Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
I was born in Belgrade in 1946 just after the Second World War. My parents were both partisans and national heroes. They were very hard-core and were so busy with their careers that I lived with my grandmother until I was six. Until then, I hardly even knew who my parents were. They were just two strange people who would visit on Saturdays and bring presents. When I was six, my brother was born, and I was sent back to my parents. From that point on, my childhood was very unhappy. I grew up with incredible control, discipline, and violence at home. Everything was extreme. My mother never kissed me. When I asked why, she said, “Not to spoil you, of course.” She had a bacteria phobia so she didn’t allow me to play with other children out of fear that I might catch a disease. She even washed bananas with detergent. I spent most of my time alone in my room. There were many, many rules. Everything had to be in perfect order. If I slept messily in bed, my mother would wake me in the middle of the night and order me to sleep straight. (To this day, when I’m in a hotel, people think I didn’t even sleep there because the bed always looks so neat.) Whenever my brother cried, it was blamed on me, and I was beaten. I was beaten regularly for other reasons too and I started getting severe bruises. When one of my baby teeth fell out and the bleeding wouldn’t stop, everyone thought I might have hemophilia so I was put in the hospital for a year. That was the happiest, most wonderful time of my life. Everybody was taking care of me and nobody was punishing me. I never felt at home in my own home and I never feel at home anywhere.
Because of my constant isolation as a child, I started painting and drawing very early, at about three years old. This was one of the few things my mother supported and encouraged. There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to be an artist. I am really lucky in that respect because I didn’t have to spend time finding myself like a lot of others do. When I was twelve, I had my first art show. I remember being jealous of Mozart when I learned that he had his first concert at seven.
I attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade and later got a postgraduate degree at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. I began painting clouds and was constantly looking at the sky for inspiration. One day I was lying on the ground looking up and a few supersonic planes flew over me and made these incredible lines, like drawings. I watched them appear, form, then disappear; and then the sky was blue again. It was incredible. I immediately went to the military base and asked friends of my father’s if they could give me twelve supersonic planes to make a drawing in the sky. They called my father and said, “Get your daughter out of here. She is completely nuts!” But after that, I never went to the studio again. It was almost like a spiritual experience, and I realized that I could make art from practically nothing. I could use water, fire, earth, wind, myself. It’s the concept that matters. This was the beginning of performance for me.
At the time, performance was not considered a form of art. It didn’t exist on its own as a medium in school and it was even seen as ridiculous. This was my hell! But I knew that I was on the right path and began performing wherever and whenever I could. I became part of a student cultural center in Belgrade, which was kind of an oasis for me. There were six of us there. I was the only woman and the only one doing performance. We put on art shows together—each doing our own thing—because it was stronger than trying to do it alone.
Eventually, I began getting invitations to perform on my own and I started pushing my physical and mental limits. In one performance, for example, I tried to explore the relationship between performer and audience. I placed seventy-two objects on a table that people were allowed to use on me in any way they chose. Among the items were a feather, a rose, honey, scissors, a scalpel, a whip, a gun, and a single bullet. For six hours I allowed the audience to manipulate my body and actions. I felt violated. They cut up my clothes and stuck rose thorns in my stomach. One person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It was an aggressive atmosphere. I was criticized by my professors and often completely ridiculed by the press. But I kept doing what I was doing and hoped that my form of art would be accepted. I was very strong willed.
All this time, by the way, I remained living at home and was constantly being punished by my mother. It was scandal after scandal after scandal. She would burn art I made and didn’t allow me to be out of the house past ten p.m. But it never even crossed my mind to leave. At the time there was really no other choice. Several generations in the same house was how people lived in Eastern Europe. It’s kind of insane when you think about it. I had to do all my performances in the mornings and afternoons because I had to be home by ten p.m.!
