Contemporary Art: Between Public and Private


  • Contemporary Art: BetweenPublic and Private aims to link personal experience with global concerns.
  • Artists featured within this theme are Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic.

The public and private realm is explored in this section of the exhibition, with artists delving into their personal experiences and reacting to global concerns as the basis of their artistic practice. Issues of identity, self and finding their place in the world are central concerns for these artists.

Artists seek to discover connections with their unconscious to free them to create and make artworks that break barriers of emotional and spiritual fears. These highly personal insights allow the viewer to connect with the process and ideas of the artists.

Many artists also respond to the feminist movement of the 1970s, by creating artworks that question stereotypes and traditional gender roles that pervade the media. They challenge ideas of equality in a public forum based on personal experiences.

Marina Abramovic and Cindy Sherman work with completely different artistic forms but both explore art to reach a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. Both artists invite the audience to participate in their personal interpretations so that the artworks become a shared public experience.



Cindy Sherman Untitled #112 1982

Cindy SHERMAN - Untitled, #112 1982

American 1954–
Untitled, #112 1982
colour photograph, AP 1/2
117.8 x 81.3 x 6.4 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members: Eli Broad, Elaine Terner Cooper, Ronnie Heyman, J. Tomilson Hill, Dakis Joannou, Barbara Lane, Robert Mnuchin, Peter Norton, Thomas Walther, and Ginny Williams
© Cindy Sherman, courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York


"I try to get something going with the characters so that they give more information than what you see in terms of wigs and clothes. I’d like people to fantasise about this person’s life or what they’re thinking or what’s inside their head, so I guess that’s like telling a story."
Cindy Sherman, Serpentine Gallery, London, by Roschelle Steiner Page 12

The act of role-playing is central to the highly successful series Untitled Film Stills made by Cindy Sherman during the late 1970s and very early 1980s. These still images investigate the stereotype of women in film, television and magazines, though they have no basis in any actual film.

Cindy Sherman questions reality in her staged photographs. Her photographs are neither portraits nor self portraits. While the viewer understands that Cindy Sherman acts as both model and photographer in Untitled #112 1982, the character depicted is neither about Sherman or any real character Sherman saw.  Rather, she is role-playing. Her figures are fictional, based on B-movie characters; Sherman transforms herself to become these characters.

The images often question the stereotypes of women in the media. The blond bombshell, the reserved tomboy, the femme fatale…The viewer engages with the image asking, who is this person?  Why is she depicted in this way? Where have I seen such a figure? Are they real? They reveal more about ourselves; our shortcomings, our inability to look beyond a façade, or our preoccupation with perceptions of beauty and identity. They question society’s overall reliance on the media to define our lives and our place in the world.  

"…I don’t want to have to explain myself. The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work."
Cindy Sherman interviewed by Betsy Berne for TATE Modern.

Cindy Sherman purposefully plays with the stereotypes of women and also men to confront her audience with the ways we see and interact with images. The media is an important reference point for Sherman as her characters are often caricatured perceptions that are fed by the media.

The artistic approach of Sherman

Art historian and critic Arthur Danto describes Sherman’s approach:

"She, Cindy Sherman, is…in no sense the subject of these works, even if it is an important fact about them that they are more or less all of her. She is no more their subject that the model for a painting is the subject of the painting, even if it is true that the painting is of that model."
Cindy Sherman, Serpentine Gallery, London, by Roschelle Steiner Page 8

Fredric Jameson is a post modern theorist, who observed:

…the face becoming an impenetrable façade revealing nothing of the self and the skin becomes a plastic wrapping.
Post modernism now, Sherman’s Meditation of Subjectivity by Claire Todd-Miller, 30th October 2006, page 3



Marina Abramovic Cleaning the Mirror #1 1995

Marina ABRAMOVIC - Cleaning the Mirror #1 1995

Yugoslavian 1946–
Cleaning the Mirror #1 1995
5-channel video installation with stacked monitors, with sound, edition 2/3
284.48 x 62.23 x 48.26 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members: Edythe Broad, Elaine Terner Cooper, Linda Fischbach, Ronnie Heyman, J. Tomilson Hill, Dakis Joannou, Barbara Lane, Peter Norton, Willem Peppler, Alain-Dominique Perrin, David Teiger, Ginny Williams, and Elliot K. Wolk
© Marina Abramovic/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia


Marina Abramovic has pioneered the use of performance as a visual art form. She uses her body as both her subject and her material. She explores the limits of what she can endure through ritualized movement, to reach a greater understanding of self and the world.

