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Performance artist Marina Abramovic in Sao Paulo, Brazil on April 8, 2015. (NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Performance artist Marina Abramovic in Sao Paulo, Brazil on April 8, 2015. (NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Taking power

Marina Abramovic and the art of female sacrifice

By Alli Maloney on November 17, 2015

Before we even sat down together, Marina Abramovic turned and said, “I’m not a feminist, by the way.” Her notions of feminism are well recorded: Abramovic told the Guardian in 2012 that she rejects the label because “it puts you in a category and…an artist has no gender” and, in the same year, gave New York Times Magazine a statement similar to the one she just delivered, unsolicited.

And yet in the Brooklyn Museum, where she’d just been presented with the 2015 Women in the Art award from the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the space was buzzing with the energy of an all-female crowd, save for those working the stage lights. In good humor, she had held an intimate on-stage conversation about her work — an artistic compulsion that started during childhood in what was then Yugoslavia and since taken her around the globe. She even led an impromptu moment of meditation, standing as close to the crowd as the stage allowed and holding her body completely still with her palms at her side. Not a strand of her thick black ponytail moved for a full minute — a sample of the mindful performance art for which she is known.

Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Catherine J. Morris and performance artist/honoree Marina Abramovi at the Brooklyn Museum's "Women In the Arts" Luncheon on November 5, 2015 in Brooklyn, New York. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Brooklyn Museum)
An intimate conversation between Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art curator Catherine J. Morris and performance artist Marina Abramovic, at the Brooklyn Museum on November 5, 2015 in New York. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Brooklyn Museum)

Ambramovic’s body is her medium and subject, and her work often reflects on gender, sexuality and the tensions between male and female physicality and mind. “I never wanted [a] male body,” she told me. “I always think that women are stronger anyway. The moment that the woman has power to give birth, it already makes a superior human being, no matter what.” It is in this female form that she has withstood struggle, self-inflicted pain, exhaustion, and danger over increasingly prolonged timetables — a four-decade long examination of the physical and mental boundaries of the human experience.

So interconnected are her art and her life that, by her logic, if she were to adopt feminism she would intrinsically become a feminist artist. In a 1978 interview clip seen in “The Artist is Present,” an award-winning documentary focused on the 12 years she created art with former partner Uwe “Ulay” Laysiepen (who sued Ambramovic last week), Ulay claims the pair is “more liberated than feminist and non-feminist artists.” Together they were larger than just a man and a woman — each an artist, first and foremost. Abramovic is shown saying, “The end of each performance is always open.” Feminism, it seems, would limit or direct the outcome of a piece.

Marina Abramovic performs in "The Biography Remix" directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. (ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
Marina Abramovic, whose body is her medium, performs in “The Biography Remix” directed by Michael Laub, 10 July 2005 in Avignon, France. (ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier that day on the Brooklyn stage, she told the crowd, “[Being] the daughter of parents who are heroes is hell.” Born in Belgrade on November 30, 1946, Marina Abramovic was the first child of parents who were national icons for their service as Yugoslav Partisans during World War II. A self-proclaimed “black sheep” who was encouraged to study art, Abramovic perceived that she was never good enough, especially under the “military-style” rule imposed by her mother, Danica, after her father left the family in 1964. (After her mother died, Abramovic found that every nude photo of herself in the 56 books she’d published and sent Danica had been cut out and “maybe burned.”). Even as a 29-year-old woman in 1975, when she carved a star into her stomach with razorblades performing Lips of Thomas, she lived at home under a strict 10p.m. curfew that, if broken, resulted in beatings. Fostered in this environment and under communism’s tightening rule, Abramovic said she didn’t see the need for feminism “because my mother was ruling the country, like the women there do.”

