MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ TIMELINE
1946 (November 30): Marina Abramović was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (present-day Serbia).
1965: Abramović began her studies at the Academy of Visual Arts in Belgrade. She also read esoteric literature, in particular by H.P. Blavatsky, and books by Mircea Eliade.
1974: Abramović performed Rhythm 5 (originally The Star of Fire) in the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade.
1975: Abramović met the German artist Ulay, with whom she lived and worked until 1988. In their art, the couple explored inter alia alchemical ideas about the hermaphrodite.
1980/1981: Abramović and Ulay spent six months in the Australian outback, meeting local Aborigines.
1981: Abramović and Ulay started their year-long series of performances titled Nightsea Crossing, in which they expressed their interest in “perennial wisdom” as the common esoteric core of different spiritual and religious traditions.
1988: Abramović and Ulay ended their relationship. Abramović started producing Transitory objects with crystals and magnets, whose stated purpose was to help her audience to reach a “higher level of consciousness.”
1990: Abramović started her teaching career (1990-2004) at different art academies in Europe. She organized her Cleaning the House student workshops, based on exercises inspired by G.I. Gurdjieff, the Buddhist vipassana meditation, and other spiritual traditions.
2010: Abramović performed The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She sat in a chair for two and a half months, inviting the public to sit across her and engage in telepathic conversation.
2012: Abramović presented in Milan her first version of The Abramović Method, a syncretic system of exercises aimed at spiritual development.
2012/13: Abramović went on a “spiritual journey” in Brazil. She met spiritual “surgeon” and Spiritualist medium John of God, who transmitted to her a mysterious “current” to help her “raise human consciousness through art.”
2014: Abramović performed 512 Hours. During the sixty-four-day-long performance, she tried to generate a “current” with the audience through different exercises.
2015: Abramović started her “world tour” teaching The Abramović Method, presenting it in São Paulo, Sydney, and Athens.
2016: During the American presidential campaign, Abramović unexpectedly became the target of conspiracy theories claiming she was a Satanist.
2016: Abramović published her autobiographical book, Walk Through Walls: A Memoir.
Marina Abramović (b. 1946) [Image at right] is one of the international pioneers of performance and body art. Her work has often been interpreted through political and feminist lenses, while the influence of Western esotericism has not been properly discussed. However, from the very beginning, Abramović’s art has been significantly affected by the New Age and other contemporary “alternative” spiritualities. In the period of her joint work with German artist Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen, b. 1943), these esoteric pursuits became even more prominent. Later in her career, she came to present her performance art, which increasingly included the participation of the public, as a kind of spiritual practice. Eventually, she developed The Abramović Method, a syncretic mind-body-spirit training program for her followers, which drew on different sources such as New Age, the Armenian esoteric master George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866?-1949), vipassana meditation, Brazilian Spiritualism, and others.
Abramović was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (present-day Serbia), on November 30, 1946, in a family of the Communist elite. She spent her early childhood outside her parents’ house with her maternal grandmother, who was a believer of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The brother of her grandmother’s husband, Bishop Varnava Rosić (1880-1937), had been the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church between 1930 and 1937. In the literature about Abramović, including in texts written by the artist herself, it has been claimed that her great-uncle Varnava had been canonized as a saint by the Serbian Orthodox Church (Abramović 2004:36; Stiles 2008:42; Richards 2010:42), but the information is not correct. Đurić-Mišina (2009) does not mention a canonization in his extensive biography of Patriarch Varnava. I contacted Đurić-Mišina, and he confirmed that Varnava, an important figure in the history of the Serbian Orthodox Church, was neither beatified nor canonized. Abramović is not interested at all in Christianity and the Serbian Orthodox Church, but she seems to be fascinated by the idea that a member of her family had been a distinguished spiritual leader.
