Marina Abramovic – A Life In 5 Performances

Often hailed as the grandmother of performance art, Marina Abramovic has had a career spanning more than 60 years. She manifested her life and creativity in her performances.

Jun 22, 2020By John Sewell, BA & MA Art History, University of Birmingham
marina abramovic self portrait candle eyes closed
Artist Portrait with a Candle (A), from the series With Eyes Closed I See Happiness, 2012.


Marina Abramovic is one of the most influential members of performance art in the 20th century. Her deep-rooted sense of personal psychological power formed the backbone of much of her performance art throughout her adult life. She has her own mind and body to articulate the tension she felt between that which is tangible and that which is not. Her career has been lasting and controversial; she has literally shed blood, sweat, and tears in the name of her art and she isn’t finished yet.


Marina Abramovic Before Performance Art


Marina Abramovic grew up in quite peculiar circumstances. She was born in Yugoslavia – Belgrade, Serbia in 1945. Her parents became prominent figures in the Yugoslavian government in the wake of World War II and their careers, positions of power, and unstable marriage meant that they had little to do with young Marina’s upbringing. 


The parental role, therefore, fell predominantly on the shoulders of her grandmother, who was incredibly spiritual. She claims a number of clairvoyant experiences with her grandmother, which gave her an enduring sense of her own psychic power – something she continues to draw on when performing to this day.


Despite her parents’ militaristic backgrounds, Abramovic was always encouraged (particularly by her mother) to pursue her interest in art. She began by drawing the planes that flew above the airbases on which her parents worked, bringing her traumatic dreams to life on paper. This helped formulate her strong political inclinations in her art.


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Come Wash with Me 

marina abramovic and father
A rare moment of tenderness shared between a young Abramovic and her father


Marina Abramovic’s first attempt at performance art turned out the be ‘the one that never was.’ The idea for the piece was that she would invite members of the public to enter the gallery, take off their clothes, and wait – exposed and naked – while Abramovic washed their clothes. She would then return them to the visitor when she had done finished.


Although it didn’t actually take place, the plan for this performance clearly demonstrated that even in the early stages of her career, Abramovic had a desire to explore ideas surrounding family life, domesticity and personal connections; and the subsequent relationship between each of these concepts.


However, in 1969 she had hoped to make this happen in a still culturally rigid Belgrade, still under Soviet rule. To escape the trappings of this less-than-progressive Serbian art scene she moved West to establish herself as an avant-garde performance artist. 


It didn’t take long before she began to make her way into galleries and theatres to carry out her performances. In 1973, she was scouted by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and her rise to notoriety in the Western Art World began to flourish.


Rhythm Series 

marina abramovic rhythm 0 naples
Rhythm 0, 1974, Naples


It was at the Fringe festival that Marina Abramovic’s performance series, known as the ‘Rhythm Series,’ began. This work looked to explore ideas of ritual and drew on her Eastern European roots in her use of the Russian knife game, often known as ‘pin-finger,’ where a knife is stabbed into a table between the slots of one’s fingers at increasing speed. 


Abramovic played the game until she had cut herself twenty times and then play back an audio recording of this first attempt. She then tried to exactly mimic where she had gone wrong in the previous attempt, stabbing herself again at the points where she had caught her hand before. 


This performance was one of her first forays into an exploration of the limits (or lack thereof) of an individual’s physical and mental stress. It formed the basis for the rest of the series, which increasingly took the agency and danger out of her control and put it in the hands of those watching or participating in her performance. 


Rhythm 0, for example, saw Abramovic place seventy-two objects on a table with instructions that the viewers could use these objects and manipulate her body however they wished and that she took full responsibility for their actions. Visitors smeared olive oil on her, tore her clothes, and eventually even pointed a loaded gun at her head.


Walking the Great Wall

marina abramovic and ulay great wall
Abramovic and Ulay walk the Great Wall of China, 1988


While Marina Abramovic was in Holland creating the Rhythm series, she began a relationship with the artist Ulay Laysiepen (known simply as Ulay). The two became close in both their personal and professional exploits and at times it became difficult to separate those two aspects of their lives.


Their work looked at the relationships between men and women in love. It explored the difficult dynamics often contained within these relationships and they often used physical pain as a metaphor and manifestation of this. They would run into each other at full pace or scream at each other in turn, at the top of their lungs and just inches apart. 


