Walk Through Walls: Marina Abramović on Art, Fear, Taking Risks, and Pain as a Focal Lens for Presence
Article by Maria Popova
26 October 2016
“Art must be life — it must belong to everybody.”
“To make use … of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating how to make use of our suffering shortly before her untimely, heroic death in 1942. Weil, perhaps the closest thing we have to a modern secular saint, believed that approaching pain with consent rather than resistance was a creative act and a source of empowerment, subverting the given circumstances into one’s locus of agency.
In many ways, performance artist Marina Abramović (b. November 30, 1946) has plotted her trailblazing creative trajectory along the same vector of conviction, using pain — both externally inflicted and self-elected — as a creative medium, but using discipline as the mechanism of subversion. As she approaches her seventieth year, Abramović looks back on her unusual life in her magnificent memoir Walk Through Walls (public library).
Abramović writes unsentimentally about the trials and terrors of her childhood in Yugoslavia — about growing up in relative privilege amid the soul-draining drabness of communism; about being “materially comfortable but emotionally desolate”; about the brutality of her parents’ marriage, both of whom slept with loaded pistols on their bedside tables; about the constant beatings by her mother, a onetime army major with a steel hand and a steel heart, then director of the formidably named Museum of Art and Revolution. (I was struck by the astonishing number of parallels, both cultural and personal, between Abramović’s early life and my own — two lives lived a generation apart across the border of our neighboring countries.)
"This was the happiest time of my childhood,” Abramović recounts of her yearlong stay in a hospital at age six, after a persistent nosebleed required that she sleep sitting up in order not to choke on her own blood. The doctors first suspected leukemia, but a litany of tests revealed, as Abramović puts it, “something more mysterious… some kind of psychosomatic reaction” to her mother’s beatings. (We now know, of course, that there is nothing mysterious about such a reaction — as pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg would demonstrate three decades later, emotional stress affects our susceptibility to physical illness in a variety of ways, including manifestations this dramatic.) After seven-year-old Marina was sent home from the hospital, the beatings continued, with only slightly diminished frequency and severity.
It was around that time that Abramović, like young Jane Goodall, awakened to what would become her lifelong purpose. She writes:
I knew from the age of six or seven that I wanted to be an artist. My mother punished me for many things, but she encouraged me in this one way. Art was holy to her.
My first paintings were of my dreams. They were more real to me than the reality I was living in — I didn’t like my reality. I remember waking up, and the memory of my dreams was so strong that I would write them down, and then I would paint them, in just two very particular colors, a deep green and a night blue. Never anything else.
If fleshly brutality was the norm of her childhood, its specter haunted Marina since before she was born — she was named after a Russian soldier with whom her father had been in love during WWII, blown up by a grenade before his eyes. But there is something intensely enthralling about Abramović’s simple, matter-of-factly candor in surveying, without belaboring, the traumatic formative experiences despite which — and, to a large extent, because of which — she became the person and artist she is.
Deep shame, maximum self-consciousness. When I was young it was impossible for me to talk to people. Now I can stand in front of three thousand people without any notes, any preconception of what I’m going to say, even without visual material, and I can look at everyone in the audience and talk for two hours easily.
Art became a life-straw for Abramović — a hedge against the loneliness and sadness of her home life. Amid her mother’s suffocating and punishing control, art became the one domain where she felt she had absolute freedom — the freedom of expression.
At twenty-four, Abramović was still living at home with her mother — not at all uncommon in Eastern Europe — and still had to abide by a 10pm curfew. But she immersed herself in art, painted obsessively, and was admitted into Belgrade’s Academy of Fine Arts. She was the only woman in her art collective.
Together, they would spend hours talking about “a way past painting: a way to put life itself into art.” This way became performance art, and Abramović threw herself wholeheartedly, wholebodily into it. By her mid-twenties, she had made a name for herself in Belgrade. In 1972, a Scottish curator traversed the Iron Curtain in search of original ideas for the famed Edinburgh Festival the following summer and was captivated by her work. He invited Abramović to show at the festival — an invitation into what was practically another world: the West.
Abramović arrived in Edinburg thrilled and terrified in equal measure. She recalls:
It was my first trip to the West as an artist. I felt like a very small fish in a very big pond.
The piece she chose to perform, titled Rhythm 10, was a play on a drinking game popular among Russian and Yugoslav peasants: The player spreads their fingers onto a wooden surface and, using a sharp knife, begins rapidly stabbing the wood in the gap between the fingers. Whenever they miss and knick or stab themselves, they take a shot; the more shots they take, the more they lose control and cut themselves — an exponentially accelerating machine for self-inflicted pain. Abramović’s piece subverted this mechanism by placing the artist at the locus of control — she would go through the rapid motions deliberately, using ten different knives in succession, so that whenever she stabbed herself, the pain would be a testament to absolute presence.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Amanda Palmer’s assertion that “wherever you don’t want to go, whatever that risk is, wherever the unsafe place is — that really is the gift that you have to give,” Abramović reflects on her initiation into her own self as an artist:
Some big part of me is thrilled by the unknown, by the idea of taking risks. When it comes to doing risky things, I don’t care. I just go for it.
