Dear Artist,

In post-war Belgrade, Marina Abramovic’s parents were war heroes, having fought against the Nazis with the Yugoslav partisans and been rewarded with positions in the Communist party. Marina’s father was part of Marshal Tito’s elite guard, her mother director of the Museum of Art and Revolution. Her family of four lived in a larger-than-usual apartment and Marina had few responsibilities other than to do well in school.


The Artist is Present

In spite of her privileges, Marina describes her childhood as lonely and oppressive under the religious orthodoxy of her grandmother and her parents’ marital unhappiness. Though a controlling disciplinarian, her mother worshipped art and so by the time Marina was six, she had retreated to her own private spaces to paint. She designed her bedroom and studio as minimalist sanctuaries with a bed, chair, table and easel.

When she was fourteen, Marina asked her father for a set of oils. He obliged and arranged for a painting lesson from an old colleague — an abstract-landscape painter named Filo Filipovic. In the lesson, Filo cut a piece of canvas and spread it with glue, sand, and red and yellow paint. “This is a sunset,” he told Marina while lighting the canvas on fire and letting it flame out. Marina pinned the charred sunset to her wall, went on vacation with her family and when she returned, the summer sun had disintegrated it into a pile of ash on the floor. “The process was more important than the result,” she later wrote, “just as the performance means more to me than the object.”


“What happened? Art happened.” (Marina Abramovic)

One day, while sky gazing, twelve military jets flew overhead, dragging a trail of white lines behind them. Marina lay still, watching the contrails dissipate and the blue of the sky reappear. “All at once it occurred to me — why paint? Why should I limit myself to two dimensions when I could make art from anything at all: fire, water, the human body? Anything!”

At the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, she was taught to paint nudes, still life, portraits and landscapes. At 19, she made what she calls a “breakthrough painting” — a small picture titled Three Secrets, depicting three pieces of coloured fabric in red, green and white draped over three objects. “The picture felt important to me because it made the viewer a participant in the artistic experience. It demanded that imagination take place.”


“I believe so much in the power of performance I don’t want to convince people. I want them to experience it and come away convinced on their own.” (Marina Abramovic)



PS: “There was something like a click in my mind — I realized that being an artist meant having immense freedom to make work from anything, or nothing. If I wanted to create something from dust or rubbish, I could do it. It was an unbelievably liberating feeling, especially for someone coming from a home where there was almost no freedom.” (Marina Abramovic)

Esoterica: As part of a major retrospective in 2010, Marina Abramovic performed The Artist Is Present in the Atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Each day for two and-a-half months, Marina sat in an armless, wooden chair, inviting audience members to take turns sitting across from her to make eye contact without touching or speaking. Within days of the opening, a line had formed outside the museum, with most visitors sitting with Marina for less than five minutes. By the end, she’d wordlessly re-connected with her former partner Ulay in a surprise visit, and celebrities including Lou Reed, Bjork, Sharon Stone and Lady Gaga had cut the line. On the last day, a participant vomited and another tried to disrobe. Tensions among those still waiting were heated and viewers reconciled that this was also part of the spectacle. After a total of 736.5 hours, Marina had sat with 1545 visitors, many who’d broken into tears. The Artist is Present attracted more than 850,000 visitors — a MoMA attendance record — and spawned a Facebook support group and a blog: “Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry.” An Italian photographer published a book and had an exhibition of participant portraits. Now, there’s a video game about it for Marina’s new, younger audience. “Theatre is fake: The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.” (Marina Abramovic)

You can get Marina Abramovic’s memoir, Walk Through Walls, here.

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“There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.” (Victor Hugo)




  1. “The process was more important than the result,” she later wrote, “just as the performance means more to me than the object.”
    As we all know- we artists have to pursue what resonates within our own consciousness developed from our own experience- because we know our experience is unique. No one comes from or has exactly the same background experience. Some of us are more privileged. Some- less privileged. Some of us come from no privilege at all- or worse- from actual abusive situations- which is the reason art as a healing modality has taken hold. No one is drawn to exactly the same things- be they inspirational objects- vistas or various media. Many artists find inspiration in fast media. My inspiration comes in layers- processes- outcomes that take time. So for some of us “the object” carries its own weight- holds its own meaning- and hopes for its own desired outcome- an outcome that leaves us artist creators behind and goes out into the world all by itself. One cannot judge whether or not fast media is better than slower media- or if somehow process-oriented object-oriented media is better than experiential media. It does seem that millennials are more interested in the experience than the acquisition of stuff. But that will never negate us artists who create art that has a physical presence in the world. That physical presence guarantees that our art will be experienced over time by many people- no matter how wonderful a 736.5 hour performance piece is.

