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Walk Through Walls

Marina Abramovic

When Marina Abramovic attended Susan Sontag's funeral in 2004, she was dismayed by the intimate ceremony. She thought her friend deserved a large celebration where the many who loved her could gather to honor her vibrant, extraordinary life. Refusing to leave the production of her own funeral to chance - or outside forces - Abramovic called her lawyer and set about planning her 'final piece.'

Along with stipulations governing the dress code (no black) and music (the singer Anohni performing 'My Way'), Abramovic told her lawyer she wanted three graves in the three cities that meant the most to her - Belgrade, Amsterdam, and New York. The one chosen for her final resting place would remain a secret.

After reading Abramovic's new memoir, Walk Through Walls, it's not surprising that the artist would plan her death with the same dedication and detailed attention with which she has created the performance pieces that have made up her life. From a very young age, her life has been one long performance in extremes.

After a six decade-long career, Abramovic has become a celebrity in her own right, with attendees camping out at museums to gain entrance to her most popular performances and collaborations with famous entertainers like Jay Z and Lady Gaga popping up between her museum shows. Her every performance and every new initiative are covered by the press, and her greatest hits widely known and studied.

An entertaining page-turner dotted with juicy details (she really did sit for eight hours a day during The Artist Is Present without using the bathroom) and touches of the fantastical (clairvoyants, telepathy, and the power of Tibetan monks all make appearances), Walk Through Walls lays out how Abramovic evolved as a performance artist and helped popularize the medium, becoming the 'godmother of performing art' in the process.

Abramovic was born in post-WWII Yugoslavia to Communist parents who revered Marshal Tito, and who were granted a comparatively privileged lifestyle because of their party rank. Despite this advantage, she remembers childhood as anything but easy as she faced a destructive relationship with her strict and abusive mother and one of neglect and estrangement from her beloved, but largely absent, father.

She found refuge in art, the one pursuit her mother allowed her to undertake with relative freedom. It wasn't until her late teens that she discovered performance art, but she was staging her rebellion from an early age. As a toddler, young Marina refused to walk for a time, a decision she attributes to her feelings of displacement as she was passed around between family members. When she was in her teens, she smeared brown shoe polish all over her bedroom and studio walls to keep her mother out -it looked like excrement and had a powerful smell (she stays mum on how she lived with the result).

In her early days as an artist, performance art was still a new medium struggling to catch the attention of the art establishment. Abramovic played a pivotal role in spreading the gospel, and she did it by pushing the boundaries of art and her own endurance.

Using her body as a canvas, Abramovic has dedicated her work to testing the limits of pain, fear, and human connection in order to reach a form of higher consciousness.

One of the more shocking effects of seeing all of the artist's performances recounted back-to-back is the sheer number of times she has put her life and health on the line to achieve a particular purpose. She doesn't seem to have a death wish - she abhors suicide in those who 'have the gift to create... because it's your duty to share this gift with others' - but you would be forgiven for entertaining that possibility given her willingness to die for her work.

In one of her early breakout performances when she was only 23, Abramovic staged the explosive show Rhythm 0 at a gallery in Naples.

For the piece, she laid 72 objects ranging from a rose and a mirror to a carving knife and a loaded gun on the table in front of her. A sheet of instructions spelled out the simple objective: During the six-hour show, 'I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility.'

By the end of the evening, one person had cut her neck with the carving knife - leaving a scar that remains to this day - and another had picked up the loaded gun and held it to her temple. Other guests intervened before he had the chance to pull the trigger. 'I was ready for the consequences,' Abramovic writes of her preparations for the performance. At the end, 'I looked like hell. I was half naked and bleeding; my hair was wet.' And it was a huge success.

In an earlier piece, Rhythm 10, Abramovic performed a drinking game played by Russian and Yugoslav peasants where she sat on the ground surrounded by onlookers and stabbed a knife quickly between her fingers. A microphone recorded the proceedings, and she let out a loud moan each time she missed and cut herself. She did this with 10 knives, and then repeated the process with the first recorder in playback mode and a second catching the new groans, layering her mistakes one on top of the other. She finished the performance to wild applause and a new understanding of what she could achieve with this art form.

'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 was a feeling I knew I would have to seek out, again and again and again,' Abramovic writes.

