Overcoming Adversity With Art: The Incredible Early Life Of Marina Abramović
Marina Abramovic, pioneering performance artist, was born in Yugoslavia on November 30, 1946.
She is lauded as the "grandmother of performance art".
Her art primarily centres around the relationship between the performer / artist and audience / viewers. She is also known for exploring the limits of the human body and mind in her work, often going to extremes in her performances.
For example, her 1973 work, "Rhythm 10" was a performance in which Abramovi used 20 knives and two tape recorders, and stabbed the knife at the areas between her splayed out fingers. Each time she made a mistake, she took a new knife. When she ran out of knives, she watched the recording and tried to recreate the exact performance including the times she had cut herself. She later said:
"Once you enter into the performance state you can push your body to do things you absolutely could never normally do."
Perhaps her best known work came in 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art.
Alongside a retrospective of past works, Marina set up a simple table and two chairs, and allowed patrons of the museum, one at a time, to sit across from her, while they looked at one another. She trained for this for months. Over the course of 750 hours of sitting, Abramovi sat with hundreds, if not thousands of people. Most people who sat across from her broke down crying. One man re-ligned up to see her 21 times, waiting hours in line each time, and later got the number 21 tattooed on himself to commemorate the unforgettable experience.
Needless to say, there is something rather etherial about Marina Abramovi.
So, the question stands: where did this all begin?
Marina Abramovi was born to Danica Rosi and Vojin Abromovi. After the war ended, Danica and Vojin, who had fought as Yugoslav Partisans (the Communist-led resistance to Germany) were both national heroes, and were given positions in the post-war Yugoslavian government.
However, until the age of six, Abramovi was actually raised by her grandparents. Many people will note that Abramovi's work has a deeply ritualistic feel to a lot of it. Perhaps this was influenced by her upbringing with a very religious grandmother. According to Abromovi, she "spend [her] childhood in a church following [her] grandmother's rituals candles in the morning, the priest coming for different occasions."
When talking of her parents, Abramovi said:
"Until [the age of six], I hardly even knew who my parents were. They were just two strange people who would visit on Saturdays and bring presents."
At age six, Abramovi's brother was born, and she moved back home with her parents. There, she took piano, French, and English lessons, and is said to have enjoyed painting in her free time.
Under the surface of an idyllic life, things were dark in the the Abramovi household, where she was regularly physically abused by her mother.
In an interview published in 1998, she said her mother:
"Took complete military-style control of me and my brother. I was not allowed to leave the house after 10 o'clock at night till I was 29 years old. ... [A]ll the performances in Yugoslavia I did before 10 o'clock in the evening because I had to be home then. It's completely insane, but all of my cutting myself, whipping myself, burning myself, almost losing my life in the firestar, everything was done before 10 in the evening."
The control was even more exacerbated by Danica's germophobia.
"My mother never kissed me. When I asked why, she said, Not to spoil you, of course. She had a bacteria phobia so she didnt allow me to play with other children out of fear that I might catch a disease. She even washed bananas with detergent. I spent most of my time alone in my room. There were many, many rules. Everything had to be in perfect order. If I slept messily in bed, my mother would wake me in the middle of the night and order me to sleep straight.
Through these bleak and harsh times, Abramovi protected her sanity by cultivating a vast creativity, in order to cope with the harsh conditions, and immense amount of time spent alone.
An article in Brain Pickings elaborates on this incredible use of art to cope:
"Isolated from other children and condemned to forced aloneness, she began drawing daily one of the few activities her mother supported when she was only three."
From there, her love of performance art began:
"It was almost like a spiritual experience, and I realized that I could make art from practically nothing. I could use water, fire, earth, wind, myself. Its the concept that matters. This was the beginning of performance for me."
Still, even when she began performing publicly in her 20s, Abramovi lived at home and was still consistently abused by her mother, who had even started burning her art. When she spoke about this, Abramovi said:
"It never even crossed my mind to leave. At the time there was really no other choice. Several generations in the same house was how people lived in Eastern Europe."
And then, in an instant, Abramovi's life changed.
On the day of her 29th birthday, she received and invitation to perform on a Dutch television show. After this experience, Abramovi fell in love and ran away from home. Her mother even called the police, but when the police realized Abramovi was 29, they made her mother leave the police station.
After that, Marina lived with her boyfriend, Ulay. She said of that time:
"All I wanted to do was be an artist. I didnt want to work in a restaurant or do any other job, so Ulay and I decided to live together in a van. It was the most radical but also the simplest decision I have ever made. It was really the only way we could exist. We had no money and the performances we did hardly paid. We lived like that for five years and it was bliss!"
When asked about her work, Abramovi has cited her early days, and her adversity. When she couldn't find love from her family, she found it in art, in performance, in her audience.
"If you dont get love from your family, you turn to other things to get it. I get the love I need from my audience. Without the public, my performances wouldnt exist because I am not motivated to perform alone. The public completes my work and has become the center of my world."
Take our love, Marina. It's yours.