The Belgrade-born artist Marina Abramovi has consistently explored the fine line between life and death in her performances and video works since the early 1970s. Like Chris Burden, Abramovi tested the limits of the human body in performances where she screamed until she lost her voice (Freeing the Voice, 1975), ran repeatedly into a wall until she collapsed (Interruption in Space, 1977) or lay on a bed of ice after carving a star into her stomach with a piece of glass (Thomas Lips, 1975). However masochistic such acts may appear, it was not perverse bodily pleasure that was her aim, but rather the transcendence of corporeal limitations in pursuit of higher awareness. "I want to develop a new consciousness and approach the idea of unity between body and soul, between body and soul and cosmos" (cited in Artist Body, p. 9).
The skeleton that appears in the 1995 video installation Cleaning the Mirror, I evokes the western tradition of memento mori in which the vanitas symbol of the skull is employed to remind the viewer of the transitory nature of human existence. Rather than contemplate a skull as a symbol of mortality as do saints Mary Magdalen and Jerome, or present it as an ominous spectre as in Hans Holbein's French Ambassadors (1533), however, Abramovi vigorously scrubs a skeleton with soap and water applied with a floor brush. Cleaning the Mirror, I is comprised of five monitors that replay a performance for video specially commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford on the occasion of their 1995 exhibition of the artist's work. Each monitor shows different parts of the skeleton--the head, chest, hands, pelvis and feet--in extreme closeup with the artist's hands and brush deeply probing the eye sockets, ribs and joints in a thorough cleaning in real time. Each video is accompanied by the sounds of scrubbing and breathing that were recorded directly rather than as a separate track. Stacked one atop another, the monitors re-align the parts of the skeleton to construct a montage of the whole. At just over 9 feet tall, the image is larger than life and thereby confronts the viewer as would monumental sculpture or architecture. The installation is, however, variable and the monitors may even be scattered in separate rooms, suggesting a body in fragments.
Cleaning the Mirror, I was one of three video pieces inspired by Abramovic's research at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford which houses many objects used in ceremonies related to dying. (Cleaning the Mirror, II shows the artist lying prone and breathing heavily with the skeleton draped over her, and Cleaning the Mirror, III records the artist's attempts to sense with her hands the energy of seven ritual objects in the museum's collection.) According to the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford curator Chrissie Iles: "Death plays an important role in all cultures. The idea of conquering one's fear of dying in order to experience a "right" death is particularly important in Tibetan thinking, which has exerted a strong influence on Abramovic. For thirty years [she] has used various mentally and physically confrontational techniques to empty the mind, or, to use a Zen Buddhist metaphor: to clean the mirror. Death is the last mirror you look into. So to take away one's fear of dying is a kind of a cleaning of the mirror; a preparation for one's own death." (Iles, pp. 327, 328) By systematically cleaning every inch of the skeleton, Abramovic confronts her fear of dying, and perhaps that of her viewers. "What you are afraid of is exactly what you are supposed to do," she explains. "When you do things you like, you never change." (cited in Goldberg, 1995, p. 11)
Two years after making Cleaning the Mirror, I, Abramovi won a Golden Lion award for best artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale for Balkan Baroque, a performance in which the artist sat atop a pile of cattle bones for four and a half days, methodically scrubbing them, sullying her white shift with blood and singing folk songs from her childhood.