Marina Abramovic: reflecting on the good witch of the East

The Yugoslavian-born artist continues to animate audiences with her exercises in pleasure and pain


Much of Yugoslavian-born artist Marina Abramovic’s work is about testing her physical and psychological limits. In her most famous performances, we have seen her take strong doses of neuroleptic drugs to induce epileptic fits and vomiting sessions (observed by an unflinching audience) and induce weeping fits by eating a raw onion. We have seen her, visibly terrified, let snakes wrap themselves around her face, contorting it.

Many of her non-performance pieces are also concerned with inflicting pain: a staircase made of knife blades, relief portraits made by pushing people’s faces into lumps of clays. And when she teaches, she likes to acquaint her students with a bit of suffering too: instructing them to observe days of abstinence from food, sex, talking, television, even from all forms of communication. But, in her private life, she is someone who loves life and knows how to get pleasure from the smallest things. In her house in Amsterdam she always has friends to stay and gets tremendous pleasure from collecting mountains of strange images cut from books and magazines. She is even passionate about minerals; it was her hats and shoes made of semiprecious stones, that she chose, from all her work, for her first ever show, at Documenta IX in Kassel (1992).

Looking at her work over the last 30 years, one sees reflected a life full of pleasure and pain, and an understanding that the two go hand in hand. Her performance work has never been about acting but energy—as a pure force that burns itself out and regenerates. Her metaphorical journeys into the desert have taught her how to reduce her needs down to the essentials.

Her stays in the East and Brazil have given her a sense of ceremony, so lacking in the secular Yugoslavia where she was born. As with some of her Slavic compatriots, such as Ivo Andric, Pedrag Matvejevi and Slavoj Zizek, her work is evidence of how hard it is to be deprived of the sacred, and yet how productive this deprivation can be, and also of how strong a stamp the “Slavic soul” has, even for those who go away for 20 years, as she has done.

Cleaning the house, for example–a metaphor Marina uses repeatedly–is a ritual of regeneration similar to fasting or baptism, even though she intends no religious significance by it.

Her next intervention will be in Volterra, at “Art to art” (until 15 September), where she will take inspiration from visits to the local psychiatric hospital.

For one of her most recent works, “Dream house” (Japan, 2000, Echigo-Tsumari Triennial) she built a fantasy house with soft lights, coloured sarcophagi, and bathtubs full of perfumed water, and invited the public to stay there and sleep, inviting them to enter a different mental dimension (habit being the enemy of thought). Visitors were encouraged to purify and re-temper themselves, sleep and leave written records of their dreams in a communal diary.

At the Fondazione Antonio Ratti in Como this July, I saw her working on her last project “Energy clothes”, designed to get the audience to play and dress up. She had made cone-shaped witches’ hats to “conduct natural and mental energy”, as if by wearing them the audience could beam in to what was going on in the cosmos. To go with the hats, she was designing silk clothes covered in magnets, with a pair of little magnets to cover the wearer’s eyes. She is endlessly fascinated by man’s need for ceremony, ritual and myth, collecting elements of Tibetan, Japanese, and South American rites, and adding to it her own hard-learnt lessons of self-discipline and courage, inherited from her parents and Balkan compatriots. Her performances and pieces of art are not bitter and gratuitous expressions, but proof of courage in the face of adversity. Hers are observations sharpened with experience, but they are also about how to escape despair and learn to begin again, via a controlled and merciless concentration.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The good witch of the East'