Turning Trauma into Power: Marina Abramović on How Her Harrowing Childhood Became the Raw Material for Her Art
“You know you are an artist if you have to do art — it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.”
By Maria Popova
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Although creative history is littered with tortured geniuses who survived terrible childhoods full of abuse and violence — take Franz Kafka’s abusive father or Maya Angelou’s rape or Eve Ensler’s trauma — and although my own early years contain elements of these experiences (sans the subsequent genius), I am not one who romanticizes pain, upheaval, and adversity as prerequisites for success. That said, I do find tremendous value in reading about celebrated creators who persevered through traumatic childhoods — first, because to anyone who has ever been stymied by crushing circumstances, these stories offer assurance that it is possible to have a deeply fulfilling life despite the cards one has been dealt; secondly, because these personal accounts yank into question the privilege narrative of our almost automatic assumption that those who have attained public recognition and its capitalist byproduct of financial success must be living charmed, untroubled lives. These stories are, above all, a sometimes jarring, sometimes gentle reminder to heed the words of 19th-century Scottish writer and theologian Ian Maclaren (often misattributed to Plato): “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
This is why I found myself at once deeply moved and hugely heartened by artist Marina Abramović’s contribution to Getting There: A Book of Mentors (public library) — a stimulating compendium by lawyer, photographer, and writer Gillian Zoe Segal, illustrating the notion that “success comes in a potpourri of flavors” through a tasting menu of wildly diverse success-stories by such cultural icons as inventor Craig Venter, mayor extraordinaire Mike Bloomberg, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, composer Hans Zimmer, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, and billionaire-philanthropist Warren Buffet. (I’d be remiss not to point out that only a quarter of these featured success-models are women and only one is a person of color — a fact stated not as self-righteous criticism, for I did enjoy the volume, but as an unrelenting reminder that we can and, in fact, must do better if we are to have a truly diverse and inclusive cultural rhetoric of success.)
Abramović was born in Belgrade in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Her formative years, while heartbreaking, are not entirely unusual for those of us raised in Eastern Europe — while Abramović’s experience is undoubtedly a function of her parents’ particular personalities, it also reflects more general cultural pathologies related to discipline and the chronic denial of emotional reality. She recounts:
My parents were both partisans and national heroes. They were very hard-core and were so busy with their careers that I lived with my grandmother until I was six. Until then, I hardly even knew who my parents were. They were just two strange people who would visit on Saturdays and bring presents. When I was six, my brother was born, and I was sent back to my parents. From that point on, my childhood was very unhappy. I grew up with incredible control, discipline, and violence at home. Everything was extreme. My mother never kissed me. When I asked why, she said, “Not to spoil you, of course.” She had a bacteria phobia so she didn’t allow me to play with other children out of fear that I might catch a disease. She even washed bananas with detergent. I spent most of my time alone in my room. There were many, many rules. Everything had to be in perfect order. If I slept messily in bed, my mother would wake me in the middle of the night and order me to sleep straight.
Illustrating just how reality-warping such parenting is and how hungry for affectionate care such systematic deprivation leaves the child, Abramović relays the reverse reaction she had to an experience most children would find utterly distressing:
When one of my baby teeth fell out and the bleeding wouldn’t stop, everyone thought I might have hemophilia so I was put in the hospital for a year. That was the happiest, most wonderful time of my life. Everybody was taking care of me and nobody was punishing me. I never felt at home in my own home and I never feel at home anywhere.
And yet under these harsh conditions, Abramović had no choice but to cultivate a skill fundamental for creativity — that vital capacity for “fertile solitude” and ability to do nothing all alone with oneself.
Isolated from other children and condemned to forced aloneness, she began drawing daily — one of the few activities her mother supported — when she was only three. Drawing became a lens through which she saw and understood the world. She relays one particularly formative experience:
One day I was lying on the ground looking up and a few supersonic planes flew over me and made these incredible lines, like drawings. I watched them appear, form, then disappear; and then the sky was blue again. It was incredible. I immediately went to the military base and asked friends of my father’s if they could give me twelve supersonic planes to make a drawing in the sky. They called my father and said, “Get your daughter out of here. She is completely nuts!” But after that, I never went to the studio again. It was almost like a spiritual experience, and I realized that I could make art from practically nothing. I could use water, fire, earth, wind, myself. It’s the concept that matters. This was the beginning of performance for me.
Her first steps in performance — something that wasn’t considered a form of art at the time — were often public stumbles. But despite frequent ridicule and criticism from the press, she continued to push her physical and mental limits, putting on provocative performances that challenged our core assumptions about what art is supposed to be. (As Neil Gaiman urged in his fantastic commencement address on courage and the creative life: “When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art… IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art.”)
