A trek through civilization: partnership and sexuality in The Lovers by Marina Abramovic and Ulay

In Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness, Sigmund Freud preaches his aversion towards sexual suppression and monogamy at large. Though published in 1908, Freud’s critiques find relevance in the 21st-century reality that monogamy, marriage, and abstinence continue to contaminate modern societies and couplings everywhere––the romance of performance artists Marina Abramović (1946-) and Ulay (1943-2020) included. Serbian-born Abramović and German-born Ulay met in 1975 on November 30th: their shared birthday (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art). This cosmic alignment foreshadows the intensity of their romantic and professional partnership, which lasted from 1976 until 1988. The Lovers (1988), in documenting the breakup of Abramović and Ulay, captures the nature of their relationship as the fusion between life and performance that it was. Specifically, the artists began on either end of the Great Wall of China, converging in the middle after a recorded 90 days of walking at a small Buddhist temple to mark the end of their collaboration (Johnston 19-23). The couple originally intended to marry upon convergence––not divorce. Between inception of the concept and government approval of the performance, though, their relationship had died out (MoMA). This trajectory, where The Lovers begins as a pursuit of marriage and grows into a rejection of it, outlines the doom of civilization and monogamy as Freud sees it; in particular, the work’s performance medium establishes an irresolvable opposition between monogamous romance and real-life contentment that echoes Freud’s own philosophy.

First, Freud condemns sexual suppression with diction that establishes a particular tone of conflict between abstinence and humanity––a conflict which reappears in The Lovers. In part, Freud’s contemplation of abstinence finds structure in his three stages of civilization, which are laid out in Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness. Concerning the third stage––where “only legitimate reproduction is allowed as a sexual aim” (Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness, 14)––Freud elaborates that it “demands of individuals of both sexes that they shall practice abstinence until they are married and that all who do not contract a legal marriage shall remain abstinent throughout their lives. The position [...] that sexual abstinence is not harmful and not difficult to maintain has also been widely supported by the medical profession” (Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness, 19-20). Freud rejects this, as those who pursue abstinence often “become neurotic or are harmed in one way or another” (Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness, 20). First, Freud states that civilization “demands” its individuals to practice abstinence, immediately envisioning restriction and tension: a vision that is contradicted by that of “practicing” abstinence, which proposes flexibility, forgiveness, and imperfection. The declaration that individuals are demanded to practice something gives rise to a contradiction, or at least a discrepancy in tone, between civilization and its abstinent individuals.

Freud even explicitly envisions marriage and legality twice in the excerpt’s first sentence alone to build up marriage as a sort of trap. In his first mention––where individuals “shall practice abstinence until they are married”––Freud positions marriage as the objective of practicing abstinence. However, in marriage’s second appearance in the sentence––declaring that “all who do not contract a legal marriage shall remain abstinent throughout their lives”––Freud visualizes marriage as an escape from the doom of abstinence. If one does not marry, they must “remain” abstinent: a verb that brings much more pressure and permanence than “practice” suggests. There arises a tension where marriage is the cause or motivator of pressure to remain abstinent, but it is also a way out of abstinence’s doom: a paradox which echoes Freud’s notion that abstinence as a whole is senseless. Freud further develops this opposition when he describes the medical profession’s influence on abstinence and then articulates abstinence’s pressure as a deliverer of harm or neuroses to its victims. To synthesize, Freud jolts and confuses the tone surrounding abstinence in his expression of it in order to destroy its sense of logic or validity. He infests thought about abstinence with medicine and illness, looseness and restriction, cause and effect––all to paint it with the faultiness it deserves.

