A Valentine’s Meditation on Arguments

“We are facing each other both producing a continuous vocal sound. We slowly build up the tension, our faces coming closer together until we are screaming into each other’s open mouths.”

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I was researching some real-life artist couples and found this 1978 work from Marina Abramovic and Ulay.  

Marina Abramovic and Ulay, “AAA-AAA” (1978)

The obvious connotation is a couple fighting and, of course, that is partly what the artists were exploring. But the repetition and ritualization of the yelling becomes also a meditation on something most couples experience at least occasionally. Marina and Ulay’s voices harmonize and are at times reminiscent of the repeated “om” in some Eastern meditation practices. 

The couple comes closer and closer to each other as they scream. It is clearly a taxing experience for them both. They begin within the first few minutes to cough and have strained vocalization. As they proceed, their faces tremble and veins emerge on their necks. Eventually, Ulay stops while Marina continues longer and then stops, as well. 

I came away in awe thinking about what this was like for them as a real-life couple. How often did they practice and what did they feel like afterwards? Did they ever find themselves in the midst of an actual fight where this experience became so forefront that it broke the mood? 

When I dug a little deeper, I learned that Ulay and Marina formed a collective where they worked to imitate each other in order to build trust and lose themselves. They did many performance pieces together, usually exploring new ways to push themselves together. They were together, creatively and romantically for 12 years and during that time produced a huge number of influential pieces. In true collaborative fashion, they ended their relationship through a performance piece in 1988, walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to say their final goodbye in the middle. 

Jess & Ryan at our engagement photo shoot. Image courtesy Adam C. Johnson Photography

When I view “AAA-AAA”, I’m inspired to find the transcendental and meditative moments in my own fights with my husband. We don’t fight often. When we first got married, our arguments were rare. Then we had a kid and they increased exponentially. Now, we’re finding our rhythm as parents and partners and are back to rare quarrels. But next time we do, I want to challenge myself to ask some new questions: Are there aspects of harmony in our discord? Are we getting closer in a way by this exercise? And are we really straining ourselves by continuing this aggression? 

This Valentine’s Day, take a few minutes to think about how you can turn your own disagreements into a meditation. Can you allow yourself to step away from your own ego long enough to hear the harmony in the discord? Who knows what new perspective you might gain. 

For more about how Marina and Ulay, check out this tribute on Sydney Yaeko’s site.    

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