During her student years (1965-1970), Abramović was involved in what might be termed the Yugoslav counterculture movement. In 1968, she took part in student protests, inspired by the ideas of the New Left, but soon became disillusioned with politics. On the other hand, like many of her peers, Abramović was quite enthusiastic about what Gordan Djurdjevic called the “occult boom” in the Yugoslavia of the 1970s (Djurdjevic 2013:80). Due to her mother’s political influence in cultural circles, Marina Abramović and her brother Velimir Abramović (b. 1952), who is today a popular New Age author in Serbia, had access to the home libraries of Belgrade intellectuals, who owned important books and magazines on esotericism published in pre-socialist Yugoslavia. There were also newly published titles on the subject, like the various handbooks of occultism written by the “hermeticist” esoteric author Živorad Mihajlović Slavinski (b. 1937) (Djurdjevic 2013: 84-91). As her biographer notes, Abramović was also fascinated by the writings of the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), and of the Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) (Westcott 2010:41-42).
When it came to art, Abramović was very impressed by German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), a member of the Anthroposophical Society, and his idea of the artist as “shaman” and “healer” of the society. When Beuys, already famous at that time, visited Belgrade in 1974 to give lectures during the art manifestation III April Meetings in the Student Cultural Center (SKC), the young Abramović “made sure to spendas much time with him as she could” (Stokić 2014). On the other hand, many New Left-oriented Yugoslav students were not at all delighted with the “preacher-shaman” Beuys and his blend of “spirituality” and Marxism (Denegri 1996:199; Lončarić 1974).
Beuys was in the audience when Abramović performed her famous Rhythm 5, initially titled The Star of Fire (Jurčić 1974; Postolović 1974), during the III April Meetings in the SKC [Image at right]. Abramović doused with gasoline and lit a big wooden construction in the shape of what was easily recognized as the petokraka (“five-pointed star of Socialism ” in Serbian), a symbol of the regime. Abramović cut her hair, finger and toe nails, and threw them into the fire. Then she laid down in the blazing star, thus evoking the famous drawing of a man inscribed in a pentagram, from the book by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) De occulta philosophia (1533). Finally, she lost consciousness due to the lack of oxygen, and was saved from the flames by her colleagues.
In an interview given shortly after this performance, Abramović explained to a journalist that the shape of petokraka “corresponds to a human, because it has five points as a human does.” She also said that she was using “elements of ritual magic” (Jurčić 1974). Abramović’s biographer reports that she preferred to think of petokraka as “the pentagram of the occult” (Westcott 2010:82). Interestingly, a similar identification of petokraka with the pentagram appeared in Slavinski’s The Psychological Study of Magic (1972), republished as The Keys of Psychic Magic (1973). Slavinski, who drew on the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Djurdjevic 2013:85-86), described in his book what he called The Ritual of Pentagram or Petokraka, where he instructed his readers to visualize a big petokraka burning with the “blue flame of blazing spirit” (Slavinski 1973:125).
Abramović used the symbol of pentagram more explicitly in her Thomas Lips (1975), performed in the Krinzinger Gallery in Innsbruck, Austria. [Image at right] The performance started with the “Eucharist,” in which she sat naked at a table, ate one jar of honey, and drank one bottle of red wine. Then she drew on the wall an inverted pentagram around the photography of Thomas Lips, a young Swiss man she wanted to seduce (Stokić 2008:42-44), cut the same inverted pentagram on her belly with a razor-blade, flagellated herself until she started to bleed, and finally “crucified” herself on a cross made of ice blocks.
