Walk Through Walls

Walk Through Walls

by Marina Abramovic


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“I had experienced absolute freedom—I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn’t matter, that nothing mattered at all—and it intoxicated me.”

In 2010, more than 750,000 people stood in line at Marina Abramović’s MoMA retrospective for the chance to sit across from her and communicate with her nonverbally in an unprecedented durational performance that lasted more than 700 hours. This celebration of nearly fifty years of groundbreaking performance art demonstrated once again that Marina Abramović is truly a force of nature.

The child of Communist war-hero parents under Tito’s regime in postwar Yugoslavia, she was raised with a relentless work ethic. Even as she was beginning to build an international artistic career, Marina lived at home under her mother’s abusive control, strictly obeying a 10 p.m. curfew. But nothing could quell her insatiable curiosity, her desire to connect with people, or her distinctly Balkan sense of humor—all of which informs her art and her life. The beating heart of Walk Through Walls is an operatic love story—a twelve-year collaboration with fellow performance artist Ulay, much of which was spent penniless in a van traveling across Europe—a relationship that began to unravel and came to a dramatic end atop the Great Wall of China.

Marina’s story, by turns moving, epic, and dryly funny, informs an incomparable artistic career that involves pushing her body past the limits of fear, pain, exhaustion, and danger in an uncompromising quest for emotional and spiritual transformation. A remarkable work of performance in its own right, Walk Through Walls is a vivid and powerful rendering of the unparalleled life of an extraordinary artist.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101905043
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Raised in Yugoslavia, legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic now makes her primary residence in New York and in the Hudson Valley.

Read an Excerpt


I was walking into the forest with my grandmother one morning. It was so beautiful and peaceful. I was only four years old, a tiny little one. And I saw something very strange—a straight line across the road. I was so curious that I went over to it; I just wanted to touch it. Then my grandmother screamed, so loud. I remember it so strongly. It was a huge snake.

That was the first moment in my life that I really felt fear—but I had no idea what I should be afraid of. Actually, it was my grandmother’s voice that frightened me. And then the snake slithered away, fast.

It is incredible how fear is built into you, by your parents and others surrounding you. You’re so innocent in the beginning; you don’t know.

I come from a dark place. Postwar Yugoslavia, the mid-­1940s to the mid-­’70s. A Communist dictatorship, Marshal Tito in charge. Perpetual shortages of everything, drabness everywhere. There is something about Communism and socialism—it’s a kind of aesthetic based on pure ugliness. The Belgrade of my childhood didn’t even have the monumentalism of Red Square in Moscow. Everything was somehow secondhand. As though the leaders had looked through the lens of someone else’s Communism and built something less good and less functional and more fucked-­up.

I always remember the communal spaces—they would be painted this dirty green color, and there were these naked bulbs that gave off a gray light that kind of shadowed the eyes. The combination of the light and the color of the walls made everyone’s skin yellowish-­greenish, like they were liver-­sick. Whatever you did, there would be a feeling of oppression, and a little bit of depression.

Whole families lived in these massive, ugly apartment blocks. Young people could never get an apartment for themselves, so every flat would contain several generations—the grandmother and grandfather, the newlywed couple, and then their children. It created unavoidable complications, all these families jammed into very small places. The young couples had to go to the park or the cinema to have sex. And forget about ever trying to buy anything new or nice.

A joke from Communist times: A guy retires, and for having been such an exceptional worker, he is awarded, instead of a watch, a new car, and they tell him at the office he’s very lucky—he’ll get his car on such and such a date, in twenty years.

“Morning or afternoon?” the guy asks.

“What do you care?” the official asks him.

“I have the plumber coming the same day,” the guy says.

My family didn’t have to endure all this. My parents were war heroes—they fought against the Nazis with the Yugoslav partisans, Communists led by Tito—and so after the war they became important members of the Party, with important jobs. My father was appointed to Marshal Tito’s elite guard; my mother directed an institute that supervised historic monuments and acquired artwork for public buildings. She was also the director of the Museum of Art and Revolution. Because of this, we had many privileges. We lived in a big apartment in the center of Belgrade—Makedonska Street, number 32. A large, old-­fashioned 1920s building, with elegant ironwork and glass, like an apartment building in Paris. We had a whole floor, eight rooms for four people—my parents, my younger brother, and me—which was unheard of in those days. Four bedrooms, a dining room, a huge salon (our name for the living room), a kitchen, two bathrooms, and a maid’s room. The salon had shelves full of books, a black grand piano, and paintings all over the walls. Because my mother was the director of the Museum of the Revolution, she could go to painters’ studios and buy their canvases—paintings influenced by Cézanne and Bonnard and Vuillard, also many abstract works.

