Marina Abramović: Abuela Avadakadavra

Marina Abramović: Abuela Avadakadavra
While best known for her performances, Marina Abramović is truly a multidisciplinary artist, working across photography, video, installation, and sculpture. What emerges is a lifelong exploration of art as a vehicle for emotional and spiritual transformation.

 

Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia) in 1946, Abramović studied as an academic painter from 1965 to 1972. From the late 1960s she engaged with the era’s radical political and artistic ideas, which expanded the definition of art beyond traditional media such as painting and sculpture. Beginning in the 1970s, she created work at the forefront of the emerging discipline of performance art, shaping it as an art form and propelling it into the mainstream.

Through her performances, which often comprise of simple actions repeated over long durations, Abramović has consistently tested the boundaries of her own physical and mental endurance, while extending her practice to embrace collective experiences of great intimacy between artist and audience.

A pioneer in the use of the body for art, she has explored the myriad associations one can occupy: as physical and energetic presence, personal identity, and in relation to others, both on a personal and societal level. Later work has expanded the definition of what performance can be, creating performative objects and exploring the possibility of performance without the presence of the artist.

Abramović is the founder of MAI, the Marina Abramović Institute, this gives artists from the next generation of performance the mental and physical preparation required to re-perform some of Abramović’s most iconic pieces. Since the 90s, she has developed a formal framework for this – she reportedly intends to create a new form of documentation, which will allow later audiences to appreciate past performances as she had originally intended.

The creation of the MAI was partly inspired by Abramović’s experiences creating the award-winning piece Seven Easy Pieces; For this, Abramović re-performed five pioneering performance works by other artists from the 60s and 70s, but it took her 12 years to obtain their permission for such a reproduction. Equally, the role of the MAI has played an integral part in allowing Abramović to scale her global brand.

 

The Spirit Under Any Condition Does Not Burn

Abramović’s parents were partisan fighters during the Second World War, for which they were awarded the Order of the People’s Heroes; at the time of her birth they were employed in the Communist government of President Tito. Until she was 10, her parents would tell her that her birthday was 1 day earlier, on the 29th November – Yugoslavia’s Republic Day.

Whilst Abramović grew up under communism, a social and political system that rejects religion, spirituality was central to her upbringing. As a sickly infant, she spent the early years of her childhood with her devoutly Christian maternal grandmother, Rosić, whose blend of Serbian Orthodox Christianity with folk beliefs left a lasting impact on her; “I am not particularly religious… what I do believe in is spirituality. I believe that one of the components of a work of art should be spiritual.”

In her work exploring Western traditions of mysticism, Abramović pays particular attention to female spirituality. The 2009 series of performances to video ‘The Kitchen’ relates to the experiences of St Teresa of Avila; A cloistered nun whose mystic visions of Christ’s love allegedly caused her to levitate, St Teresa’s bodily experience of spirituality as well as her emphasis on ascetics and contemplation have made her a recurring figure of interest.

Other works bring a sense of the spiritual directly into museum spaces. Bed for Aphrodite and Her Lovers (1991) is dedicated to the ancient Greek goddess of love, reflecting a spiritual tradition that embraced sexuality and celebrated the human body. Part of the series ‘Transitory Objects for Non-Human Use’ and in parallel to the sculpture works made during the same decade for human use (such as Shoes for Departure), many of her pieces that you will find on display in galleries around London today offer an opportunity for spiritual contemplation and rejuvenation. Abramović has spoken of her sense that people now visit galleries instead of churches; with many of her sculptures embracing the museum’s role as a secular temple.

 

Powerful Portals Through Performance

When Abramović’s brother was born, she moved back to live with her disciplinarian parents, and an unhappy marriage resulted in her father leaving at the age of seventeen. Throughout her childhood, Abramović found solace in the arts, mainly through her mother’s job at the Cultural Ministry. On her fourteenth birthday she was granted her own home studio, and her father organised for painting lessons from the artist Filo Filipović.

On a particularly memorable occasion, this Art Informel artist, who had studied in Paris, placed a canvas on the floor and covered it in glue, pigment and sand. Gasoline was added so that he could then set the whole thing on fire. Abramović reports Filo as saying ‘This is sunset’ and then leaving. The experience became important to Abramović because, for her, it demonstrated that the process of art-making is more important than the product; as Yves Klein’s states, ‘my paintings are the ashes of my art.’

Abramović eventually enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, where she became president of its Communist Party, effectively demonstrating against economic reforms brought in my Tito’s government. Abramović continued to pursue post-graduate study, and married the conceptual artist Neša Paripović in 1942, while continuing to live at home, under her mother’s strict rules.

While Abramović’s first few pieces were mainly abstract paintings and sound-based pieces, she released her first performance piece Rhythm 10 at the Edinburgh Fringe and later described it as ‘the moment I knew that I had found my medium.’ Over the following year, the Rhythm series explored the limits of the human body while making insightful statements about the intangible aspects of power dynamics and relationships.

When she divorced Paripović in 1976, she left her mother’s home and moved to Amsterdam with the artist Ulay. As a couple, they released the ART VITAL manifesto, which represented their values for art and life. Among these was the maxim ‘No fixed living place / Permanent movement’, and they travelled together for the following three years, living in a Citroën van with their dog Alba, and performing at venues across Europe. One of their most iconic pieces saw the couple stand as a naked ‘living door‘ or portal, through which visitors had to pass to enter the gallery. The performance was interrupted by police after 3 hours, on the grounds of obscenity.

