Closing night of Interruption: MARINA ABRAMOVIC’S WALK THROUGH WALLS

by Olivera Ristanović-Santrač

It was the closing night of CoBA’s exhibition Interruption that took place from 6 April to 11 May at LIBRARY, London. To mark the occasion, Ana Russell-Omaljev, CoBA’s Creative Director, moderated a discussion on Marina Abramović’s latest book Walk through Walls, A Memoir, with her guests – Mary Richards, Reader in Theatre and the Vice Dean (Education) of College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences at Brunel University London and Duška Radosavljević, Reader in Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.

The discussion was divided into three parts – how former Yugoslavia provided the context for Marina’s work, Marina’s performance art and her method, and critical reception of the book.

Communism in Yugoslavia at the time of Marina’s youth was of a special kind, and she gives her perspective on it in the memoir. Her parents were both partisans, who fought in World War II, after which her father became a member of Tito’s elite guard, and her mother the director of the Museum of Art and Revolution in Belgrade. Duška Radosavljević pointed out that it would be difficult for anyone coming from that context not to use it as a feature of their artistic output. With performance artists, even more so, considering they mostly take their life as material, their personal experience as the departure point.

In her early work, Marina was reacting against that heritage and that particular set of circumstances in her life. In the memoir, she talks about wanting liberation and wanting to express the sense of oppression that came with that particular background. However, in her later work, during and after the wars of the early 1990s, that heritage became a point of reference and her approach more theatrical – she was playing to Western stereotypical perceptions of what life under communism might have been like.

Another strong influence on Marina’s development as an artist, from her early Yugoslav years, was the Belgrade art scene. At the Student Cultural Centre (SKC), she had the opportunity to collaborate with an unconventional group of artists who were creating groundbreaking work. Belgrade was also the meeting point between East and West, particularly in terms of theatre, where festivals like BITEF took place. The programme of the first few BITEF festivals included some of the most prominent names of the 20th century theatre avant-garde: Jerzy Grotowski, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Peter Brook, Peter Stein, to name a few.

Without a doubt, Marina had a privileged upbringing, with her mother moving in elite circles, providing her exceptional opportunities (like having an artist work with her when she was 13), she attended every Venice Biennale since the age of 12, Edinburgh Festival in 1972, after which she lived in Europe. So, was she really that oppressed and how much did she have to rebel against? In her response to this question, Mary Richards commented that Marina herself talked about there being three Marinas, one of them being rather petulant, making a great deal of the oppression and the abuses of her childhood. What she may have been rebelling against was that sense of being privileged within that context. She needed to be able to make her own way in the world.

Marina also emphasized personality traits of her mother that led to this rebellion – Danica was an extremely controlling woman, who introduced a curfew, wouldn’t let Marina’s husband live with them, objected to the way in which Marina practiced art – it is this type of constraints and mental abuse that she rebelled against.

It can be argued that Abramović also reinforces the stereotypes of the Balkans as volatile, unpredictable, passionate, and paints a picture of the place that is not dissimilar to the way Kusturica portrays the region – the idea of the Balkans as powder keg, tragic and epic in its own way.

Performance Pieces, the Method

Marina remained committed to her exploration of the body and its mental and physical limits. Her performances included eating 1 kilo of honey, drinking 1 litre of red wine, cutting a five pointed star on her stomach with a razor blade, lying on the blocks of ice (Lips of Thomas). In Rhythm 5 (1974), Abramović lay down inside the blazing star, eventually losing consciousness and being rescued by onlookers. In Rhythm 10 (1973), she ran a knife between her spread fingers, stopping only after she had cut herself 20 times. In Rhythm 0 (1974), she invited audience members to do whatever they pleased with her using any of the 72 items she provided, ranging from a feather and rose to an axe and loaded gun. What is the method behind this?

Mary Richards pointed out there was a shift in Marina’s work. In her early practices, she attempted to explore the extremes of experience to the point of wanting to be able to perform both conscious and unconscious. She felt very frustrated that she passed out performing Rhythm 5 and had to be removed from the burning star, and that led to Rhythm 2 and 4, in which she used psychiatric drugs, thus losing control, but still being able to perform. She was deliberately taking things right to the edge, to the point where she was willing to risk her own life. However, in her later work, which still took her into extraordinary realms of experience, pushing through pain and demanding exceptional endurance, she started drawing upon various rituals and meditative practices (e.g. Vipassana), going on retreats and exploring Eastern philosophy. We can talk about her appropriation of different cultural practices and relabelling them as the “Abramović Method”, but perhaps she was simply exploring alternative traditions, more associated with spiritual, religious practices, as a way of trying to make sense of her earlier, more radical corporeal experiences.

Marina’s collaboration with Ulay, her life and work partner of 12 years, has a very significant place in her body of work. Together they created some of the most iconic performance art pieces, such as Rest Energy, in which they both lean backward, Marina holding the bow and Ulay an arrow directed at her heart. This was the ultimate exercise in trust and vulnerability. Their close relationship was well symbolised in a photograph Ulay had found of conjoined twins, an image with which they identified strongly at the time. In Night Sea Crossing they sat motionless across from each other, while keeping the eye contact, and in Breathing In/Breathing Out, they shared the same breath. Still, moving ever closer, they ended up pushing each other away. Their last performance collaboration was The Lovers (1988) in which they started walking from the opposite ends of The Great Wall of China to meet in the middle. Original idea was for them to get married there, but by the time they obtained all the necessary permits from the Chinese authorities, their relationship deteriorated, and after completing the piece in three months, instead of getting married, they decided to confirm that it was time to part ways.

Duška drew an interesting parallel with another artistic duo, Dora Maar and Picasso. Dora, whose real name was Teodora Marković, was also of Yugoslav descent, a photographer who worked with artists such as Man Ray. Both Marina and Dora performed the piece of running a knife between their fingers, Marina in Edinburgh 1972, and Dora on her first encounter with Picasso, in the 1940s. However, the power dynamics of the relationship between Dora and Picasso vs. Ulay and Marina was exactly the opposite, in case of the former, it is the woman- Dora, who is written out of the history, whereas in case of the latter, it is the man – Ulay.

Marina challenges the perception of artist as a withdrawn figure, and she leaves more space to the viewer to participate in her art. In her piece 512 Hours performed at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 2014, the main content of the piece was the audience. They were encouraged to interact with the space and had a choice on how much they wanted to get involved. Mary Richards felt, though, that Marina had a notion that the British audience would not be able to cope with the empty space, so she made them very busy. Shaman inspired Marina to create a performance with a space and nothing, so why introduce the props? Maybe it could partly be explained by Marina’s anxiety before facing the British audience, whom she finds somewhat cynical and ready to mock, at the same time not willing to be exposed or vulnerable.

Over the years, Marina’s work has both been admired and criticised. Her fan base is growing and for some time now she’s been considered one of the most influential contemporary artists. Yet, her most ardent critics have called her everything from exploitative to satanic. Marina is aware of the controversy she stirs and embraces the opposing perceptions of her work. That, perhaps, is why she has dedicated her memoir both to friends and enemies.