I admire many artists, but there are few that I respect as much as Marina Abramović. Born in Belgrade in 1946, the 70-year-old ‘grandmother of performance art’ grew up under the strict rule of her parents who were Yugoslavian military generals. To give an indication of just how strict they were, Abramović has previously stated in interviews that her mother used to wake her up in the middle of the night and slap her across the face if she wasn’t sleeping neatly! Whilst her parents were not against the prospect of her becoming an artist, they encouraged her to become a painter, but Abramović quickly became bored of working in this medium.
It wasn’t until her late 20s that she started making works of radical performance art, such as Rhythm 5 (1974), when she lay down inside of a flaming 5-point star until she lost consciousness from a lack of oxygen. A lot of her art is representative of her existence at the intersection of two different worlds: discipline and spirituality. She can be understood as a product of the environment she was brought up in, learning about discipline from her parents and gaining a spiritual curiosity from her grandmother.
There is a religious quality to Marina’s work, except that she is not the one doing the worshipping. That job is now fulfilled by her legion of new fans, many of whom jumped onto the performance art bandwagon after her hugely successful retrospective, The Artist Is Present, which took place at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) back in 2010. This retrospective showcased replicas of her early work, such as Imponderabilia (1977), in which a man and a woman face each other completely naked in a narrow doorway, forcing spectators to choose who they would rather face. But it also featured an entirely new piece of work which drew crowds over 750,000 people, as Abramović sat motionless in the atrium of the gallery for 6 hours every single day for 3 whole months. Participants were invited to sit in front of the artist for as long as they wished. This piece really demonstrated the emotional impact of Marina’s art, as she was able to reduce people to tears, simply by maintaining eye contact with them for several minutes. It also shows how vulnerable we can be when we’re taken out of the fast-paced, self-obsessed world we live in. She makes people actually feel something genuine for once, by removing them from the distractions of modern life. It’s art that you pay for with your time and patience.
I love that her art reveals something about its spectators. For example, Imponderabilia could show the sexuality of a participant walking between the two naked performers, as they are forced to make a choice between a man or a woman. Her art can be incredibly painful to watch and, at times, confusing. One of her most famous works is Rhythm 0, in which she provided a gun, condoms, knives, roses with thorns and many more items and accepted full legal responsibility for the actions of the participants. She makes herself incredibly vulnerable in her art, and on this occasion, some of the participants tried to kill her, rape her and they cut her body with the rose’s thorns.
Whilst her art is quite minimalist, it is also theatrical. Her presence is very dramatic, especially when you are aware of her difficult past and the limits of physical pain that she has pushed through in her lifetime. She often refers to ‘energy’ in her work, which only adds to the drama of it all, as though she’s in touch with mystical forces and knows something that the rest of us do not. She’s a truly enigmatic artist and I don’t know whether we’ll see another artist as great as her for a long time.