I recently finished reading Walk Through Walls, a memoir by performance artist Marina Abramovic, published in 2016. (Earlier this year, I posted her “Artist’s Life Manifesto” on this blog.) Abramovic is known for unusual performances which many think are perverted, controversial, or vulgar. Because she’s a female artist, and around my age, I wanted to learn more about the artist, her work, and the whys and wherefores of some of her performances.
I borrowed the book from my local library. I’m a big fan of the public library! Although it’s not listed on the book cover or the back flap, “With James Kaplan” is written on the book’s title page. An American journalist and biographer, Kaplan probably helped Abramovic in some way with writing the book. Personally, I didn’t like the writing style, but perhaps it’s because she’s a performance artist, and translating performance art into words is difficult. The book is more like a simply-written diary of when and where and who. She writes a little about the why – why she created some of her performances, but after I finished reading, I was wanting for more explanation.
Following are several quotes from the book which I found enlightening, regarding her past and herstory; her frame-of-consciousness during a performance; her thoughts on the life as a professional artist; and what she’s trying to communicate with her art:
- Born in 1946, Abramovic writes, “All my work in Yugoslavia was very much about rebellion, not against just the family structure but the social structure and the structure of the art system there… My whole energy came from trying to overcome these kinds of limits.”
- Attending a retreat, she writes “…your sleeping and awake states become one; dreams flow into reality. And the moment you step into this other state of mind, you are tapping into a limitless energy, a place where you can do anything you want. You’re no longer little you with all your limitations – “poor Marina,” the person who cries like a baby when she cuts herself slicing an onion. When this kind of freedom comes, it’s as if you’re connected with a cosmic consciousness. It’s the same thing, I would soon find, that seems to happen in every good performance: you’re on a larger scale; there are no limits.”
- About her “Delusional” performance piece, she writes, “Shame is a very strong emotion, and Delusional was really about all the things I was ashamed of: the unhappiness of my Mother and Father’s relationship, my feelings of being unloved, my mother beating me, my parents beating each other.”
- About workshops she taught, a main source of income for Abramovic, she writes, “The workshops taught endurance, concentration, perception, self-control, willpower, and confrontation with mental and physical limits.” And she quotes Brancusi (an artist pioneer of modernism): “What you’re doing is not important. What is really important is the state of mind from which you do it. Performance is all about state of mind. So in order to get to the right state of mind, you have to be mentally and physically prepared.”
- Lamenting her life as an artist in a video piece titled “The Onion,” Abramovic eats a raw onion while saying “I am tired of changing planes so often.Waiting in the waiting rooms, bus stations, train stations, airports. I am tired of waiting for endless passport controls. Fast shopping in shopping malls. I am tired of more career decisions, museum and gallery openings, endless receptions, standing around with a glass of plain water, pretending that I am interested in conversation. I am tired of my migraine attacks, lonely hotel rooms, room service, long-distance telephone calls, bad TV movies.”
- Upon accepting the Golden Lion award for best artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale, she said, “I’m only interested in an art which can change the ideology of society… Art which is only committed to aesthetic values is incomplete.”
Abramovic uses her human body to make statements – to challenge the audience. The heart of her art is the shared experience of audience and performer. She says “artists have to have the stamina to conquer. Not just new territory but also to conquer himself and his weakness… Performance is all about state of mind… the public is like a dog. They can feel insecurity. They can feel fear. They can feel you’re not there.” Abramovic says the difference between performing and acting is that “when you perform you have a knife and it’s your blood. When you’re acting it’s ketchup and you don’t cut yourself.”
When I create art, it’s typically by myself, and not with an audience. I think I understand the “state of mind” Abramovic writes about. It’s probably a different consciousness for her, but I’ve written before about the zen of throwing a pot. And I know I get into a singly-focused frame of mind when I’m working on ceramics or painting or drawing. And I like being/living in that state of mind.
When I finished reading the “Walk Through Walls” book, I borrowed from the library a DVD about Abramovic titled “The Artist is Present.” After watching that, I felt like I understood Abramovic a little better. In that movie, she claims there are many Marias – the strong one, with no limits, willpower, and any aim; the little girl, who didn’t get enough love from her Mother, who is vulnerable, disappointed and sad; and the Maria with spiritual wisdom, who “can go above all that” – and Abramovic says the latter is her favorite. I think we can all separate our single, one self out into different “selves.” So I can understand, I think, what she’s referring to when she talks about the many Marias.
After reading the book and watching the DVD, I’ve asked myself, what’s the artist’s motivation? Perhaps its because she didn’t get the love she needed from her parents. Perhaps its the addictive feeling she gets from an admiring and appreciative audience. Perhaps its the “zone” her mind and body go into during a performance. I still don’t think I “get” her art… I still don’t feel that I can relate to her art. I admit that although I’m similar in age to the artist, we grew up in different countries, in different political climates, and in different family dynamics, so perhaps that’s why I have a hard time relating to her work.
Here’s a recent article in White Hot Magazine. And if you want to learn more, here’s a three-part review of the “Walk Through Walls” book – much more detailed and informative than my review. You can learn more about Abramovic at Wikipedia. There’s also a Marina Abramovic Institute that explores, supports, and presents performance, and serves “as the legacy of Marina Abramovic.”
But, in the end, what is art?
I’d love to read your thoughts and comments about this artist!