Marina Abramović turned attention seeking into a modern art form

Reading Abramović's memoir is rather like watching EastEnders: I didn’t learn anything about performance art reading, but I can't deny I had fun.

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I’d never heard of Marina Abramović, but those nice people at Wikipedia tell me that, at nearly 70 years old, she is described as the “grandmother of performance art” and that she “explores the relationship between performer and audience . . . focusing on ‘confronting pain, blood, and physical limits of the body’”. I felt I might be a little out of my shallow depth dealing with such a highbrow, so it was reassuring to realise quickly that Abramović is also a type I’ve had much experience of: one of those people who get an apparently parasexual thrill – a “norgasm”, as I think of it – from finding nothing up to their pathologically high standards.

She certainly starts as she means to continue. On page one, walking into the Serbian forests of her childhood with her grandmother, she espies something she has never seen before. She runs up to touch it and Granny screams – quite understandably, as it’s “a huge snake”. But rather than be grateful to her old gran, she remembers her as the villain of the piece: “That was the first moment in my life that I really felt fear . . . it was my grandmother’s voice that frightened me . . . It is incredible how fear is built into you, by your parents and others surrounding you.”

By page two, she’s laying in to communism under Marshal Tito (nobody’s perfect but he certainly had a good war, made a subsequently genocidal people rub along together, and prevented Yugoslavia from being forced into the Soviet bloc) because of – already an artist! – “the communal spaces . . . painted this dirty green colour, and there were these naked bulbs that gave off a gray light that kind of shadowed the eyes”.

Abramović, however, was the child of Party elite whose abode was “like an apartment building in Paris . . . a whole floor, eight rooms for four people”, about which she was rightly upset when she discovered that it had been seized from a Jewish family by Nazi occupiers during the war. In the same breath, she criticises her mum’s taste in art: “Later I also realised the paintings my mother put in our apartment were not very good.” It’s hard to say which offends her the most.

Three pages, three norgasms! By now I was hooked – not even Alan Bennett’s memoirs score so highly. Quickly we learn that, somewhat miraculously, her highly attractive parents had each saved the life of the other on unrelated occasions while fighting as Serbian partisans. But Abramović’s mother suffers a difficult birth and little Marina is looked after mostly by a maid. Her main objection? “The maid had a son” who “became big and fat”. See what I mean? Barely toddling, yet quite the aesthete. But worse is yet to come: “I was very jealous of my brother . . . [who] soon developed some form of childhood epilepsy – he would have these seizures, and everyone hovered around him, giving him even more attention.” What a scenery-eating little rotter he must have been! Quite naturally, our heroine attempts to drown him but is thwarted.

Marina’s young life would appear to be straight from the Brothers Grimm: beaten black and blue by her mother and aunt and locked in a cupboard. (By now, only on page 13, my sympathies were already where I sensed they were not meant to be.) Her parents, who sleep with loaded pistols on their respective bedside tables, fall out. They give her unsuitable Christmas gifts – “wool socks, or some book that I had to read, or flannel pyjamas” – when you’d have thought the least they could do was to rustle up a unicorn in the postwar communist Balkans. Especially for such a special little person, who is so sensitive that when she loses her first tooth, the bleeding goes on for three months! Marina has her own painting studio, piano lessons, English and French tutors, as well as an endless supply of culture on tap, and yet “I was so lonely”. Hint: if you’re lonely, don’t try to drown your siblings, or you may end up even lonelier.

This is a misery memoir in a league of its own before Abramović even hits the vale of hormonal tears that is adolescence. When she enrols in the Belgrade Academy of Fine Arts at 17, I hope that she might buck up; but no such luck. Like many a tricky teen, she decides to lose her lumbersome virginity to a man for whom she has no feelings, and alights on a likely roué, chatting him up with the classic line: “I have the new Perry Como record. Do you want to listen to it some time?” But after shelling out for Albanian cognac (“as a kind of anaesthetic”), Marina has her biggest norgasm yet when he gets angry after realising that she was intact.

At art school she paints clouds and car crashes but only really perks up when she first hears about performance art – only to experience yet another norgasm when her first performance piece, Come Wash With Me – “My idea was to instal laundry sinks around the gallery of the [Belgrade] Youth Centre. When the visitors came in, they would take off their clothes and I would wash, dry and iron them” – is rejected. Then her suggestion that she play Russian roulette in front of an audience is also nixed; by this point, I was as cross with the Belgrade Youth Centre for its lack of have-a-go avant-gardeness as the young Abramović was.

