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The Extra-Dimensional Being: Marina Abramovic

Introducing Marina Abramovic 

Marina Abramovic - Chicago Humanities Festival 

Marina Abramovic

In the Central Australian desert, Marina sat for very long periods of time in extreme heat, doing nothing 


Lived in a car for five years

Designed menus for a French restaurant

Painted walls at technical fairs

Wore wooden shoes

Knitted all her pullovers herself

Milked goats in the mountains in exchange for food

Once a year, for five years, she let 5 snakes trace energy veins of her body. 

She makes her students:

Hold a tree and complain for fifteen minutes

Walk backwards using a mirror

Eat a ball made of almonds, white peppercorn, black peppercorn, coriander seeds, and honey wrapped in a thin 24-carat gold leaf, after fasting for 5 days.

Marina Abramovic - Chicago Humanities Festival

Marina Abramovic and Students at Reed College

She would like to: die three times and explore each of these deaths individually.

Marina thinks it is important to: fast, to sometimes do things in extreme slow motion, to drink a lot of water, to clean the house.

Her private spaces: bus stop, the space under the pillow

Marina likes to: collect little coins and exchange them at the airport. 

Marina doesn’t like to: sit in front of a piece of paper and try to imagine what to do. Ideas come to her like apparitions, while in the kitchen, chopping garlic.

Marina is very much against: habit. 

No more than twice a year, Marina re-edits, humorously, her own work to date, on stage in a real theater with its gold and plush fittings. And if she cuts a star in her stomach, really, just as she did years ago in Belgrade, the audience in the front row starts fainting.

She does things that she’s really ashamed of. It’s a huge relief, she says. 

When she rents a DVD, she likes to see the deleted parts, the unused material, and the documentaries about how the movie was made before watching the actual movie. 

Some context 

In 2006, I taught a course on anthropology of art at Reed College in Portland, OR. “Why don’t you bring Marina Abramovic to your class?” my wife Gordana Živković, an artist from Belgrade, asked. Wasn’t there something very “ethnographic” about her work – with all these Australian Aborigines and Tibetan Lamas she learned from and performed with? True, Reed has a well-endowed Art program and regularly brings in such stars as Hans Haake, Ann Hamilton, or Mona Hatoum, but bringing Marina to Reed on short notice was still a fantasy until we learned that she was coming to Oregon anyway and we can snatch her for a day. I spent two months preparing this five minute introduction and decided to introduce Marina, arguably the most famous performance artist today, without once using the words “art” and “performance.” Why? It occurred to me that Marina is actually an “extra-dimensional being” passing through our Flatland universe. She only appears to us as a “performance artist” because we have no other categories to capture her.

Marina Abramovic - Chicago Humanities Festival

Marina Abramovic and Gordana Živković

What happens when you encounter an “extra-dimensional being”? Abbott’s delightful 1884 Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions tells us that such a being would cause certain kinds of perturbations or ripples. And this is what Marina caused during her Reed sojourn.

This first happened in my anthropology of art class, where Marina talked about her experience with the Australian Aborigines. She told us how when she visited Australia in 1979 with her partner Ulay for the European Dialogue Biennale, they wanted to see the Aborigines. In Alice Springs, a lawyer who represented the Aborigines literally threw them out of his ramshackle office as yet another pair of “bloodsuckers out to exploit the Aborigines.” Later that day, in a bar, the lawyer tells them to come when they can do something for the Aborigines. Marina and Ulay come next year and spend three months drawing maps, making photos, and designing a book about Aboriginal land rights. They then joined the Aborigines deep in the desert for the rest of the year. Ulay goes through some of the male initiations Marina hangs out with women who seem to spend most of the day enacting each other’s dreams.

Now, several times during the class, Marina says that Aborigines have telepathy. “I found out,” she says at the outset, “that the Aborigines are one of the most developed human beings on this earth ... they use much more of their brain than we do. They have extra-sensory perception, they have extremely developed telepathy ... They start talking to you in your head ... It’s much cheaper to use telepathy than telephone.”

Anthropologists have long had these “extraordinary experiences” – visions and altered states of consciousness – related to their fieldwork, but would rarely dare to report them in official writing for fear of ostracism.

