The life and work of leading conceptual performance artist Marina Abramović come together in this impressive new book that effectively blurs the lines between the art and the artist. And so it has been in much of her work where she is the artwork – often naked, and very often up close and personal, sometimes for days at a time in her famous durational pieces. She admits in the book that her mother kept a collection of all her press articles but would remove those where she was naked as being too embarrassing.
Written with her friend and confidante, the arts writer Katya Tylevich, the book is styled in a Q&A format, such as ‘When did you want to become an artist?’ to which Abramović says ‘I never wanted to become an artist. I was an artist. I always felt it. I was jealous Mozart started at seven. I wouldn’t get my chance until I was older. You know my first word was El Greco?’
Each of these vignettes, culled from seventeen months of interviews, is lavishly illustrated with photographs and images – there are over 600 pictures taken from Abramović’s copious personal archives; over 23,000 images were considered for inclusion. Abramović said she would answer any question asked by Tylevich. Even so, this doesn’t claim to be a definitive biography; it is ‘a version of the artist’s life and work up to May 2023’.
The first section, entitled My Grandmother’s Kitchen, covers her life growing up in Yugoslavia; the final section, beginning on page 480, is I’m Not Dead Yet. Along with the stories of many of her most important artworks, there are personal stories of love and loss, of friends and family, of dreams and sadness.
Reading the text alone, this is a colourful memoir, spoken in the (seemingly) unmediated voice of the artist. But combined with the photographs of people and assorted personal ephemera – places, pictures, passports – it becomes a complex visual landscape. The images are all placed against a black background, giving the book the aesthetic of an old family photo album. With its textured dark red cover, and red edge-painting on the sturdy 150gsm pages, the book itself is a work of art.
This is an ambitious and beautiful book, published to coincide with the opening a couple of months ago of her solo show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Rather surprisingly, this is the first major show by a female artist in the RA’s 255-year history. And she’s still provocative.
To gain entry, visitors have to squeeze past two naked performance artists, not Abramović herself but art students from the Marina Abramović Institute. This is a recreation of her 1977 exhibition in Bologna where Abramović and her life partner, German artist Ulay, formed a very narrow naked doorway in a performance piece entitled Imponderabili (pictured on p178).
This is a comprehensive and fascinating account of one of modern art’s most controversial and influential figures who began as a painter and is now in later life becoming an object-maker again; it’s also a very intimate story of a life lived in art. Seeing the finished book, Abramović said ‘it was shocking for me that my work and life looked completely fresh and different.’ Highly recommended.
Hachette Australia rrp $175
Review by Dr Diana Carroll