the protagonists or the

spectator, he is always present as he is in title as well as in the subject of the dialogue of the

play. Since Godot fails to come, the focus of the play becomes that which is non-existent. In a

critique on the Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin draws attention to the lack of formalism

in the play and suggests that it is this characteristic that engages the spectator to the work. He

writes that Beckett’s play is constructed on ‘the transient, unendingly decaying nature of the

166
Ibid., p. 8.
167
Ibid., p. 69-70.
73

material universe and the immaterial aspect of consciousness’. 168 Noting the quality of

inherent formlessness designed through space and time, the critic points out that in the play

what appears to lack complexity is in fact meant to evoke discussions on the depth of

consciousness. ‘Consciousness cannot conceive of itself as nonexisting and is therefore only

conceivable as unlimited, without end’, writes the critic. 169 In the play, this experience is

evoked through the character of Godot.

Similar to a spiritual practice in which the individual confides in God, the characters seek to

find refuge in Godot. Like God, Godot never appears. Within the name of the invisible

protagonist, is a reference to God. ‘Godot is God [...] Godot is silence: you have to speak

while you wait for it in order to have the right to be still at last’ claims the critic Alain Robbe-

Grillet. 170 Although Godot never shows up, he is equally present as much as the other

characters. Robbe-Grillet’s critique digs deeper into the role of Godot in the play as he

explains that the character is not just the figure which unites the protagonists in the situation

of waiting. ‘Godot is the inaccessible self’ highlights the critic. 171 What he means is that in

the experience of numerical silences, and thus through Godot, the spectator is able to perceive

his own self. Hence, Godot, and therefore silence, is the experience of presence.

In the book The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett (1967), literary

theorist Ihab Hassan comments on the literary phenomenon of silence. He observes that the

playwright skillfully distorts the power of word by filling speech with silence to evoke human

consciousness. He states ‘we shall wait for Godot in vain […] In this Cartesian nightmare,

168
Martin Esslin, Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1965), p. 7.
169
Ibid.
170
Alain Robbe-Grillet, ‘Samuel Beckett, or 'Presence' in the Theatre’ in Samuel Beckett: A Collection of
Critical Essays ed. Martin Esslin (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1965), pp. 108-116 (p.110)
171
Ibid.
74

Beckett leaves only one thing intact; the capacity of human consciousness to reflect on itself

and to entertain its own end’. 172 Hassan’s statement explains why Beckett does not rely on

the dialogue to provide knowledge and instead chooses silence. ‘his silence, despite its grim,

satiric note, has something in common with the silence of holy men who, after knowing pain

and outrage, reach for a peace beyond human understanding’ he continues. 173 Like Robbe-

Grillet, Hassan notes that in the theatrical experience silence is not an absence of action or

dialogue; silence is presence as it becomes figural through Godot. Thus, like a meditative

ritual, the characters of the play and the spectators of the live event unite in scenes of waiting

through which the absent body of Godot evokes the intangible experience of presence.

In a discussion on Beckett’s dramaturgical elements, critic Stanton B. Garner also writes on

the gaps in the narrative and claims that the ‘silences effect a disclosure of the theatrical

present in its physiological actuality’. 174 Like Esslin and Hassan, he notes that silence enables

the experience of presence which is dependent on the presence of the spectator. ‘No account

of the phenomenological body in Beckett's theatre is complete without mention of the

audience-the individual/collective "third body" (along with character and actor) of the stage's

intercorporeal field’ states Garner. 175 He explains that in the space of waiting, the spectator

becomes aware of his own sensory body and therefore, to perceive the spectacle in which

nothing appears or happens, the spectator surrenders to experience his own presence.

