Born: November 30, 1946 - Belgrade, Yugoslavia
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"The audience is like a dog. They can feel immediately that you are afraid, that you are insecure, that you're not in the right state of mind - and they just leave..."
Towards the late 1950s, as abstract art began to lose impetus, many artists across the world began to embrace performance art. Performance had been a feature of avant-garde art since around 1910, but Marina Abramović's work is typical of the aims of the new generation in her eagerness to avoid traditional, object-based art materials (such as paint and canvas), and to cut down the distance between the artist and the audience by making her own body the medium. Born under Yugoslavia's repressive Communist dictatorship, and raised by parents closely tied to the regime, Abramović's dramatic and dangerous performances often seem like cathartic responses to these early experiences of power. She has produced a quantity of sculpture, but she remains best known for performance, and she remains one of only a handful of performance artists of her generation who have continued to perform late in their career.
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Rhythm 0 (1974)
With a description reading "I am the object," and, "During this period I take full responsibility," Abramović invited spectators to use any of 72 objects on her body in any way they desired, completely giving up control. Rhythm 0 was exemplary of Abramović's belief that confronting physical pain and exhaustion was important in making a person completely present and aware of his or her self. This work also reflected her interest in performance art as a way to transform both the performer and the audience. She wanted spectators to become collaborators, rather than passive observers. Here, they physically directed the actions, while in other performances, Abramović involved the audience through a dynamic exchange of energy. In Rhythm 0, the audience divided itself into those who sought to harm Abramović (holding the loaded gun to her head) and those to tried to protect her (wiping away her tears). Ultimately, after she stood motionless for six hours, the protective audience members insisted the performance be stopped, seeing that others were becoming increasingly violent.
72 objects including a feather, pen, book, saw, honey, band-aid, salt, rose, gun, bullet, paint, whip, coat and scissors
Marina Abramović was born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia to parents who held prominent positions in the Communist government. Her father, Vojin, was in the Marshal's elite guard and her mother, Danica, was an art historian who oversaw historic monuments. After her father left the family, her mother took strict control of eighteen-year-old Abramović and her younger brother, Velimir. Her mother was difficult and sometimes violent, yet she supported her daughter's interest in art. While growing up, Abramović saw numerous Biennales in Venice, exposing her to artists outside of Communist Yugoslavia such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Louise Nevelson.
Abramović studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade (1965-1970), and at Radionica Krsta Hegedusic, Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb (1970-1972). It was in the early 1970s that she began creating performative art, initially creating sound installations, but quickly moving towards works that more directly involved the body. During this period she taught at the Academy of Arts, University of Novi Sad (1973-1975).
In her early work, Abramović often placed her body in danger: she took drugs intended to treat catatonia and schizophrenia (Rhythm 2, 1974); she invited viewers to threaten her body with a variety of objects including a loaded gun (Rhythm 0, 1974); and she cut her stomach with a razor blade, whipped herself, and lay on a block of ice (Thomas Lips, 1975). She has suggested that the inspiration for such work came from both her experience of growing up under Tito's Communist dictatorship, and of her relationship with her mother: "All my work in Yugoslavia was very much about rebellion, not against just the family structure but the social structure and the structure of the art system there... My whole energy came from trying to overcome these kinds of limits." Accordingly, these rebellious performances, which took place in small studios, student centers and alternative spaces in Yugoslavia, ended by 10pm, the strict curfew set by her mother.