That doesn’t mean I’m fearless. Quite the opposite. The idea of death terrifies me. When there is turbulence on an airplane, I shake with fear. I start composing my last will and testament. But when it comes to my work, I cast caution to the winds.
I could hardly breathe from the idea that I was going to do this. But I was also serious about what I was about to do, 100 percent committed. I was so serious about everything then! Yet I think I needed this gravity. Much later on, I read a statement of Bruce Nauman’s: “Art is a matter of life and death.” It sounds melodramatic, but it’s so true. This was exactly how it was for me, even at the beginning. Art was life and death. There was nothing else. It was so serious, and so necessary.
The determination that carried her through the performance embodies Nicole Krauss’s beautiful assertion that “bravery is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion.” When she finished the piece, having gone through all ten knives, Abramović faced the white paper onto which she had performed it, “stained very impressively” with her own blood — the very blood that had been one of her biggest fears during her violent childhood. The self-harm was in a way self-healing. It was also her first awareness of what art does — its supreme power of self-transcendence, for artist and viewer alike, and a powerful channel of communion between the two. She writes:
The crowd stared, dead silent. And a very strange feeling came over me, something I had never dreamed of: It was as if electricity was running through my body, and the audience and I had become one. A single organism. The sense of danger in the room had united the onlookers and me in that moment: the here and now, and nowhere else.
That thing that each of us lives with, that you are your own little self privately — once you step into the performance space, you are acting from a higher self, and it’s not you anymore. It’s not the you that you know. It’s something else. There on the gymnasium floor of Melville College in Edinburgh, Scotland, it was as if I had become, at the same time, a receiver and transmitter of huge, Tesla-like energy. The fear was gone, the pain was gone. I had become a Marina whom I didn’t know yet.
For Abramović, the experience was also a homecoming of sorts — using pain as a focal point of presence, she had attained a taste of that coveted freedom, the freedom of expression, which had first drawn her to art as a child. She reflects:
Listening to the wild applause from the audience, I knew I’d succeeded in creating an unprecedented unity of time present and time past with random errors.
I had experienced absolute freedom — I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn’t matter, that nothing mattered at all — and it intoxicated me. I was drunk from the overwhelming energy that I’d received. That was the moment I knew that I had found my medium. No painting, no object that I could make, could ever give me that kind of feeling, and it was a feeling I knew I would have to seek out, again and again and again.
But beyond the personal transcendence, Abramović approached her art as a gateway into the largest, most universal questions of meaning in human life. Looking back on a piece she performed at Copenhagen’s Charlottenborg Art Festival two years later, titled Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful — an ironic response to the communist-era “aesthetic presumption that art must be beautiful” and a revolt against the notion of art as vacant decoration — Abramović writes:
When it came to art, I only cared about content: what a work meant… I had come to believe that art must be disturbing, art must ask questions, art must predict the future. If art is just political, it becomes like newspaper. It can be used once, and the next day it’s yesterday’s news. Only layers of meaning can give long life to art — that way, society takes what it needs from the work over time.
This view of art — as a source of meaning, as a transmutation of pain into power, as a sublime medium of human connection through mutual vulnerability — would animate Abramović’s long and illustrious career. Thirty-five years after that initial knife-point revelation, she would experience the same sublime unity of spacetime in one of her most celebrated works, The Artist Is Present — an astonishing feat of body, spirit, and creative vitality, in which Abramović spent 736 hours sitting at a table on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art, in intense silence, as visitors ranging from children to public figures to the great love of her youth, the artist Ulay, sat across from her and shared communion in crystalline presence.
She reflects on how the project illuminated for her the meaning of art and its ultimate purpose:
During the final month, as this piece became one with life itself, I started to think intensely about the purpose of my existence. Eight hundred fifty thousand people in all had stood in the atrium, seventeen thousand on the final day alone. And I was there for everyone there, whether they sat with me or not. Suddenly, out of nowhere in the world, this overwhelming need had appeared. The responsibility was enormous.
I was there for everyone who was there. A great trust had been given to me — a trust that I didn’t dare abuse, in any way. Hearts were opened to me, and I opened my heart in return, time after time after time. I opened my heart to each one, then closed my eyes — and then there was always another. My physical pain was one thing. But the pain in my heart, the pain of pure love, was far greater.
The sheer quantity of love, the unconditional love of total strangers, was the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had. I don’t know if this is art, I said to myself. I don’t know what this is, or what art is. I’d always thought of art as something that was expressed through certain tools: painting, sculpture, photography, writing, film, music, architecture. And yes, performance. But this performance went beyond performance. This was life. Could art, should art, be isolated from life? I began to feel more and more strongly that art must be life — it must belong to everybody. I felt, more powerfully than ever, that what I had created had a purpose.
In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Walk Through Walls, Abramović goes on to chronicle how the peculiar fragments of her life — her traumatic but eventually reconciliatory relationship with her mother, her cinematic twelve-year romance with Ulay, her survival of both poverty and privilege — converged into this mosaic of creative purpose. Complement it with some of the greatest artists of our time, including Abramović herself, on courage, creativity, criticism, and what success really means, then revisit Van Gogh on fear, risk-taking, and how inspired mistakes move us forward.