‘Beckett's spectator is staged as deliberately as his characters and actors’, as within the

172
Ihab Hassan, The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett (New York: Knopf, 1967), p. 30.
173
Ibid.
174
Stanton B. Garner, Jr, ‘"Still Living Flesh": Beckett, Merleau-Ponty, and the Phenomenological Body’,
Theatre Journal, Vol. 45, No. 4, (1993), 443-460, in JSTOR <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3209015> [accessed 3
December 2014] (p.455).
175
Ibid.
75

theatre ‘this presencing becomes subject’ notes the critic. 176 As the spectator like the

characters has no concrete answers to the questions which arise, the play creates an

experience which reflects the universal human condition. Hence, in the play, silence is the

experience of the intangible presence of consciousness.

Abramović’s Immaterial Experience

Abramović’s approach to silence in The Artist is Present is different from Beckett’s. In an

interview, the performance artist describes how the method of reduction in her work

facilitates the creation of an energetic space. She speaks of minimalism as a method which

creates transformation of energy and sustains that ‘it’s incredibly important to cut-off

everything around you in order to create that intensity in you’. 177 Hence, Abramović creates

an immaterial platform moving concentration on what happens inside the individual and in

between the two bodies. The artist describes her experience in the process:

I learned that in your body you have so much space and you can actually move inside that.
There is space between organs, there is space between bones, there is space between atom
and cell, so you can actually start training yourself to breathe a kind of air into that space. 178

In the gallery, the artist offers the audience an opportunity to surrender into the same

experience. The setting of the long durational performance invites the spectator to become an

active participant of the performance. Through a ‘direct connection’ between the spectator

and herself, she aspires for the creation of ‘immaterial art’ based on ‘the performer who
176
Ibid.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Marina Abramović- Volume 23 of Conversation Series (Cologne: Verlag der
177

Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010), p. 186.


178
Daniela Stigh, ‘Marina Abramović: The Artist Speaks’, MoMA Inside/Out, 3 June 2010
<http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2010/06/03/marina-abramovic-the-artist-speaks> [accessed 17
November 2014]
76

performs, and also the audience who take task and give themselves time to be changed with

the piece itself’. 179 To emphasize this connection, half way through the duration of the

exhibition, the artist chooses to remove the table between her and the spectator. Thus, the

organic conceptual performance is formed out of the non-verbal dialogical relationship

between performer and spectator.

The scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte observes a shift in the culture of performance. She notes

that the genre of performance art moves away from the subject and seeks ‘event-ness’ to give

the spectator an embodied art experience. Noting the live ‘transitory and ephemeral’ 180

element in performance, she writes that the concept of performance eliminates the restrictions

of meaning by focusing on the ‘aesthetic and a social, even political, process in which

relationships are negotiated, power struggles fought out, and communities emerge and

vanish’. 181 Abramović’s ‘event-ness’ of the performance is evident as the artist offers herself

and gives a unique personal moment to anybody who chooses to sit and participate in the

process. The impact of Abramović’s technique is recorded in the documentary film The Artist

is Present (2012) in which members of the audience are seen sitting in front of the artist and

having a unique emotional reaction to the experience.

Paco Blancas, a visitor of the exhibition recounts the magnetic experience which enticed him

to keep returning to the gallery and participate in the experience. ‘Sitting with her is a

transforming experience—it’s luminous, it’s uplifting, it has many layers, but it always

179
Ibid.
180
Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Routledge Introduction to Theatre and Performance Studies (Oxon: Routledge,
2014), p. 19.
181
Ibid., p. 42.
77

comes back to being present, breathing, maintaining eye contact’ describes Blancas. 182

Whilst he points out the artist’s powerful presence in the transformational experience, he also

notes the effect of the presence of the audience around the gallery. ‘it creates this movement

within you […] we’ve been there for so many hours on line and you don’t even notice it’ he

explains. 183 Therefore, one might say that the event is not only an experience for the

individual member of the audience, but it becomes a communal ritual where those present in

the gallery feel part of the process.

To understand how Abramović’s performance affects the audience in this manner, one must

analyze the artist’s technique of reduction. The artist developed her technique over forty

years of practice that aims towards immaterial art. Known as the Abramović Method, the

practice aims to slow down the busy rhythms which we are used to. ‘If you give me time, I

will give you experience’ claims Abramović. 184 She maintains that both performer and

spectator require a set of skills for the staging and watching long-duration performances.