The fact that Marina lived with the Aborigines in the deepest desert, participated in dream enactments with the women, and even took meticulous notes makes her a kind of ethnographer. This is why she made the budding anthropologists in my class uncomfortable – she was acting as an ethnographer- then suddenly she made a leap into the territory where anthropologists fear to tread.

In the afternoon, Marina was to appear in an informal seminar aimed primarily at Reed art majors. My wife and I were two minutes late and when we cracked the door open we see Marina has made everyone in the room take off their shoes and lay down on their backs. She is in the middle of the circle leading the group through a Tibetan breathing exercise.

Here is a confusion of genres. Yes, we know that some artists have famously drawn on Buddhism, but in an academic setting do we really expect to do breathing or chanting exercises instead of discussing such things verbally?

Now these two situations give me a neat triangulation. If we take the morning class as an example of Anthropology World, then we can interpret the ripple Marina’s passage provoked there as coming from an intrusion of Artworld into Anthropology World. Anthropologists discover that Marina has at least one more additional “degree of freedom” just as extra-dimensional beings would, and this jolts them out of a simple identification with Marina as a fellow ethnographer.

But was Marina just showing herself as a Being of Artworld pure and simple? The slight shock might then come from realizing that although she seems to share a bit of territory (ethnographic experience) with our tribe, Marina actually belongs to another one. If this is the case, nothing terribly shocking really happened beyond us recalling that there is an Artworld out there that in some ways transcends our Academic World. For don’t we commonly allow artist types quite a bit of “latitude” even additional “degrees of freedom” that we deny ourselves as academics, scientists, or even ordinary people in our rational hard-headed commonsense mode?

The ripples that Marina caused in her passing through Reed, however, cannot be attributed to a simple jolt that an Artworld Being causes to us Academe types. None of the other stars of the Artworld whose passage through Reed College I witnessed caused these effects. Marina couldn’t have caused such ripples if she had been just an Artworld Being pure and simple. I think that in fact she isn’t, and that it is because she is a Being passing through Artworld without being of it, just as much as she is passing through Anthropology without being of it, that she has the effect that she does. Because she causes ripples or perturbation in both worlds, she probably belongs to neither.

I don’t think Marina fundamentally cares whether what she’s doing is labeled art or something else, as long as it does to her and her audiences what it should. It is only that she happens to find the Artworld the most generous and congenial home. It provides the spaces and opportunities, and calls forth a certain mindset that she could, sometimes with difficulty, exploit for her purposes. This mindset – that we are going to attend to something with quite an unusual degree of attention and openness, an expectation that our ordinary perception is going to be challenged, etc. – this whole attitudinal set developed by Artworld could be seized upon by Marina for her own ends. Such temporary curiosity could be used to trap Artworld audiences just as a clever monkey traps work by exploiting monkey curiosity.

Sure, Marina will explicitly say that art is a tool for her, but when she performs there is no sense that she is using Artworld as merely a ruse, a trap, or enticement. She is not ironic about being an artist at all. In fact she is fully, completely an artist and also fully, completely not an artist. In a word, she is shimmering.

Marina’s work probably couldn’t work without witnessing her in person. She is a flickering, shimmering being. She is a shy young girl AND an eternal mother, perhaps even grandmother, but all at once. There is power and assurance and there is fragility and shyness, and they are both there simultaneously, at the same time, but because our minds cannot process these qualities as being one and the same, they get processed as an oscillation between states, an eye blink of a girl, an eye blink of a wise mother, on and off, thus shimmer.

It was Marina who introduced me to Lawrence Weschler, the CHF Artistic Director Emeritus and my use of shimmering owes a lot to his use of this concept, especially in his Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. That Marina Abramovic will appear at CHF is for me a sign that extra-dimensional forces have been at work.  

Marina Abramovic - Chicago Humanities Festival 

Marko Živković and Marina Abramovic

Marko Živković is a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta and the author of Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević (Indiana University Press, 2011).


Event Info

Marina Abramovic: A Lecture on Performance and its Future

2012-Abramovic: Thu, Feb. 16 6:00 - 7:00 PM
First United Methodist Church, The Chicago Temple

Tags: Marina Abramovic, Chicago Humanities Festival, performance art, Ulay, Marko Zivkovic, anthropology, ethnography, Reed College

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