Abramović created these pioneering works when performance art was still a new, emerging art form in Europe, and until the mid 1970s she had little knowledge of performances being done outside Yugoslavia - even then, she learned of such work only through word of mouth. But in 1975, while in Amsterdam, Abramović met the German-born artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen - known as Ulay - and the next year she moved out of her parents' home for the first time to live with him. For the next 12 years, Abramović and Ulay were artistic collaborators and lovers. They traveled across Europe in a van, lived with Australian Aborigines, and in India's Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and spent time in the Sahara, Thar and Gobi deserts. Their works, which they performed in gallery spaces primarily in Europe, included Imponderabilia (1977), in which they stood naked in a narrow doorway, forcing spectators to pass between them; Breathing In/Breathing Out (1977), in which they inhaled and exhaled from each other's mouths until they almost suffocated; Relation in Time (1977), involving them sitting back to back with their hair tied together; Light/Dark (1977), in which they alternately slapped each other's faces; and Nightsea Crossing (1981-1987), a performance in which the pair sat silently opposite each other at a wooden table for as long as possible. When Abramović and Ulay decided to end their artistic collaboration and personal relationship in 1988, they embarked on a piece called The Lovers; each started at a different end of the Great Wall of China and walked for three months until they met in the middle and said goodbye. They have had very little contact with each other since that point, both proceeding independently with their artistic work.
After this separation from Ulay, Abramović returned to making solo works; she also worked with new collaborators such as Charles Atlas (on Biography, 1992); and she worked increasingly with video (such as in Cleaning the Mirror #1, 1995). In 1989, she began making a number of sculptural works, Transitory Objects for Human and Non-Human Use, which comprise objects meant to incite audience participation and interaction. In addition to her performances during the 1990s, Abramović taught at the Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1990-1991), as well as the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Hamburg (1992). Beginning in 1994 she taught for seven years as a performance art professor at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Braunschweig, Germany.
She was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the Venice Biennale for Balkan Baroque (1997), and in 2003 she won a New York Dance and Performance Award ("Bessie") for The House with the Ocean View (2002), performed at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. In 2005, she restaged performances by artists such as Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, as well as her own Thomas Lips (1975) in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum called "Seven Easy Pieces", for which she earned a U.S. Art Critics Association Award.
While many artists, including Abramović, made very little effort in the early 1970s to capture their performances on film or video, feeling that the true performance could never be repeated, she has since argued for the importance of continuing the life of these works through re-performance. She has said, "the only real way to document a performance art piece is to re-perform the piece itself." To that end, the Museum of Modern Art recently held a retrospective exhibition - its first ever for any performance artist - that included performances of her work and a new piece, The Artist is Present, performed by Abramović herself. For the full duration of the 2010 exhibit, she would sit across from an empty chair in which museum visitors were invited to sit opposite her for as long as they liked.
Abramović, who has referred to herself as, "the grandmother of performance art," was part of the earliest experiments in performance art, and she is one of the few pioneers of that generation still creating new work. She has been, and continues to be, an essential influence for performance artists making work over the last several decades, especially for works that challenge the limits of the body. Although she does not view her own artwork through the frame of Feminist Art, her confrontations with the physical self and the primary role given to the female body have helped shape the direction of that discipline. Her commitment to giving new life to older performance works - both hers and the works of others -- led her to create the Marina Abramović Institute for Preservation of Performance Art, set for a 2012 opening, in Hudson, New York. This non-profit organization will support teaching, preserving and funding performance art, ensuring an enduring legacy for her performances and, more broadly, for the ephemeral art form itself. About this Institute, Abramović has said, "Performance is fleeting. But this, this place, this is for time. This is what I will leave behind."
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Original content written by Rachel Gershman
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Marina Abramović
| When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography |
By James Westcott
| Marina Abramović: Biography |
By Marina Abramović, Charles Atlas
| Art, Love, Friendship: Marina Abramović and Ulay, Together & Apart |
By Thomas McEvilley
| MAI - The Marina Abramović Institute |
Organization and Incubator. Also includes great information on Abramović
| Provocateur: Marina Abramović |
By Karen Rosenberg
| Walking Through Walls |
By Judith Thurman
| Do It Again |
By Jorg Heiser
| Marina Abramović |
By Laurie Anderson
| Marina Abramović and Ulay |
MoMA 2010 Retrospective
| Tate Shots NYC: Marina Abramović |
February 4th, 2009
| Marina Abramović - Nude with Skeleton |
June 18th, 2007
| Seven Easy Pieces or How to Perform |
October 13th, 2006
| The Other: Rest Energy, 1980 |
September 7th, 2009