When I was young, I thought our flat was the height of luxury. Later I discovered it had once belonged to wealthy Jews, and had been confiscated during the Nazi occupation. Later I also realized the paintings my mother put in our apartment were not very good. Looking back, I think—for these and other reasons—our home was really a horrible place.

My mother, Danica, and my father, Vojin—known as Vojo—had a great romance during World War II. An amazing story—she was beautiful, he was handsome, and each saved the other’s life. My mother was a major in the army, and she commanded a squad on the front lines that was responsible for finding wounded partisans and bringing them to safety. But once during a German advance she came down with typhus, and was lying unconscious among the badly wounded, with a high fever and completely covered by a blanket.

She could have easily died there if my father hadn’t been such a lover of women. But when he saw her long hair sticking out from under the blanket, he simply had to lift it to take a look. And when he saw how beautiful she was, he carried her to safety in a nearby village, where the peasants nursed her back to health.

Six months later, she was back on the front lines, helping to bring injured soldiers back to the hospital. There she instantly recognized one of the badly wounded as the man who had rescued her. My father was just lying there, bleeding to death—there was no blood available for transfusions. But my mother discovered that she had the same blood type, and gave him her blood and saved his life.

Like a fairy tale. Then the war divided them once more.

But they found each other again, and when the war was over, they married. I was born the following year—November 30, 1946.

The night before I was born, my mother dreamed she gave birth to a giant snake. The next day, while she was leading a Party meeting, her water broke. She refused to interrupt the meeting until it was over: only then would she go to the hospital.

I was born prematurely—the birth was very difficult for my mother. The placenta didn’t come out completely; she developed sepsis. Again she almost died; she had to stay in the hospital for almost a year. For a while after that, it was hard for her to continue working, or to raise me.

At first, the maid took care of me. I was in poor health and not eating well—I was just skin and bones. The maid had a son, the same age as me, to whom she fed all the food I couldn’t eat; the boy became big and fat. When my grandmother Milica, my mother’s mother, came to visit and saw how thin I was, she was horrified. She immediately took me home to live with her, and there I stayed for six years, until my brother was born. My parents only came to visit me on weekends. To me they were two strange people, showing up once a week and bringing me presents I didn’t like.

They say that when I was small, I didn’t like to walk. My grandmother would put me in a chair at the kitchen table while she went to the market, and I would be there in the same place when she came back. I don’t know why I refused to walk, but I think it may have had something to do with being passed around from person to person. I felt displaced and I probably thought that if I walked, it meant I would have to go away again somewhere.

My parents’ marriage was in trouble almost immediately, probably even before I was born. Their amazing love story and their good looks had brought them together—sex had brought them together—but so many things drove them apart. My mother came from a rich family and was an intellectual; she studied in Switzerland. I remember my grandmother saying that when my mother left home to join the partisans, she left behind sixty pairs of shoes, taking only one pair of old peasant shoes with her.

My father’s family was poor, but they were great warriors. His father had been a decorated major in the army. My father had been imprisoned, even before the war, for having Communist ideas.

For my mother, Communism was an abstract idea, something she’d learned about at school in Switzerland while studying Marx and Engels. For her, becoming a partisan was an idealistic choice, even a fashionable one. But for my father, it was the only way, because he came from a poor family, and a family of warriors. He was the real Communist. Communism, he believed, was a way through which the class system could be changed.

My mother loved to go to the ballet, the opera, to classical music concerts. My father loved roasting suckling pigs in the kitchen and drinking with his old partisan pals. So they had almost nothing in common, and that led to a very unhappy marriage. They fought all the time.

And then there was my father’s love of women, the thing that had drawn him to my mother in the first place.

