By JOSH MCLOUGHLIN October 31, 2023
In 1952, when she was six years old, Marina Abramović was beaten by her mother and locked in a closet. 'This plakar [Serbian for ‘closet’]’, she later recalled, ‘was filled with ghosts, spiritual presences—luminous beings, shapeless and silent' that became ‘part of my reality'.
In September 2023, Abramović became the first female artist given a retrospective at the Royal Academy (founded 1768). Gathering films, images, installations and performances, the RA show attempts to resurrect the spirit of a pathbreaking half-century career. Then and now, invisible worlds have shaped Abramović’s life and work.
Born in Belgrade to Yugoslav Partisan parents – war heroes who fought bitterly with each other – Abramović suffered a loveless childhood, affluent but alone. She was happiest living with her beloved grandmother, a deeply superstitious woman whose ‘entire life revolved around the church’.
In a recent discussion (part of the Southbank Centre’s literature programme) about her new book Marina Abramovic: A Visual Biography (co-authored with Katya Tylevich), Abramović laughed when asked about her own superstitions. ‘I believe in everything’, she said: ‘all from my grandmother’.
The Serbian Orthodox Church was suppressed by Marshall Tito. But communists cherished their own rituals and martyrs, their holy days, processions and sacrosanct ceremonies.
Images of Tito hung next to Marx and Engels in squares across Yugoslavia. A mandated belief in the enduring power of dead prophets, martyred soldiers and patriotic glories fit snugly into the void left behind when shrines, icons and relics were proscribed. At home, Abramović learned of saints, soothsayers, omens and rituals to ward off malevolent spirits. At school, she memorised ‘the name of every battle [...] and of every river and bridge the soldiers crossed’ during the war.
But Abramović was absorbed in her own unseen world. As a girl, she played not with toys but 'with the shadows of passing cars’ containing 'invisible beings’ and ‘aliens who came to visit us, travelling on the rays of the sun’.
At 14, Abramović was painting clouds. Lying in the park one afternoon, a squadron of military jets passed overhead, trailing spectral vapours. An epiphany: ‘Why should I limit myself to two dimensions when I could make art from anything at all: fire, water, the human body?’ At a military base in Belgrade, she asked to borrow 12 fighter planes. They called her father, asking him to collect the strange girl who wanted to paint another world in the sky.
After enrolling at Belgrade’s Academy of Fine Arts, Abramović discovered the avant-garde Slovenian OHO Group, early pioneers of the performance art that inspired Abramović to think that ‘any part of life at all [...] could be art’.
In Zagreb, she saw the ghost of a friend who had committed suicide. 'I didn't know then and I don't know now who or what creates this invisible world', Abramović wrote in her memoir Walk Through Walls, but ‘I came to believe in the idea of parallel realities'. Shaped by the twin mysticism of communism and Orthodox Christianity, Abramović's work became performative, ritualistic, and deeply spiritual.
Rhythm 10 (1973), one of her first major performances, was based on a drinking game played by Russian and Yugoslav peasants: ‘you spread your fingers out on a wooden bar or table and stab down a sharp knife, fast, in the spaces between your fingers’. The influential German performance artist Joseph Beuys watched in silence as Abramović bled onto pristine white paper.
It was a performance rooted in the body but aiming beyond it. ‘I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless’, she said. ‘That was the moment I knew that I had found my medium. no painting, no object that I could make, could ever give me that kind of feeling.’
Set on ‘using my body as material’, Abramović scandalised the public. She responded to growing criticism with Rhythm 0 (1974). ‘What if instead of doing something to myself, I let the public decide what to do to me?’ She invited the public to use 72 objects on her in any way they wished. The work revealed not the masochism of the artist but the sadism of the public: she was stripped, slashed, and molested. Someone drank the blood from her neck; another had her point the loaded gun at her head.
After moving to Amsterdam in 1975, Abramović met her former lover and long-time collaborator Frank Uwe Laysiepen – known as Ulay. They created a series of physically extreme works, from slapping, screaming, slamming and suffocating each other to walking the Great Wall of China for The Lovers in 1988 when their relationship broke down. She has never been interested in drugs or alcohol, but for Abramović the ‘pain was something like a sacred door to another state of consciousness’.
Abramović visited indigenous central Australians, Tibetan monks, Indian Vipassana masters, Sufi mystics and Amazonian shamans and healers. ‘I was not alone in thinking’, she realised, ‘that this supposedly invisible world really existed’. Meditation and asceticism became tools for overcoming bodily limits, influencing her Abramović Method for training performance artists and the public.
Abramović’s invisible worlds were also historical. In her Golden Lion award-winning Balkan Baroque, performed at the Venice Biennale in 1997, she sat atop and scrubbed a mountain of rotting animal bones while singing Yugoslav folk songs, dedicating the piece to ‘a country that no longer exists’ – a world lost in the violent break-up of Yugoslavia (1992).
With The Artist is Present (2010), Abramović achieved global fame. For this retrospective at MoMa, Abramović sat in complete silence and stillness opposite gallery visitors, one at a time, for three months, eight hours a day. Some sat for a minute, others for hours. ‘I felt that the energy of every visitor remained in layers in front of me even after they left’, she said.
She founded the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) in 2007, training artists to present long-durational work and participatory public experiences. The MAI is itself immaterial, itinerant and durational, manifested in temporary ‘takeovers’ curated by Abramović. From the violent presence of her earliest works, she has become a guiding force: a ghost in the plakar.
At the Royal Academy, Abramović occupies all dimensions: replayed, restaged, reenacted; projected on walls and performed by protégées. Documenting fifty years spent inspiring collective human energies that go beyond the reality of everyday life, the retrospective reincarnates many Marina Abramovićs – and the many worlds of her remarkable career.
Yet at the Southbank Centre, as she signed copies of her new book, Abramović reminded us that she is far from done. At the front of the queue, I told her I enjoyed the jokes she’d cracked about totalitarianism and communism. She looked up and gave me a cheeky smirk: ‘Jokes are very important’, she said. ‘They reveal truth’. Abramović may have one foot in another world, but the artist is still present. WM
Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside, UK. His work is published in The New Statesman, The Spectator, The Times, The Fence, The London Magazine, Radical Art Review and others. He is a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London and he was shortlisted for the International Awards for Art Criticism in 2020. Twitter: @JoshMcloughlin.view all articles from this author