Performing Life: Marina Abramovic’s Fabric
With a successful career spanning more than 60 years, Serbian-American artist Marina Abramovic has jokingly named herself the “grandmother of performance art.” In this time, she has pushed her body to the extreme, inflicting pain, suffering, trauma and violence on herself in the name of art. Her work is no theatrical performance – instead it is the pain, gore and horror of real life up close and personal. She says, “the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.” Unsurprisingly, given the bodily nature of her art, she has had a longstanding relationship with fabric and fashion, one that has shifted in different directions throughout the evolution of her practice, and her life.
Abramovic was born in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia in 1946. Her childhood was torn somewhere between communism and Catholicism, teetering between the two extremes that existed on different sides of her family. Catholicism, she has explained in various interviews, taught her about pain and self-sacrifice, while communism, on the other hand, showed her from a young age the political power of fashion. “There are codes and rules on dressing and behaving,” she has observed, explaining, “I came from a communist background where everything looked like a uniform. My mother dressed all her life in a double-breasted suit, very strictly buttoned up with a blouse. It created a certain idea of discipline and authority.”
As a student at Belgrade’s Academy of Fine Arts in the 1960s Abramovic first began exploring the potential of performance art, often with a subversive, anti-establishment stance: “short, intense political pieces where I am plunging the knife between my fingers and cutting the communist star on my body”. Just a decade later she was making waves as an art world tour-de-force, with pain, endurance and human suffering playing central roles in her performance.
Clothing, if she wore it (she often performed naked), was minimal, austere and androgynous – white shirts, high collars and black skirts or trousers – an act of defiance against the overtly feminine, and a nod to her communist childhood. Ulay, her male co-collaborator and romantic partner of the 1980s would also wear the same austere, simple silhouettes. Red later appeared in her arsenal, the colour of passion, blood, torture and pain writ large in long, draping jackets and gowns. She had little interest in high fashion at this time, choosing clothing instead for political and personal reasons, as she explains, “In the 1970s I was never interested in fashion. I thought that to be fashionable was to be a less good artist.”
In 1988, Abramovic and Ulay arranged the ultimate act of union, agreeing to walk the great wall of China from opposite ends, meeting in the middle where they would marry. For the walk of a lifetime Abramovic wore baggy red clothes so she could be seen from a great distance by viewers looking on, who affectionately named her “Pa Ma Ta Je”, meaning “big fat sister mother.” Though the love between Abramovic and Ulay was not to last, the walk profoundly affected Abramovic, changing her attitude towards both her body and the clothing she wore. She said, “After I walked the Great Wall of China, which was a great achievement in my life that changed my career, I decided that I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore.”
For the first time in her life, she began engaging with luxury clothing, tapping in to what she called “a secret desire to engage with fashion which I never admitted to myself.” Having more money as her reputation grew gave Abramovic freedom to select a quality of clothing she had never encountered before. She said, “the first time that I ever had serious money, I bought a Yamamoto suit. I felt so good in it, and without guilt! After that, I openly started being interested in fashion and tried to create my own style using different elements of what was fashionable at that moment.”
In the next decade, Abramovic struck up a friendship with the fashion designer and Burberry Creative Officer Riccardo Tisci, and he introduced the artist to the wonders of fashion and clothing. Since then, her relationship to costume, fabric and fashion has remained a close one. In contrast with the self-destructive nature of her earlier art, more recently Abramovic has been exploring the nourishing nature of clothing, a concept she first opened up through her “Energy Clothes” made in collaboration with Net-a-Porter. These vivid, batwing bodysuits were designed with magnets hidden inside the material, which the artist believed could “energise the body.”
In her recent, stirring performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, titled The Artist is Present, 2010, Abramovic wore a striking, long red gown resembling a Cassock, and sat, unmoving for eight hours a day, over a 3-month period. Visitors were invited to lock eyes with her on the chair opposite, communicating silently, visually, across a table. The red gown here gave her a commanding, almost Biblical presence. In 2019 Abramovic ventured into new territory once again, writing an operatic performance titled 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, 2019, a tribute to the iconic singer with whom Abramovic has long felt a connection to. Abramovic brought her close friend Tisci in to create the awe-inducing, theatrical costumes which aid in the storytelling experience. These ventures demonstrate Abramovic’s open-ended, fluid approach to art, fashion and everyday life, which she blends seamlessly into one another. She says, “…now artists collaborate openly with fashion designers, which I think is the way to go. We can’t exclude fashion from our lives.”
Thank you Rosie and Masha! Rosie, exploring historic art, artists and creating such well written articles about your subject educates and enlightens us with the many perspectives we humans can have.. I appreciate the factual and informative tone of this article as well as your others. Abramovic is recognized by the art world and definitively has a strong relationship with fabric and how it is to to express ourselves. Masha your comments are appreciated!! Brava to both of you!!!
… how it is used to express ourselves.
I have for a long time wanted to thank you for the most interesting articles about art and artists through the ages, .AND linking pieces of art to certain fabric colors being sold. This is an intro to art history that I really enjoy.
I am sorry for some of the comments about Marina Abramovic. We don’t have to like, nor ‘be inspired’ to learn something about art.
A big Thank You and keep up the good work.
Am disappointed to see such a person honored here. God will not be mocked.
I hope your emotions challenge you to growth in tolerance and understanding of those who are different from you.
I AGREE COMPLETELY…WAS GOING TO MAKE A SIMILAR COMMENT MYSELF, WHEN I SAW YOURS, AND DEC IDED TO PIGGY-BACK ON IT…HOPE YOU DON’T MIND…
I WAS REPLYING TO PEGGY CARSON’S COMMENT…
Please forgive me for misstating your name…I hadn’t had my second cup of coffee.