In a number of English texts on Abramović, the star symbol used both in Rhythm 5 and Thomas Lips has been exclusively interpreted as the petokraka, i.e. the five-pointed star of Socialism, and its use as a “critique of Socialism’s oppressions” (Richards 2010:12). However, Yugoslavian press clippings from that time reveal that most of the young art critics were very positive in their reviews of Rhythm 5 (Jurčić 1974; Postolović 1974), and the Young Communist League of Yugoslavia (SKOJ) even bestowed an art prize to Abramović for her performance (n.a. 1975). Another wrong claim that we find in a certain literature about Abramović in English is that her flagellation and pain-enduring performances derived from the Serbian Orthodox Christian tradition (Stokić 2010:25; Biesenbach 2010:16). These claims represent an uninformed and uncritical re-interpretation of Abramović’s own narratives, mostly used for “selling” her in the West as an art product from the Balkans with both intriguing “Communist” and “Orthodox Christian” overtones (on Abramović’s “Balkanization,” see Avgita 2012).
In fact, Abramović’s usage of Christian symbols and liturgical elements is more likely to draw inspiration from the esoteric literature, including Slavinski’s The Keys of Psychic Magic. Slavinski wrote about the two powerful magical symbols, the cross and the pentagram or petokraka, and both were present in Thomas Lips. Slavinski also warned his readers not to identify the cross with Christianity, because it was used as a powerful symbol in magic since the times of the ancient Egypt, more than 4,000 years ago, long before Jesus Christ (Slavinski 1973:30). Abramović, thus, used the symbols of the cross and the pentagram or petokraka in a performance that had nothing to do with Christianity, Orthodox or else. Thomas Lips was dedicated to a young man she wanted to seduce by means of something that could well be described as ritual magic.
In 1975, Abramović met the German artist Ulay, with whom she would live and work until 1988. Before he met Abramović, Ulay had been making self-portraits dressed as half man and half woman, i.e. as a Hermaphrodite, as the title of one of his photographs from 1973 suggested. After the two artists fell in love, they continued to explore the idea of the hermaphrodite in their joint work. The fact that both had their birthdays on the same day (November 30) contributed to their esoteric belief that they represented in fact one perfect being made of two opposing principles, male and female. They explored the alchemical idea of the hermaphrodite in a series of performances in which they ran towards each other and collided at high speed (Relation in Space 1976), or spent hours with their long hairs tied together (Relation in Time 1977). [Image at right] In one interview from that time, Abramović said: “I feel the perfect human being is a hermaphrodite, because it’s half man, half woman, yet it’s a complete universe” (Kontova 1978:43).
In 1980/1981, the two artists spent six months in the Australian outback. They encountered local Aborigines, which revived Abramović’s old fascination with Eliade’s descriptions of shamans and their rituals. In this period, the couple also submitted to hypnosis, studied Buddhism, and visited India to participate in vipassana meditation retreats. Their spiritual omnivorism was reflected in a series of twenty-two performances called Nightsea Crossing (1981-1987), organized in different museums around the world. Performances lasted between one and sixteen days, during the working hours of the museums, and were sometimes very demanding physically. For example, Abramović and Ulay would sit motionless at the opposite ends of a table, just looking at each other. To gain better access to the special kind of esoteric knowledge they were hoping to obtain through these performances, Abramović and Ulay abstained from food, which sometimes affected their health, especially Ulay’s.
The couple claimed that Nightsea Crossing was the outcome of their initiation in Australian Aboriginal wisdom. However, what they were doing was very similar to techniques used in vipassana meditation. The title itself referred to the idea of the “Nachtmeerfahrt” used by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) to explain the process of diving into the unconscious, the “night sea” (Kuhlman 2009:148). In one version of the Nightsea Crossing, titled Conjunction, the two artists invited one Australian Aborigine and one Tibetan lama, whom they considered to be the representatives of the non-Western esoteric knowledge of telepathy and extrasensory perception (Baas and Jacob 2004:188), to sit with them around a big circular table covered with gold. The title of this performance alluded to the alchemical notion of coniunctio oppositorum, the union of the opposites, as described by Jung in his book Mysterium Coniunctionis (Schloen 2006:224). Jung wrote that in alchemy coniunctio was usually expressed in dualistic terms (e.g male-female), and later also as quaternio, or the union between four elements, sometimes represented as “sitting” around a circular table (Jung 1971 :23). In Abramović’s and Ulay’s Conjunction, everything indicated the importance of the number four. Four people were sitting around the table, whose diameter was four meters, and which was visibly made from four parts (and was later also exhibited divided in parts); the performance lasted four days, each day for four hours. Conjunction could be considered as the outcome of Abramović’s and Ulay’s typical New Age fascination with perennial wisdom, or the search for an alleged common esoteric core of different religious and spiritual systems: shamanism, Buddhism, alchemy, esoteric Jungian psychology, and so on.
