Birthday Girl: A Biography of Marina Abramović

Until she was 10 years old, performance artist Marina Abramović believed her parents when they told her that her birthday was November 29th, “Republic Day” in her native Yugoslavia. They moved the date from the actual November 30th to link her birth with the fortunes of her country, which both her parents fought to make free during World War II. Years later, she met her long-time life and artistic partner Ulay on her birthday, only to find that November 30th was his birthday, too. “Now, rather than a date to be ignored as a depressing annual reminder of lost time and inevitable oblivion,” James Westcott writes in When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography, the first biography of the artist, “November 30 quickly became a cosmic guarantee of a shared destiny and a symbiotic union.” Just as her birthdate took on “cosmic” significance, Abramović’s flirtations with death and suffering take on greater meaning through her performance art. Westcott guides us through the maze of meaning Abramović weaves and helps us come through to the other side where death oddly gives birth to a whole new kind of life on this earth, if not necessarily the next.

For everyone who fell under Abramović’s spell (either in person or from a distance) during her recent MoMA exhibition, The Artist Is Present, Westcott’s biography will give you words to explain the feelings you experienced. Westcott recalls the first time he saw Marina in action performing The House with the Ocean View in 2002. “Eye contact” in that performance became “Abramović’s nourishment and the audience’s addiction.” Although the audience asks something of her, Marina “gives nothing in return, exuding pure empathy.” Instead, “she and the public gaze at each other, the sense of guardianship is mutual,” Westcott concludes. The vulnerability Abramović portrays becomes a strange kind of strength—the strength of allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Abramović suffers to make us contemplate our own suffering, it seems. We want to protect her at the same time that she is protecting us from being overwhelmed our own hidden pains. Her conquering of anguish allows us to conquer by proxy.

Westcott takes his title from Abramović’s elaborate instructions for her funeral, but it also serves as the central dynamic of her art—she dies so that we (and she) may live. “For Abramović,” Westcott explains, “performance was most importantly a means of initiating herself—again and again—into a sharpened state of consciousness.” Performance pieces based on pain “served as rehearsals for death—and in the meantime made her feel much more alive.” For anyone who sees the art of Abramović, Ulay, or Chris Burden as sadistic spectacle, Westcott’s insights into Abramović’s art and performance art in general will make you a convert to the cause, which is always about life, but sometimes gets there through death.

After documenting for the first time Abramović’s upbringing in Yugoslavia, Westcott outlines her early solo career before giving a multifaceted picture of the Abramović/Ulay collaboration. Never falling into Freuding tropes, Westcott illustrates how each stage of Abramović’s life shaped her life and art without reducing it to “this led to that” connections. Marina remains an independent woman throughout, influenced but never a passive recipient of her environment.

Sometimes the “he said, she said” double-sided coverage of the Abramović/Ulay years falls into Rashomon territory. However, the complexity of that relationship—lovers, collaborators, and competitors simultaneously—could hardly result in anything less. “I could not even breathe from love,” Marina says in her “train wreck English” of her life with Ulay. Westcott captures the breathlessness of that special relationship and illustrates beautifully how it fed their performance art, which culminated in The Lovers, the 1988 performance piece in which the two artists began walking at opposite ends of The Great Wall of China—only to meet in the middle and conclude both their emotional and artistic relationships. Just as the two artists set themselves on an inevitable collision course, you feel as if Westcott set you off to crash into the depths of their experience. From that final meeting/parting, we see Marina grow in every way, blossoming into the international figure she has become while promoting not only her art, but performance art itself.

Westcott writes with the insight of an insider. After seeing that 2002 performance of The House with the Ocean View, Abramović soon drew her into her circle of friends and associates. The author even participated in one of Abramović’s performance art “boot camps” for aspiring performance artists. Knowing that Westcott once stood naked in a forest blindfolded in search of the heightened experiences Abramović promises allows him to step inside Abramović’s performance art in a way that a “purely objective” biographer (as if such a thing could exist) never could. When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography speaks with the passion and honesty of its subject and will reaffirm your faith in art as a matter of life or death.

[Many thanks to MIT Press for providing me with a review copy of James Westcott’s When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography.]

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