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Marina Abramovic: A Ritual in Six Steps


Marina Abramovic

My first experience of cinema was verbal. My grandparents used to go to the cinema every Monday and on Tuesday mornings, while driving me to school, my grandma would describe the movie she had seen the night before in extreme detail. Most of the time, these were movies that I could not see myself, as I was only ten years old, but by seeing these films through my grandmother’s eyes, I could still enjoy their beauty, whilst being protected from their rawness.

It was a ritual that I still carry with me, a ritual I invoke every time I ask someone to tell me what they saw, and how it made them feel. It is a ritual I hope to invoke in this text.


You walk into the first room. The walls to your left and right are full of screens. The screens on the right show the faces of many individuals, with varying expressions. The screens on the left show the face of Marina Abramović multiple times. This is a documentation of The Artist is Present (New York, 2010), a performance piece that invited people to make eye contact with Marina for as long as they wanted. Over 1,500 people took part.

Your eyes move back and forth between Marina and them. You try to connect with each expression, but the only face you manage to hold in your memory is the one of the man sweating profusely. You see a couple of children and wonder whether their parents forced them to take part. Your eyes become a third individual in this interaction; you are forcing yourself upon them without them knowing. You are breaking the intimacy between Marina and them.

You suddenly remember that YouTube video you once watched called How to Make Eye Contact. The video, which was ten minutes long, depicted a woman, looking straight at the camera (at you). Her gaze held you hostage against the screen. You did not watch the whole thing through; her friendliness spooked you. This level of intimacy does not work if the person is not in the room.


“I have been having lots of intrusive thoughts lately. When I was abroad, these thoughts stopped, but when I came back to London, they returned. I love my friends frantically, but I cannot hold a knife in front of them without imagining that I stab them. Should I get help?”

Rhythm 0 (1974) Marina Abramovic
Rhythm 0 (1974)

I came across this on a Reddit forum at 2AM. I imagined a third person in the room, looking at my expression while I read. The third person in the room thinks that there is a sort of lonesome beauty in my gaze, but they are not sure if it’s true or imagined, they are not sure if the lonesome beauty is always there when one reads a Reddit forum at 2AM alone in a big city.

It is ironic really, how Rhythm 0 was performed in 1974. Marina stood in a room with a table. The table had 72 objects in it, including knives, a gun with bullets, candles, toilet paper, flowers, a whip, chains, and more. The instructions were simple: I am the object. During this period, I take full responsibility. You don’t need me to tell you what happened in 1974. You already know.

I want to make sense of the cruelty enacted in Marina’s body, but I cannot do so by looking at a table full of objects. Instead, I ask her to help me resuscitate Edward Hopper. We take a red-eye flight to New York on a whim and we build a pyre in Oak Hill Cemetery. Once Edward awakens, Marina hands him an easel and oil paint. She asks him to draw Morning Sun again, but she says, “Do a night version of it, with the woman’s phone illuminating her face, instead of the sun.” Marina does not need to tell Edward what the woman is reading on her phone. He already knows.


You walk into the third room, which is red, and visceral. There is a pile of bones to the right, belonging to Balkan Baroque (1997). In the original performance piece, Marina washed each bone by hand, while singing folk songs from her childhood, directly responding to the horrors of the Bosnian War. Years later, she said: “After a few days, worms started coming out of the bones. And the smell was unbearable.”

The documentation of the horror is there, but the horror is not. There is no smell and the floors are polished. To put it bluntly: While you walk around the exhibition space, two wars are happening outside these walls. However, no one here is washing those bones.


The same room is home to a photograph of Lips of Thomas (1975), which depicts the pentagram Marina carved into her stomach. As you look at the photograph, you imagine the scar that currently exists on Marina’s skin. Sensually, you imagine what it would feel like to touch it lightly with your fingertips.

To injure the body to make a statement is not a novel concept. In the 14th century, Catherine of Siena practised rigorous fasting. At the end of her life, the only thing she ate was the Eucharist. The commonality between Marina and Catherine is the use of their female bodies as tools. They both ask: Can freedom be attained if one chooses the conditions in which pain is inflicted? A third question floats around the room: If one is able to choose between inflicting pain and living painlessly, what drove them to choose the latter?

This question haunts you, following you to the next room. Sometimes she looks like Catherine of Siena, other times she takes the shape of Marina. The question dissipates when a fourth figure enters the room: Ulay.

He shared a birthday with Marina. Like many love stories, theirs included sex, saliva and pain. Unlike many love stories, these moments of intimacy were often enacted in front of an audience. As you walk around the exhibition space, you overhear a five-year-old child asking her mother why Ulay is slapping Marina and why Marina is slapping Ulay. With no hesitation, the mother responds: “They are just playing a silly game”, and you laugh because, after years of asking many grown-ups what love is, you finally got an answer in the most unlikely place.


Marina’s work feels different when Ulay enters the picture. You want to be happy for her, but you also selfishly preferred her work when she was alone. In a strange way, even though she still enacts violence with Ulay, the stakes do not feel as high as they did when she was on her own. She is still fainting and drawing blood, but now there is someone to wake her up and check her pulse. Perhaps that in itself is the message, but you still yearn for the risks taken in her earlier work.

Imponderabilia (1977) Marina Abramovic and Ulay
Imponderabilia (1977)

When Imponderabilia was first performed in 1977, visitors to the exhibition had no option but to walk between Marina and Ulay naked bodies. Because of this, it was shut down by the police after a few hours. What does discomfort look like in 2023? As you walk between the two slim bodies, you feel warm and cared for. The woman next to you says: “It was beautiful, wasn’t it?” You agree, but you are unsure if beauty is what you were looking for.

As the exhibition progresses, your disconnectedness with the work grows. These pieces are not as visceral as her early work, or as intimate as her work with Ulay. Instead, they are subdued, involving the viewer more directly. One room has many furniture-like sculptures made of crystals and minerals in which you are allowed to sit or stand against.

You try on the Shoes for Departure (1991), which are heavy and made of crystal. The instructions read: Take off your shoes, put on the two crystal shoes, close your eyes, and make your departure. You do what the label tells you to do but you struggle. There are people behind you, waiting to also try the shoes on. You feel their eyes on your back. You wonder if this is what Marina felt. The eyes on her back, piercing the work. You leave the Royal Academy and you run to catch the bus, realising a bit too late that you left your body behind.


For the next few weeks, Marina haunts my dreams. I kneel in an empty room, wearing nothing but ashes. There are candles around me, forming a circle. Using a long stick, I slowly turn them on, one by one. Religious chants play in the background and Marina watches from a corner. In the dream, this performance changes the world.

Some nights I dream of Ulay, other nights, Edward’s ghost waits by my bed, drinking a cup of tea and asking me what he should paint next. Catherine appears one night and gives me a box of antidepressants, saying it tastes better than the Eucharist. They are all trying to help because they know I cannot bring myself to let go of Marina.

In the real world, I am on the bus to work, writing stories on my phone. In the real world, this is what I have to do to find redemption. Eventually, I succeed: I am a ten-year-old child again, sitting in the backseat of my grandmother’s car, seeing films through her eyes.

Balkan Baroque (1997) Marina Abramovic
Balkan Baroque (1997)


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