After the breakup with Ulay in 1988, Abramović continued her career as a solo performance artist. Walking in the steps of Beuys, she increasingly came to present her art as a kind of spiritual teaching and practice that would eventually transform society, a “social sculpture.” After visiting the Australian Aborigines, Brazilian shamans, different Asian cultures and vipassana retreats (which she preferred to call “monasteries”), Abramović considered herself initiated in the perennial wisdom of the non-Western traditions. In one interview, she said: “I see myself as a bridge going to the East to get the knowledge and going to the West to transmit it in the form of performance. People don’t go to the temples anymore. They go to the museums. And to me performance can be a great tool to create some kind of platform for that kind of experience” (Abramović 2008:25).
Abramović’s first attempt to present her art as a platform for spiritual experience was by inviting her public to “perform” by using her Transitory Objects. These furniture-like objects, which she has been producing since 1988, are usually made by using crystals, copper, or magnets, materials which, according to Abramović, emanate an “energy” capable of healing or spiritually transforming the user. Abramović invites her public to sit, stand or lie on the exhibited Transitory Objects, eyes closed, without moving, in a way similar to what is done in vipassana meditation [Image at right]. According to Abramović, the purpose of her Transitory objects is to help her followers in their spiritual development. When humanity would reach the sought-for spiritual transformation, no objects would be necessary, and that is why she calls them “transitory.” Abramović presents her work with the Transitory objects only as the first phase in the spiritual evolution of her audience. The final goal is to reach the “higher level of consciousness” that will enable the audience to receive the thoughts and “energy” directly from her, by means of telepathy (Art Meets Science 2013).
During her teaching career at different art academies in Europe (1990-2004), Abramović used to organize special workshops with her students, called Cleaning the House. The house was a metaphor for the body, which, according to Abramović, needed to be clean(s)ed before a student might engage in any serious artistic activity. However, the final goal of these workshops was not purely artistic. Abramović made several selected students “attempt ectoplasmic emission” while sitting and looking in each other’s eyes, without moving or talking for long periods of time (Drinkall 2005:227). Cleaning the House workshops included Abramović and her students not eating and not talking for five or more days, while engaging in various physical and mental exercises. Some exercises were clearly inspired by G.I. Gurdjieff, or the “great Russian teacher,” as Abramović called him. In her Stop with Mirror Exercise, which echoes the famous Stop Exercise created by Gurdjieff, Abramović would unpredictably put a mirror in front of a student’s face. The student’s effort was not to change the facial expression in that moment.
Abramović also introduced some exercises she learned during her retreats in India, such as the Slow Motion exercise, where students were instructed to move as slowly as possible while performing their everyday activities. In another exercise, Counting the Rice, students were given piles of uncooked rice mixed with lentils, with an assignment to separate the grains and count them, which usually took several hours [Image at right].
During her retrospective at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Abramović first tried to present her art as a form of telepathy, in a performance called The Artist is Present (2010). She announced she would sit silently on a chair for two and a half months, six days a week, from the opening to the closing of the museum. The audience was invited to sit one by one on an empty chair across Abramović and engage in a non-verbal communication with her. Abramović’s performance attracted more than half a million people, and the show became the most visited exhibition of contemporary art in the world that year (The Art Newspaper 2011). For a certain number of visitors, this experience of sitting and engaging in a mutual gaze with Abramović had a cathartic effect: they cried and started behaving very emotionally. All the 1,545 sitters were photographed by the Italian photographer Marco Anelli, and their portraits were immediately published online. However, faces of people that cried especially attracted the public attention, and Abramović soon became a global art celebrity who was supposed to possess the healing power of “mind reading.”