“In America, there’s a different kind of relation to the idea of what women are and what men are,” she said. “Here, I understand the feminism.” Now based in New York, the 68-year-old performance artist runs her legacy namesake institute, a center for collaborative projects and events that doubles as home to the Abramovic Method, exercises designed by the artist throughout her career that explore the boundaries of body and mind. Unlike Yvonne Rainer, whose work she described as “definitely feminist,” Abramovic said she creates with a multi-level approach. “Art is or has to be universal … [It] can’t just feminist, can’t just be political, can’t be just spiritual. The more elements that you have in your work, the longer that work lives because every society can take one layer at a time [that they] need at the moment.”

In Rhythm 0a piece she performed in 1974, Abramovic practiced passivity for six hours while a crowd took advantage of 72 different objects she’d set out for them to use on her. “I am the object” was written in her instructions. Her clothes were cut from her frame; she was touched and made to bleed by the thorns of a rose stem. A loaded gun was pointed at her head and though there was only one bullet, Abramovic laughed wryly, remarking that “one bullet is enough.” She was “seeing how far they would go to kill an artist,” and in remaining passive in the face of escalating male aggression, Abramovic became “the Mother, whore, and Madonna.”

“They didn’t rape me,” she said, “because they were with their wives.”

Rhythm 0 has all the makings for feminist art: a woman’s nudity, her blood and tears as a response to violence and violation at the hands of men. Abramovic literally objectified herself. But the piece — none of her work, she stressed — was not presented with a feminist political agenda or through that lens. “I’m naked in so many places, but I’m not naked to please the men,” she explained, crossing one black-clad leg over another. “I’m not naked because I’m feminist. I take a naked body as a body in a space and I would relate it to architecture. I wanted to deal…with that temporality: here I am a woman, but it could also be [a] man’s body.” The closest she’s come to conducting an overtly-feminist piece was in her tenth year of practicing art, when she switched places with a prostitute who had been a sex worker for an equal number of years. “But I don’t think it was feminist either, we were just changing positions,” Abramovic said.

Women vary and “it’s very important to be yourself,” she advised. As a woman who is very wholly herself, to reject the label is a reflection of her rejection of all labels besides one–artist–about which Abramovic is deadly serious. A woman does not have to be a feminist, even if she opens doors for other women; a woman artist should not be expected to make feminist art.

She does recognize “sisterhood,” which she felt during a 2012 lecture where only women were allowed in the crowd of 3,000. “It was so touching. It was so profound,” she said. During the event, Abramovic was compelled to strip nude and did so. “If I’m performing in front of you, I don’t care. That body is the body which presents the concept.” (The personal self dies when the artist is present.) But, in private life, her natural shyness can take hold. “I could not take [my] dress off now in front of you because I have my privacy.” She admits that it’s complicated.

Marina Abramovic performs during 'The Abramovic Method' on March 19, 2012 in Milan, Italy. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
Marina Abramovic demonstrates “The Abramovic Method” on March 19, 2012 in Milan, Italy. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Creation is a selfish act. Women often pay a higher price for committing to their craft, but Abramovic “never accepted” that her position in life would be below any man. “Being an artist is hardcore,” she said. “It’s the question of woman’s sacrifice — we don’t like to sacrifice love, and family and all of this for art. [For] men, it’s so much easier to sacrifice because they don’t care [as] much.” She took on art so fully that she was willing to compromise the rest (failure, she said, was her inability to “sit and knit pullovers for my husband, [to] be normal”). If more women stood up for themselves early on and took an active, defiant position against patriarchal standards, more women would thrive — just think of Louise Bourgeois, she said, who waited until her husband died and children had grown up to practice art. “Look at America and all of the [19]50s women that just [sat] at home doing nothing on antidepressants, and the man would come home and [say], “Darling, I’m home!” and then we would fix the drinks. What else were we doing? We didn’t communicate the things to the men. It’s up to us, not anybody else.

Your power is yours to take. You have to feel, first of all, that you’re powerful. If you don’t have this feeling, then they will walk all over you.”

Additional reporting by Katie Booth.
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