  2. The world doesn’t need an artist who shows reality as it is. (Marina Abramovic) An interesting quote from someone working in the performance art arena. I think that all work survives on its intentions. From small paintings to the guy who thought it a good idea to create shiny pyramids in the desert. Its a big world. We, people, want to speak amongst ourselves. Marina does her part.
    Thanks for this addition, Sara.

  3. I believe (some years ago) it was the potter Bernard Leach who stated that ‘the potter is the only one left who uses heart, head and hand in balance’. As an ‘almost life-long painter’ myself I also (despite today’s commercially driven, somewhat anti-painting climate) still strive to include all three of these elements.
    The importance of ‘hand’ to me, first ‘struck home’ at quite a young age when admiring the skills of artists in book illustrations. They made me feel happy and inspired me to draw! Of course, at that young age I was unaware that skills were usually learned, honed and laboured over. The next element ‘head’ was the recognition in later years, of some logic being used by artists in creating harmonious or interesting colour, design and composition. The third element ‘heart’ the one that really reflects the soul of the painter. The one that is governed by our own unique personality, experience, influences and desires and the one that gives us the freedom to take our painting along our very own chosen pathway.
    I can (and sometimes do appreciate) work that doesn’t contain all three of these components and I realise that as individuals we each have a different criteria but my heart really goes out to artists (this includes musicians, writers and all art forms) who have devoted themselves to producing work that moves me into feeling great admiration and appreciation, not only of their work but also of their selfless dedication to their art.
    For me, if I don’t experience admiration of human skill, knowledge and a little soul … the work may well ‘fall short’.

  4. Thanks Sara. I have always enjoyed your dad’s articles as they have a timeless quality to them. I have an affinity to them as a Canadian landscape painter. However, I am very happy to see you bringing articles of your own, children of these times, and relevant to us as artists.

    I liked the quote in the post script about when Marina found her artistic freedom, particularly given her lack of liberty as a child. You made me reflect on how privileged I feel to be able to pursue my own art and my own creations. I will think of that when I next sit in front of my canvas with a loaded palette full of waiting colours.

    Nice letter! Keep them coming.

  5. I once experienced a moment of art when a little Gypsy girl of about four climbed and stood upon the stone wall on the north rim of Niagara Falls and then suddenly lifted and spread both her arms up toward the sky. My heart was in my mouth. There was no protection for her there; she could have fallen over. She stood like that for a few minutes and then climbed down and went to play with her friends. It was one of the most profound moments of my life. No words needed.

    Donna c. Veeder

  6. Well I’m still not interested in performance art very much. No compunction to fit in or to try to like it or anything of that sort. In my world everything is a performance and everything is real because of my imagination. Premier art must bring about something pleasant or evoke the best in the artist and the audience. Otherwise it’s just something underwhelming on view.

  7. Thanksomuch for the story. So good. So much of parent/child issues root the WWII in M.A.’s time. What loving parents, to take the blame for grim in the home, when it was the war and death at the door! Can you imagine the “grim” – there was a darkness on everyone – like a oily black veil – you see it again now, as we war and war again. It is unfair to all involved to blame parenting or personality when it was much much more than that – and not so much on any individual at all.

    the thumbnail with snakes – is that YOU? …bein’ bad? :-\ We find our selves maddened by politikking for the right to grieve, when no one WANTS to grieve, and nature makes us break away a thousand times per minute, till we all have snakes on our head!

    Yet we will walk, like the larger uncaptioned photo….we will walk, never letting go of the deceased, for his value…though he is skeleton, and on our back, not at it….. we hold on for dear life! Food for thought in this today, Sara


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