Over her prolific 55-year career, Serbian conceptual artist Marina Abramović has become one of the most renowned performance artists in the world. Often called the “grandmother of performance art,” Abramović pioneered avant-garde performance practices starting in the 1970s that tested the relationship between artist and audience, the limits of the body, and the boundaries between art and life.
Born in 1946 in Belgrade, Abramović began staging provocative performance art pieces while studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb in the late 1960s. Her early works explored pain, endurance and ritual, like Rhythm 10 (1973), where she stabbed the spaces between her splayed fingers with a knife as quickly as possible, cutting herself repeatedly.
In 1974’s Rhythm 0, she stood motionless for six hours while the audience was invited to use any of 72 objects on her body, including a gun and bullet, foreshadowing the violence that would erupt. As she explains, “When I did performance in the 70’s it was really taboo – avant-garde theatre and we were punished for doing performance. The communist regime was thinking this is absolutely not acceptable.” Nevertheless, Abramović pushed on with even more dangerous feats, like Rhythm 5 (1974) where she lost consciousness inside a burning star surrounded by fire, and had to be rescued by the audience.
She continued upping the ante with Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen), her collaborator and romantic partner she met in 1975. Their major joint works included Breathing In/Breathing Out (1977), where they blocked their nostrils with cigarette filters and pressed their mouths together to share breath back and forth until collapsing. In Imponderabilia (1977), they stood naked facing each other in a museum’s entrance, forcing visitors to squeeze between their nude bodies.
After their dramatic breakup walking the Great Wall of China in 1988, Abramović shifted to explorations of shared energy. In The Artist is Present (2010), she silently gazed into visitors’ eyes one-on-one at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for over 700 hours, an empathetic piece that became a cultural phenomenon.
Other seminal works like Balkan Baroque (1997), a disturbing meditation on war in the former Yugoslavia involving a pile of bloody cow bones, and House With The Ocean View (2002), where she lived silently on display in a museum for 12 days surrounded by ladders, water and a metal bed frame, cement her obsession with human connection through stillness and simplicity.
Now in her eighth decade, Abramović continues to test boundaries, both with new work and through the Marina Abramović Institute she founded to preserve long-durational performance art.
Marina came to London to present her first London show and spoke to an intimate audience about her life through an incredible body of work.
The journey towards this exhibition started in 2017 when RCA exhibition director Andrea Tarsia met Abramović in New York. The artist recalls the meeting, “I was so nervous because Andrea is an Italian and I was worried about making a good pasta that wasn’t overcooked. Then we went to my studio and we started sorting and I remember we laid out every work I’ve ever made in my 55 year career on a table and it was chaos and mess and I didn’t know how we could get out of there.”
With 55 years of work, how did you refine the selection and editing process to let go of important works?
It was hard because I wanted to show everything, having never exhibited in London before. The RCA Curator would say “let’s think” and we would start editing by saying no.
I agreed to exhibit at RCA with two conditions – no chronology and works from different periods should be in dialogue. It’s important to drop the idea of a retrospective. You have one when you die and I’m very much alive and don’t like them.
I was trying to make the works talk to each other across time. Ideas from the 60s and 70s continue now in 2023 with new perspective. It was important to find this spiral line of thinking, not linear. That’s how we came up with the idea of themes.”
One of the first works presented to audiences will be ‘The spirit in any condition does not burn’ that shows Abramović in straight jacket. And the artist comments on the importance of the artwork: ”For me it’s a motto for the entire show as a performance artist in the 70s was hell. Coming from communism where everyone is against what you do – the party, parents, professionals and yet I still continue, 55 years later. It’s a testament that the spirit never burns. I want to give young artists the message to never give up.”
In your 70s interviews, you discuss the energy fields between artist and viewer. Could you expand on that?
The first two rooms [of the show] show participation pieces with 13 years between them – one from 1973, one from 2010. Rhythm 0 (1973) was made when I was 23, so angry with society for punishing performance art that I did nothing. I put out objects for pain and pleasure and the public could do anything for 6 hours – I even had a loaded pistol. If they wanted to kill me, they could.
You work with the raw spirit of the audience, starting with objects then it started growing violent – people were cutting me, drinking my blood… Finally someone threw the pistol out the window. But I was ready to die for art.
It took years to understand I could also uplift the spirit. With The Artist is Present (2010), everything was restricted – the audience couldn’t move or speak, just sit and engage in gaze. It was about love and opening hearts, the opposite experience.
These two pieces are antidotes to each other. I understood that the energy between audience and artist creates the work. Performance doesn’t exist without the audience. It’s an immaterial art – you must be there in that time and space. The energy dialogue exists, and you decide the duration – 6 hours or 3 months. Everything happening is part of the work, whether electricity failing or someone vomiting on you or leaving – it’s all part of the piece.