Developed to train endurance, concentration, perception, self-control and willpower, the

practice involves a silent engagement in ‘a structured series of individual and communal

exercises, such as walking in slow motion, counting grains of rice, and observing a single

object for hours’. 185 The impact of the long durational practices is seen in the transformative

engagement of the present audience as the presence of the artist multiplies through the

visitors who conform to the atmosphere she creates.

182
Julia Kaganskiy, ‘Visitor Viewpoint: Marina Abramović’, The Museum of Modern Art, 29 March 2010,
Viewpoints section <http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2010/03/29/visitor-viewpoint-marina-
abramovic> [accessed 5 November 2014]
183
Ibid.
184
Sesc em São Paulo. Terra Comunal - Marina Abramović convida para o Método Abramović, online video
recording, YouTube, 3 March 2015 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EARruLDb3jY> [accessed 10 May
2015]
185
Klaus Peter Biesenbach, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (New York: Museum of Modern Art,
2010), p. 18.
78

The overview of Beckett’s play and Abramović’s performance shows that the reductive

technique produces an experience which goes beyond meaning. Emerging from silence, the

events are transient experiences that rely on the bodily presence of performer and spectator.

The playwright’s theatrical silence and the performance artist’s energy shift concentration

onto the continuous present which enables self-perception. To comprehend the relationship

between the performing body and the spectator in the performance and to understand how the

artists’ reductive technique enables the experience one’s sense of self, it is necessary to refer

once again to the phenomenological study.

The Somatic Experience of Consciousness

The ephemeral events of theatre and performance create a somatic experience. Somatic refers

to that which is lived, internalized, comprehended and articulated through the performing

body and the spectator in the process of perception. The analysis of Beckett’s and

Abramović’s techniques outlines that the script and performance resist formal semiotic

meaning and representation to create an event which depends on the intuitive, subjective and

personal lived experience. In the discussion on theatrical space, director Peter Brook writes of

a ‘sacred’ space in which ‘the face of the invisible’ is formed through an experience and

made visible by ‘rhythms or shapes’. 186 The artists create this ‘sacred’ environment through a

space of silence which reflects the presence of human consciousness in the live event.

Although the artists’ method of reduction is crucial for the somatic experience, the theatre

and performance event is only functional through the presence of the spectator.

Recalling Husserl’s method of reduction which is mentioned in the second chapter, the

phenomenological tradition breaks down the representation of the object to study the

186
Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 42.
79

relationship of man to the world The Husserlian phenomenology concentrates on

consciousness as a phenomenological object. Therefore, the representation of something in

the world is equally a consciousness in the world. ‘Experience is the performance in which

for me, the experiencer, experienced being “is there”’ explains Husserl. 187 In other words,

the experience of consciousness is possible through the intentional act of pertaining and

immersing in the present moment, and therefore it is possible through the awareness of

having a body. For Husserl, the body is fundamentally ‘the bearer of the here and now’. 188 He

notes that in each living body there is a present consciousness which is the primitive source

of the presence of man in the world. ‘before everything else conceivable, I am’ states

Husserl. 189 According to the phenomenologist, the ‘I’ is that who experiences and includes

‘me myself, my life, my believing, and all this consciousness-of’. 190 His statement clarifies

that to be conscious of something signifies that there is a consciousness which orients itself

through space and time in the world and this perceptual ability creates the experience.