On my twenty-ninth birthday I received an invitation to perform on a Dutch TV program. When I arrived at the airport in Amsterdam, I was met by another artist, a man named Ulay, who was to be my guide. We discovered that we had the same birthday and much more than that in common. We immediately fell terribly in love. I returned to Belgrade, but we got lovesick and planned to meet in Prague, which is between Amsterdam and Belgrade. We decided we would live together in Amsterdam and work together too. It was one of those magical moments where everything comes together. So at twenty-nine I ran away from home to live with Ulay. I literally escaped. My mother went to the police, told them that I was missing, and gave them a description of me. The police officer said, “But how old is she?” When he learned I was twenty-nine, he made my mother leave.
At first, I had trouble adjusting to my newfound freedom. While on one level I hated and rebelled against all my restrictions in Belgrade, both the political control and my home life, I also fed on them. In Amsterdam I felt the need to create my own restrictions and started building instructions for myself in my performances. To this day, every performance I do is based on discipline and specific instructions that have to be executed in front of the public. It’s become the frame I make my work within.
All I wanted to do was be an artist. I didn’t want to work in a restaurant or do any other job, so Ulay and I decided to live together in a van. It was the most radical but also the simplest decision I have ever made. It was really the only way we could exist. We had no money and the performances we did hardly paid. We lived like that for five years and it was bliss! We spent most of our time with the peasants in the countryside where we helped milk the goats and make pecorino cheese in exchange for food. Otherwise, we would stay by friends or just park anywhere. I knew every shower in every gasoline station. We would make phone calls to different places and ask if we could perform. We were always waiting for invitations to perform. Wherever we went, we would open the back of the car and ask people to come meet us. That was our lounge. We even had a car guest book that all our visitors would sign. We became a kind of ideal couple. People looked up to us because we didn’t make any compromises.
We were once invited to perform at a festival at the museum in Bologna, Italy. Our performance was called Imponderabilia, and it actually ended up becoming pretty famous. We rebuilt the entrance of the museum so it was smaller, and we stood naked on either side of the door facing each other. If you wanted to enter, you had to turn sideways and face either Ulay or me to get through. Our reasoning was that if there were no artists there would be no museum, so we thought that the idea of two artists standing naked at the entrance would be very poetic. We arrived in Bologna completely broke and out of gas, but we were promised about a $250 fee. At the time that was huge for us (we could live on that amount of money for about three months). Every morning all the artists would ask to be paid. The Italians were very nice and gave us food, but every day they had a different excuse as to why they could not pay us: Tomorrow is the strike, the day after the bank was closed, the uncle of the secretary forgot the key... I knew that if we finished the performance without getting paid, we never would be paid. On the last day, right before the museum was about to open (as the public was already lining up outside), Ulay decided to do something extreme. Already completely naked, he went up to the third-floor office, opened the door, and said, “Where is our money?” The woman working there was shocked. She screamed like hell, then took the key, opened the safe, and gave it to him. The money had, of course, always been there—they just didn’t want to give it to us. So Ulay was standing there naked, holding $250 in lira, which was a lot of bills, and he didn’t know what to do with them. We didn’t trust anybody there so he looked into the rubbish, found a plastic bag, wrapped the money in it, and put it in the water tank of the museum’s public toilet. It was the only place to hide it. And then we went to perform. The whole time, we were thinking, Is the money going to be flushed? In the end, we got the money and it was safe. We were the only artists paid for performing at that festival!
Ulay and I were very, very happy for nine years. We were a complete unit, professionally and emotionally, and we began to make a name for ourselves in our field. But then somehow the pressure of being the ideal couple and the pressure of our success were too much for him. To me, art was everything. To Ulay, it was not. We grew apart and he started to become unfaithful. It was very heavy and difficult for me to deal with. For three years I could not admit failure. I pretended to everyone that everything was still great. But it got to a point where I felt like if I did that any longer I would get cancer and die.
