Marina Abramović and I have never met. I’ve never attended any of her performances and I’m familiar with her work only through her YouTube archive. Yet, curiously enough—despite the fact that this may sound presumptuous—I feel as if I know her very well. Now that I have read her extraordinary memoir/autobiography, Walk Through Walls, I’m starting to gain a better sense of the epic scale and resonance of her remarkable existence. Marina has lived like an unstoppable force of nature, with the kind of power that leaves me feeling breathless and disquieted—while at the same time profoundly impressed, awed, and inspired. In my view, she is utterly unique. I don’t believe there is, or ever has been, any artist or woman quite like her.
It’s hard to witness recordings of the endurance tests she has willfully chosen to undergo. They are often arduous and punishing, to the point where you realize that it’s a miracle she
hasn’t completely taken permanent leave of her senses. These events weren’t created for the purposes of entertainment.
She reveals with a certain candor that much of her outlet of expression has been drawn from a deep well of personal psychic and physical pain, either selectively or unwittingly. As I turn the pages of the book, I hear her voice in my head, as if she were actually narrating the words. When Marina speaks, it sounds as if you’re listening to a legendary folktale from the ancient landscapes of the Balkan Mountains. Her voice is soothing, calm, and centered. It belies the trauma, fear, and darkness coiled at the root of her impulse to express and expunge.
Marina has dealt with the issues of fear and darkness ever since she was a little girl in postwar Yugoslavia. Fear has been her foe and friend—making her the warrior and artist she ultimately became.
Up to this point, there has been little she hasn’t faced down or wrestled with: shame, trust, discipline, control, ritual, gesture, risk, freedom, consciousness, danger, death, transcendence, power, sexuality, boundary, connection, myth, taboo, ego, identity, violation, aggression—to name but a few of her human/mythological themes.
There is one particular image that plays over in my mind’s eye from Marina’s performance with her once long-term partner Frank Uwe Laysiepen, known as Ulay, titled Rest Energy.
To quote: “This piece, with a big bow and arrow, was the ultimate portrait of trust. . . . I held the bow and Ulay held the string pulled out with the end of the arrow . . . the tip pointed at my chest. . . . We each had a tiny microphone taped to our chests, under our shirts, so the audience could hear the amplified sound of our hearts beating. . . . This piece lasted for four minutes and twenty seconds, which felt like an eternity. The tension was unbearable.”
One day I hope Marina and I will meet. I think we have a lot to talk about.