Consciousness, or as termed by Husserl the ‘I am’, is present in the experience of the theatre

and performance events. In the drama, consciousness is evident through the protagonists who

are conscious subjects struggling with their surroundings. ‘What is terrible is to have thought’

asserts Vladimir, noting that the human condition is creating resistance to the situation. 191

‘We should turn resolutely towards Nature’ proposes Estragon, suggesting that there is

another level of consciousness. 192 Martin Esslin claims that the absurdist theatre is

187
Edmund Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), p. 233.
188
Edmund Husserl, The Essential Husserl: Basic Writings in Transcendental Phenomenology (Indiana: Indiana
University Press, 1999), p. 164.
189
Edmund Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), p. 237.
190
Ibid.
191
Beckett, p. 71.
192
Ibid.
80

constructed on the consciousness of man’s existence. ‘How does this individual feel when

confronted with the human condition?’ asks Esslin with reference to the experience of being

conscious. 193 Similarly, Abramović stages the experience of being conscious through the

spectator who sits in front of the artist. ‘I could not produce a single work without the

presence of the audience, because the audience gave me the energy to be able, through a

specific action, to assimilate it and return it’ sustains Abramović. 194 The artist’s statement

confirms that the co-presence of the bodily appearance is necessary in the creation of the

experience. Therefore, Husserl’s phenomenological theory confirms that that which occurs on

the level of consciousness in the theatre experience and the performance process is perceived

by the body and expressed through the body.

Following Husserl’s notion of the ‘I am’, Merleau-Ponty adds on to the phenomenological

tradition. Whilst Husserl observes the body in space and time, Merleau-Ponty insists that the

body ‘inhabits space and time’. 195 He explains that the ‘body is our general medium for

having a world’ as it is through the body that we can perceive and be perceived. 196 Merleau-

Ponty writes about experiencing art in relation to the body and the world and notes that

beyond the object of art, there is a sensation of depth. ‘What I call depth is either nothing, or

else it is my participation in a Being without restriction, first and foremost a participation in

the being of space’ explains the phenomenologist. 197 Merleau-Ponty’s argument is based on

the experience of painting. Even though in this analysis the work of art is a performance, in

193
Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (London: Penguin Hooks, 1983), p. 405.
194
Cornelia H. Butler, WACK!: art and the feminist revolution (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art,
2007), p. 209.
195
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962), p.
161.
196
Ibid., p. 169.
197
Ibid., p. 134.
81

phenomenological terms, one still relates to the event like an object in space and its

experience also contains a depth which is not visible. If in art the body interacts with the

things which are visible, in performance, the presence of the spectator unites with the

spectacle. Merleau-Ponty explains that this experience gives rise to another space which is

neither the geometrical space which is perceived, nor the bodily space which perceives. ‘This

space is not, like them […] it is the place of the body that the soul calls “mine,” a place the

soul inhabits’ he states. 198

The evaluation of the phenomenological theory in relation to the two case studies explains

how the artists’ works of art articulate and portray human consciousness through the

experiential event. In the process, they seek to transform the spectator into an active agent of

the live event. As explained the spectator is engaged to the event through the physical body

and this engagement enables the experience. However, one cannot deny that the spectator

does not only exist through the body, but also through the mind. What is the role of the mind

in the somatic experience? Does it assist or disturb the experience of consciousness?

The Role of the Spectator

Erika Fischer-Lichte observes that at the beginning of the 20th century there was a shift the

role of the spectator. ‘theatre was not to be defined anymore through its representations but

through the processes of constructions which it triggers’ claims the performance theorist. 199

In the case of Beckett’s script and Abramović’s concept, the experiences are constructed on

scenes of waiting. The spectator experiences waiting together with the actors and the artist.

The construction of the avant-garde play and the performance art piece serve as experiments;

the constructed realities prompt an experience to be perceived by the visceral body of the

198
Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Ted Toadvine, The Merleau-Ponty Reader (Illinois: NorthWestern University
Press, 2007), p. 365.
199
Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Show and the Gaze of Theatre: A European Perspective
(Iowa: Iowa University Press, 1997), p. 70.
82

spectator. Whilst the artists’ methodology is different with relation to action and words, in

both works the spatio-temporal dimension evokes moments of silence.

