Marina and I
by Mar Calpena
Marina says she’s many different Marinas; the unbreakable and unstoppable daughter of Tito’ partisans, the vulnerable and unloved daughter of those same partisans; a third one flying over both on the wings of wisdom, and possibly some more. They are reflected on the Mar who hates her and the Mar who loves her.
Marina is Marina Abramović. Probably the only performance artist whose name can sound familiar even to those not interested in performances. Mar is me, kind of. The first time I knew of Marina’s existence – she tends to call herself by her first name only, as when we refer to a little girl or a diva – I didn’t know Marina was Marina. In an episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw and her friends visit an art exhibition in which a woman spends sixteen days living in front of an audience. Her “house” is made up of several platforms only accessible through stairs made with knives: exactly like the piece The House with the Ocean View that Marina created in 2002. Carrie Bradshaw summarily dismisses the effort with these harsh words: “There are depressed women all over New York doing the exact same thing as her and not calling it art. I mean, if you put a phone up on that platform, it’s just a typical Friday night waiting for some guy to call. […] Why do you think she has the life ladders? To keep her from running out for a snack.”
The second time I heard about Marina, someone was calling her annoying on Facebook. The occasion was her retrospective exhibition at the MoMA in 2010, The Artist Is Present. The retrospective not only recreated (resumed? resurrected? relived?) several of Marina’s performances since the beginning of her career, in the seventies, up to today, and ended up with a new one. The artist, as in a Zen session of doubles, sat in front of a table during the whole time of the exhibition, at the other side of which the visitors passed by in an orderly queue. When it was their turn, each one of them could look into the eyes of the artist for as long as they wanted. Some were there for several hours, and others for a few seconds. Some people went there to queue up every day; mothers with children, people that tried to made her talk…
The Zen reference is far from arbitrary. In her biography, Walking through Walls, the artist talks about works and experiences she has lived with Buddhist monks or meditating. All her stories have a mystical and a humorous side. In the same way a storm hits some friends who get lost in a ritual organised to honour her, or a monastery lets her use different monks for the rehearsal and performance of a theatre play. Marina’s life always moves between pain and laughter (in the film The Space in Between, a Herzog-like trip trough the most amazing corners of Brazil’s mysticism, Marina eats a garlic and an onion in front of the camera. Her face is serious when she says it’s an integral experience of the Abramović method. The eyes, however, betray her). My veneration for Marina comes from these tensions between joking and seriousness, or between spirituality and plain boutade; the one ranging from the soul to the limits of her body constitutes the base of her work.
Abramović – I feel more comfortable calling her by her surname – was born in Belgrade seventy years ago. Her childhood would be pure magic realism – cold and distanced parents, a superstitious grandmother with whom she saw ghosts, a younger brother who enjoyed all the privileges in the household – if magic realism had had a place in the most Slavic of countries. Young Abramović soon finds in art a refuge to her asphyxiating life situation, and in performance the way to make true the old romantic ideal of turning life into art. She starts creating pieces and travelling abroad with them. It’s the boom of performance as artistic form, and she finds her medium. She uses performance to play with the idea of pain and violence, inflicted upon herself, in works in which she will recreate the game of the knife between the fingers (yes, the one from Alien), others in which she will be induced into catatonic state or she will cut a pentagon on her body… But in the exploration of the limits of her body, she will soon require the participation of the audience, in works such as Rythm 0, from 1974, in which the viewers of the performance could interact with her using different objects kept around on purpose. The performance was so successful that some people burnt her with cigarettes; others cut her clothes, and even one pointed at her with a loaded gun. Where are the limits of her body? What mental and emotional state does the artist inhabit while working? She will find the perfect sparring to explore these ideas in Ulay (real name Frank Uwe Laysiepen). Her collaboration with Ulay is the matter that could feed Barbara Cartland’s fiction, should Cartland write for an audience keen on visiting art schools and attending vernissages. Because the years of the Abramović – Ulay tandem will prove highly creative, and they will even talk about “a same body with two heads.” The culmination will be that walk in opposite directions along the Great Chinese Wall that will seal the end of their relationship with a handshake upon finding each other. But Abramović really blooms when Ulay, whom in Walking through Walls she bitterly accuses of being a womaniser and a mercenary, disappears from the equation. In the hall of deforming mirrors that is Marina Abramović, the distance between her and Carrie Bradshaw is a lot shorter than it would seem. The artist will remember on the book her failed past relationships with vulnerability (the most painful one being her relationship with her brother, not a partner). On these lines she sounds a bit like a prima donna, self-absorbed, and sometimes she becomes disconcertingly odious. But Marina Abramović is as critical towards herself as towards others, and tells about her economic difficulties and successes (while her dreamed-of institute, in which to teach rigorous workshops of her method, must be financed through a crowdfunding, she discovers her talent as real state agent, becomes interested in fashion, says she’s sick of being an “alternative” artist), her trips, her friends, her sentimental failures and her lovers, her most celebrated works and the ones she considers not good enough. In her career, she has created operas, theatre, photography, crystal sculptures. She says it at the end of Walking through Walls: everything is life. I don’t know if my experience with the works of Abramović, which I naturally only know second hand, represents the same as for the rest of the world, or if it has anything to do with what I do. Maybe I feel attracted to and repelled by Marina because in her name, in her work, I see myself: Abramović as the perfect Rorschach test.