Though I love all kinds of visual art and consider myself somewhat of an eclectic connoisseur of it, installation pieces and public performance are my two least favorite art forms. That doesn’t mean that some don’t impress and even thrill me, of course. Over the last few years I’ve become quite enamored of the repertoire of Milo Moire of Switzerland, who specializes in controversial, mostly NSFW solo performances that highlight her naked body and, instead of the rather typical anti-body puritanism of female-chauvinist gender feminism, celebrates the female body’s power and allure in spite of repressive contexts. I also find considerable amusement from the two-women performance team called FlucT, and Vanessa Beecroft’s stuff has its moments. Another person who I consider a sort of performance artist, more than a dancer, is Martha Graham (though she died over 25 years ago).
Then there’s Yugoslavian Marina Abramovic, who first caught my attention in a video clip of her 2010 The Artist is Present performance at MoMA. Basically, Marina sat in a chair (a chair without arms, much to her great regret) and stared forward from one end of a table at each person who took a turn at a chair at the opposite end. Marina and each person gazed into each other’s eyes in silence for however long the person chose to remain seated there, and participants have claimed that it was a wonderful, enlightening, trance-like experience. The Artist is Present certainly caused a surge in Marina’s popularity around the world, and it seems to be her most contemplative and serene performance to date.
My interest in this odd genius grew even more after watching HBO‘s entire The Artist is Present documentary, so I was delighted to discover her Walk Through Walls: A Memoir, which was published near the end of 2016. I read it at once, pleased to hear her story in her own wise words and to learn about her extensive and globe-trotting art activity over the decades of her life. She has a rich and peculiar curriculum vitae, needless to say. A performance artist to the bone, Marina’s mind seems inexorable from her body, which has served as her strongest tool of artistic expression and inspiration into the present day.
As a girl, Marina had to endure the hellish, abusive relationship of her parents, on top of feeling ugly and awkward in school. To make matters worse, she was ashamed of her large nose and had to rely on orthopedic shoes. This enflamed a conflict between her personal body image and a desire to appear attractive to the world. “Brigitte Bardot was the big star then, and for me, she was the ideal of sexiness and beauty,” she recalls. At one desperate point, she placed cut-out pics of Bardot in her pocket and tried to break her own nose so that it’d have to be reconstructed by a doctor. Looking back, Marina realizes now that it would’ve been “a disaster,” since a nose job wouldn’t have been the correct answer to her pain. And, in spite of many instances of defying beauty standards throughout the book, she adds: “Plus, [Bardot] didn’t age very well.” I’m not sure how “didn’t age very well” is a possible judgment in a world without beauty standards. But…I nitpick.
Smack-dab in the advent of the “new avant-garde” in the 1960s, Marina flexed her art for spectators, experimenting with how her body both affected and was affected, and, though she’s denied it, a sadomasochistic – certainly exhibitionist – vibe seemed to be a common element in much of her work. For instance, during Rhythm 4 Marina kept inhaling forced air from an industrial fan until she lost consciousness in front of everyone. And one of her pieces involves relentless self-flagellation, while another featured her slicing a pentagram on her belly. In Rhythm 0 she presented herself as a motionless object so that spectators could do whatever they wished to her body as she lay there. One disturbed man aimed a loaded pistol at her, causing quite a ruckus among the crowd. Though it’s not covered in the book, I know that Marina has said that once she ended the show and began to move, the crowd quickly dispersed, apparently unable to deal with her “as a person.” What powerful examples of how such art can become just as much about the audience as the artist, similar to how zombie movies and shows tend to be intended as a commentary on humanity rather than on the undead.
In 1975 Marina really showed her lack of truck with the beauty/art dichotomy with a performance piece called Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful. Marina, totally naked, repeatedly and increasingly abused her hair and scalp with a metal brush and comb, appearing to be in desperation and near-agony, repeating the lines of the performance’s title. This is how she explains her contempt:
Yugoslavia made me so fed up with the aesthetic presumption that art must be beautiful…When it came to art, I only cared about content: what a work meant. The whole point of Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful was to destroy that image of beauty. Because I had come to believe that art must be disturbing, art must ask questions, art must predict the future.
In 1976 fate led Marina to meet a radical artist named Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), and they began a mutual artistic career, enjoying both a simpatico performance relationship and a passionate love affair. One of their clever stunts, Imponderabilia (1977) involved a museum room’s narrow entrance in which Ulay and Marina, totally naked, stood on either side. In order to enter, patrons had to face either Ulay or Marina to get in, squeezing between them, sometimes indifferently, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes as quickly as possible. Unsurprisingly, the performance was shut down due to Bologna’s obscenity laws. Light/Dark (1977) featured Ulay and Marina slapping each other in the face, faster and faster, also slapping their chairs, forming a rhythm whose impressiveness and grooviness may undermine viewers’ sense of concern for the pain and aggression of the ever-intensifying smacking. “At this point [Ulay and I] were so close that it was as if there were a psychic line between us,” Marina writes.
As with most – if not all – romantic relationships, entropy quickened and their bond weakened. After Ulay got a herniated disc and refused surgery their sex life plummeted to zero, and they agreed to take some time apart from each other. Marina traveled to America and had an affair there. When she returned, guilt-ridden, she confessed her infidelity to Ulay, only to discover that he had had an affair as well. In a bizarre twist of heartache, Marina proposed a ménage à trois with one of Ulay’s mistresses: “I had to put myself in so much pain that I no longer felt any pain…I had to put myself in this situation…to exorcise [Ulay].” The threesome, however, marked the time to part. “That was the moment I stopped liking his smell,” Marina mourns. “And the moment I stopped liking his smell, it was over.” Their public collaborations would continue for some time after.
