Marina Abramovic’s disturbing performance art has not raised the consciousness of the world, although she has always proclaimed this to be her sacred goal. Nor have her provocative performances allowed her to transcend her personal pain, despite her protestations to the contrary.
Abramovic, 69, spends much of her new memoir, “Walk Through Walls,” trying to convince us her artistic life has allowed her to triumph over abuse she suffered as a child, but we never believe her. We are in the presence of a tortured soul still struggling with demons that have compelled her to spend her life reenacting traumas. Her art does not feel like a liberation of any sort, but rather a force that has imprisoned her.
Abramovic’s work often involves near-brushes with death. Many of her early performances were done in collaboration with Ulay, her lover and working partner for over 12 years. In one of their first productions, Ulay held an arrow pointed at her chest while she held the bow outstretched. One false move would have been disastrous. In another piece, Abramovic cut a star into her stomach with a razor blade and then laid down across a huge chunk of ice until she nearly lost consciousness. In one of her most memorable works, she placed dangerous objects on the floor around her and instructed the audience that they could use the objects upon her in any manner they chose. One man picked up a knife and placed it between her legs. Another cut her with a razor blade. A third man took the loaded gun she had left there and pushed it near her temple.
The work that brought her to the attention of an American audience is called “The Artist is Present,” and it took place in 2010 at MoMA to great acclaim. Abramovic sat for eight hours a day for three months while spectators lined up to sit across from her. No speaking was permitted. Some people stayed for minutes, others for hours, locked in a visual embrace. The museum photographer took a snapshot of every person who sat down, and they revealed something spectacular: Their faces possessed an achingly raw vulnerability one is unaccustomed to seeing anywhere else. It felt as if these patrons believed that Abramovic was seeing directly into their hearts. Abramovic swears this response happened because she was able to give each person her unconditional love and her total presence. Skeptics might disagree and simply see distressed people seeking out affirmation of any kind.
Abramovic’s narrative is most compelling when she writes about her childhood. She grew up in Yugoslavia, the daughter of partisan parents who fought the Nazis and then became national Communist heroes under Marshal Tito’s regime, where they were rewarded with plum jobs and a beautiful home. Their marriage, however, was an explosive one. Her mother frequently beat Abramovic senseless and then would lock her inside a closet. Abramovic was initially terrified of the dark, but soon found the closet to be a comforting place where she recalls feeling she was in the company of “ghosts, spiritual presences — luminous beings, shapeless and silent but not at all frightening.”
Her memoir reveals a chaotic and fractured psyche, and, unfortunately, some of her New Age digressions border on incoherent. In some ways her writing style mirrors her performance pieces; the reader feels like a victim to the force of her blunt trauma.
When she discusses her lovers or friends or colleagues, there is a disjointedness about her observations that is truly jarring. One senses she has difficulty considering the needs of anybody else; she is mercilessly self-involved. The insights and re-evaluations we look for in a thoughtful memoir simply aren’t present.
The saddest part of this saga is that Abramovic possesses a genuinely artistic soul that she herself has sabotaged. She writes about how, as a little girl, she used to love to paint her dreams in luscious shades of blue and green. There is a sense of whimsy to some of her work that speaks to something other than compulsive despair. When she ended her romance with Ulay, they each walked from opposite directions on the Great Wall of China for three months to meet for a final goodbye.
She has created exquisitely beautiful minimalist furniture in collaboration with Daniel Libeskind. In the Okazaki Mindscape Museum, she installed two copper chairs: a normal size chair for humans and an enormous 50-foot-high one for the human spirit. She loves the Argentinian tango and has mastered the dance. Her homes are furnished with sophistication and beauty. Even her plans for her own elaborate funeral speak to something other than gloom: She wants the event to take place in three locations so none of the attendees will be certain where she is buried.
Still, one can’t help but sadly recognize that the more optimistic part of her spirit has surrendered to the enveloping darkness. That despair has pushed her to create increasingly devastating works that express the relentless primal scream of unanswered childhood pain.
Elaine Margolin is a writer and critic in New York.
By Marina Abramovic
Crown Archetype. 370 pp. $28