Freedom is on fire. Fire is just one of the tools used by performance artist Marina Abramović, who has spent her entire life searching for freedom. At 70 years of age, she says she’s found it in her newly released book, “Walk Through Walls: A Memoir.” Here she reveals the literal and metaphorical walls torn down in a journey that’s inspired millions of people.
The coincidental timing of Marina’s book release, at a time when the U.S. national debate about building walls threatens to split the country in half, is noteworthy. We have much to learn from her.
Marina’s journey has been about channeling painful childhood memories and strict values from her “militant communist parents” by finding a refuge in art. Performance art became a transformative tool that used her body in incredibly painful situations. Some of her more physically and mentally taxing performances include things like:
- the re-enactment of Gina Payne’s Self Portraits, where Marina lay on a metal bed over a grid of lit candles that burned her back;
- Rhythm 5, that saw her jump through a star of fire (built from ignited pieces of hair and nails that she cut from her own body); and,
- Rhythm 10, that involved Marina playing a Russian game of knife stabbing. She poked a knife at quick speed over her splayed fingers resting on a white paper. She tested the concept of consciousness with audio recording of the stabbing sounds and her painful response as the knife cut her skin. By replaying the tape and trying to then duplicate the exact pattern of events, Marina hoped to merge the present with the past.
Life was difficult for Marina growing up in 1946 after WWII. She internalized the image of her parents “walking through walls as high achieving communist partisans”. Art was an invitation to confront deep-rooted fears in a way that few of us do. Fear holds many of us back and is a well known barrier for women in business, who may question their ability to step into a bigger job that many men who just go for. This isn’t always the case but I share this hesitancy and often second guess my abilities. This comes from a fear of letting people down and exposing my vulnerability.
It is the unconventional approach to art that makes Marina’s journey, her art and her message so compelling. Her willingness to subject herself to unimaginable, perverse pain, with the world watching, is both vulnerable and courageous.
I first heard about Marina when an artist friend described Marina’s dramatic separation from her husband, a German-born performance artist named Ulay. Marina and Ulay ended their 12 year marriage by walking 2500 kilometers (over 1550 miles) along the Great Wall of China. They started in opposite directions (Ulay from the Gobi Desert and Marina, the Yellow Sea) and met in the middle. This joint performance piece capped a very public and dramatic connection in their marriage, with art pieces that explored hermaphroditic states of being. The Great Wall, long considered a “dragon of energy” in Chinese myth, was the perfect sendoff for their journey ahead.
So when I traveled with my husband to the Great Wall in the spring of 2016, I remembered Marina amidst reports about American politicians battling over the immigration wall. Marina’s singular focus, discipline, and endurance needed to make this painful walk was an odd, self-inflicted marital exorcism, but she used it to run straight into the very walls that confined her.
Sadly, my Great Wall walk can hardly be compared to Marina’s. My throbbing legs, unaccustomed to the steep inclines and hilly terrain, forced me to beg my husband to go back and purchase a few yen-inflated water bottles so I could keep plodding along. But the lesson wasn’t lost on me, especially when I learned more about Marina’s evolving art.
In a more recent 2010 performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) called The Artist is Present, Marina’s performance is a turning point. The exhibit is a shared experience that invites museum visitors to sit across from her. People sat silently for as long as they wanted during the exhausting 736 hours and 30 minutes (31 days) show. Record crowds including came, including celebrities like Lady Gaga and Ulay, who made headlines seeing her for the first time since their dramatic divorce.
If Marina’s art prompts us to explore a higher level of consciousness, it is certainly a valuable reward. Freedom is at the core of what it means to be an individual and its value to citizens of countries is a precious right. The takeaway: walls are only as strong as the fear used to build and confine us. When we tear them down, we open ourselves up to each other and happiness becomes a conscious, collective journey.