After the enormous success of The Artist is Present, Abramović decided that the time had come for her to devise her own method of teaching spirituality through performance. She called it simply The Abramović Method. The goal of The Abramović Method is personal growth, or “working on oneself” by means of performing different exercises. This echoes esoteric masters such as Anthroposophy’s Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), or Gurdjieff, and their methods of training. The Abramović Method has gone through many changes during the years. However, the main purpose seems to have remained the same: it is the physical and spiritual healing of contemporary Western people, who lack time to be in the present moment and get in touch with their Inner, or Higher, Selves.
The Abramović Method was significantly influenced by the artist’s encounters with different mediums, shamans and healers in Brazil in 2012/2013. One of the most important teachers Abramović met there was “John of God” (João de Deus, João Teixeira de Faria, b. 1942), a popular spiritual “surgeon” and spiritist medium. As described in her Brazil Journal (Abramović 2014:73-100), and also in a documentary, The Space in Between: Marina Abramović and Brazil (2016), Abramović assisted John of God during several of his controversial “visible surgeries,” performed with a kitchen knife and without anesthesia. [Image at right] In addition to the “visible surgeries” there are also “invisible surgeries,” which are believed to occur with the help of a mysterious “current” that flows through John of God’s healing center while patients sit and meditate. This “current” is supposedly channeled by John of God and other mediums (Rocha 2017). Abramović was most probably accepted in the circle of mediums that were allowed to help John of God in his surgeries and mission. In her Brazil Journal, Abramović claimed that John of God transmitted to her the “energy” to help her “raise human consciousness through art” (Abramović 2014:77). She was also awarded one of the special armchairs near John of God’s “throne,” among other mediums who were there “to channel energy” (Abramović 2014:78).
In 2014, after she returned from Brazil, Abramović organized her next performance in London, titled 512 Hours. During the sixty-four days of the exhibition, she and a few of her trained assistants were present in the gallery, from morning until evening, supposedly generating the mysterious “current” through their contacts with the audience, as it was announced in the catalogue of the performance (O’Brien 2014:16). Abramović and her assistants gently whispered to every visitor to close their eyes, and to “be in the present,” while they were leading them by the hand in the gallery and instructing them what to do next Abramović and her assistants also laid their hands “reiki-like” on the visitors’ backs [Image at right], as if they were manipulating some kind of “energy.” The activities at the exhibition were not the same during the sixty-four days, as Abramović experimented to find out which of the exercises produced more “energy” there. Some of these exercises were later incorporated in new versions of The Abramović Method presented in São Paolo (2015), Sydney (2015), and Athens (2016). In these new versions of her Method, Abramović also introduced some of the exercises from the Cleaning the House student workshop mentioned before.
The Abramović Method is still constantly changing. It is a work in progress. In its essence, it is a typical contemporary New Age workshop for “changing the consciousness” and “working on oneself,” presented in the context of performance art. For Marina Abramović, performance is not just a form of contemporary art done by an artist: it is a practice suited for all those who want to advance in their spiritual development.
During the American presidential campaign of 2016, Abramović unexpectedly became the subject of conspiracy theories whose authors claimed that the Serbian artist was a Satanist. Among the many leaked emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, published by Wikileaks, one was from Abramović. She invited John Podesta’s brother, art collector Tony Podesta, to a “Spirit cooking dinner,” and asked whether John Podesta also wanted to join the event. Tony Podesta forwarded this email to his brother, and it finally ended up among the hacked emails. Various right-wing groups and conspiracy theorists immediately searched the Internet for the words “spirit cooking,” and found “evidence” that Abramović was actually a leader of a secret satanic cult involving several high-ranking Washington politicians. What they actually found was an old video of the artist preparing her installation Spirit Cooking with Power Objects (1997) in a gallery called Zerynthia in Paliano, Italy. Indeed, this video is not for those with a weak stomach: using a thick brush dipped in a container full of coagulated pig blood, Abramović writes different texts called Spirit Cooking on the walls of the gallery. She then places several human-shaped figurines, that she calls Power Objects, in the corner of the gallery, and splashes them with blood.