The powerful chemistry that had made the performances by the pair so gripping came to an end in their final shared performance where they set out, from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, to meet in the middle. 


In and of itself this is a striking demonstration of dedication between two lovers. However, their relationship had already come to an abrupt halt after Ulay had become romantically involved with one of the colleagues who they had been working with for a number of years in the build-up to the performance. 


The stark contrast between the pair coming together from opposite ends of a continent and simultaneously having their relationship crumble beneath their feet make this one of the most poignant of all the performances the pair carried out during Marina’s ‘Ulay years’.


Spirit Cooking 

marina abramovic spirit cooking performance
The remnants of Abramovic’s Spirit Cooking Performances in the 1990s, where she used pigs’ blog to paint recipes on the wall


While Marina Abramovic is no stranger to controversy, there is one artwork that has sparked more than any other. Her Spirit Cooking series has led to accusations of satanism and cult membership, which have been particularly hard to shake off.


The accusations stem from her involvement in ‘#PizzaGate’ when emails between Abramovic and Tony Podesta were leaked. The emails suggested that Abramovic had been invited to host one of her Spirit Cooking events for Podesta at his home. 


This inevitably led to accusations of her involvement and complicity in the nefarious, even paedophilic, practices that Pedesta and his associates were being accused of. It was even suggested that Abramovic’s held a special role as a Satanic spiritual leader for the group.


While this caused a storm among many right-leaning factions of the US press, Abramovic has done her best to distance herself from these accusations. 


She points out that her ‘Spirit Cooking’ series of work has been one that has been ongoing for decades and is rooted in an exploration of concepts surrounding ritual and spirituality, as has been a common theme throughout almost all of her work. 


She also points out the tongue-in-cheek nature of her Spirit Cooking work, which can be best seen in the cookbooks she produced to accompany the work. 



The Artist is Present

the artist is present marina abramovic
Abramovic with a visitor at ‘The Artist is Present’, 2010, MoMA


In 2010, Marina Abramovic was invited to hold a major retrospective of her work at MOMA, New York. The show was titled, ‘The Artist is Present’ as Marina was very literally part of the exhibition and took part in a performance for its duration. 


She spent seven hours each and every day for three months sat in her chair, holding thousands of personal audiences with members of the public from around the world. 


Despite its simple basis, the artwork generated hundreds if not thousands of incredibly powerful individual moments, shared between Marina, whoever was sat opposite her, and also witnessed by the hundreds of others sat waiting for their turn or simply taking in the performance.


The performance was documented in a film that shared its name. It shows the physical and mental toll that the show took on Abramovic and captures just a portion of the many powerful and emotive interactions that the performance enabled. Most notably, the film captured the touching moment when Ulay came to sit opposite Marina in the gallery. 


The faces of the participants were also documented by the photographer, Marco Anelli. He took a snapshot of each and every single person who sat with Abramovic and noted down the length of time they had sat with her. A selection of portraits from this collection were later displayed in their own right, released in the form of a book and can be found in Anelli’s online portfolio.


What’s Next for Marina Abramovic? 

marina abramovic virtual reality microsoft
Abramovic performing in a Virtual Reality Collaboration with Microsoft, 2019


Marina Abramovic was due to host another retrospective, this time at the Royal Academy during the summer of 2020. However, the obvious disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic meant that this exhibition was postponed until 2021. 


It isn’t known yet exactly what this exhibition will consist of. However, it is expected that she will be performing new work relating to the changes to her body over time. It’s likely, however, that it will be a significant addition to her current catalogue-raisonné in order to mark the significance of her first retrospective in the UK.


Marina Abramovic’s show will, of course, display much of the work detailed above in the form of photographs and documentary footage. In doing so she will once again be encouraging a discussion around one of the most central debates in the history of performance art – how important are physical and temporal presence when experiencing performance art and does technology change our interactions with it? 

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By John SewellBA & MA Art History, University of BirminghamJohn holds both a BA and an MA in Art History from the University of Birmingham, UK. His academic research focussed on nineteenth and early-twentieth century depictions of narcotics use, addiction and race-relations. However, his interests extend far beyond this; and his work covers an array of topics from many different periods and locations around the world. Alongside writing, he is also the founder of Eazyl - an online art marketplace for emerging artists which charges no commission fees.