Over 20 years later, while The Artist is Present was still active at MoMA, Marina had Ulay flown in for the show. They spent some private time together during her off hours, but the most profound connection between them was yet to come. During the show Marina’s eyes were closed as she waited for the next sitter, and Ulay surprised her by taking a seat. When Marina opened her eyes, she was genuinely touched to see her former lover and art partner before her. The same can be said for Ulay. Marina describes the encounter (seen by 1:15 in this video): “[W]e looked into each other’s eyes, and before I knew what was happening, we were both in tears.” The video clip of this became a social-media sensation, compelling me to explore more of Marina Abramovic, as I mentioned before. Unfortunately, the entropy between them continued even after such a seemingly miraculous reunion. “Very soon after this, he went back to Amsterdam, and that August he discovered he had cancer,” Marina continues. “And not long after that, he decided to take me to court over the profits from our work.”
Marina also tells of falling in love with artist Paolo Canevari and, sadly, the eventual dissolution of their marriage – for the same reason as the end of her attachment to Ulay: adultery. This twice-striking lightning affected her deeply, and it became a main issue for her when she consulted a pair of shamans in a quest for emotional purgation. In 2013 Marina consulted with Ruda Iande and Denise Maia, and, during the course of the therapy, she made a confession of pain and suffering over romantic loss to the point of self-blame. What happened next, when Denise took over the therapy, is both poignant and rather arousing:
Then this big woman in the flowered dress jumped to her feet. ‘Look at me!’ she commanded. And she pulled her dress over her head, and she was completely naked. ‘Look how beautiful I am!’ Denise said. ‘I am a goddess!’
She pulled one enormous breast up to her mouth and kissed it. Then she kissed the other one. She pulled one knee up, then the other, and kissed each one. Anything on her body she could kiss, she kissed…This was the most beautiful fucking human being I’d ever seen in my life.
Walk Through Walls reveals Marina’s intellect, her love of reading and knowledge, and her varied (blurry, frankly) spirituality. Influenced by Kafka, Rilke, Zen Buddhism and Sufism and always on the lookout for efficient ways to focus on art and realizing the oneness shared with others, Marina epitomizes the artist as thirst. Of course, there’s ambivalence about this in her, as evinced in this passage: “I am tired of being ashamed of my nose being too big, of my ass being too large…I want to get old, really old so that nothing matters anymore…I want to not want anymore.” Doubtful. The basic futility of eradicating want (desire, whatever) is conveyed in the very wording: “want not to want.” It’s like hating hate, or scratching one’s hand with the itchy hand. There is always existential thirst, even if it’s denied or disciplined down to the size of a speck.
Existential thirst drove Marina to Tibet, where she interacted profoundly with the Dalai Lama’s teacher, Ling Rinpoche, before meeting the Lama himself. She relates how he flicked her forehead, which caused Marina to break into uncontrollable weeping. “If that man had told me to open the window and jump, for whatever reason, I would have done it,” she claims. I know that this statement is meant to illustrate the depth of his mystical penetration of her heart or whatever, but I find it somewhat disturbing, particularly in light of another heavy passage about Tito, the charismatic dictator of Yugoslavia.
Among her looks back to her native country, Marina remembers the breakup of Yugoslavia and the horrible Bosnian War, and she goes farther back to the time of Tito’s rule. This is how Miranda explained how Tito affected people: “[H]is charisma was absolute, overpowering. I felt electricity flowing through my whole body as he spoke; the tears flowed from my eyes. And it didn’t matter what he was saying. This was mass hypnosis…” Juxtaposing this candid passage with the one about Ling Rinpoche’s hypnotic effect on her really shows the ambiguity of demagoguery and mystical ecstasy, the interchangeability and unconditional openness to suggestion involved in I-erasing collectivism.
To her credit, Marina herself has developed an entrancing therapy called the Abramovic Method, which is taught and undergone in groups at the Marina Abramovic Institute (MIA), a project whose origin, funding and progress are recounted in the book. The fortunate young performance artists who’d been selected to recreate some of her famous pieces at The Artist is Present were required to go through this trial by inner fire. The Method is designed to counter participants’ busy lives, teaching and enabling them to slow down so as to sharpen their experience with art and other good stuff. Marina’s fame has grown lately, which is evident in that Lady Gaga called in 2013, desiring a therapeutic workshop with Marina. The sessions were filmed by fashion-photographer Terry Richardson, and Gaga ended up considering the experience to be “rehab.”
Surely the MIA, the Method, and her performances are part of an ongoing rehabilitation for Marina as well. Rehab from lingering miseries from childhood, rehab from self-image problems, rehab from the real and perceived failures in her love life. And regardless of how one feels about the legitimacy of performance art in general, she/he should appreciate Marina’s work as an evocation of the spiritual body and the bodily spirit, a critique of but also a celebration of each of our unique manifestations in the world. Whether fans want to reach out and touch Marina or not, they should admit that she has reached out and touched them. She certainly did so to me in this splendid memoir.
– David Herrle