Later writings by Freud continue the hostility developed by Freud in Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness; Freud’s understanding of sexuality at large elaborates on the infectious quality of civilization, as his definition of sexual behavior suggests that even he himself is susceptible to the plague of desiring public approval. Freud lays out what constitutes sexual behavior in his 1917 lecture “General Theory of the Neuroses: The Sexual Life of Man”: “[I]t is not altogether easy to define the concept ‘sexual.’ Perhaps the only accurate definition would be everything that is connected with the difference between the two sexes; but this you may find too general and too colorless” (“General Theory of the Neuroses,” 116-17). Freud’s articulation––and, more macroscopically, his gesture to lecture about sexuality in the first place––exposes the dilemma which he works to critique: the infiltration of civilization’s toxicity into the sexual lives of individuals. Freud even begins to invalidate his very definition when he adds the second-person clause that he does; there, he assigns value to his listeners’ approval of the description he supplies. Freud is not exempt from civilization, and this glimpse of self-consciousness in the text signals that, and as the concern Freud poses in his disclaimer relates to the possible generalization and colorlessness of his definition, he deepens this uncertainty. To combat generalization would be to color more, and to combat colorlessness would be to generalize further––an opposition that conveys the impossibility of satisfying civilization. Even if Freud is aware of and sarcastic in this expression of self-doubt, his employment of it at all simulates his involvement in the very issue of public obsession with others’ sexuality that The Lovers works to defy.

The Lovers, like Freud, advocates against marriage, although it finds a unique advocacy in its performance medium; the piece is largely centered on its footsteps, emphasizing a central quest to break free from monogamy. While The Lovers is not a culmination of actual sexual abstinence, it is nonetheless a portrait of the culmination of a couple who has awaited legal binding, and it subsequently opens itself to a Freudian analysis of monogamy at large. Samantha Henriette Krukowski provides a rationale for the footsteps in her performance analysis Performing History: Walking Along Ulay and Abramovic's “The Lovers.” She writes, “Every step [in the work] displaces matter, fills space, requires energy. Every step changes actual (in addition to performative) location, perception and experience” (Krukowski 58). In essence, the physicality of the steps makes The Lovers a work of measurable, indisputable motion: the visibility and concreteness of footsteps secures the tone of change and shifting in the piece. An incentive to feel this change is apparent in Ulay’s take on the rationale for the performance, too, and The Lovers then speaks to Freud even more deeply as Ulay’s voice begins to align itself with Freud’s notion of the suppressed man. Ulay explains, “‘The last five years from 1981-5 we have been sitting, doing nothing, and I think we need some movement’” (Krukowski 62-63). Ulay’s declaration presents a striking frustration with paralysis: a vision that reflects Freud’s notion that the abstinent woman “has nothing but disappointments to offer the man who has saved up all his desire for her” (Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness, 26).

Ulay’s response identifies him with Freud’s archetype for the stuck man, and it also hints at the presence of the stuck woman archetype, which Abramović continues to push in her own reflection; alas, the two artists become collective embodiments of the hypothetical couple in Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness. First, to expand on Ulay’s embodiment of the suppressed man, his gloomy review of “the last five years” and “doing nothing” conveys an impatience and exhaustion that reflects this inability to act on all he has saved up. The footsteps speak for themselves in asserting a thirst for change within The Lovers, though Ulay corroborates their symbolism through his explicit expression of anticlimax. Abramović, on the other hand, rationalizes the decision to walk as a mere exploration of the idea of movement, indicating her desensitization and immobility as the relationship’s suppressed woman. Abramović says, “‘...[O]ne of us started talking about three different positions of the human body which we include in our performance—standing, sitting and lying. We had done performances with sitting and lying and were talking about standing’” (Krukowski 62-63). In Abramović’s reflection, she entertains the possibility of standing, sitting, and lying without fervor, indicating a slowness and inactivity that reflects, according to Freud, her frigidity. Abramović’s redundancy in her contemplation of standing, sitting, and lying also pushes her motionlessness––yet another corroborator of the couple’s urgency for footsteps.

Beyond its medium, The Lovers further distances itself from truth and realism as it actually falsifies the numerical and logistical details about the piece––its deceit, in this sense, separates The Lovers from the concrete world it is a part of, supporting Freud’s notion that monogamy is unfit for humanity. Krukowski specifies, “The actual route of The Lovers was an interrupted one: it followed a discontinuous and partial course. Abramović’s mantra ‘I walk every fucking centimetre of the Wall’ is an assertion which belongs to the idea of the performance, but not to its reality” (76). The performance is able to get away with deceit because its format––a performance––rules out complete documentation. Only so many images can be captured for the months-long project. This inherent and non-negotiable level of confidentiality surfaces the work’s beyond-reality depiction of romance. Further, the concreteness and physicality of the footsteps upon juxtaposition with their false quantification solidifies the piece’s place in an alternate world. Ultimately, The Lovers presents a fulfillment of the human urge to let go of monogamy and coupling––it documents a marriage-turned-divorce––and so its logistical details are falsified, perhaps because the truth of the relationship is best kept between Abramović and Ulay, with distance from the input of civilization.

