All For Show

What Makes Marina Abramović’s Art So Extreme?

Jay Z and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her—and the dedication and daring Abramović brings to performance art knows no bounds.

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When Marina Abramović attended Susan Sontag’s funeral in 2004, she was dismayed by the intimate ceremony. She thought her friend deserved a large celebration where the many who loved her could gather to honor her vibrant, extraordinary life.

Refusing to leave the production of her own funeral to chance—or outside forces—Abramović called her lawyer and set about planning her “final piece.”

Along with stipulations governing the dress code (no black) and music (the singer Anohni performing “My Way”), Abramović told her lawyer she wanted three graves in the three cities that meant the most to her—Belgrade, Amsterdam, and New York. The one chosen for her final resting place would remain a secret.

After reading Abramović’s new memoir, Walk Through Walls, it’s not surprising that the artist would plan her death with the same dedication and detailed attention with which she has created the performance pieces that have made up her life. From a very young age, her life has been one long performance in extremes.

After a six decade-long career, Abramović has become a celebrity in her own right, with attendees camping out at museums to gain entrance to her most popular performances and collaborations with famous entertainers like Jay Z and Lady Gaga popping up between her museum shows. Her every performance and every new initiative are covered by the press, and her greatest hits widely known and studied.

An entertaining page-turner dotted with juicy details (she really did sit for eight hours a day during The Artist Is Present without using the bathroom) and touches of the fantastical (clairvoyants, telepathy, and the power of Tibetan monks all make appearances), Walk Through Walls lays out how Abramović evolved as a performance artist and helped popularize the medium, becoming the “godmother of performing art” in the process.

Abramović was born in post-WWII Yugoslavia to Communist parents who revered Marshal Tito, and who were granted a comparatively privileged lifestyle because of their party rank. Despite this advantage, she remembers childhood as anything but easy as she faced a destructive relationship with her strict and abusive mother and one of neglect and estrangement from her beloved, but largely absent, father.

She found refuge in art, the one pursuit her mother allowed her to undertake with relative freedom. It wasn’t until her late teens that she discovered performance art, but she was staging her rebellion from an early age. As a toddler, young Marina refused to walk for a time, a decision she attributes to her feelings of displacement as she was passed around between family members. When she was in her teens, she smeared brown shoe polish all over her bedroom and studio walls to keep her mother out—it looked like excrement and had a powerful smell (she stays mum on how she lived with the result).

In her early days as an artist, performance art was still a new medium struggling to catch the attention of the art establishment. Abramović played a pivotal role in spreading the gospel, and she did it by pushing the boundaries of art and her own endurance.

Using her body as a canvas, Abramović has dedicated her work to testing the limits of pain, fear, and human connection in order to reach a form of higher consciousness.

One of the more shocking effects of seeing all of the artist’s performances recounted back-to-back is the sheer number of times she has put her life and health on the line to achieve a particular purpose. She doesn’t seem to have a death wish—she abhors suicide in those who “have the gift to create… because it’s your duty to share this gift with others”—but you would be forgiven for entertaining that possibility given her willingness to die for her work.

In one of her early breakout performances when she was only 23, Abramović staged the explosive show Rhythm 0 at a gallery in Naples.

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For the piece, she laid 72 objects ranging from a rose and a mirror to a carving knife and a loaded gun on the table in front of her. A sheet of instructions spelled out the simple objective: During the six-hour show, “I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility.”

By the end of the evening, one person had cut her neck with the carving knife—leaving a scar that remains to this day—and another had picked up the loaded gun and held it to her temple. Other guests intervened before he had the chance to pull the trigger.

“I was ready for the consequences,” Abramović writes of her preparations for the performance. At the end, “I looked like hell. I was half naked and bleeding; my hair was wet.” And it was a huge success.

In an earlier piece, Rhythm 10, Abramović performed a drinking game played by Russian and Yugoslav peasants where she sat on the ground surrounded by onlookers and stabbed a knife quickly between her fingers. A microphone recorded the proceedings, and she let out a loud moan each time she missed and cut herself. She did this with 10 knives, and then repeated the process with the first recorder in playback mode and a second catching the new groans, layering her mistakes one on top of the other. She finished the performance to wild applause and a new understanding of what she could achieve with this art form.

“I had experienced absolute freedom—I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn’t matter, that nothing mattered at all—and it intoxicated me… it was a feeling I knew I would have to seek out, again and again and again,” Abramović writes.

And she would. Her following shows would involve cutting a star on her stomach and laying on a bed of ice; standing for four minutes and 20 seconds with her lover Ulay pointing a taught arrow at her heart; running full speed at Ulay, with their naked bodies hitting each other again and again. She would spend 12 days living in three boxes perched on a gallery wall in full view of museum patrons, and another, shorter period cleaning a mountainous pile of bloody cow bones in a basement in Venice. And she would stage a show exploring her own death.

Not every performance tempts fate, but they all explore a piece of Abramović’s experience or personal history and her attempt to reach the limits of her understanding and endurance.

When the show ends, she goes to similarly extreme lengths in her efforts to recover from these explorations. Abramović takes refuge in a remote monastery in the Himalayas, austere retreats in India, or the healing hands of shamans in Brazil. Whether she’s seeking to recover from heartbreak or from a particularly intense period of work, she seeks out experiences that stretch her spiritual limits through cleansing rituals that are often punishingly strict or strange.

Toward the end of Walk Through Walls, Abramović reveals that she sees herself as three people: the warrior Marina, the spiritual Marina, and the bullshit Marina—the “poor little Marina who thinks everything she does is wrong… the one who, when she’s sad, consoles herself by watching bad movies, eating whole boxes of chocolates, and putting her head under the pillow to pretend her troubles don’t exist.”

If anything, it’s the bullshit Marina who gets short shrift.

Abramović is undoubtedly a warrior and a spiritual being. Just as she bares all—often literally—in her performances, she spares no detail in telling her life story. The bitterness she feels toward her mother’s abuse bleeds through the page, as does the heartbreak she feels at the end of her relationships with her two great loves when she discovers that first Ulay, and then her younger Italian lover Paolo, have had affairs.

But while she isn’t afraid to give the readers the juicy details of the sexual function or dysfunction of her lovers, a feeling remains that she’s holding back a more vulnerable piece of herself.

It’s this bullshit Marina, the one who “went through hell before every one of my performances” due to nerves, who brings a deeper understanding of the great performer. And she’s often the one relegated to the sidelines in favor of the passionate—sometimes to the point of performance—lamentations of the driven or wronged or heartbroken Marina.

As with her art, Abramović sets the rules of her revelations, controlling the performance and giving the readers only as much as she wants to. And while she may not bare all, her story, in all its extremes, is more than enough.

In The Artist Is Present during her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Abramović sat in a chair for three months, eight hours a day, and locked gaze with a steady stream of museum attendees. It was one of her biggest, most popular performances to date and it went a long way in achieving her mission to show a broad audience “this transformative power [of performance] that other arts don’t have.”

Looking back on that show, Abramović reflects that “this performance was beyond performance. This was life… I began to feel more and more strongly that art must be life—it must belong to everybody. I felt, more powerfully than ever, that what I had created had a purpose.”

Walk Through Walls, too, teems with that wonderfully jumbled, delightful, complicated mix of art and life.