From the beginning of their marriage, my father was constantly unfaithful. My mother of course hated it, and soon she came to hate him. Naturally I didn’t know about any of this at first, while I was living with my grandmother. But when I was six, my brother, Velimir, was born and I was taken back to my parents’ house to live. New parents, new house, and new brother, all at the same time. And almost immediately, my life got much worse.

I remember wanting to go back to my grandmother’s house, because it had been such a secure place for me. It felt very tranquil. She had all these rituals in the morning and in the evening; there was a rhythm to the day. My grandmother was very religious, and her entire life revolved around the church. At six o’clock every morning, when the sun would rise, she’d light a candle to pray. And at six in the evening, she’d light another candle to pray again. I went to church with her every day until I was six and I learned about all the different saints. Her house was always filled with the smell of frankincense and freshly roasted coffee. She roasted the green coffee beans and then ground them by hand. I felt a deep sense of peace in her house.

When I started living with my parents again, I missed those rituals. My parents would just wake up in the morning and work all day and leave me with the maids. Plus, I was very jealous of my brother. Because he was a boy, the first son, he was immediately the favorite. This was the Balkan way. My father’s parents had seventeen kids, but my father’s mother only kept photographs around of her sons, never the daughters. My brother’s birth was treated as a great event. I found out later that when I was born, my father didn’t even tell anyone, but when Velimir came into the world, Vojo went out with friends, drinking, shooting pistols into the air, spending lots of money.

Worse still, my brother soon developed some form of childhood epilepsy—he would have these seizures, and everyone hovered around him, giving him even more attention. Once when no one was looking (I was six or seven), I tried to wash him and almost drowned him—I put him in the bath, and he went plop, under the water. If my grandmother hadn’t taken him out, I would have been an only child.

I was punished, of course. I was punished frequently, for the slightest infraction, and the punishments were almost always physical—hitting and slapping. My mother and her sister Ksenija, who moved in with us temporarily, did the punishing, never my father. They hit me till I was black and blue; I had bruises all over. But sometimes they had other methods. There was a kind of hidden clothes closet in our apartment, a very deep and dark closet—the word in Serbo-­Croatian is plakar. The door blended into the wall, and it had no doorknob; you just pushed it to open it. I was fascinated with this closet, and terrified of it. I was not allowed to go inside. Sometimes when I was bad, though—or when my mother or my aunt said I’d been bad—they would lock me in this closet.

I was so afraid of the dark. But this plakar was filled with ghosts, spiritual presences—luminous beings, shapeless and silent but not at all frightening. I would talk to them. It felt completely normal to me that they were there. They were simply part of my reality, my life. And the moment I turned on the light, they would vanish.

My father, as I said, was a very handsome man, with a strong, stern face and a thick, powerful-­looking head of hair. A heroic face. In pictures of him from the war he is almost always riding a white horse. He fought with the 13th Montenegro Division, a group of guerillas that made lightning raids on the Germans; it took impossible courage. Many of his friends were killed alongside him.

His youngest brother had been captured by the Nazis and tortured to death. And my father’s guerilla squad captured the guy who had killed his brother and brought him to my father. And my father didn’t shoot him. He said, “Nobody can bring my brother back to life,” and just let the guy go. He was a warrior, and had profound ethics about fighting the war.

My father never punished me for anything, never beat me, and I came to love him for that. And though he was often absent with his military unit while my brother was still a baby, Vojo and I gradually became best friends. He was always doing nice things for me—I remember he used to take me to carnivals and buy me sweets.

When he took me out, it was rarely just the two of us; he was usually with one of his girlfriends. And the girlfriend would buy me wonderful presents, which I would bring back home, so happy, and I’d say, “Oh, the beautiful blond lady bought me all this,” and my mother would throw the presents straight out of the window.

My parents’ marriage was like a war—I never saw them hug or kiss or express any affection toward each other. Maybe it was just an old habit from partisan days, but they both slept with loaded pistols on their bedside tables! I remember once, during a rare period when they were speaking to each other, my father came home for lunch and my mother said, “Do you want soup?” And when he said yes, she came up behind him and dumped the hot soup on his head. He screamed, pushed the table away, broke every dish in the room, and walked out. There was always this tension. They’d never talk. There was never a Christmas when anybody was happy.

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