The dA-Zed guide to Marina Abramovic

As she funds her new school, here's a 26-letter guide to the heroic performance artist

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Pledge for the Marina Abramovic Institute here

A is for Academy of Fine Arts

Marina Abramovic is considered one of the world’s most influential living artists. Born in Belgrade, she trained there at the Academy of Fine Arts, before completing her post-graduate studies in Zagreb, Croatia. She was based in Amsterdam for over twenty years, before moving to New York City fourteen years ago. She also has a home on the banks of the Hudson River in New York State, where she hopes to establish the Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI) for performance art.

B is for Joseph Beuys

As part of Seven Easy Pieces, a series of performances held at the Guggenheim Museum in 2005, Abramovic re-enacted iconic works by other artists, including Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. The piece involves locking the audience out of the gallery so that they can only watch through the window as the performer, whose head is coated in gold leaf, walks through the space while explaining various artworks to a dead hare.

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Seven Easy Pieces

C is for Chiara Clemente

Director of the documentary, Our City Dreams, Clemente followed Abramovic and four other female artists—Swoon, Kiki Smith, Nancy Spero, and Ghada Amer—for two years, documenting their experiences in the art world, as well as their relationship to New York City.  A companion book of the same title followed in 2010.   

D is for Death

Three years ago the Manchester International Festival hosted the world premiere of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. The stage piece recreates scenes from her life, including her Serbian childhood and her experiences as a world-renowned performance artist. Produced by avant-garde director Robert Wilson, the show also featured Willem Defoe. 64-year-old Abramovic has said that she feels she is in the “third act of her life,” and is determined to establish her legacy.  

Abramovic with Willem Defoe

E is for Valie Export

As part of Seven Easy Pieces, Abramovic also performed a variation on Action Pants: Genital Panic, by Valie Export. In the original piece, Export enters a cinema wearing crotchless trousers, exposing her genitals to the audience. Interrogating issues around the passive consumption of the female body—in film as well as art—Abramovic, like Export, uses her body as both a physical and interpretive tool, creating a direct line of interaction with the audience.

F is for Fame

In the film, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which documents her major retrospective at MoMa in 2010, she says, “After forty years of people thinking you’re insane and should be put in a mental hospital, you finally get all these acknowledgements.” Alluding not only to the recognition she has received from the art world, Abramovic was also awarded the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art.

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The Artist is Present

G is for Gaga

Lady Gaga kicked-off a recent eight-hour reading of Stanislawa Lema’s sci-fi novel Solaris, organised by Abramovic as part of a funding drive to raise money for the proposed MAI. Fifty other artists and writers joined in for the event. Abramovic has also been working with Lady Gaga on her third album, Artpop, which is due to be released in November.

H is for History of performance art

With the MAI, Abramovic is determined to establish an “institute for humanity,” that will include a large archive of performance art. She believes that the public have never been taught how to really watch performance art, while artists often repeat what has been done in the past, with audiences unaware of their reference points or even stolen ideas.

J is for Jay-Z

Recently at the Pace Gallery in New York, Abramovic found herself on stage with Jay-Z as part of his performance for a short film to accompany the track, Picasso Baby. Taking a page out of Abramovic’s book of long durational performance, Jay-Z kept it up on a small platform for six hours straight, drawing public attention as well as celebrities including Judd Apatow, Jim Jarmusch, and Pablo Picasso’s granddaughter Diana Widmaier Picasso.

K is for Kickstarter

To help fund her proposed institute, Abramovic has launched a Kickstarter campaign, which will continue to run for just over a fortnight. The goal is to reach $600,000 and she has promised to hug everyone who donates. There are various rewards for different levels of funding, ranging from DVDs, to a mutual gaze with the artist, to a live performance. For those pledging over $10,000 and who wish to remain anonymous, there is an option that states, “Marina will do nothing. You will do nothing. You will not be publicly acknowledged.”

L is for Long Durational Work

For over forty years Abramovic has pushed herself physically in performances, sometimes mutilating herself, and even putting her life at risk. Above all, she has developed a form of performance that she calls long durational work, which refers to any performance of art, music, theatre etc., that exceeds six hours. Fittingly, she will be asking any future visitors to her institute to give their “word of honour” to spend at least six hours when they visit.

M is for Marina Abramović Made Me Cry

For her MoMA retrospective Abramovic invited 30 young artists to perform her earlier works, while she performed a new piece entitled, The Artist is Present. For this she sat in the same chair every day over the three-month duration of the show. Members of the public were invited to sit in a chair across from her and make silent eye contact for as long as they liked. Many were brought to tears, as captured by photographer Marco Anelli on his tumblr, Marina Abramović Made Me Cry.

N is for Nakedness

Many of Abramovic’s performances call for nakedness, including Imponderabilia, for which two performers stand naked in the doorway of a museum or gallery, requiring visitors to pass between them to enter. In other performances she has thrown her naked body repeatedly against a wall, flagellated herself, and cut a pentagram into her bare stomach with a knife.