It is perhaps not surprising that such scenes might look “satanic” to some people. However, the Power Objects were actually made from anthropomorphic candles used in Hoodoo and other popular Afro-American syncretic spiritualities, which are also often wrongly presented in Western media as “black magic” or “Satanism.” Initially, Spirit Cooking was a collection of Abramović’s “absurd poetry’” or a “cookbook” with “aphrodisiac recipes,” which accompanied her portfolio of etchings produced in 1996. These “recipes” contained unusual ingredients such as blood, sperm, or urine, She later used her Spirit Cooking poetry in combination with Power Objects, as described above, but also in a form of an eccentric “cookbook” which was given to customers of a New York restaurant, Park Avenue Winter, who offered a dessert called “Volcano Flambé” invented by Abramović in 2011. According to Abramović, it was this kind of gastronomic experience, after all a “normal dinner, ” she was having in mind when she sent her notorious invitation to a “Spirit Cooking dinner at her place” (Russeth 2016).
Conspiracy theorists did not accept this explanation. The fact that Abramović was also teaching her Method to pop-star Lady Gaga, and that she danced with rapper Jay Z, both of whom are believed by conspiracy theorists to be involved with the secret world government of the “Illuminati,” only added fuel to the fire. It should be added that Abramović had indeed been playing with magic and perhaps Satanist symbols during an eccentric photo-shoot for the Ukrainian edition of Vogue in 2014. [Image at right] One photo shows her holding a goat head, represented also in the Sigil of Baphomet, whose origins in the system of magic of Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875) were not Satanic but that later was also used as an official symbol of the Church of Satan. Another photo shows her standing behind “butchered” female bodies, as a kind of a sinister priestess. However, there is no evidence that Abramović is in fact a Satanist. According to Massimo Introvigne, “one needs to worship the character called the Devil or Satan in the Bible” to be defined as a Satanist. Abramović has no intentions whatsoever to worship Satan, but simply uses certain symbols that have been used by Satanists as well as by other non-Satanist occult groups, in a different context and often “in a rather playful way” (Introvigne 2016).
One unintended effect of the conspiracy theorists’ attacks against Abramović was to boost the sales of her autobiographic book Walking Through Walls (Abramović 2016). The book had been written before the controversies of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and did not mention the Spirit cooking dinners nor the Ukrainian Vogue photographs. Walking Through Walls, however, makes it easier to reconstruct the multiple sources of the artist’s spirituality and of the Abramović Method. They are indeed disparate, from Australian Aboriginal religion to Buddhism, Western esotericism, New Age, and African American magic. But none of these is part of Satanism.
**All images are clickable links to enlarged representations.
Image #1: Photograph of Marina Abramović.
Image #2: Abramović performing Rhythm 5 (1974).
Image #3: Abramović performing Thomas Lips (1975).
Image #4: Abramović and Ulay performing Relation in Time (1977).
Image #5: A participant using one of the Transitory objects, during the presentation of The Abramović Method in Milan, 2012.
Image #6: Abramović assisting John of God, during one of his “visible surgeries.” Still from the documentary The Space in Between: Marina Abramović and Brazil, 2016.
Image #7: Abramović performing “reiki-like” technique on a member of the audience, during her 512 Hours performance (2014).
Image #8: The audience performing the Counting the Rice exercise, during the presentation of The Abramović Method in Sydney in 2015.
Image #9: One of the so called “Satanic” images of Abramović in the Ukrainian Vogue in 2014.
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15 January 2017