At nearly 25, she is still living with her mother – “under a tyranny of support” – though by now married to a man residing with his own parents and with whom she experiences “inadequate lovemaking”. The norgasms are reaching a positive crescendo when Marina experiences an accidental artistic breakthrough. One day, feeling tired at the Student Cultural Centre, she lies down for a nap and a fellow artist mummifies her with packing tape, leaving only her head poking out. What inspired his actions we can only guess, but Marina is made up: “Some of the onlookers were fascinated; some, repelled. But nobody was bored.”

News of these crazy kids spreads to the West and in 1973 she is talent-scouted by the Edinburgh Festival for her way-out sound installations – most notably, considering what was to happen to Yugoslavia, a piece called War, in which “visitors walked down a narrow corridor formed by two sheets of plywood to the deafening roar of recorded machine-gun fire”. Here at last, she meets her artistic soulmates: “One of them, Günter Brus, was sentenced to prison after a piece in which he simultaneously masturbated, spread faeces over his body and sang the Austrian national anthem.”

It is now that Abramović, surrounded by such inspiring figures, starts up the racket she will become famous for. Rhythm 10 was based on a Slavic drinking game in which you spread your hand out on a wooden table and stab between the fingers with a sharp knife. Every time you cut yourself, you take a drink; and “the drunker you get, the more likely you are to stab yourself”. It’s “a game of bravery and foolishness and despair and darkness”. Funny how highbrows can look down on kids getting drunk and doing daft, self-destructive things on reality TV, but stick it in a gallery and suddenly it’s Art.

Abramović ends up covered in blood but, more importantly, gets “wild applause from the audience”. (Had I been there, I’d have joined in, though perhaps not for the same reason.) Soon she is performing Rhythm 10 in Rome, but with 20 knives rather than ten. She also meets Antonio Dias, a Brazilian whose performance-art party piece “consisted simply of a record player, a 45rpm record and a banana. While the record was playing, he put the banana on it, creating an interesting distortion of sight and sound.”

Abramović having found her creative equal at last, the pair are soon at it like, well, knives. Dias is married, but then she likes to play with fire, and in more ways than one: her next piece involves lying spreadeagled inside two five-pointed wooden stars, one only slightly larger than her body, between whose outlines she sprinkles sawdust soaked in – get this – 100 litres of gasoline. No prizes for guessing what comes next: Abramović, brainbox that she is, hasn’t figured on passing out as “the flames had consumed all the oxygen around my head”. The fire has to be doused and our heroine rescued from her star-shaped inferno: “but instead of being a fiasco, the piece had been a strange sort of hit”. Soon she is being whisked around the cutting-edge avant-garde galleries of Europe, where the humourless come to gawp solemnly as she gets naked and passes out on pills. (If only someone had told me I could make a living that way before I started this writing lark!)

In any other milieu, Abramović would have been certified by now; indeed, the newspapers in Belgrade, her home town, declare her an exhibitionist and a masochist who belongs in an asylum for the insane. In the art world, however, her addiction to attention-seeking is celebrated, and she fixes on an even bigger fix: “What if instead of doing something to myself, I let the public decide what to do to me?” At a gallery in Naples in 1975, she stands behind a table with 72 objects on it, from a feather to a loaded gun, and announces that, for the next six hours, anyone can do anything they want to her. For three hours the audience seems shy; then a man cuts her shirt off, a couple of people stick a knife between her spread legs, another cuts her neck and sucks the blood, and finally “a very small man” (presumably an art-lover) loads the gun, puts it in her hand and then moves it to her neck, his finger on the trigger. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be in stitches over what happens next: “A scuffle broke out. Some of the audience obviously wanted to protect me; others wanted the performance to continue . . . The little man was hustled out of the gallery and the piece continued”, but a little half-heartedly.

What follows is a version of the old-time cultural Grand Tour, except that instead of admiring the art, Abramović is the art – if you can comprehend art as being bathed in sheep’s blood, pulling out your own hair, screaming at the top of your voice for three hours, flagellation and more self-harming than you can shake a sharpened stick at.