In Cleaning the Mirror #1, 1995, we see five television screens sitting vertically on top of each other. The images playing on the television screens depict Abramovic obsessively cleaning a skeleton. Marina Abramovic uses her body and performance to create this artwork. She often confronts her audience with movements and action that challenge ideas of identity. She uses repetitive movement so that these actions transform into rituals.

The skeleton used for Cleaning the Mirror #1, 1995, was found amongst a neglected collection of ethnographic objects at a small museum at Oxford University. This skeleton had remained untouched and had gathered a thick layer of dust and grime over time. Images on the television screen record her endlessly scrubbing the skeleton.  Each screen depicts one part of the skeletal body, so that the whole body is physically recreated over the length of the five screens. The viewer can see dirty fluid flowing from both the skeleton and Abramovic’s hands as the artist cleans each section. The performance evokes genocide, belonging, disaster and the cycle of life. The loop lasts three hours and was performed for video.

Abramovic does not categorise her object-based works like Cleaning the Mirror #1, 1995, as sculptures. She refers to them as ‘transitional objects’ because she believes that object-based art is in a state of transition. She believes that artworks have a tremendous energy. This energy becomes the way the artist communicates to an audience.  She wants her pieces to concern themselves with transferring energy from the artist to the audience.

Performance as Art

Marina Abramovic describes the process of repetitively cleaning the skeleton:

First of all, all the objects used change meaning by repetition. In some cases it is a long process. The artist and public need time to enter a state of mind, and this state of mind can be achieved through repetition and the long duration of the piece. Every element and material becomes something else. You open the door and close it. That’s just opening and closing a door. But over hours, it becomes something else. It can take on another meaning. Elements like blood, bones, knives, honey, milk, and wine all have a spiritual meaning and not just in performances.
Marina Abramovic interviewed by Alexandra Balfour and Pitchaya Sudbanthad at the Sean Kelly Gallery, 1999

Here Abramovic describes the way she attempts to communicate meaning from her performances:

I was never interested in shocking. What I was interested in was experiencing the physical and mental limits of the human body and mind. I wanted to experience these limits together with the public. I could never do this alone. I always need the public to look at me because the public creates an energy dialogue. You can get an enormous amount of energy from the public to cross your physical and mental limits. Much later when I got into other cultures, when I went to Tibet, met the Aborigines and was introduced to some Sufi-rituals, I saw that all these cultures pushed the body to physical extreme in order to make a mental jump, to eliminate the fear of death, the fear of pain and of all the body limitations with which we live. We in the Western society are so afraid. Performance was the form enabling me to jump to other space and dimension.
Meschede, Friedrich (Nationalgalerie Berlin) Marina Abramovic, Stuttgart:edition Cantz, 1993 – p. 29

She also describes her role and commitment in the creation of her pieces:

When I perform, I have to be there a hundred percent. For me then, it is beyond good or bad. I can’t judge anymore. If I am less than a hundred percent, then the piece is not as good. If you are in the present, what I call the here and now of the piece, the public can get affected. Some of them can’t leave. You can see the emotions of the people. Some are very angry or excited. All these extremes, but then again my works are about extremes…I see myself as a bridge between east and west. I think the function of the artist is to change the way humans think… To me good art and artists will have to have not just one, but many layers. Artists have to be analysts of society.
Marina Abramovic interviewed by Alexandra Balfour and Pitchaya Sudbanthad at the Sean Kelly Gallery, 1999



Middle Years

9.1 Portrait, Self-Portrait or Role-Play?

9.2 Challenging Stereotypes

Senior Years – VCE Art & VCE Studio Arts

9.3 Performance as Art

9.4 Materials and Techniques

9.5 Gender Politics