Behind the Veil
When Marina Abramovic Dies: A Biography, by James Westcott, The MIT Press (2010)
When James Westcott, then a graduate student at New York University, learned that the artist Marina Abramovic was staging “The House With the Ocean View”, a performance in which she lived in the Sean Kelly Gallery for twelve days, he rushed to catch the remaining days of the installation. Westcott spent every day there, gradually falling under Marina’s spell.
His write-up of the work led to a meeting with the artist, and he soon signed on as her personal assistant. It was not until four years later, however, that he began the “complex, sensitive, and unusual process of writing a biography of a living artist.” The result is When Marina Abramovic Dies, a comprehensive and penetrating examination of her life and work. (An Abramovic retrospective is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art through May 31.)
Abramovic is both a willing and fascinating subject, a contradictory force, who “thriv[es] on a sense of embattlement,” and “operate[s] through overwhelming and disarming love,” Westcott writes. She has a quality that Alanna Heiss, founder of the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, likened to the ability of a skilled politician.
She is also one of the towering figures of contemporary performance art, a practitioner who outlasted peers such as Chris Burden and Gina Pane, and developed a reputation for enduring pain and discomfort. Her works are set up almost like scientific experiments: she sets out rigid guidelines that allow for unpredictable outcomes. (In one piece, “Rhythm 0”, Abramovic invited visitors to have their way with her, using any of 72 objects—honey, a newspaper, chains, a loaded pistol—displayed on a table. The performance continued for the allotted six hours, until someone put the gun in her hand, directed it towards her neck, and a “scuffle” broke out.)
Westcott begins, appropriately, on the day of Marina’s birth in 1946, tracing her personal and professional life from her awkward childhood to her “sluggish” attempts at painting, early forays into sound art, and membership in the avant-garde art world of 1970s Belgrade.
As a child, Abramovic suffered a rocky home life commandeered by a cruel and controlling mother. “Marina felt an enormous need to be loved, which her mother never met,” Westcott writes. “In the face of what she perceived to be extreme neglect punctuated by regular beatings, Marina early on developed an insatiable craving for freedom and foot-stamping stubbornness that was in fact a genetic copy of her mother’s.”
A reader can detect Westcott’s steady hand, slicing away the unnecessary details and using what remains to anticipate Abramovic’s career. He describes her incapacitating migraines, which started in adolescence, as “times of traumatic existential discovery for Marina: they meant getting intimate with her body as nothing more than a vehicle for pain,” no doubt foreshadowing her later work.
Thankfully, Westcott’s interpretation of Abramovic’s work is not solely based on biography, and he manages to root her career in a larger art historical and theoretical context. For Westcott, Abramovic’s rejection of art objects and embrace of performance art is at once a natural output of her childhood discipline, a bid for attention, and a way to put the theory of conceptual art into immediate and forceful practice.
The meat of Westcott’s story concentrates on the artist’s 12-year collaboration and love affair with Ulay, a German-born photographer. “Whatever the objective and transcendent conceptual ambitions of their solo work, it had been in essence self-destructive, anguished, and unrelentingly dark,” Westcott writes. “Now, confronted with a kind of mirror image of themselves, Ulay/Abramovic realized that they could channel their formerly destructive energy outward into constructive, relational experiments. For Marina, “I could not even breathe from love.”
So begins a prolific and joyful period for Abramovic, as she and Ulay began criss-crossing Europe in a black van, exploring the body as “the ground zero material for making art,” making love to keep warm, and presenting their increasingly well-known performance works. Perhaps their most famous is “Imponderabilia”, in which Marina and Ulay stood across from each other naked in a narrow gallery entrance, forcing visitors to decide which body they would face to cross the threshold.
Westcott details dozens of performances, lingering over their smells, sights, and sounds. One piece, in which Abramovic and Ulay locked lips and traded a single breath back and forth, is a “symbiosis-turned-suicide-pact,” producing “gasping, gargling and heaving sounds” and “strings of thick saliva dribbling from their connected mouths.”
Westcott has also done his research. He often quotes Abramovic’s “trainwreck English,” but supplements her self-aggrandizing accounts with knowledge culled from 60 interviews, historical research, and an obsessive intimacy with the performances themselves. He dispels certain Marina-created fictions: the “rescue mission” Ulay made to India to save their relationship (Ulay can’t recall it), her grandfather’s role as patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church (it was her grandfather’s brother), or an uncomfortable detail lurking in the story of how her parents fell in love.
Although it’s a tad disingenuous of Westcott to wait until the last moment to disclose his personal relationship with Abramovic, he never discards his skepticism of her version of events, nor abandons his role as critic. (He calls The Biography, a play she performed, “embarrassing, messy, massively self-indulgent, wishful, shameful, recessive, and iconoclastic—shattering the tenets of performance art she used to hold dear.”) Westcott manages to balance his obvious love for Marina with a refusal to buy into her mythmaking.
That said, his relatively lukewarm opinion of her later work, immediately post-Ulay, is as apparent as his fascination with the now-defunct collaboration. The time Westcott spends discussing twelve years of Abramovic’s self-imposed mourning following the breakup drags, even if it is the shortest section of the book. And his boredom with her “transitory objects”—a series of works incorporating crystals and focusing on energy—translates onto the page. When Westcott again returns to Abramovic’s most recent endurance pieces—such as Ocean View or her restaging of seven iconic performance works—he regains his easy, excited tone.
Above all, Westcott provides a coherent, incisive and, at times, playful account of Marina Abramovic: an artist who “sacrificed” her daily life to inscribe herself in the canon of art history, a woman with a big nose who seduced men and women alike, and a creative power with an “insatiable need for love and attention…When the delicate equation functioned, both in the social and artistic realms, it was an irresistible force.”