12 Facts About Marina Abramović and Her Work

It is impossible to talk about performance art without mentioning Marina Abramović. Here are twelve facts about the artist who defined the genre.

Mar 13, 2024By Agnes Theresa Oberauer, BA Drama & Philosophy

marina abramovic facts


Whether it’s scratching a communist star onto her skin, walking the Great Wall Of China, or simply engaging in eye contact with her audience—there is nothing Marina Abramović won´t do when it comes to creating art that touches the depths of the human psyche. While performance art is a genre where the pushing of boundaries is to be expected, the Yugoslavian artist is known for taking things to an entirely new level. Here are 12 things you should know about her.


1. Marina Abramović Was Born in a Country That No Longer Exists 

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Countryside in Serbia, photographed by Nikola Tasic, 2021. Source: Unsplash


Marina Abramović was the daughter of communist partisans in Yugoslavia who held high governmental positions in Tito’s dictatorial regime. As the country has since split up into seven countries, she would technically be considered Serbian. However, the artist herself defines herself as coming from a country that no longer exists.


2. She Scratched the Communist Star onto Her Skin 

marina abramovic communist star scratched skin art
Lips of Thomas, Marina Abramović, 1975 (published 1994). Source: Guggenheim Museum, New York.


Marina Abramović was born in 1946, shortly after Yugoslavia officially became a communist state. Given the nature of the regime and the fact that both her parents were communists, one may have thought that this would lead her to become an ardent follower of the communist worldview. But as her body of work shows, the opposite was the case. By scratching the communist star into her skin during some of her performances, she exposed the pain of imprinting an ideology into human flesh.


3. She Lost Consciousness During Several of Her Performances 

marina abramovic burning star performance art rhythm
Rhythm Five, Marina Abramović, 1974 (published 1994).Source: Guggenheim Museum, New York.

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According to Marina Abramović’s accounts, she was raised by an incredibly strict mother who imposed curfews until the artist was 29 years old. This did not stop Marina Abramović from rebelling, however. During the 1970s, she created various performance pieces that pushed not only her comfort levels but also those of the audience. When she passed out while lying in the midst of a burning star during one of her performances, she did not let that stop her. Instead, she used what had happened as inspiration for a series of performance pieces during which she actively strove to become unconscious. These early experiments marked the beginning of a career that would lead her to take ever-greater risks when it came to pushing the boundaries between performance, life, and death.


4. She Risked Her Life in a Performance

marina abramovic rhythm 0 performance art performance
Rhythm 0, Marina Abramović, 1975 (published 1994). Source: Guggenheim Museum, New York.


Rhythm 0 is probably Marina Abramović´s most defining performance of all. The set-up was simple, Abramović had placed 72 objects on a table and given the audience instructions that they could do whatever they wanted to her. During the six hours that followed, Abramović remained passive, while the audience started doing increasingly radical things to her. After undressing her, touching her inappropriately, and cutting her skin, the performance culminated with an audience member putting a loaded gun against her head.


Rhythm 0 was a piece that turned the role of artist and spectator around and dissolved the separation between artwork, artist, and viewer.  It also brought up questions about responsibility, group dynamics, and violence. As the artist stated in various interviews, this performance was an incredibly traumatic experience for her.  And yet, this controversial experiment ended up being one of the most genre-defining pieces in the history of performance art.


5. Ulay Was Her Artistic and Romantic Partner

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The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk, Marina Abramović & Ulay, 1988, Source: MoMA, New York


In the mid-1970s, Marina Abramović moved to Amsterdam, where she met the performance artist Uwe Laysiepen, also known as Ulay. What followed was a professional and romantic relationship during which the two artists continued to test the limits of time, trust, and human (dis)connection. While one of their performances consisted of them repeatedly running against each other, another joined work of theirs involved Ulay pointing a loaded arrow at Abramović´s heart for an extended period of time. They also commemorated their break-up through performance art.  In 1988, they started walking towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China. It was a journey that would take them 90 days. Upon meeting in the middle, they hugged each other and walked their separate ways. They titled the piece The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk.


6. She Made an Anti-War Piece

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Balkan Baroque, Marina Abramović, 1997. Source: MoMA, New York


The Yugoslavian war and the ethnic cleansing that went along with it was incredibly traumatizing for Marina Abramović. Her performance piece Balkan Baroque was her way of trying to come to terms with her homeland’s bloody history. The piece lasted for seven hours and consisted of her singing Balkan folksongs while cleaning a pile of bloody cow bones. As she tried to wash off the blood, her white dress slowly turned red. Like all artworks, Balkan Baroque can be interpreted in various ways. And yet, it does not take a lot of imagination to link the endless cleaning of the bones with the all-too-human wish to cleanse oneself of the pain and guilt associated with the horrors of the wars in Yugoslavia.