As already highlighted in this chapter, the manifestation of Godot becomes figural through

the experience of the characters, and similarly the spectator is lured into the active silence of

the drama. In an article on the relevance of Waiting for Godot in the theatrical canon, critic

Peter Hall explains that ‘Godot returned theatre to its metaphorical roots. It challenged and

defeated a century of literal naturalism […] Godot provided an empty stage, a tree and two

figures who waited and survived. You imagined the rest’.200 Hall points out that Beckett’s

reductive method inspires the spectator to create meaning out of the staged situation. The

study of the origins of theatre demonstrates that the Greek philosopher Aristotle recognizes

imagination as fundamental part in the theatrical experience. He writes that ‘imagination is

different from either perceiving or discursive thinking […] For imagining lies within our own

power whenever we wish’. 201 Aristotle’s claim explains that Beckett’s theatre acquires an

independency from the playwright. As the script entails the imagination and emotion for its

interpretation, the live experience is similarly conceived through the reception of the

spectator. Thus, as already explained in the third chapter in the discussion of the body, the

experience of the live event is formed through the encounter of the performer and spectator in

the present moment.

In Abramović’s performance, the spectator has an active role. This is clear as the set includes

an empty chair for the spectator to be part of the process of the piece. The live presence of the

artist’s body stimulates the sensory faculty of the spectator who seeks to find meaning in the

performance of no words. Like a visual art object, Abramović sits still over for a long

200
Peter Hall, ‘GodotMania’, The Guardian, 4 October 2013, Theatre section
<http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2003/jan/04/theatre.beckettat100> [accessed 10 June 2015]
201
Aristotle, On the Soul (Stilwell: Digireads.com, 2006), p.76. Google ebook.
83

duration of time. Her strong presence manifests that the static appearance is illusory and

enables an experience that reveals the transformational power of consciousness. ‘Looking at

something isn't experiencing it; this is experience […] we give people permission to do

nothing – to close their eyes and just be with themselves. What we give people is themselves’

states Abramović. 202 Thus, the performance art piece is transient; it cannot be captured but it

can be experienced through feeling. What happens in the gallery is not to be looked at

objectively, but is there to be perceived as a subjective creation of the spectator.

So far, the analysis demonstrates that both works manifest an experience through the living

bodies of the performer and spectator. That which is staged makes no sense ; the rational ‘I

think’ interprets the situation as an empty space in which nothing is happening, but the

perceptual experience arouses sensations which signify that in what appears to be empty,

there is the presence of consciousness. In the play, this presence is represented by the absent

Godot, whilst in Abramović it is found in the intangible result of the experience between the

performing body and the spectator. Therefore, the interpretation of Beckett’s literature and

Abramović’s performance art relies on the spectator’s introspection.

The Cultural Value of the Theatrical and Performative Experience

The analysis of Beckett’s and Abramović’s techniques and the phenomenological study of

the experience the themes of the work are not tied to any historical, social or political context

and are therefore functional in any contextual setting. In fact, Waiting for Godot has been

reworked globally, adopting different theatre styles and artistic methodologies. In 1976,

Benjy Francis directed an all-black production in Cape Town, South Africa. The director

claims that staging the play in a cultural context which suffers racism serves as ‘a powerful

202
Sean O'Hagan, ‘Interview: Marina Abramović’, The Guardian, 3 October 2010, The Observer
<http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/oct/03/interview-marina-abramovic-performance-artist>
[accessed 21 October 2014]
84

metaphor of our struggle which allowed me to get past the censor and speak to my people’. 203

The director describes how the performance text and setting are independent from any fixed

context and thus, the play is effective as a theatrical experience. ‘The tree was central to my

staging; when it started to sprout leaves in act two, that sent a powerful message to oppressed

people - it suggested new life and resolution, an image of hope against all the desolation’

explains Francis. 204 On the other hand, director Bruno Boussagol discusses the challenges of

the script which is written for male characters. ‘you are very limited in your possibilities,

because Beckett specified how it should be played [...] For me, no writer can impose his view

on a production’ claims Boussagol. 205 Although Beckett’s mise-en-scène inscribe that the

gender of the actors is male, the director reworks and produces the play with a female cast in

Brut de Béton Theatre Company, in 1991.