For eight years Ulay and I had been requesting permission to do a performance piece on the Great Wall of China. Our plan was to start at opposite ends, walk toward each other, and get married when we met. By the time the Chinese finally said yes, our relationship was over. I have never been one to give up a good opportunity, so we decided to still walk toward each other but say good-bye instead when we met. It was extremely painful. To make things worse, I knew at the time that Ulay had made his Chinese guide pregnant and would soon be having a child with her.
When things ended with Ulay, I was forty. I felt fat, ugly, and unwanted. I couldn’t fall back on my work because it was nonexistent; everything I had been doing was with Ulay. With nowhere to go, I decided to make theater from my life and created a piece where I actually played myself on stage. I invited Ulay and his then wife—he married the Chinese guide—to be in the production. I said good-bye to Ulay and my old life. It was a crazy moment. I have had very little contact with Ulay since then, and our relationship has never really been settled, but playing my life out on stage was very therapeutic and it’s something I still do.
When I was growing up, my private life was not valued. The noblest thing one could do in my family was to sacrifice everything for a cause. Art became my cause and it’s still everything to me. I dedicate all the energy in my body to my work and have completely sacrificed a more conventional personal life for it. I have no partner and no children, but I’m very proud of myself for always doing what I want, no matter what the cost and no matter how long it’s taken. I’ve turned into a soldier, actually. (I’ve turned into my parents!) I have hundreds of ideas every day. I wake up in the morning with this urge to create; it’s almost like I am in a fever. Every single day is structured. I work, work, work, and my curiosity never ends. The only time I feel tired and old is if I look back on all I’ve done, because it’s a lot. I’m also like a clinical case: If you don’t get love from your family, you turn to other things to get it. I get the love I need from my audience. Without the public, my performances wouldn’t exist because I am not motivated to perform alone. The public completes my work and has become the center of my world.
When a young artist comes to me and says, “I want to be famous and rich,” I ask him to leave because this is not the reason to make art. Those things are just side effects that you may be lucky enough to achieve. Your reason for doing art should be much deeper. You know you are an artist if you have to do art—it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.
The success of an artist is generally measured by how much he can sell his work for, especially in America. This is shocking to me. How can you measure people like that? There have been so many artists who were never recognized and didn’t sell anything during their lifetime, but when they died, their work sold for millions. El Greco took a hundred years to be recognized as an artist and his work is sublime. If you don’t sell anything, it doesn’t mean that you are not a good artist. Okay, it could be that you produce bad art—but sometimes it’s because your work is ahead of society. I think that a good work of art has many lives.
In postgraduate school I had a special professor who told me something I will never forget. He said, “If you draw with your right hand and become so skilled that you can even close your eyes and make any kind of drawing, immediately change to the left. Repetition will kill you.” Often, once an artist has achieved a certain level of success and is accepted and recognized by the public, he stops growing. He is afraid to experiment and go in other directions because he could fail.
It is really important for an artist to accept failure and be true to himself. When you experiment, you never know how things will turn out. It could be great or it could be really bad. I certainly don’t like all the art I have created, and I have put on some terrible performances! During them, I remember thinking, Oh, my God, this is such bullshit, but I couldn’t stop because there was an audience and I had obligations. When I was painting, I would sometimes work on one piece for a very long time and it would get worse and worse and worse. But then I would move on to a new painting and, in three minutes, I would be there. What you learn from one failure can be concentrated and transmitted to the next thing you do.
When artists reach a certain status, it’s important for them to open themselves up, to be generous, and to help the younger generation of artists. I, for example, have been teaching for more than twenty-five years, and I have created an organization (which is no longer active) that helped young artists to find galleries and to show at international festivals. I am currently creating an institute for time-based immaterial arts called the Marina Abramović Institute. As part of this, I will also help the artists financially.
It’s important to put the idea of dying in your daily life because it helps you to appreciate your existence on this planet. Death can come at any second and change everything. It can be the death of a loved one or your own. People spend endless time on total insanity, thinking that they will be here forever. Life is temporary. Make every day meaningful and don’t spend time on bullshit.