Whitehot Magazine

Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography at Barnes & Noble Union Square

Photos of Marina Abramović and Katya Tylevich book talk at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, NYC, January 4th 2024. Courtesy of the author.

By JULIA SINELNIKOVA January 15, 2024

Braving January frost and making my way towards New York City’s Union Square, I followed a few fellow L train riders I saw on the Brooklyn-bound platform - we were on the way to the bookstore for the talk. I mused on how this flagship Barnes & Noble had onced towered as the behemoth of book corporations, but now had the mythic aura of a brick-and-mortar, which had survived the darkness of covid-19 lockdowns. We rode up to the top floor on escalators, some guests running up, only to join a line snaking towards the seating. 

Marina Abramović instantly put the closely packed, winter-worn audience at ease with a joke as the talk began. “It’s crazy to be in a place with so many books I haven’t read… if I don’t start reading them now, I’ll never finish!” A chuckle made its way through the crowd. The artist was present, to those lucky enough to grab a ticket to the book signing for approximately $39 to $118. She was beaming and at home with her audience, numbering a few hundred, and ranging from students to critics, with perhaps a few collectors in the mix.  

Of course, even the making of a major monographic book had to be a performance, in the world of Abramović. For this piece, she allowed the author, Belarus-born critic and fiction writer Katya Tylevich, to select precisely the images she desired – without input from the artist herself. These conditions are laid out methodically, as if by scientific method, at the start of the thick, red-and-black themed tome (“PURPOSE: THE ARTIST WISHES TO SEE HER LIFE AND WORK THROUGH SOMEBODY ELSE’S EYES. THIS CONDITION IS BASED ON TRUST”, from “Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography,” Laurence King Publishing, 2023). The two of them laughed through memories of the trials this had brought, grinning on stage, the energy between them nervous and giddy. Abramović elaborated on how, through her journey from Yugoslavia to the East and West as a performance artist, her friends had held such great importance – this had been her argument with Tylevich, to convince her to go back and include photos of them, as well.

Photos of Marina Abramović and Katya Tylevich book talk at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, NYC, January 4th 2024. Courtesy of the author.

Abramović spoke a great deal of her mother, who kept her home and under strict surveillance until age 29. She also emphasized how she pushes herself towards what she is uncomfortable with through her artwork, to be always entering new territory – surmising that the establishment of style is the death of art. Unable to spread her wings with her avant-garde practice in her home country, Abramović eventually made her way around the world, to destinations including the Great Wall of China. There, the artist staged her durational performance “Lovers” with her then partner, Ulay. In 1988 they each traversed the wall from opposite ends, only to meet and say goodbye to their relationship. In a bittersweet turn, the performance, which had been planned to culminate in their wedding, was only given permission to move forward at the end of the couple’s relationship. From the stage, Tylevich poked at how friends had teased that the pair couldn’t call each other to break up, like other people. 

When Tylevich questioned the reasons for documenting every element of her life and art from the beginning, the artist responded that she imagined anything could become a part of history. “I come from communism. Every piece of paper can be evidence.” Regarding the extreme nature of her work, the image of a nude body close to arrays of weapons is now burned into the cultural memory via the artist’s monumental solo show at the MoMA, 2010’s “The Artist is Present.” 

Abramović describes both of her parents as war heroes, with her mother having been an art preservationist in 1940s and ‘50s Yugoslavia. The book features some of the artist’s earliest press clippings from back when she was teaching in Belgrade, and still painting. “In the beginning, we had five, maybe ten people [in the audience for performances] – thirty was a lot, like wow, what are we going to do,” the artist mused. She sees one of her greatest contributions to the world as having legitimized performance art into the mainstream. This fall, Abramović was the first female artist to open a major solo exhibition in the Royal Academy of Art’s main galleries.

Photos of Marina Abramović and Katya Tylevich book talk at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, NYC, January 4th 2024. Courtesy of the author.

Critics in publications from The Brooklyn Rail (2010) to Hyperallergic (2023) have derided Abramović’s exhibitions for transgressing some invisible barrier, and commercializing performance art. As if, it is somehow holier than the corrupt art world itself. Since the time of “The Artist is Present,” I have wondered why Abramović has been the subject of such chagrin as her star of success has risen. During the exact same timeframe, Jeff Koons has ascended to historic heights in terms of monetizing commercial artistic collaborations, while maintaining record sales numbers, and using a known factory production-line studio system. Meanwhile, Abramović has made her body her sacrificial weapon and tool for decades, channeling her life traumas through the vulnerability of public performance art. She gave viewers the ultimate trust when she exposed herself to unlimited human auras during “The Artist is Present.” Perhaps there is more to be examined in regards to how the media approaches visual artists who use their body in their work – especially women. The myth of Lilith is forever present in this dialogue: the archetypal story of the femme fatale, found in world cultures as ancient as the mystical Qabalah.  

In the heart of the talk, Abramović emphasized how important it is to lean fully into your emotions and let them out, to cry, etc., as well as how performance art can be a channel for this. I cannot help but to think of my late friend JJ Brine when I consider her legacy: with Vector Gallery, he also wanted to be eternally present in the space, building day and night for years, and engaging in dialogue and collaborative, spontaneous performances as part of the “piece.” He was deeply spiritual, and I find Abramović’ emphasis in being present in the now to be parallel to Brine’s idea of “Always Now.” Abramović says she learned from living with the Australian Aboriginals, especially about being present in the now. Similarly, Brine traveled to the remote island of Vanuatu for weeks to learn about the ways of isolation from technology. While there is something to be wary of in the rise of the so-called “Artist Shaman” during late capitalism, I think these claims are overblown when it comes to most artists. Perhaps it is the taboo themes of religion, spirituality, and deep human emotion that are feared when it comes to the art world. WM

Julia Sinelnikova

 Julia Sinelnikova is an artist and writer in New York City. 

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