Blood and pain: Extreme performance artist Marina Abramovic turns 70 | Arts | DW | 30.11.2016
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Blood and pain: Extreme performance artist Marina Abramovic turns 70

She combed her hair until her head bled, lay down on ice blocks and ran into cement pillars. Marina Abramovic's art is about the moment, but the images they produce have endured for decades.

Marina Abramovic has already prepared for her death. As a performance, of course. Three Marinas are to be buried - the real one and two fakes - in the places where she has spent the most time: Belgrade, Amsterdam and New York. She says it's crucial for her to deal with the end.

"Each day you are closer to your death," Abramovic said in an interview with curator Carrie Scott. "You have to be ready for your death. There are three I want to do: not to die angry, not to die in fear, and to die consciously." That's something she learned from her grandmother, she added, who regularly laid out different outfits for her own burial, changing them over the years as styles changed. She lived to age 103.

Marina Abramovic was born in Belgrade, where she studied painting in the 1970s. "I come from the Balkan culture. We are always suffering from something. If we're not suffering on a personal level, we're suffering for the universe in general."

The energy and associated emotion in Abramovic's art are incredibly intense. Her performances provoke, make the viewer aggressive and agitated, they calm and move people to tears. No one is left unmoved.

Marina Abramovic in Art Must Be Beautiful (1975) (Die Kunstsammlung der Erste Bank-Gruppe)

In "Art Must Be Beautiful" from 1975, Abramovic violently combed her own hair

Marina Abramovic's early works were based on extreme physical experiences and were excruciating both for her and the audience. At the age of 26, she stabbed herself in one of her works between the fingers on her left hand. She knew she would be injuring herself and she changed knives with each stab.

"Just like with Russian roulette, it's about courage, foolishness, desperation and somberness," said the performance artist in her recent autobiography, "Walk Through Walls."

What's important is "the other side". When you've made it through everything, the joy is indescribable, Abramovic told Carrie Scott. "That's what I live for." Nothing is easier than doing things you like to do, but that's not how you really experience things, she added.

Stabbing and suffocating

The knife performance was followed by many other disturbing works. With "Art Must Be Beautiful" in 1975, she violently combed her hair with a metal brush and comb. "While I do this, I repeat 'Art must be beautiful, artists must be beautiful' until I've destroyed my hair and face."

A year before that, her performance "Rhythm 5" included a burning communist star. She laid herself in the middle of it after cutting and burning her hair and nails. When the fire had consumed all the oxygen, Abramovic passed out. The audience doesn't respond because she is lying down. When the flame touches her leg and she still doesn't respond, two or three viewers approach the star and carry her out.  

Performance ends in chaos

The direct confrontation with the audience is what made Abramovic legendary in 1974 with "Rhythm 0." In a gallery, she laid out 72 objects including a saw, nails, alcohol, matches, lipstick and even a loaded pistol. Using a sign, the then 27-year-old artist asked the audience to do whatever it wanted with her for six hours. It was an intense performance during which some visitors injured the young woman and tore her clothes, while other tried to protect her.

Marina Abramovic and Ulay (

Abramovic and German artist Ulay spent 12 years as a team

In 1975, Abramovic met German artist Ulay. During their 12-year relationship, they tested their bodies' boundaries. It was a "romantic and radical time," Abramovic told DW. Their love was their first priority, over art, she said.

Their first performances consisted of striking their naked bodies, communicating desire and delineation. In a later installation, the couple boxed each other's ears for 20 minutes, saying the point was the sound it made. The body was merely an instrument, they explained.

Abramovic and Ulay lived like nomads for many years, traveling to exotic locations. After 12 years, the eccentric artists broke up. The marriage performance they'd planned, during which they were to run 2,500 kilometers towards each other along the Great Wall of China and then marry, turned into a break-up event.

The art of sitting still

Those who thought Abramovic had already broken all the rules of performance art were soon surprised. During "The Artist Is Present," a retrospective in her honor at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Abramovic took the title literally. For 75 days, seven hours a day, she sat on a wooden stool, neither eating nor using the restroom during that time. This was only possible by following a strict diet.

An empty chair was set up across from her so that visitors could take a seat and observe the art icon. Stars like Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton, Björk and Lady Gaga made use of the chair and participated in Abramovic's performance.

Even today, her works continue to be intense, but are characterized less by violence and more by asceticism and recollection. That's what her "Abramovic Method" is based on - a mix of various esoteric and eastern relaxation and meditation exercises. She says she aims to communicate the techniques that she employs during her strenuous performances.

Marina Abramovic in MoMA for The Artist is Present (2010) (Getty Images/A.H. Walker)

Abramovic sat for days in MoMA for "The Artist is Present" in 2010

Her critics say Abramovic reduces herself to a society shaman. Her crowdfunding project for the Marina Abramovic Institute was scoffed at and the building, designed by Rem Koolhaas, remains unfinished.

'I've decided to be happy'

Why does the artist want to bury three Marinas? Each one stands for a different part of her, she says: courage, spirituality and nonsense. She used to feel ashamed for these parts, but now accepts herself as she is, which is why she doesn't have a problem with turning 70.

"You need night to understand yourself. Getting older means getting wiser," Abramovic told DW. "Seventy is a big number. You know that you're going to the last part of your life and that you have to concentrate on the most important things. And I've decided to be happy."