Performance is the hardest art. The audience must be there, you must be there, and all that remains apart from memorabilia and documentation is your memory. You often provide parameters but the meaning develops depending on the audience interaction.
What was it like looking into all those people’s eyes?
I sat in the chair for two months, then removed the table for the last month which was the strongest experience. But I made a mistake with the monastic chair – my whole body ached, legs were swollen. But I didn’t want to change it out of stubbornness.
From your very early career, you have been documenting all your works which we now ave pleasure of seeing. Talk to us about the relationship between performance and re-staging.
In the 70s many performance artists, including myself, thought documentation wasn’t allowed – the audience memory should be enough. But coming from communism where documents were evidence, I documented everything as meticulously as the performances. My mother directed a revolutionary art museum – they documented everything – so I learned from her.
And speaking of your homeland and the works inspired by the Communism and political events, talk to us about Balkan Baroque (1977) – a performance art piece where Abramovic sits on a hill of bloodied bovine bones, presented in Venice.
I was expected to react immediately to the Balkan war, like all artists. But to me it was too close to home and I was too ashamed of the war. I couldn’t make anything at all.
But then came the invitation to represent Montenegro in Venice at the pavilion. I proposed this work and the minister of culture said that it’s a scandal. First of all, it smells very bad. Secondly, they don’t want to and that don’t think I’m an artist at all. They have actually excluded me from the pavilion. I told this to the director of Biennale and he said they had one more place left at the pavilion, in the basement, which was perfect for me.
If you think it’s raw cows’ bones with blood in thirty degree heat in June in Venice. The smell was unbearable. I’ve had maggots festering on the bones and coming from my coat. Whoever saw this performance can still remember the smell.
And I wanted to create a picture that wasn’t just the picture of Balkan war, but the picture that you can apply to any war, any time, anywhere. It’s important if you make a statement like that that it’s universal. Not just related to one event but to humankind. I always thought that for at to have many lives, it has to have many meanings. And politics can is only one of them. It has to be social and political and spiritual and has to predict future.
Going back to the story, I got the golden lion and the minister of culture has to resign, which was great – I was so happy, she laughs.
Then there is Rhythm 5 (1974) depicting Marina lying inside the communist star. This performance ended in your fainting and the doctor rescued you. Was that interaction feed into you reflecting on Rhythm 0 where audience interacts with you directly?
The communist star was everywhere for me – in children’s books, in schools, and in every public building. I wanted to exercise this five pointed star by cutting all my hair, burning my nails and finally lying in the middle of the star surrounded by candles.
I didn’t realise that fire burns oxygen and I lost consciousness. There was a doctor in the audience who noticed that a little flickering of fire was very close to my legs and I didn’t react. So he dragged me out. I was so angry because I didn’t want the performance to stop there.
Another piece related to communism in a way is Hero (2001). Talk to us about this art depicting Abramovic sitting on a stallion with white flag in her hands.
Is a really important piece emotionally. Both my mother and my father are National Heroes, my grandmother was an orthodox Christian and hated communism. So I was raised between all those extremes. And then I became Buddhist on top… When my father died, I dedicated this piece to him. Here, I sit in a horse waving a white flag of surrender. I wanted him to surrender to a change. But he was too communist, he could not ever fit into this new world.
Then we go to experiences of body section as Marina comments “In Role Exchange (1976) in Amsterdam, I met a 12-year prostitute and we swapped places for a day – she went to the gallery instead of me. Am I a feminist? No, I dislike ‘isms’, nothing should be put in a box. I don’t believe art has a gender – good or bad art is the only measure I gave, not the artist’s identity. My art has no gender even though I’m female.
Another work that was often perceived as a feminist stance is Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975) where Marina violently brushes her hair repeating that ironic statement about art, and beauty “art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful”. “But this is a very ironical statement,” she rejects, “because I think this idea of art and beauty is completely wrong.
“People are buying paintings to match the carpet in the living room. Art is not about you. It has to ask the right questions. Art has to be transcendental, Art has to have very strong content. Art can be dangerous. Art can be spiritual, political. More layers the art has, then every society can put their own meaning as to what it means. And art with a lot of layers can have a long life and keep coming back again and again.”
We are on to Yulai memory section
The Lovers, the Great Wall Walk (1988)
The Great Wall walk was heartbreaking for Marina, because it was meant to celebrate their wedding but 8 years later when they finally got permission, they walked to say goodbye at the middle and never work together again.