 

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Just when you think things can’t get any nuttier, she meets a man in Amsterdam who is her male match – working in the modish medium of Polaroids, he tattoos his arm, cuts a hunk of flesh from the tattoo so deep that the muscle is visible; he slices off his fingertips and paints the bathroom with his own blood. Like Adam and Eve reborn in a butcher’s shop, these two have the time of their lives attempting to outdo each other in self-mutilation. He wins, I think, by sewing his lips shut. They fall out when (excuse my French) “because of excruciating pain in his butt and abdomen (I suspect his spleen was enlarged again)”, the boyf abandons an eight-hour performance piece to seek medical attention and Abramović accuses him of lacking artistic integrity. In turn, he impregnates his translator while he and Abramović perform a piece in which they walk the Great Wall of China, each starting from one end and meeting up in the middle.

You can’t deny that Abramović gets around and meets some interesting people; even the Dalai Lama pops up at one point. Of Leigh Bowery, she says that he “was a huge man . . . Watching him you couldn’t help feeling ashamed for him”, which is a bit rich, coming from someone who’s basically made a living from carving themselves up like a Sunday roast. He creates a Rat Queen costume for her for a 1994 performance piece (called, ahem, Delusional) which she then stripped off, falling through a trapdoor to join 400 live rats, re-emerging and eating a raw onion. She is resourceful, too; when her antics go out of fashion, she becomes a teacher, parting morons from their moolah in return for three-month courses teaching such lessons as “Walk backwards for four hours, while holding a mirror in your hand” and “Hold a tree and complain to it, for a minimum of fifteen minutes”.

Her response to the civil war in her native Yugoslavia is remarkable, but not surprising. For one video piece, she eats an onion and laments about life – first-world problems presented as art – yet the line that really jumps out is: “I am tired of being ashamed of my nose being too big, of my ass being too large, ashamed of the war in Yugoslavia.” I’m not easily shocked, but even I gasped at that. Nevertheless, when she is asked to represent Serbia and Montenegro at the 1997 Venice Biennale she writes to the ministry of culture, with characteristic gall, asking for €120,000 with which to buy three state-of-the-art projectors and 2,500 bones from freshly slaughtered cows. Understandably, the minister of culture tells her where to go, but she is invited to enter independently, finds her cow bones from some unnamed benefactor and sits there in a lab coat, scrubbing them, weeping and singing Yugoslav folk songs – then strips down to a black negligee and does “a sexy, manic dance” – for four days, seven hours a day. The piece, Balkan Baroque, wins her the Golden Lion for best artist. She bags herself a gorgeous young Italian husband into the bargain.

In 2000 she inevitably ends up in the spiritual home of all those who have made weirdness into an art form, New York City, where she rubs stellar shoulders with the likes of Susan Sontag and Björk (wearing an empty birdcage around her neck, predictably). And her attention-seeking reaches an inevitable climax: for 12 days she will live on a stage in a gallery consuming only filtered water and performing all her bodily functions in front of the paying public. Sontag comes to observe this peepshow from hell every day, and they become close friends. Even at her funeral, Abramović can’t help showing off about the company she keeps; “Patti Smith was there. Malcolm McLaren. Salman Rushdie. Susan’s companion Annie Leibovitz.” It could be the latest downtown after-party. Yet even at such rarefied strata, Abramović finds time for a norgasm: it’s too small, and in Paris at Sontag’s son’s request, but should be in New York so it could have been bigger – that way, of course, more celebrities could have rocked up and made it into the book. Our heroine goes straight to her lawyer and instructs him that she herself is to have not one grave, but three, in Amsterdam, Belgrade and New York, and no one is to know where exactly her remains lie. Even from the other side, she art-directs her exit: “a celebration of all the things I had done”, with Antony Hegarty, “now Anohni . . . my dear friend and my surrogate daughter”, singing (what else?) “My Way”.

I didn’t learn anything about performance art from this book but I found it had an extremely positive effect on my mood throughout, cheering me up no end, rather like watching EastEnders when one feels down and realising really how pleasant one’s life is. I laughed like a drain from start to finish. It is easily the funniest book of this or any other year. Though her lifetime of ­alleged art is worthless, Marina Abramović may at last claim to have added to the artistic gaiety of nations – albeit inadvertently. 

Walk Through Walls: a Memoir by Marina Abramovic, with James Kaplan is published by Fig Tree (370pp, £20)

This article appears in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse