Marina Abramovic Has Healed From Her Own Art, Now She’s Healing Visitors to Babi Yar

The performance artist who once let the audience abuse her talks to Haaretz about feminism, political correctness and the monument she put up at the site of a Holocaust massacre in Ukraine

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Maria Abramovic next to her Wall of Tears at Babi Yar, Ukraine.
Maria Abramovic next to her Wall of Tears at Babi Yar, Ukraine.
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

Kyiv is jammed. Three presidents – of Israel, Ukraine, and Germany – are making their way to Babi Yar for the main ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the two-day massacre where the Nazis killed around 33,000 Jews. The evening’s program is extraordinarily rich and equally long.

In the mayhem, a tall woman in black with long black hair runs around the compound. She is tense, intent, excited and has been hard at work since the early morning. It’s hard to believe she’ll be 75 in a month.

She is Marina Abramovic, the famed performance artist. She is set to unveil the installation she was commissioned to put up at Babi Yar – the Wall of Tears.

A visitor to the wall.

Abramovic likes to tell about the military discipline she grew up with in communist Belgrade. When you see the woman who’s sometimes called the diva of the art world in action, it’s easy to imagine her sleeping on hotel beds without pulling back the covers, as she attests to doing.

And here, fashionably late, the VIPs arrive. They stride toward the Wall of Tears, which is 40 meters long and 3 meters high, made of coal mined in Ukraine with chunks of quartz crystals mined in Brazil. Water spouts from the top of the wall, making the coal seem to shed tears. At night, the crystals are illuminated from within.

Abramovic positions presidents Isaac Herzog, Volodymyr Zelensky and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in front of the wall. The crystals are set in columns of three so they’re at the head, heart and stomach of the observer.

Before noon Abramovic marked the spot where her microphone should be, but in the moment of truth, the presidents are a bit flummoxed. Herzog hesitantly reaches out to touch the coal, and the presidents continue on walking.

Two days earlier we spoke on Zoom; Abramovic sat in her hotel room and surprised me: Instead of a slow delivery, a deep, portentous voice, she fired out her words rapidly and softly.

“When I was invited, it was incredible for me that I would actually be able to do this kind of installation. This is the biggest installation I’ve built in my life. I was thinking how to approach this problem. How can I approach something that means so much more than just a monument?” she says.

“I was inspired by the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where people stand and pray. I thought: What if I transport this wall mentally, virtually, to Babi Yar and create a wall of healing and crying – so that there’s something really to experience. I don’t like monuments that you look at, big things you just stand in front of and observe. I’m a performance artist, I want to make something the public can interact with, can feel, can have a personal experience with their own kind of energy.”

Abramovic and Ulay in 'The Artist is present.'

This is precisely the challenge Abramovic faced as she arrived at Babi Yar, known as Babyn Yar in Ukrainian, early the week before: How to get the installation to be interactive. She has become famous for the uncompromising presence in her art, and often, for being the piece itself.

An installation that has come to symbolize her drew hundreds of thousands of people to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010. It was only Abramovic, sitting at a desk for three straight months eight hours a day, so that anyone who wanted could sit across from her and look her in the eyes for as long as they liked. That installation was simply called “The Artist Is Present.”

In the 1970s she created a unique series of installations called “Rhythm.” In one, “Rhythm 10,” she stabbed knives rapidly into a table between her splayed fingers, occasionally missing and hurting herself. In another display, she lay down in the middle of a burning pentagram, passing out from oxygen deprivation.

In “Rhythm 0,” the most extreme of the series, she handed the audience 72 objects, including a gun with a bullet, a whip, a knife, a scalpel, lipstick, flowers, perfume and herself – for six hours. The audience members could do as they pleased with the objects; they began with cautious touches and ended up ripping the artist’s clothes off, abusing her, injuring her and pointing the gun at her temple.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the wall.

Encouraging the human spirit

It seems that in the eighth decade of her life Abramovic is taking a step back – or maybe actually leaving her comfort zone. She is still part of her work, but it seems not as totally as before.

A few months ago an opera she directed and stars in, “7 Deaths of Maria Callas,” premiered in Munich and went on to Paris and Athens. The opera combines videos where Abramovic and actor Willem Dafoe dramatize the Greek-American soprano’s iconic arias. Callas has excited Abramovic from an early age; she identifies with her.

They have the same nose, they both had horrible mothers, and they’re both Sagittarians, she told The Art Newspaper, which is based in London and New York. As Abramovic and Dafoe cavort, leading opera singers perform the arias onstage.

Abramovic’s role on the stage is to portray (or perhaps reenact) Callas. But most of the attention goes to the video art, which is also being shown as an independent piece at the Lisson Gallery in London.

The Wall of Tears has been no less challenging for Abramovic. First, after the monument’s unveiling she won’t be there to explain what Brazilian quartz has to do with the Nazis massacring Jews in Ukraine. Second, she and her creation ran into a hornet’s nest of Russian and Ukrainian journalists, who accused it of shallowness and populism, a kind of “Holo-Disney.”

Abramovic in '7 Deaths of Maria Callas.'

What do you say to critics who wonder why Marina Abramovic, the performance artist famous for her radical, provocative installations, is showing a “New Age” piece at Babi Yar?

“I just can say that when I did ‘The Artist Is Present’ at MoMA, I had nothing – I had a chair, I sat on it and people came to look at me. Nobody could explain why 850,000 people came – never had so many people come to look at a living artist. Why people slept in line. What they found there.

“I think my work in general – maybe not my earlier works, which were maybe more provocative, but my later work – is about lifting human spirit in the best possible way. And to me this installation is about lifting human spirit – it’s about meditation, it’s about healing, it’s about really being with yourself and starting to think about all the problems that have always existed in the world. Because viruses, murder and killing have always been part of humanity. And that’s my contribution. If people think that’s not right – I can’t do anything about that.

“But when I saw yesterday the people participating, crying and really having an emotional effect, I said: I’m fine. I’m on that path. That means it was worth it. Only time will tell, but it’s very easy to judge, it’s very easy to dismiss this from outside. That’s why I’m asking all the journalists: Before you write about it, come and stand there. And if you dismiss it – I can’t do anything about it.”

As she puts it, “I’ve never made a Holocaust monument. This is the first one. And the first time you never know what will happen. If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would do an opera as a radical performance artist, it would have been crazy. But I did an opera. And I was so afraid, but now it’s a huge success, standing ovations in Paris, because I deconstructed opera and created something new, a new formula.

“And that’s what I like to do – to make things new, in a different way. There are so many ways to see the Holocaust. But I would like people to see this wall, through my eyes, as a wall of healing. And how can you go wrong with that? You can’t go wrong with healing.”

Abramovic explaining her creation to the media.

The final act

Two days later I meet with Abramovic in Kyiv, on the morning of the installation’s official unveiling. “You’ve made an effort to come just for me,” she says, wrapping me in warmth and caring. She takes my hand in her warm one and leads me from place to place.

“This woman, she came and spent so much time by the wall,” she says, showing me a selfie of her with an older, blue-eyed woman. “She came crying. Her whole family was murdered. And she said that to her, my project is so important because she can just come and think about her past, because there was never a spot where she could do that in Babi Yar because, you know, it’s just a park.”

In fact, several memorials scattered throughout Babi Yar have been put up in recent years, from the monument for murdered Soviet citizens, which does not include any mention of Jews, to one of a menorah.

Abramovic again the subject of one of her art pieces, "The Artist Is Present," 2010.

When we pass the security barrier and reach the wall, Abramovic dives into preparations for the evening. Here comes the moment to finally experience the wall. It’s very pretty in the cool sunshine of early October. The large, unprocessed crystals glimmer. Even the coal, with water drops peeking from it, is shining.

Together we choose a column of crystals suited to my modest height; I stand in front of the wall and Abramovic leaves me alone. I stand there for about five minutes, trying to concentrate, then I let my thoughts flow freely. But all I feel is the edge of the top crystal stabbing my forehead and the water drops splashing on me. The soft coal dirties my hands a bit.

Now that it’s behind us, we can talk about other things as well. We sit on a sunlit bench behind the wall, fall leaves fluttering about, but the trees are still green. True, this is Babi Yar, and a few dozen meters away an event took place that no installation can describe, but right now it’s pretty, sunny and peaceful here, and Abramovic has a few free moments.

One inspiring thing about you is that you’re a late bloomer – you reached your peak in the second half of your life.

“The last part. This is the final act. I am a very late bloomer. I left home when I was 29. I lived under the military control of my mother and had to come home by 10 o’clock.” Even after marrying her first husband, they lived apart because her mother objected to the relationship.

“Then I escaped and went to Amsterdam. My mother went to the police saying ‘My daughter escaped. You have to look for her.’ So the policeman asked her: ‘How old is your daughter?’ She said ’29,’ and he answered, ‘Comrade Abramovic, we have better things to do.’

“The most difficult part for me was when my mother died. I went to clear her house and I found her diaries. Wow, if I had read a single page of it during her lifetime, my relationship with her would have been very different. She suffered so much – the very violent relationship with my father, the divorce.

“There was an incredible amount of emotion hiding under complete coldness. She never kissed me, never touched me, and then there was a totally different person writing these diaries. I understood that she wanted to make me a warrior, make me strong. She’s done a good job, but I never understood it. I thought she never loved me, [but then it turned out] she kept every newspaper clip of every exhibition I did – I found them in the diaries. She was secretly proud. Never showed it. Ever. And I never wanted to have children because I didn’t want to be like my mother.”