When I finished with Ulay at the Great Wall I was devastated. I lost the man I loved and had no work as we’d collaborated and I had done nothing in the world of art without him. I went into depression and the only way I could get over it is the revisit The Great Wall experiences To relive the experiences I had walking the wall and I realised that there are different types pf soil in the wall: copper, crystal, quartz, iron, clay and every time I walked on a different type of soil, I would feel differently.
I thought that the only way I can share with the public my experiences is to create transitory objects that people can interact with and have experiences of their own and that’s how the Transitory objects for human use and non human use came about. Shoes for departure (1998) /(2015). The exhibition includes the Shoes For Departure – amethyst clogs carved out of solid mass of stone. When. You spoke about this exhibition previously, you said you must remove yourself from the art completely. Do you find your presence disturbing?
I have done so much with physical and mental limits. And then it was very clear to me that the only way to understand the performance is if all of you make a personal journey. Because nobody ever changed by reading a great book. You read the great book. You love it. You close the book but you don’t make the journey. You didn’t experience what that person experienced. The only way to make something really change in you is your own journey, your own experience.
And this is why when in Serpentine Gallery when I did 513 hours performance, I decided to do nothing with it. I take the person the by the hand and bring them to the white wall because it’s all up to you. It’s really your journey and this is why to me, the public becomes the work more than me making another performance. Why should I repeat myself? I don’t feel a reason
So much of your work deals with energies and extremes of energy. How do you say grounded and maintain your personal integrity?
It’s hard it’s really really hard you know it’s kind of wonderful how much you can actually give the energy to the public how much energy public give to you, but sometimes it’s too much. You can’t breathe and you don’t know how to deal with that.
I was really lucky to work with so much of the Aborigines, with Buddhist Monks, with shamans to find out how this energy doesn’t become destructive, but how you can instead process and energy. And it’s really simple. It’s to do with water and breathing and isolation and being very quiet.
Your art has changed throughout the years and now through your foundation you teach other artists to perform. You also say that you want to remove yourself from the piece of art. How do you feel about not being in the midst of the performance anymore?
You have to be realistic, in the work you were speaking about I was 23 years old 30, 40 and now I’m 77. I have limits. I could not perform forever and also I have to see how my legacy is going to continue when I die. I have learnt something very important. The long duration of work of art is the most important work of art because in long duration you can’t act you can’t pretend you really are vulnerable and you show your true self. My Institute is one of the ways I teach artists how to focus how to have the willpower to perform.
So I make this work for after I die. I’m very busy with life and dying and then what happens after dying. I have to think about everything I will organise my perfect funeral.
Your work often blurs the lines between art and life. How do you see the relationship between art and reality in your work?
To me, those two are pretty much go hand in hand. I hate studios. I think studios are such a trap.
Many artists live in studios, work in studios, go every day to the studio.
I don’t, I do live. I go to countries that I’ve never been to, I go to the places that don’t have Coca-Cola, mobile phones and hotels. And I go to see indigenous cultures and I learn from them so much.
And this is really what’s my inspiration. I go to nature. And then, when I have ideas, I come to the studio to realise them. The idea has to come as a surprise.
And every time the idea comes to me if I like it, I’m not interested at all. Because that means it’s easy. I only do ideas that I’m scared of. The idea that is disturbing me. The idea that becomes an obsession. These are the good ideas. When I’m teaching I will tell the students to to go and buy, say 500 pieces of paper and a rubbish bag and sit on the little table and write every day in a certain time an idea. And a good idea is to be put on the table and the bad idea is to be put in the rubbish.
And then after three months I asked them to only look at the rubbish. I’m totally not interested in good ideas. Rubbish is a treasure. It’s fantastic, it is something what you really afraid to do and you’re not thinking this is impossible that’s actually what you should do. Sometimes the amount of failure is the amount of success you have in work file is something that I absolutely respect. I respect people who are actually able to fail and have the courage to fail. And then jump again on your feet, and do the next thing.
Could you talk about the relationship between pain and your work?
The question is whether it’s possible to create art without pain. If you look at the history of art, we all need drama and Hell. Every art came out of deep pain, emotional physical, the pain of family, the pain of whatever – you name it.
So very few works of art are made from happiness because happiness is a stable state that you don’t want to change. You don’t feel like working you don’t feel create like creating at all, but when it comes to pain it’s really something incredible the kind of impulse of making work right now in my life, I just went through the almost experience with my health and I’ve never been happier.
So I’m curious about myself what I’m going to do now I really wanted to try to create new work which is not just without pain but have a huge amount of humour in it. We have to laugh at this situation, our planet and what is happening around us.
The exhibition runs 23 September 2023 – 1 January 2024. Get your tickets here.