I have never responded to your posts, but I read every word and I am delighted when you offer your perspective on the connections of color and fabric to our lives. That said, I generally do not like Abramovic’s work; I find her pretentious and ponderous and I absolutely support her right to do art that I do not like. The wonderful thing about art is that it does not need to approved to be significant and valid. Art is not supposed to be a lullaby for the mind and senses; art, above all, has the ability to awaken, to agitate and to call forth responses that are dormant within each of us. Please continue to violate the obvious choices and give us your insights. Mere prettiness can be vapid and dulling-there is nothing wrong with being comfortable with one’s reactions, but it is good to ponder one’s own irritations. So, Bravo! Masha-please keep me awake.
I agree with those pleading for this artist not to be given more of our attention + energy.
Her name is notoriously included alongside [multiple] pedophile scandals, as well as those who have been convicted of nefarious acts, i.e John of God. There has been a lot of development in the connection between art and child trafficking. You cannot search or seize “living art” purchased through certain advisory teams. Which has been found to be a major loophole in legality and transporting (trafficking). I believe this started to surface around the time Leon Black stepped down as chairman of MoMA due to his ties with Epstein – however that rabbit hole runs deep, and her name was again prominent in the scandal.
I would imagine defending your art, as an artist, is an innate response. Why create the work she does, if she wasn’t willing *prepared* to defend it? The risk, and shock hold value to her work. People discussing the taboo is good for her publicity. Admittance of nefarious details would unravel a wide web she has spun. The web that currently keeps her safe. Having her PR team pay to run articles about how you aren’t a satanist defuses a little and keeps the shock.
It’s a big club they have, and unfortunately, I am not able to separate the art from the artist on this one. It’s the same for Woody Allen, people will come out, people will make full-blown documentaries on his long-range of child abuse, but at the end of the day, he is still making movies and living a free life. It is up to the consumer to draw the line of what they will support. Marina Abramovic is not one I will support while the evidence is stacked against her, regardless of whether the day comes that she is convicted. Look how long it took Weinstein. Literal jokes were made about it by Seth Macfarlane at the Oscars. Continued by Ricky Gervais at the golden globes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JURRQykn5Qg
Giving these artists more attention is only praising their status and allowing more people to turn a blind eye.
I thought it was very interesting, especially the story of the lovers walking the Great Wall. I have learned so much from these posts. Thank you for your research.
I cannot believe that anyone would be less than thankful and not engaged in the offering of a bit of information and connecting the art and fashion world. I am thankful for these blogs and love how you take the time to expand the concept of fabric and fashion. This is a high-class website and newsletter/blog with the quiet ambition of coaxing the reader to see a bit beyond the fabric. I applaud and appreciate your efforts. Thank you for giving us more than just bad photos of sewing supplies. Your website is beautiful and so are your fabrics.
Thanks for the generous feedback Martha!
I totally agree! I love the linen products from this site, but I certainly would not want to use this featured “artist” as a role model to emulate. I don’t think this was a good choice for promoting linen fabric.
Another article for you to consider – food for thought!
I did read the article but It surely did not cover the body of her work. You can tell when something is being covered up when a straw man is thrown in to distract from the real issue.
I was extremely disappointed to see your article and then see the link to the this article.
I have appreciated an enjoyed your articles in the past. This one was a huge disappointment.
I think it’s very interesting how you relate unique artists with fabric and tell their tale. I saw the video of her when her ex husband came and sat at her table at the museum and it was very moving. Thanks for sharing information on a unique woman and others you have written about!
Her sick art is based on the infliction of pain. Celebrating her obsession is disturbing and feels deeply inappropriate for this ongoing creative column which should celebrate sewing, clothing, beauty and making. There is more than enough violence, blood and pain in the news daily. I don’t need reminders arriving in promotional emails from a company that wants me as a customer.
I totally agree with your comment. I see nothing good in promotion of violence, pain, and suffering on a site that should be focused on sewing and striving for beautiful expression in use of your linen. I love your linen, but this article is not something that I find useful or good!
Hello, thank you for your comment. Her art is not a promotion of violence, pain and suffering, it is a reflection of life, of which violence, pain and suffering is the ugly human experience she chooses to expose within a gallery space. You could say that in doing so, she is giving voice to those who are unable to be heard. Everything in life is a matter of perspective.
Hello, thank you for your comment. Her art is not based on infliction of pain but rather ‘confrontation of pain, blood, and physical limits of the body’- it is a reflection of life which as it stands for our human experience, involves a great deal of pain. By putting it in a gallery, whithin a relatively safe, bourgeois you could say, arena – she is challenging the viewer to look at what it means to be human, what it means to step out of your comfort- the physicality of it, which can shock- takes root in self-discovery and observation of the human experience. As someone who chooses to cold swim (for example with temperatures of 1c, which most people will fail to comprehend, or judge as questionably sane), and put my body into extreme states in order to gain clarity of mind, or peace within, her work makes sense from this standpoint. It is extreme, but the root is there.
Isn’t she a Satanist!! Well known in Hollywood as Spirit cooker? I have to say I’m quite surprised to find u pudhing her here???
Thanks for your comment – I just wanted to put out some alternative views which argue she definitely isn’t a Satanist (it’s certainly not something I’ve read about her) – see the links to the two following articles below:
I agree with you! Certainly a disappointing article to find posted here, where I have been so happy to purchase linen in the past!