And she would. Her following shows would involve cutting a star on her stomach and laying on a bed of ice; standing for four minutes and 20 seconds with her lover Ulay pointing a taught arrow at her heart; running full speed at Ulay, with their naked bodies hitting each other again and again. She would spend 12 days living in three boxes perched on a gallery wall in full view of museum patrons, and another, shorter period cleaning a mountainous pile of bloody cow bones in a basement in Venice. And she would stage a show exploring her own death.

Not every performance tempts fate, but they all explore a piece of Abramovic's experience or personal history and her attempt to reach the limits of her understanding and endurance.

When the show ends, she goes to similarly extreme lengths in her efforts to recover from these explorations. Abramovic takes refuge in a remote monastery in the Himalayas, austere retreats in India, or the healing hands of shamans in Brazil. Whether she's seeking to recover from heartbreak or from a particularly intense period of work, she seeks out experiences that stretch her spiritual limits through cleansing rituals that are often punishingly strict or strange.

Toward the end of Walk Through Walls, Abramovic reveals that she sees herself as three people: the warrior Marina, the spiritual Marina, and the bullshit Marina - the 'poor little Marina who thinks everything she does is wrong... the one who, when she's sad, consoles herself by watching bad movies, eating whole boxes of chocolates, and putting her head under the pillow to pretend her troubles don't exist.'

If anything, it's the bullshit Marina who gets short shrift.

Abramovic is undoubtedly a warrior and a spiritual being. Just as she bares all - often literally - in her performances, she spares no detail in telling her life story. The bitterness she feels toward her mother's abuse bleeds through the page, as does the heartbreak she feels at the end of her relationships with her two great loves when she discovers that first Ulay, and then her younger Italian lover Paolo, have had affairs.

But while she isn't afraid to give the readers the juicy details of the sexual function or dysfunction of her lovers, a feeling remains that she's holding back a more vulnerable piece of herself.

It's this bullshit Marina, the one who 'went through hell before every one of my performances' due to nerves, who brings a deeper understanding of the great performer. And she's often the one relegated to the sidelines in favor of the passionate - sometimes to the point of performance - lamentations of the driven or wronged or heartbroken Marina.

As with her art, Abramovic sets the rules of her revelations, controlling the performance and giving the readers only as much as she wants to. And while she may not bare all, her story, in all its extremes, is more than enough.

In The Artist Is Present during her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Abramovic sat in a chair for three months, eight hours a day, and locked gaze with a steady stream of museum attendees. It was one of her biggest, most popular performances to date and it went a long way in achieving her mission to show a broad audience 'this transformative power [of performance] that other arts don't have.'

Looking back on that show, Abramovic reflects that 'this performance was beyond performance. This was 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.'

Walk Through Walls, too, teems with that wonderfully jumbled, delightful, complicated mix of art and life.

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Marina Abramovic - Rhythm 0 (on Imgur) TLDR: artist lays 72 items out for an audience to do what they wish with them to her for 6 hours. Ending with a loaded gun to head

To test the limits of the relationship between performer and audience, Abramovic developed one of her most challenging (and best-known) performances. She assigned a passive role to herself, with the public being the force which would act on her.

Abramovi«« had placed upon a table 72 objects that people were allowed to use (a sign informed them) in any way that they chose. Some of these were objects that could give pleasure, while others could be wielded to inflict pain, or to harm her. Among them were a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a single bullet. For six hours the artist allowed the audience members to manipulate her body and actions.

Initially, members of the audience reacted with caution and modesty, but as time passed (and the artist remained impassive) people began to act more aggressively. As Abramovic described it later:

'What I learned was that... if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.' ... ' felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.'

'It was kind of a lesson... I'm standing there, just dressed in T-shirt and black jeans and these are the object. So you also can not do anything, so why are you doing this? What is the public”Ēs limit to the artist? There are so many interesting questions posed for this performance. And to see how the public really lose control - that's kind of frightening.'

There was this person who cut my neck with a razor and drank my blood. There was another who gave me a rose and a third person who cut my clothes and who took the thorn of the rose and stuck it into my body. They undressed me, the didn't rape me because their wives were there ... the women would tell the men what to do to me. And there was one who came with a handkerchief and took my tears running down my face.

'They carried me around, put me on the table and stab the knife between my legs. And then one man took the pistol, put the bullet and put it my hand and held it to my head to see if I would really pull the trigger by pressing my hand. And I didn't have any resistance. And then came another person who took the pistol and threw it out of the window'

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