The notion of distance from civilization surfaces a contemplation of perversion, too, which involves distance in its own right; Freud’s articulation as he defines perversion sets up a looseness and non-judgement to foster an understanding of sexuality where many visions of sexual choices can coexist, The Lovers included. In “General Theory of the Neuroses: The Sexual Life of Man,” Freud explains his understanding of the perverse: of “groups of human beings whose sexual life deviates strikingly from the average” (“General Theory of the Neuroses,” 117). Perhaps Freud’s rather scientific tone here attempts to preemptively resolve an adverse reaction to the actuality of what he addresses in his notion of perversion: homosexuality (and anything beyond heterosexuality), fetishes, and chronic masturbation, for example. In particular, Freud’s identification of “groups of human beings” feels unnaturally proper, as if Freud implants a defensive validation of the humanness of perverts. In Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness, which offers an earlier conception of perversion, Freud echoes this general approach. He writes, “There are different varities perverts, in whom an infantile fixation to a preliminary sexual aim has prevented the primacy of the reproductive function from being established, and the homosexuals or inverts, in whom, in a manner that is not yet quite understood, the sexual aim has been deflected away from the opposite sex” (15). Freud notably employs “infantile fixation” here, which begs for psychoanalytic contemplation and depth over quick judgement. Freud also addresses homosexuality with a passive voice; his statement that “the sexual aim has been deflected away from the opposite sex” implies that a separate entity is responsible for sexual preference. There is no room for culpability, and the sexual aim that constitutes normality still exists: it has only relocated itself. In essence, Freud’s effort to keep his identification of perversion neutral welcomes its acceptability and creates space for The Lovers to find a home in the escapism from civilization that perversion offers.

Freud’s notion of perversion and its openness suggests that The Lovers is perverse, or at least contemplates perversion. The Lovers is not profane and it does not explicitly illustrate a sexual relationship, but as it centers its divorce as the culmination of a treacherous walk along the Wall and of a years-long pending approval to walk at all, it distinctively separates itself from marriage. It revolts, and it dances around perversion as it presents a relationship that refuses to devote itself to heterosexual reproduction. It does illustrate movement and motion––the footsteps are key, after all––but those strides do not work towards procreation. They work towards the opposite, actually: towards the death of a coupling. This identification of The Lovers as perverse allows for incorporation of the work into a greater realm of perversions which deepen its distance from civilization and encourage the resistance it already pursues. If all sub-categories of perversion contain an individualized sort of alienation from civilization––a chronic masturbator will feel a scrutiny distinct from that of a necrophiliac––then the baggage of perversion at large floods with force, both individual and collective. For this reason, as The Lovers joins the party of the perverse, it liberates itself even more than it accomplishes already.

As a work of conceptual art, The Lovers begs for interpretation. Incorporation of Freud makes sense as a pursuit of analytical openness, as The Lovers’ abstraction helps to rationalize the actual lives of Abramović and Ulay, much like how dream symbols and other psychoanalytic phenomena speak to the true psyche. Further, The Lovers presents such a forceful embodiment of the coupling between Abramović and Ulay, based on the title, the co-ownership of the concept and performance, and the real-life baggage that drives the piece. For these reasons, The Lovers specifically grasps Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness, as well as Freud’s earlier lectures on sexuality, quite well––it is inherently fixated on the notion of coupling. All in all, The Lovers shares Freud’s rejection of monogamy through its portraiture of Abramović and Ulay, but also through the profundity of its footsteps. Its performance medium––in preventing complete, accurate documentation––allows the piece to participate in a world of its own. However, perhaps the work’s existence in its own dimension indicates liberation from monogamy, rather than exile, and another place of refuge forms in the world of perversion as Freud would have it. The work essentially spans beyond realism in its record as it frees itself from the pressures of reality and civilization. The Lovers then not only echoes Freud, but it exists as an exemplar of beauty in detachment from marriage and monogamy.