Performance-art icon Marina Abramovic tells a tale of family oppression, personal passion, and artistic liberation.

Danica Abramovic was a Yugoslav communist hero who fought Hitler, then ran her household more or less like a concentration camp.

She would awaken her daughter, Marina, if the child was sleeping in an undisciplined manner—limbs lying any which way—and force her into a military position, legs together, arms stiffly at her sides. At attention, even when unconscious.

She dressed the adolescent Marina in drab clothes and clunky “corrective” shoes and imposed a 10:30 pm curfew that Marina obeyed until she was in her thirties and an international art star.

But, as this riveting memoir explains, Danica was also a woman of great sophistication who used her high position in the Party to give Marina every advantage a young artist could desire—and Marina passionately desired to be an artist, mainly to escape Danica.

One of the tutors Danica provided, a disillusioned, semi-dissident “landscape abstractionist,” began Marina’s first lesson by dousing a canvas in gasoline, setting it alight, and saying, “This is a sunset.”

Marina was dazzled. “It taught me that the process was more important than the result,” she writes, “just as the performance means more to me than the object.”

As she narrates her rise in these pages, her biggest challenge is making success as interesting as her Balkan-Gothic childhood. She succeeds, partly because her career has been inherently dramatic: subjecting her body to the heat (and asphyxiation threat) of massed flames (Rhythm 5), the danger of being shot in the heart by an arrow (Rest Energy), and other thought-provoking torments.

Her fertile, then failed collaboration/affair with the German artist Ulay is paradigmatic of her passions, as are her travels in search of inspiration and transcendence. (A sojourn in Australia, however, provoked writing deemed racist by aboriginal-rights groups, and it was cut from the book.)

Deeper are her reflections on the alchemical blend of fear, the body, and the public in her work. Describing a 1974 performance, she writes: “We fear suffering. We fear mortality. What I was doing…was staging these fears for the audience, using their energy to push my body as far as possible. In the process I liberated myself from my fears. And as this happened, I became a mirror for the audience—they lost their fear as well.”

 

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