Beckett’s script has not only been explored on stage; it transcended the absurdist era and has

also inspired contemporary representations of the work through digital media. Between 1997

and 2001, the artists Adrienne Jenik and Lisa Brenneis create an online version of Waiting for

Godot at The Palace, an online graphic chat environment. The audience was made up of

Internet users who logged onto the network whilst the festival attendees could watch the

online action on a projection screen. Their project called Desktop Theater consists of ongoing

live theatrical interventions in online visual chat rooms. Jenik explains that this particular

project was based on a ‘cut-and-paste performance, literally copying the text from a text

document, and quickly pasting it into the chat input window’. 206 The chatters respond to the

203
David Smith, ‘In Godot we trust’, The Guardian, 8 March 2009, The Observer
<http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/mar/08/samuel-beckett-waiting-for-godot> [accessed 12 May 2015]
204
Ibid.
205
Ibid.
206
Adriene Jenik, ‘Desktop Theater: Keyboard Catharsis and the Masking of Roundheads’, TDR, Vol. 45, No. 3
(2001), 95-112, in JSTOR < http://www.jstor.org/stable/1146914> [accessed 14 October 2014] (p.99)
85

text ‘comment on our presence, leave in confusion, or join the piece by trying to help us

locate “godot” on the server’. 207 This immersive live performance experiment demonstrates

that Beckett’s production is universally applicable as it does not belong to a place or time and

thus the theme of consciousness is meaningful even to a contemporary culture.

Abramović’s conceptual contribution to contemporary culture is evident not only in The

Artist is Present, but also through the succession of her works which follow the same

concept. Following the three month exhibition, the artist continued to install her silent pieces

into galleries of big cities. In 2014, the artist presented 512 Hours at the Serpentine Gallery in

London. Visitors were asked to enter the space without any personal belongings and are

given headphones to cut out all sound. The only materials in the space were the artist herself,

the audience and a selection of objects to perform practices of the Abramović Method,

mentioned earlier in this chapter. The critic Adrian Searle writes about his visit and describes

that ‘she and her helpers took us, one by one, to stand in front of the walls and windows,

where we stood, eyes closed, to think about the present, or whatever it is we think about when

we are standing, waiting for nothing’. 208 The project which lasted for 64 days is documented

through a series of video diaries called Marina At Midnight in which the artist reflects on the

day's events at the Serpentine. In her final video on the last day, Abramović says that ‘This

piece is not the end [...] maybe all together we can change the consciousness, and we can

change the world’. 209 The artist’s attempt to create immaterial art continues with another

project in July 2015, this time in at Pier 2/3 Sydney. Marina Abramović: In Residence is a

twelve day art installation in which the artist will once again present the Abramović Method,

208
Adrian Searle, ‘Halfway through 512 hours of Marina Abramović: no one to hear you scream’, The
Guardian, 18 July 2014, Art and Design section
<http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jul/18/marina-abramovic-halfway-through-512-hours-
serpentine> [accessed 3 October 2014]
209
The Space. Hear From Marina At Midnight (2015)
<http://www.thespace.org/artwork/view/marinaatmidnight#marina250814> [accessed 21 June 2015]
86

yet this time the artist claims that she will show the visitor ‘what you can do for yourself […]

I understood that actually you can’t get any experience by me doing it for you’. 210

The artistic methodology present in Beckett’s minimal play and Abramović’s reductive

technique originally emerged as a reaction towards society, yet, they are still relevant to

contemporary culture. Through the absurdist technique of the fictive genre, Beckett

commented on the decaying nature of the value system of Western culture. Critic Martin

Esslin claims that the Theatre of the Absurd emerged from playwrights who experienced ‘the

vacuum left by the destruction of a universally accepted and unified set of beliefs’. 211 He

draws attention to the changes in the Western world, such as the ‘decline of religious faith,

the destruction of the belief in automatic social and biological progress […] development in

an age of totalitarianism and weapons of mass destruction’ as the source which initiated the

new dramatic technique. 212 Similarly, Abramović accuses the Western society of exhausting

its resources by consumption and sustains that through absence, her work reminds the visitor

that ‘we don’t need anything, being is the highest form of existence’. 213 Theatre and

performance are embedded in a social and cultural context and act as a critique of the specific

setting in which they are created. In the case of the two case studies, the artists not only offer

a perspective on their contextual setting, but draw attention on the nature of consciousness,

which will last as long as the existence of man.

