Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović [Ah·brah·moe·vich] is one of the most influential and controversial artists of our time. She is widely known for her groundbreaking and provocative performance art, which explores the limits of the human body and mind. Her work challenges the conventions of art and society, and invites the audience to participate in her artistic vision.

In this article, we will explore the life and work of Marina Abramović, from her early beginnings in Yugoslavia to her global fame and recognition. We will examine how her personal and political history shaped her artistic identity, and how she uses her body as a canvas of courage and creativity.

Early Life and Education

Marina Abramović was born on November 30, 1946, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (currently Serbia). She came from a high-profile and influential family, with a strong military and political background. Her father, General Vojo [Voy·yo] Abramović, was a commander of the First Proletarian Brigade in the Partisan Army, which fought against the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. He later became a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Belgrade, and taught a course on national defense. Her mother, Danica Rosić [Don·itzah Rose·ich], was also a major in the Partisan Army, and met her future husband on the battlefield. She later became the director of the Museum of the Revolution (now part of the Museum of Yugoslav History).

Marina grew up in a strict and oppressive household, where she had to obey her mother’s 10:00 p.m. curfew even in her twenties. She moved out of her family home at 29. She later said in an interview: “My mother never kissed me or told me she loved me, because she didn’t want to spoil me, and now I have to do so much to deserve attention. You have to get past the private suffering and translate it [in]to something universal, and then you detach from it.”

Marina showed an interest in art from an early age, and attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade from 1965 to 1970. She completed her master’s degree at the Academy of Fine Art in Zagreb (Croatia) in 1972, and taught at the Academy of Fine Art in Novi Sad (Serbia) from 1973 to 1975. She was initially drawn to painting, but soon became dissatisfied with the medium. She felt that painting was too passive and distant, and that she needed a more visceral and direct form of expression. She was inspired by the emergence of performance art in the 1960s and 1970s, through such artists as Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman.

Early Solo Work

Marina’s early solo work focused on the body as a site of experimentation and endurance. She performed a series of pieces called Rhythms, in which she subjected herself to extreme physical and mental challenges, such as stabbing, burning, cutting, and drugging herself. She also exposed herself to the audience’s intervention, allowing them to do anything to her with 72 objects on a table, including a gun and a bullet. She wanted to test the boundaries of her own body and mind, and to explore the relationship between the performer and the spectator.

Some of her most notable early solo pieces are:

  • Rhythm 10, 1973: She played Russian 5 finger fillet, stabbing between fingers (or at least trying to and sometimes missing) 20 times.
  • Rhythm 5, 1974: She stood inside a burning 5 pointed-star and almost died of asphyxiation.
  • Rhythm 2, 1974: She took a pill for catatonia that induced uncontrollable movements.
  • Rhythm 0, 1974: She allowed the audience to do anything to her using 72 objects on the table, discovering how violent the crowd could be.
  • Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, 1975: She vigorously combed her dark, thick hair and face with a metal brush while intoning repetitively, “Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful.”

Her work also touched on feminist issues, as she often performed in the nude, exposing her slender and vulnerable body. She challenged the symbolic and erotic use of the female body in art and society, and questioned the notions of beauty and gender roles. For example, in Trade Exchange, 1975, she switched places with a prostitute in the Red Light district in Amsterdam.

Marina’s work was controversial and provocative, and often met with censorship and criticism. She was arrested and interrogated by the police several times, and was banned from performing in some countries. She was also misunderstood and marginalized by the mainstream art world, which did not recognize performance art as a legitimate form of expression. She later said: “I was always considered crazy, dangerous, and marginal. And I still am.”

Collaboration with Ulay

Marina’s artistic breakthrough came when she met Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), a German performance artist, in 1976. They shared the same birthdate, though not the same birth year: he was born in 1943. They fell in love and became artistic partners, collaborating on a series of works called Relation Works. They performed together all over the world, creating pieces that emphasized raw physicality and human connection. They explored the themes of duality, identity, love, and conflict, using their bodies as the medium and the message.

Some of their most memorable Relation Works are:

  • Relation in Space, 1976: Their bodies collided as they ran toward each other from a short distance over and over again.
  • Breathing In/Breathing Out, 1977: They exchanged CO² by breathing into each other’s mouths until they passed out.
  • Relation in Time, 1977: They intertwined ponytails and sat for several hours.
  • Imponderabilia, 1977: They faced each other, standing nude in a doorway, as visitors walked through.
  • AAA AAA, 1978: They yelled into each other’s mouths.
  • Point of Contact, 1980: They pointed fingers at each other at the same height.
  • Night-Sea Crossing, 1981-87: They sat motionless for 7 hours at opposite ends of a table.
  • The Lovers, 1988: They walked the Great Wall of China for 90 days, beginning at opposite ends and meeting in the middle, where they embraced to end their relationship.

Their collaboration was intense and passionate, but also turbulent and difficult. They had conflicts over artistic and personal issues, and their relationship gradually deteriorated. They decided to end their partnership with a symbolic gesture, walking the Great Wall of China from opposite ends and meeting in the middle. They did not see each other for 23 years, until they reunited briefly at Marina’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, where they shared a silent and emotional hug.

Later Solo Work

The breakup of Marina and Ulay in 1988 and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s – plus the Balkan Wars of the late 1990s – directly shaped the third period of Marina’s career. She had to reinvent herself as a solo artist and deal with her revised national identity as a Serb and Montenegrin, now two different countries. She also had to cope with the loss of her parents, who died in 1999 and 2008, respectively. She created a series of works that reflected on her personal and political history, and expressed her emotions and memories.

Some of her most significant later solo works are:

  • Balkan Baroque (1997), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, in which she scrubbed off the flesh and blood from piled-up cow bones, as a metaphor for the cleansing of the Balkan trauma.
  • The Hero (2001), dedicated to her parents’ memories, in which she rode a white horse while holding a white flag, accompanied by the Yugoslavian anthem sung by Marica Gojević.
  • Balkan Erotic Epic (2005), a triptych video that features women and men performing ancient Balkan fertility rites, such as exposing their genitals to the sky and the earth, as a celebration of life and sexuality.
  • Seven Easy Pieces (2005), a series of seven-hour performances at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, in which she re-enacted six works by other artists, and one by herself, as a homage and a challenge to the history of performance art.
  • The Artist is Present (2010), her solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in which she sat still and silent for 736 hours and 30 minutes, facing anyone who wanted to sit opposite her, creating an intimate and intense connection with thousands of strangers.
  • Marina Abramović Institute (2013-present), a school for performance art that she founded in Hudson, New York, where she teaches and mentors young artists, and develops new forms of long-durational and immaterial art.


Marina Abramović is a pioneer and a legend of performance art, who has pushed the boundaries of art and life for over four decades. She has used her body as a medium, a bridge, and a temple, to explore the themes of pain, endurance, trust, vulnerability, identity, and spirituality.

She has influenced and inspired generations of artists and audiences, who have witnessed and participated in her extraordinary and transformative performances. She is a living example of how art can be beautiful, powerful, and meaningful.

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