Many are inspired by your choice not to have children and to devote yourself to art. It’s a feminist act. But now you say you didn’t want to turn into your mother. Now, at nearly 75, do you regret it?

“No, I don’t. I’ve dedicated over 30 years to teach performance. I have so many students. I’m a such a tough teacher. Some of my students are very successful. So I feel that even though I didn’t physically have children, I have them all. They call, send me invitations, I see them. They perform at my institute. So I have a very large young community.”

Visitors to the Wall of Tears.

Back home to Mama

Born in 1946 in Belgrade, Abramovic manages to be a groundbreaking artist even in the third decade of the 21st century. She has long been a feminist icon and is scheduled to soon break through another glass ceiling.

In 2023 an exhibit of hers, combining a retrospective and new works, will open at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, making her the first woman to have a major solo exhibit at that prestigious bastion in its nearly 250 years. She’s a woman of the here and now, but also misses the ‘70s. When I ask her if she shares the skepticism of many who were born in the communist bloc toward the #MeToo movement and political correctness, she laughs.

“What we did in the ‘70s we couldn’t do now because of political correctness. PC ruins creativity in art. It restricts it. It makes new rules, and artists must be free. They must be able to express what they want to express. So these are difficult times. All the crazy performances we used to do before wouldn’t be possible today. I’m so happy I’ve already done them.”

Give me an example of a piece you made in the ‘70s that would be criticized today.

“Let’s say the very simple piece called ‘Rhythm 0,’ where there was a pistol, a bullet and me. I started dressed, and then the people cut off my clothes and stripped me naked – they could have killed me, raped me, wow. This installation was stopped exactly six hours later,” as planned.

“And what’s important is that I never felt like a victim, because it was my decision to be an object for six hours. The moment the guards came at 2 in the morning and said, ‘It’s over,’ I was myself again, and the audience all ran away from me. But that’s the thing. It’s very hard when you’re being abused against your will, but it was my will. I wanted to see how far the audience could go. Could it really kill you? I was 23, by the way. It’s crazy.”

Abramovic talking about 'Rhythm 0.'

And still living with your mother! That’s the craziest part.

“I know! I had to do installations by 5 in the afternoon to get home in time.” [Laughs.] “But I’ve never felt abused in my life, sexually. Ever. If anything would have happened, I would have kicked somebody’s balls. Maybe I created such energy that people never dared, but they really never did.”

So you think the women coming out now ...

“You have to check the circumstances in each case. It depends. It’s very difficult to judge. But when it’s a student who waited 30 years to say something … act immediately. Do something about it. This is why I hate women as victims, because we are warriors and we’re so strong – the fact that we can create life in our bellies.

“I didn’t, but the fact is we can. I just did a residency program at Oxford and went to the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is an archeological museum displaying ancient cultures, from the Aztecs to the Siberian shamans. There was a matriarchy there. Women had all the power. We willingly gave up the power just to play this fragile shitty role, to please men.

“But we had the power. Where is that power today? I want to be a kind of example. If I managed to do it, coming from the fifth world that was the former Yugoslavia, and did it on my own – I didn’t marry a rich guy, I didn’t get my residency permit through marriage – I want to be an inspiration. We have the power in ourselves. We just need confidence – not just to play the victim, but also to change our lives. You’re unhappy in marriage? Leave the fucking husband. You’re not happy with your job? Change the job. Find who you are.”

A visitor to Maria Abramovic's Wall of Tears in Babi Yar, Ukraine.

So you place the responsibility with women. You’re not saying, “Men, stop being assholes.”

“No. If we don’t change ourselves, nothing will change. Look what we did in Italian society. Italian women have raised sons that are complete parasites. Look at the art world – 90 percent of gallery owners are women. But what are they showing? Only male artists. It’s so easy to blame somebody else, but we have to change.”

Throughout your career you’ve been completely exposed and vulnerable. This wall, and the opera you directed, give the impression that you’re taking a step back.

“No, I’m not. But I no longer have to prove to anyone that I can do those long, crazy installations. I’ve done that, experienced it. There’s also an age limitation. When I did ‘The Artist Is Present’ I was 65. I couldn’t have done it at a younger age – I didn’t have the willpower, the experience. It was crazy. Every day could have been the last. The pain was intolerable – from sitting.

“I’m interested in so many things – starting with opera, which is the purview of dinosaurs. Who likes opera? Nobody. The Sky Arts channel allotted me five broadcast hours and gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted with them – so I brought in 61 performance artists from over 30 countries to show their art to people.

“I have my institute, where I teach young people. I have so many ways to transmit what I’m doing. I don’t need to keep cutting myself or being naked. I’m planning something performative at the Royal Academy, but usually a performance takes me two to three years to plan.”

So you don’t know what you’ll do yet?

“I know, but it would be a jinx if I tell you.”

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