In 1980 the couple went back on their Manifesto by settling in Amsterdam. Training in hypnosis with the aim of exploring the subconscious, they described their energies merging into a third existence they called ‘That Self’. The concept of ‘That Self’ became the basis of a series of four new performances, including Rest Energy, first released at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Beginning to explore working with video and photography, in October they sold their van and moved to Australia, where they spent 6 months living with the Pitjantjatjara people, near Alice Springs. Abramović has often described this time as a period that transformed her views on stillness and immateriality.

These formative experiences were expressed in the 1981 piece Nightsea Crossingin which she and Ulay sit motionless facing each-other across a table, charging the space with their minds rather than their bodies and actions. Originally planning to perform the piece over 90 times in galleries around the world, the pain caused by sitting still for hours was greater than they expected, forcing Ulay to leave the table several times during early instalments.

In 1982 Abramović and Ulay travelled to Bodh Gaya in India, where they met the Dalai Lama and his mentor, the tulku Kyabje Ling Rinpoche. Here they undertook a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat, which alongside other mindfulness practices, informed their ongoing performances of Nightsea Crossing and became a long-term tool for Abramović’s work.

In 1988 Ulay and Abramović performed The Lovers, The Great Wall Walkhaving finally been granted permission by Chinese authorities to walk the Great Wall of China from opposing poles. Although the piece had originally intended to consummate their marriage, by the time it was performed their relationship had deteriorated, and it became a symbolic of their separation. After 90 days of walking, their final embrace marked the end of their personal and professional partnership.

 

“In order to have a relationship [in the traditional sense] you have to give up something. You give a part of yourself, and the other person gives a part of himself, in order to be able to melt into something. It’s really about giving up. It took me a long time to regenerate and to heal.” – Abramović 1998

 

Shedding Snakes And Ladders

After an immensely challenging period of self-reflection and recovery, Abramović went on to work with Charles Atlas on The Biography, a work in continuous evolution. At the time, the project allowed Abramović to explore and exorcize her personal demons and make sense of both her upbringing in Yugoslavia and her relationship with Ulay. This acted as a form of therapy and a way of getting Abramović to reconnect with her creative forces.

Snakes and energy work became a large part of her healing process: : ‘when you throw a snake on the ground, wherever she walks she is following the magnetic lines of the earth’s energy.’ Her impulse to explore the connection of mineral and crystal energies came from her experiences on The Great Wall Walk, where she felt that her mind was affected by the changing material of the ground she walked on. These feelings were reinforced when, during the evenings of her walk, the local elders told her legends about dragons. The wall itself, although supposedly built as a defence, was also built according to the magnetic lines of the earth, to which many animals are sensitive.

In 1989 Abramović held her first solo exhibition in over a decade at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London. ‘Transitory Objects’ featured furniture-like sculptures into which crystals and minerals were embedded, inviting public participation: “to prepare for the new century, when the artist should not have any objects between him and the public, just a direct energy dialogue.” She worked on various forms of this for the next seven years, frequently travelling to Brazil to source crystals. During this time she also developed ‘Cleaning The House‘, a 5 day workshop during which participants refrain from eating or speaking and are led through a series of long durational exercises to improve focus and stamina.

In 1997, having been invited to create a piece for the Yugoslav pavilion at Venice Biennale, Abramović developed a proposal that addressed the ongoing conflict in the Balkans; This was rejected by the cultural minister who preferred that the regions artist present a more positively nationalist work. Abramović withdrew from the collaboration and her piece Balkan Baroque was allocated the basement of the Italian pavilion in the Giardini. If anything, this added to the atmosphere of the piece which caused a sensation through her repeated attempts to clean bloodied bones, resulting in her receiving the Golden Lion award.

The making of Balkan Baroque drew on her parents’ testimony of the period, as part of the guerrilla movement that fought against Croatian fascists. Her parents Danica and Vojo Abramović, originally believed in the ideals of a socialist Yugoslavia and the creation of a classless society; however in practice, the principles espoused by the state had their limits and Abramović and other young artists growing up under socialism, were often more concerned with these limitations than the possibilities promised by the regime.

Although the partisans were victorious with the aid of the Red Army, and Abramović’s father, a General, was considered a hero of the Resistance, both her parents were greatly affected by the dreadful suffering they personally witnessed during this time. Abramović’s mother, originally a medical student, found that her terrible experiences deterred her from continuing her studies, leading her to pursue the visual arts instead.

Vojo Abramović continued to work for the Yugoslav Air Force after the end of the war, and it was he that actively encouraged Marina to embrace the physical demands of military-style exercise regimes, whereas Danica wanted her daughter to excel in the more genteel arena of French language learning. Abramović’s upbringing played out against a backdrop that was coloured by the memories her parents had of the war’s inhumanity. As such, she claims that she always knew she would be an artist: ‘it was a necessity […] the only way I could function in this world.’

Her work in the 2000s has experimented with mixed-reality art, combining digital elements with the physical world, and The Life, first released at the Serpentine Gallery, became the first mixed-reality piece to be sold at auction, via Christie’s in London in October 2020. This year, 2023, she has further cemented her place in the present by having her historical contributions recognised through a promotion to ‘Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.’

At their core, Abramović’s life and works are a display of the value of human perseverance amidst the balance between the forces of creation and destruction. Many of her extraordinary acts remind us of the magic within the mundane, and that there are more ways to exist than our customary commodity-driven understanding generally allows us to experience. A lived appreciation of this fact may provide greater insight into, and a subsequent tolerance and respect for, the individuals, cultures and societies that harbour alternate relationships to life.

 

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