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How Marina Abramovic’s memoir does and doesn’t illuminate the artist’s work

Marina Abramovic, left, during her performance 'The Artist is Present'
(Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

In 1981, when Marina Abramović and her lover and collaborator Ulay first decided to walk the Great Wall of China, they planned to marry in the middle. They believed no one had ever walked the wall in its entirety, though before they did it a Chinese railway clerk officially became the first. Abramović would start from the east, Ulay from the west. It would take three months and they would call the piece “The Lovers.” But by the time they negotiated terms with the Chinese government and raised the funds — Chinese officials demanded an extra $80,000 for “security and soft drinks” at the last minute — it was 1988 and the artists’ 12-year romance had crumbled. They changed the plan: they would meet harried and exhausted in the middle, shake hands and each travel on alone. It is, without doubt, art history’s most epic breakup.

Abramović tells the story of the Great Wall performance halfway through her new memoir, “Walk Through Walls,” and it marks a turning point in her narrative. Before, she had lived nomadically with Ulay, sometimes in a truck or in an Amsterdam warehouse with a shower fashioned from a hose. Ulay handled the funds. The two visited monks and embedded with Aborigine tribes in Australia. As soon as they parted, Abramović used what money she had to buy a large house in Amsterdam, albeit one inhabited by squatting drug addicts who threw knives at doors. She also took up with a narcissistic Spaniard 12 years her junior, sold sculptures to the Pompidou and began to buy designer clothes that offset the feelings of ugliness with which her split with Ulay left her.

By 2014, the year she appeared on Time’s “Most Influential People” list, Abramović had collaborated with James Franco, Lady Gaga and Willem Dafoe. Her MoMA retrospective and concurrent performance, “The Artist Is Present,” for which she sat silently in a chair for 750 hours staring into the eyes of one visitor after another, had given her mainstream fame.

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But her apparently effortless transition to stardom baffled some of her longtime fans: How to reconcile the image of the daring artist who, in 1975, cut a five-point star into her naked stomach then whipped herself before laying on a cross of ice with that of the artist who appeared in a blatantly materialistic Jay-Z video? Abramović’s memoir doesn’t reconcile these seemingly different versions of her, but it gives insight into why they can’t be reconciled.

The book is undeniably self-absorbed — a 1980 letter Abramović wrote to her mother about feeling she and Ulay were “the first people on the planet” sums it up pretty well. She is not too attuned to the experiences of others. (An advance copy of the book contained passages — edited out of the final, after an Internet controversy— saying that Aborigine people look “terrible to Westerners,” like “dinosaurs” with “stick-like legs.”) Yet the memoir is frank and frequently endearing, Abramović’s humor keeping her romanticism in check.

“I come from a dark place” is the very first sentence. She was born in Belgrade in 1946 to committed communists who saved one another from death during World War II. She never entirely separates the political turmoil in her home country — she grew up under a communist dictatorship in Yugoslavia — from her complicated relationship with her parents. Danica, Abramović’s fierce, germophobic mother, used to slap her daughter so hard she bled. Yet, with the exception of a few art-inspired sojourns to other countries, Abramović remained under her mother’s roof until she met Ulay at age 29. “Why do girls from good families go to bed at five p.m.?” she jokes about that time. “To be home by 10 p.m.” Once, after learning photographs of her daughter’s nude performance were at the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art, Danica threw a glass ashtray at her daughter’s head.

From the movie 'Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present'
From the movie ‘Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present’
(Show Of Force )
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Abramović, who began painting in childhood, did the first of her intrepid “Rhythm” performances in 1973 in Edinburgh, Scotland. She based it on a Yugoslav drinking game, stabbing 10 knives down between her fingers 10 times, groaning when she cut herself. As the paper beneath her hands filled with blood, the room grew silent and electric. “I became a Marina whom I didn’t know yet,” she writes, giving no rationale for why she chose to do the performance in the first place. Two years later, she stood passively for six hours in a Naples gallery, next to a table with 72 objects: a gun, scissors, ax, perfume and Polaroid camera, among others. By evening, audience members had cut off her clothing, cut her neck and placed the loaded gun in her hand. She writes that she was staging “fears for the audience: using their energy to push my body as far as possible. In the process, I liberated myself from my fears.”

She says relatively little else about the meaning behind these actions, nor does she reflect on her work in relation to other daring performance art happening in the 1970s. She recalls Joseph Beuys, the revered German artist, advising her to be careful (advice she disregards). She mentions a one-night stand with Vito Acconci, who famously spent days masturbating under the floorboards of New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, saying he “wasn’t good-looking” but “had the sexiest voice in the world.” German artist Rebecca Horn, a friend, gave Abramović relationship advice, but there is no reference to Horn’s own feminist performances in eccentric wearable sculptures. For those familiar with her work’s history, this lack of context might frustrate. This book is written for people interested in Abramović alone, not performance art more generally.

Near the end, her chronicle of projects becomes almost exhausting, for her and the reader. She begins an opera about her own life, founds an institute, does a 512-hour performance in London, works on a Givenchy show, gets recognized in coffee shops. “I began to be heavily criticized in the media for being a star, and for hanging around with stars,” she writes. “The perception is that they make you and then you have to pay for it, that an artist has to suffer. I’ve suffered enough....” She says this then moves on, suggesting she does not want to dwell on conflict or how her star quality might have changed her. Still, her grind physically drains her. She suffers heart palpitations and contracts shingles.

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In early 2016, she goes on a silent 30-day retreat in Kerala, India. She returns, is kissed — by whom she doesn’t say — and again feels electrically alive. It appears the artist who pulled her audience into her own vulnerability and expanded other artists’ sense of possibility mostly wanted to feel loved. This seems too simple, but it’s not necessary for the artist to be as profound and complicated as her art. Her early work especially, where she manipulated her femininity and pushed herself and viewers to aggressive, sometimes violent extremes, remains remarkably subversive. That’s something that revealing herself to be a self-involved woman with familiar, typical desires does not change.

Wagley writes about the arts and visual culture in Los Angeles.

Walk Through Walls: A Memoir

Marina Abramović

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Crown Archetype: 384 pp., $28


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