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Naked Abramovic performing

O is for Oxygen

For the performance, Breathing In / Breathing Out, Abramovic and her partner, Ulay, locked lips and exchanged breaths until they were only sharing carbon monoxide. They both nearly fell unconscious. In another performance, Rhythm 5, in 1974, Abramović spread out on the ground in the middle of a giant star that was on fire. Due to a lack of oxygen she fainted and had to be rescued by onlookers.

P is for Performance Art

The self-declared “Grandmother of Performance Art,” Abramovic has laid out her artist’s manifesto, which includes the following statements: “An artist should not lie to himself or others; An artist should not steal ideas from other artists; An artist should not compromise for themselves or in regards to the art market; An artist should not kill other human beings; An artist should not make themselves into an idol; An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist: An artist should suffer; An artist should not be depressed.”

Q is for Questions

In July of this year, Abramovic participated in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything, for which people submitted a variety of questions about her practice and her personal life. “I am a performance artist,” she declared. “Ask me anything.” She responded candidly to questions on why she chose performance art—“it’s immediate, it’s time-based, it’s immaterial” she said—her ex-partner’s unfaithfulness, why she says she is not a feminist, and what she really thinks of Jay-Z. 

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Marina Abramovic

R is for Rhythms

For her first performance, Rhythm 10, done in 1973, Abramovic held her open palm against a table and jabbed down with a knife between her fingers, sometimes stabbing herself. Recording the entire procedure, she then tried to replicate her movements and noises in time with her previous attempt. For Rhythm 2 in 1974, she took prescription pills for catatonia and then for depression, to see how far she could stretch her control over her mind and body as she succumbed to the effects of the drugs.

S is for Serbo-Croatian

Abramovic’s parents were both war heroes in the former Yugoslavia. Having fought the Nazis, they were also politically active in the communist party, and she says they were extremely strict. At home, she says, she felt she was being “trained to be a soldier.” Her mother would wake her in the middle of the night if she was sleeping “too messy.”  However her grandmother, with whom she spent a lot of time, was kind and very religious. This combination of discipline and spirituality is what Abramović believes has made her what she is now.  

T is for The Artist is Present

Ambramovic’s hugely celebrated performance at her MoMA retrospective, which filled all six floors of the gallery, saw her sitting in the same position in the same chair for 738 hours over three months. In the film of the exhibition she describes the build-up to the performance as, “like preparing for NASA.” Adding that, “People don’t understand the hardest thing is to do something that is close to nothing. It demands all of you because there is no story to tell, there are no objects to hide behind… you have to rely on your own energy and nothing else.” She says she was utterly changed by the experience, and this is what led her to want to establish the institute.  

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Artist is Present

U is for Ulay

For twelve years Abramovic performed with her partner and lover, West German performance artist, Ulay. Sharing the same birthday, they met at one of Abramovic’s performances—after which he nursed her self-inflicted wounds—and they then worked together on pieces that often used their bodies in a confrontational manner. Though they had not been in each other’s presence for years, Ulay was one of the people to sit across from Abramović during The Artist is Present.

V is for Vampire

One of the submissions to Ask Me Anything inquired after Abramovic’s seemingly eternal youth. “You do not appear to have aged at all in 40 years,” writes _conceptual_. “Are you a vampire?” To which Abramovic’s responded, “I will soon post the photos of my grandmother who was 103 and her mother who was 116 to prove that Montenegro people live long and never age.”

W is for Women only

Asked by Antony Hegarty (from Antony and the Johnsons) to host a women-only event as part of his Meltdown at the South Bank in London, Abramovic held a lecture entitled, The Spirit in Any Condition Does not Burn. At the time, she said she was sceptical at first because she believes that “an artist has no gender. All that matters is whether they make good art or bad art.” She finally agreed because she thought, “Why not do something strange and different for once? Artists can do whatever they want!” 

X is for Xerox

In the 1970s, conceptual artist Endre TÓT was known for his use of Xerox copies, and for his mail art, with correspondents including conceptual and performance art pioneers Abramovic, as well as Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanny Tutti, who, as COUM Transmissions, also performed confrontational works, and whose collective would eventually morph into the hugely influential band, Throbbing Gristle.

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The Great Wall Walk

Y is for Yellow Sea

As both her personal and professional relationship with Ulay began to fall apart, the two spent three months in a performance called The Lovers, for which they each walked half of the Great wall of China, he starting from the Gobi Desert and she from the Yellow Sea. When they eventually met up along the path, they embraced, and ended their relationship.

Z is for Zero

For her performance, Rhythm 0, in 1974, Abramovic placed 72 objects on a table, including a feather, a whip, roses, honey, a gun, and a single bullet, and invited the public to use the items in any way on or against her that they chose, as she sat there silently, not moving for six hours. While initial visitors showed trepidation and even kindness, by the end there was a real concern for the artist and her safety, as the actions against her grew more aggressive, with one person aiming the gun at her head. 

Pledge for the Marina Abramovic Institute here

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