Naples, Italy. 1974.

Picture a Mediterranean evening. You enter a room.

In front of you stands a woman. A thought pops up — “how strange”. Looking to the side, you notice a table. On it, the woman had placed 72 different objects, including a rose, feather, grapes, scissors, a scalpel, but also a gun and a bullet.

You come closer and find a paper with instructions:

“There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.

Duration: 6 hours (8 pm — 2 am).”

Close your eyes and put yourself there. What would you have done?

It started innocently enough

Marina Abramovic is a performance artist. This is the type of art where the artist, their body, and their actions are the exhibit. What happened on that day in Italy was Marina’s most daring and shocking performance.

That day, she became an object.

There was nothing separating her from the audience. No barrier, no stage, no notice.

Anyone surrounding her could do whatever they wanted to her. Using any of the objects on the table.

At the beginning, no one did much. Maybe a light touch, here or there.

However, as the hours passed, the disinhibition started manifesting itself. Within a few hours, all her clothes were ripped off. She was there.


Then things turned bloody. Someone slashed at her throat. Blood began to pour. The person sucked it up.

It got bad…

How far can the public go?

For Marina, in that piece she turned art up on its head. The audience were part of the show. In a video, she explained what she was aiming for:

“I said okay. I am going to make the piece to see how far the public can go.”

What are people in the audience capable of, if the artist doesn’t do anything?

There was even a pistol and a bullet. If a person wanted to, they could take them and kill her.

Marina wanted to know. It was bugging her mind. What will the public do in this type of a situation?

She got her answer.

People cut her up. They tore her clothes. They drank her blood. One person even put a bullet into the pistol and stuck it at her neck.

That’s how far it went.

Marina has been quoted as saying:

“The experience I drew from this work was that in your own performances you can go very far, but if you leave decisions to the public, you can be killed.”

People just ran away

When the performance was over, there was a sudden change in the audience. As the clock stuck 2 am in the morning, she moved.

She started taking steps towards the people. In that instance, everyone ran away.

As she said:

“People could not actually confront with myself, with me.”

It’s as if people realized she was not an object anymore. Fear overtook them. Maybe they reflected. Their actions could have consequences. Or, maybe they felt shame.

The performance piece had reached its culmination. It had revealed its point. It looked deep into who people really are, and how they can behave in certain circumstances.

The lessons were not all negative. While there were people in the audience who were tempted to (and did) abuse their power, another group of people rose up to stop them.

Yet, the darkness had shown its face.

How would a person act if they had the power to do whatever they wanted, without consequences?

In his work “The Republic”, ancient Greek philosopher Plato tells the story of the Ring of Gages. This ring gives the person who wears it complete invisibility.

They can do whatever they want. Without consequences. And they do. The people when given the ring turn to despicable deeds.

The story is told by Glaucon, Plato’s brother. It starts off with a premise. What would you do if you had this ring?

Glaucon comes to a spectacular conclusion:

“And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.”–Plato in “The Republic”

Most people are just, because there would be punishment if they weren’t. If this threat is taken away, they will resort to committing all kinds of evil.

Marina Abramovic’s experiment proved exactly this point. When people were faced with what they deemed an object, one that wouldn’t fight back, their temptations got the better of them.

With no consequences to their actions, they gave in to their urges.

The banality of evil

We have seen similar types of actions happen on a larger scale all throughout history. We are seeing them take place at this very moment in Ukraine.

Nazi Germany. Rwanda. Congo. Those, and other places, have also experienced this in the last one hundred years.

Ordinary people turned evil.

It’s quite troubling how quickly a person can dehumanize the other. In their eyes, they are no longer a person. They are an object.

Sometimes even worse. They become a non-person, someone who deserves their fate.

Many psychology experiments have shown how this can degenerate. Philip Zimbardo, the researcher behind the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, described it in the introduction to his book, “The Lucifer Effect”:

“I summarize more than 30 years of research on factors that can create a “perfect storm” which leads good people to engage in evil actions. This transformation of human character is what I call the “Lucifer Effect,” named after God’s favorite angel, Lucifer, who fell from grace and ultimately became Satan.”

Marina Abramovic’s performance that night in Naples showed us how a perfectly ordinary person can turn bad.

The most powerful art is the one that can turn a mirror on ourselves. This one did just that.

Is there any silver lining?

Of course, there are different interpretations that can be given to this piece of performance art. While it may have revealed the dark inner shadows of the people attending the piece, it could have also actually pushed people to behave this way.

Maybe, the people were testing the artist. How committed was she to her piece? What would push her over the edge?

It could have also been simple curiosity on the audience’s part. A macabre one, but curiosity nevertheless.

Humans are complicated creatures. We have already discussed the psychological experiments that showed how far they are capable of going.

However, all is not settled. There are challenges to the conclusions of the psychologists that ran these experiments.

Even the famous Robbers Cave Experiment run by psychologist Muzafer Sherif has been called into question. Critics have described it as being based on a “subterfuge”, as the researchers had manipulated the groups of boys that were the unwitting subjects of their study.

And there might also be a silver lining to the Ring of Gages story. Cicero, when centuries later recounting Plato’s tale in his own work, came to the conclusion that there indeed are just people. Very few, but they do exist.

And they won’t abuse the power, if given to them.

“Now, suppose a wise man had just such a ring, he would not imagine that he was free to do wrong any more than if he did not have it; for good men aim to secure not secrecy but the right.”–Cicero

Maybe, just maybe, not everyone is prone to unleashing the beast within.



An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.
Credit: 1; Photo by Mulyadi in Unsplash

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