Marina Abramović (30 November 1946 – )
“I started realizing I could use any material I want, fire, water, and the body. The moment when I started using the body, it was such an enormous satisfaction that I had and that I can communicate with the public that I could never do anything else. I could never go back to the seclusion of the studio and be protected by the space there. The only way of expression is to perform.”
– Marina Abramović
The coverage shown in recent press and publications concerning the legal battles between Marina Abramović and former lover and collaborator Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), highlights the prominence this beacon of the performance art world holds in art history. Her pioneering style of work, coupled with her full physical and mental immersion into her pieces, has allowed Abramović to pave the way for a new and unconventional manner of art practice.
Born in Belgrade in 1946, to parents Danica and Vojin Abramović, both Yugoslav Paristans (members of the National Liberation Army, one of the greatest anti-Nazi resistance movements), Abramović was born into the turmoil left by the Second World War. Her early life was a difficult and tense one, due to her parents adopting the same rigorous, militant style used by the Resistance in the upbringing of their children (Abramović and her younger brother, Velimir). After her father left the family, Abramović’s mother took this stringent military control further. Strict and occasionally violent, Danica Abramović did not allow her children to leave the house after 10pm, a curfew that remained in place until Abramovic escaped the parental home at age 29. Although Danica Abramović was unrelenting in her parenting, her own cultural interests – she became director of the Museum of the Revolution and Art in Belgrade after the war – meant she did support and encourage her daughter’s keen interest in the arts.
Marina Abramović with her parents and half-brother (image source: www.timeline.com)
Dubbing herself the ‘grandmother of performance art’, Abramović has become the figurehead of the performance art movement. Through her unique style of work, she endeavours to prompt her observers and audience to confront pain and to experiment with the physical limits of the body. In 1973, Abramović began working with the innovative Body Art Movement. This collaboration allowed for a setting of collective, creative thinking and enabled the creation of pieces that focused on her personal endurance and pushing the body to its absolute limit, for which she is now famed. For example, early works include her screaming constantly until she had lost her voice (Freeing the Voice, 1975) and stabbing her own hand repeatedly (Rhythm 10, 1973). Following this in 1975, Abramović performed at the Thomas Lips exhibition in one her most famous and notable performances to date. In her home town of Belgrade, Abramović stood naked before her audience and then proceeded to cut a Communist star into her own stomach with a razor blade, she then whipped herself and lay for thirty minutes on a cross of ice blocks before the audience pulled her off. This performance encapsulates perfectly her unique approach to performance art and the extent to which her observers get drawn in and involved.
Marina Abramović, Thomas Lips, 1975
(image source: www.guggenheim.org)
These works were created when performance was still an emerging, unchartered area of art practice, and displays of such work were often only known about through word of mouth. However, following a meeting with the German-born Ulay in 1975, Abramović would go on to tackle the world as part of a team whose collaborations were a force to be reckoned with.
For twelve years, Abramović and Ulay created works that took them worldwide and into greater prominence. This remarkable pairing however, was not built to last. Their 1988 piece, ironically called The Lovers, consisted of both artists walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle. The ending however, was bittersweet, as both chose to part ways, proceeding to focus on their own artistic endeavours. Splitting from Ulay has without a doubt worked in Abramović’s favour and she has gone on to achieve monumental success. Aside from performance, she has also dabbled in sculpture and tried her hand at teaching throughout the 1990s, with stints in Paris, Berlin, Hamburg and an extended stay as Performance Art Professor for seven years at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Germany. In 2005, Abramović undertook a week long performance piece titled Seven Easy Pieces, during which she recreated works originally created by avant-garde artists of the 1960s and ’70s, such as Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman. From 1997 onwards, she has gone on to win many prestigious awards, such as the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1997; a New York Dance and Performance Award (a Bessie) in 2002; an Honorary Doctorate’s from the University of Plymouth, 2009, (where all of the We Are Not A Muse team studied Art History – ed.) and the Instituto Superior de Arte, Cuba in 2014.
Marina Abramović receiving her honorary docorate, University of Plymouth, 2009
(image source: www.wmmagazine.com)
Abramović’s popularity has only grown, particularly in America, with a lot of celebrity interest in her works helping gain new observers. This was proven during The Artist is Present, 2010, a 736 hour silent work performed at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York), where the artist sat immobile while her audience were able to simply sit across from her, for as long as they pleased. Lady Gaga attended the performance and Abramović has herself stated that people began to come due to the celebrity interest. Rapper Jay-Z also adapted this exhibition in his music video for ‘Picasso Baby’.
Abramović and two of her male collaborators:
Left: Marina Abramovic, Rest Energy with Ulay, 1980 (image source; www.guardian.com)
Right: Abramović pictured with Jay-z during his video for ‘Picasso Baby’, 2013 (image source: www.rollingstone.com)
Abramović’s legacy is still being written. Although she has said she doesn’t particularly view her work through a ‘feminist’ framework, there is no doubt that her personal conflict with her physical limitations and the psyche, coupled with the emphasis put onto the female body has certainly helped to shape feminist discourse in art history. Thinking towards the future and the impact she wishes her art to have once she is gone, Abramović opened the ‘Marina Abramović Institute for Preservation of Performance Art’ in New York in 2012. This, is her personal legacy. Her artworks and performances that will be forever etched into the annuls of art history are how she has perfected her practice and brought performance art into prominence, this Arts Centre however, is her chosen bequest.
She states, ‘Performance is fleeting. But this, this place, this is for time. This is what I will leave behind.’
Selected Recommended Reading:
Maureen Cheryn Turim, ‘Marina Abramović’s Performance: Stresses on the Body and Psyche in Installation Art’, Camera Obscura, Vol. 18, Number 3, 2003.
Samantha Henman, ‘Reading Marina Abramović’s Performance Art as a Feminist Act’, Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, Vol. 6, Essay 8.
Anna Novakov, ‘Point of Access: Marina Abramović’s 1975 Performance “Role Exchange”, Women’s Art Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2, (Autumn 2003 – Winter 2004), pp. 31-35.