210
Kaldor Public Arts Project, Project 30: Marina Abramović (2015) <http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/>
[accessed 28 June 2015]
211
Martin Esslin, ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’, The Tulane Drama Review, 4 (1960), 3-15, in JSTOR
< http://www.jstor.org/stable/1124873 > [accessed 1 October 2014] (p. 6).
212
Ibid.
213
iqsquared, Marina Abramović on art, performance, time and nothingness , online video recording, YouTube,
25 September 2014< https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxf3thHV4nc> [accessed 23 June 2015]
87

As Beckett’s script continues to be reproduced and Abramović is finding new methods of

sharing her concept, one might say that the theatre and performance event appeals to the

audience as it offers a space of silence within the exhausted contemporary culture. The

profound change experienced through the relationship between the performing body and

audience creates a space in which the spectator can safely confide the questions of existence

as part of a creative experience of consciousness.


88

Chapter Six

Conclusion

The comparative study of Waiting for Godot and The Artist is Present provides a detailed

analysis of the theatre script and the performance art piece. Whilst outlining the variations

and similarities of the artists’ methodologies, the research draws attention to how both the

avant-garde play and the performance art piece challenge the traditions of their time. In the

case of Beckett’s play, the medium is the text which is based on detailed descriptions of

action and gesture, dialogue and moments of silence. Abramović’s medium is the body which

in the exhibition features prominently in the participatory process-based work.

In the introduction, the thesis illustrates the methods by which the playwright and the

performance artist rejected theatre and performance as a form of spectacle, and alternatively

offered a space which seeks to unite performer and spectator in a sensory experience. The

second chapter demonstrates how the experience cannot be framed into an object. The

analysis refers to Edmund Husserl’s theory of phenomenological reduction to explain that

through the presence of no ‘thing’, the spectator is able to perceive the transcendental

experience of consciousness. Having emphasized the importance of the live experience, the

third chapter continues to support the argument by analyzing the function of the physical

body of both performer and spectator. Merging Husserl’s discourse on the body with Maurice

Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the intertwining chiasm, the discussion suggests that the experience

of the live event is dependent on the physical bodies of performer and spectator. Chapter four

studies the effect of the minimalist composition through the staging choices of the artists and

the meanings the theatre stage and the art gallery carry as social spaces. The analysis shows

that both works invite the spectator into a space formed by the durational sense of the

continuous present. The final chapter highlights the element of silence that enables a sense of
89

waiting. Providing examples of contemporary representations of the play and noting the

succession of works in Abramović’s career, the research discusses the cultural value of

Beckett’s script and Abramović’s performance. The discussion notes the universal quality of

the works which transcends barriers of space and time as it enables the experience of the

nature of consciousness in man.

To summarize the above, the artists frame the transitory experience of waiting time into a

performative setting and engage the audience to the space they inhabit in present time.

Beckett’s script and Abramović’s performance manage to grasp the intangible experience and

this is proved by the unlimited critical evaluations and reviews available, some of which are

quoted in this thesis. The analysis of the artistic methodology, the theoretical research and the

discussion raised on the two masterpieces acknowledges Samuel Beckett’s and Marina

Abramović’s contribution to the canon of literary and performance art. In the literary script

and the conceptual performance, rules are broken and meanings and contexts are provoked,

but what seems to matter is the authentic experience which we, as spectators, create out of the

works of art. To know if Godot‘s silence and Abramović’s stillness will be still present in the

years to come to, we too must wait.


90

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