7. Her Piece The Artist Is Present Lasted for 736 hours 

artist present marina abramovic performance art chair
The Artist Is Present, by Marina Abramović, photographed by Andrew Russeth, 2010. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the world of Abramović, there is no separation between the artwork, the artist, and the viewer. Her seminal piece The Artist Is Present served as yet another example of Abramović´s ability to create work which transcends such separations. When she was invited to create a piece for MoMA, she decided to spend seven hours a day sitting on a chair inside the museum. Audience members were invited to sit across from her and look her in the eyes in silence for as long as they pleased.


The performance took place in the spring of 2010. Overall, Abramović spent a total of 736 hours and 30 minutes sitting in the chair. While some audience members only sat across her for a few moments, others decided to test the limits of time by spending several hours looking into the eyes of the artist.  The piece ended up making headline news, and large queues started forming, as more and more people started flocking to the museum. The simple act of looking into Abramović´s eyes made several audience members burst into tears, and many described the experience as immensely touching. Abramović’s performance was also visited by several celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Sharon Stone, and her former lover and collaborator Ulay.


8. Marina Had a Feud with Jay-Z 

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Jay-Z, photographed by Joella Marano, 2011. Source: Wikimedia Commons


When the famous hip-hop artist Jay-Z asked Marina Abramović if she would appear in a performance of his song Picasso Baby, she agreed on the condition that he would donate money to her institute. The result was a 6-hour performance and a ten-minute performance art film which was inspired by Abramović´s performance The Artist Is Present. In a subsequent interview, Abramović complained that Jay-Z had failed to follow through on his promise. But this was not the end of the story: As it turned out, Jay-Z had indeed made a donation to her institute. Her colleagues had simply failed to inform Abramović about it. In the end, the institute issued a public apology to both Jay-Z and Abramović for causing the misunderstanding.


9. Lady Gaga is a Huge Fan of Marina Abramović

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Lady Gaga, photographer unknown, 2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Jay-Z is by far not the only celebrity who has been inspired by Marina’s work. The pop icon Lady Gaga reportedly took part in a 3-day retreat, during which she learned the basics of the Abramović method. The resulting video shows her making prolonged sounds, walking naked in a forest, and looking into the camera with her head surrounded by crystals. I am very honored to have Marina Abramović as a mentor. Her believing in me has completely changed my life and re-awakened my discipline, the popstar tweeted in 2013 and Abramović has also spoken very positively about Lady Gaga. Marina believes the singer has been vital in bringing a whole new generation of people to her art.


10. She Borrowed Performance Pieces from her Favorite Artists 

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Seven Easy Pieces, Marina Abramović, 2005. Source: Guggenheim Museum, New York.


In 2005, Abramović created an exhibition that consisted of seven performances inspired by other performing artists. It was titled Seven Easy Pieces. The show included an adaptation of Vita Acconci´s Seedbed, which involved the artist masturbating underneath a ramp as he looked at the audience members who were walking above him. Given that Abramović is an artist with a female body, her version of the performance opened up a whole new dimension when it came to the question of gender, sexuality, and power. In another piece, Abramović paid homage to Joseph Beuys’s recreating his piece How to Explain Pictures To a Dead Hare.


11. Marina Played Herself in an Opera 

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The Life And Death of Marina Abramović, Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, 2011. Source: Robert Wilson’s website


The theater director Robert Wilson is famous for creating pieces that stretch the limits of time. In 2011, Wilson and Abramović collaborated on an opera called The Life And Death Of Marina Abramović, in which the artist played both herself and her mother.  Unsurprisingly, the opera played to sold-out audiences and received rave reviews from various publications.


12. Marina Abramović Will Continue to Make Art Beyond Her Death

marina abramovic portrait 2012 performance artist
Image Caption: Marina Abramović, photographed by Manfred Werner, 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Although the artist has become a part of the art establishment, she continues to spark controversy wherever she goes. Her continued presence in the art world has even given rise to a satirical campaign asking for donations to stop her from making performances. But despite turning 77 in 2023, Abramović does not plan to retire.


marina abramovic artist present performance art chair
The Artist Is Present, Marina Abramović, photographed by Andrew Russeth, 2010. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


But for an artist who has turned her life into an art piece, it wouldn’t make sense to stop. Quite to the contrary—she has already made plans to turn her death into an artwork. Marina plans to be buried in three different cities and has written a detailed script for her funeral.

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By Agnes Theresa OberauerBA Drama & PhilosophyAgnes Theresa completed her BA in Drama and Philosophy at the Royal Holloway University of London in 2014 and is currently finishing her MA in Physical Theatre Performance Making at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. She works internationally as a writer, performance artist, theatre director, and performer. Born in Austria, she has lived in six countries (Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Estonia, and the UK) and traveled many more, always seeking to expand her horizons and challenge her preconceptions. Her interests range from Greek philosophy to capoeira, posthumanism, and Nietzsche.