Meanwhile, already well into her twenties, Abramović was still living with her parents and was still being constantly punished by her mother, who continued to beat her and even burned art she made. In a sentiment painfully familiar to those who come from similar circumstances and cultures, Abramović reflects:
It never even crossed my mind to leave. At the time there was really no other choice. Several generations in the same house was how people lived in Eastern Europe.
And then something literally life-changing happened: On her twenty-ninth birthday, Abramović received an invitation to perform on a Dutch television show. She recounts:
When I arrived at the airport in Amsterdam, I was met by another artist, a man named Ulay, who was to be my guide. We discovered that we had the same birthday and much more than that in common. We immediately fell terribly in love. I returned to Belgrade, but we got lovesick and planned to meet in Prague, which is between Amsterdam and Belgrade. We decided we would live together in Amsterdam and work together too. It was one of those magical moments where everything comes together. So at twenty-nine I ran away from home to live with Ulay. I literally escaped. My mother went to the police, told them that I was missing, and gave them a description of me. The police officer said, “But how old is she?” When he learned I was twenty-nine, he made my mother leave.
Invoking Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes,” Abramović considers how deeply the human spirit is imprinted by those early experiences and how challenging it is to inhabit one’s freedom once the despot is removed from the picture — something as true politically, for countries newly liberated from dictatorship, as it is personally, for those who break free from abusive relationships:
At first, I had trouble adjusting to my newfound freedom. While on one level I hated and rebelled against all my restrictions in Belgrade, both the political control and my home life, I also fed on them. In Amsterdam I felt the need to create my own restrictions and started building instructions for myself in my performances. To this day, every performance I do is based on discipline and specific instructions that have to be executed in front of the public. It’s become the frame I make my work within.
One essential commonality emerges between artists who struggled before finding success. Like Patti Smith, who was homeless and starving for years and yet thought of herself not as a homeless person but as an artist who hasn’t yet found her muse, Abramović made no compromises about being a full-time artist:
All I wanted to do was be an artist. I didn’t want to work in a restaurant or do any other job, so Ulay and I decided to live together in a van. It was the most radical but also the simplest decision I have ever made. It was really the only way we could exist. We had no money and the performances we did hardly paid. We lived like that for five years and it was bliss!
And yet this ecstatic romance eventually came undone and the couple began to drift apart. The heartbreak of the farewell and its actual performance were commensurate with the magnitude of how their love had begun:
For eight years Ulay and I had been requesting permission to do a performance piece on the Great Wall of China. Our plan was to start at opposite ends, walk toward each other, and get married when we met. By the time the Chinese finally said yes, our relationship was over. I have never been one to give up a good opportunity, so we decided to still walk toward each other but say good-bye instead when we met. It was extremely painful. To make things worse, I knew at the time that Ulay had made his Chinese guide pregnant and would soon be having a child with her.
What began as a fairy-tale romance ended in a nightmare. Abramović was forty and even though she felt “fat, ugly, and unwanted,” she had only one choice in order to go on — make good art. She brings the journey full-circle to the determinative experiences of her childhood, attesting to the fact that great artists spend a lifetime making power from their wounds:
When I was growing up, my private life was not valued. The noblest thing one could do in my family was to sacrifice everything for a cause. Art became my cause and it’s still everything to me. I dedicate all the energy in my body to my work and have completely sacrificed a more conventional personal life for it. I have no partner and no children, but I’m very proud of myself for always doing what I want, no matter what the cost and no matter how long it’s taken… I wake up in the morning with this urge to create; it’s almost like I am in a fever. Every single day is structured. I work, work, work, and my curiosity never ends.
With the wry self-awareness of those who have found a way to transmute their vulnerability into art — “Maybe all of our coping mechanisms are our artwork,” my dear friend Wendy MacNaughton once said to me — Abramović adds:
I’m also like a clinical case: If you don’t get love from your family, you turn to other things to get it. I get the love I need from my audience. Without the public, my performances wouldn’t exist because I am not motivated to perform alone. The public completes my work and has become the center of my world.
And yet that public love and its tangible material rewards are — must be — only a byproduct of the private passion driving the artist. Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s magnificent letter of life-advice to his son when the young man was headed to art school, Abramović cautions:
When a young artist comes to me and says, “I want to be famous and rich,” I ask him to leave because this is not the reason to make art. Those things are just side effects that you may be lucky enough to achieve. Your reason for doing art should be much deeper. You know you are an artist if you have to do art — it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.
Noting that art is sometimes rejected not because it is bad but because it is “ahead of society” — “the function of the artist in a disturbed society,” she has asserted elsewhere, “[is] to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.” — Abramović adds:
The success of an artist is generally measured by how much he can sell his work for, especially in America. This is shocking to me. How can you measure people like that?
Complement Getting There with wisdom on life from the sagest commencement addresses of all time and some timeless resolutions from humanity’s greatest mentors, then revisit some of the most celebrated artists of our time — including Abramović herself — on courage, criticism, success, and what it really means to be an artist.