Review

Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography

Kaena Daeppen 28 December 2023 min Read

Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography (Laurence King Publishing, 2023) is an illustrated transcription of dialogues between the artist and arts and fiction author Katya Tylevich. This book juxtaposes words and images about Abramović and her art, through which the reader can delve into the world of the revolutionary performer. It goes beyond conventional biography writing to recount her way of seeing the world, of imagining, and creating.

Marina Abramović - A Visual Biography: Marina painting in her studio, Belgrade, 1969, © Marina Abramović, Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Marina painting in her studio, Belgrade, 1969, © Marina Abramović, Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Marina Abramović’s Life and Works

The opening chapters revisit the atypical childhood of Marina Abramović. Born in former Yugoslavia, she was raised by a military father and an art historian mother. The totalitarian communist system she grew up in imposed restrictions on individual activities and silenced free speech. As the artist recalled that experience to Tylevich, she sensed that there was a constant shame in not meeting the expectations of her society, including those of her mother. Regarding her departure from her homeland for Amsterdam in 1975, she further declared:

My biggest problem […] was that I didn’t have any restriction anymore. I didn’t know how to be free. […] I needed restriction. I became the restriction.

Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography, p. 134-136.

Childhood memories became a relentless source for Abramović’s works. These bitter beginnings were a gateway to art, which she turned into part of her life. “Did you know [her] first word was ‘El Greco’?” (P.14). Art was her language and self-liberation. It was a also way to transform the everyday violence in her homeland into something inspirational. Through the collisions of tanks or military aircraft in her first painting, her growing fascination for accidents and near-death experiences (NDE) began to show.

That taste of danger lends a sharpness to her art. Or could it be the other way around, that her creative process is fueled by an ongoing determination to break boundaries, to transcend restrictions, even those self-imposed? This biography opens up into the inner world of the artist who ”brought performance art into the mainstream” (p.430).

Marina Abramović - A Visual Biography: Marina and her father, Vojo, Belgrade, 1950, © Marina Abramović, Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Marina and her father, Vojo, Belgrade, 1950, © Marina Abramović, Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

The Book

Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography was published to coincide with the opening of Abramović’s Royal Academy exhibition in London, which currently takes over the entire building as the first major show by a woman artist throughout the Academy’s history. The exhibition will then travel to Amsterdam, Netherlands, in March 2024.

Reading the biography is like watching one of Abramović’s performances. It opens with a statement of the background and purpose behind the project. Then Abramović lets the stories of her life unfold through an observer’s viewpoint by granting Tylevich full access to her archives, private pictures, and diaries. The collaboration yielded an almost word-by-word transcription that put the artist in conversation with the author and the curated images. Mediated by various points of view and crisscrossing textual and visual mediums is an ultimate guide to Abramović’s life and work in its most legible and sincerest form.

This biography traces her artworks — from early paintings to opera project 7 Deaths of Maria Callas (2020) — her inspirational trips, her intense training, and the workshops she has given for nearly 50 years. It concludes with the importance of teaching and imparting her experience to the next generation of performance artists, a message of gratitude to all the people who accompanied and chose to stay around to support her both as an artist and as a human being, as well as some final thoughts about death.

 

Making a book like this is dangerous. I look through the pages and, even though I see my life, it looks completely new to me. Most artists don’t get this chance. Books like this only come out once they die. And how many times have I joked that ”I’m not dealt yet”? I don’t want to die. I want to live a really, really long life.

Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography, p 452.

To conclude, more than a part of Marina Abramović’s legacy, this book is itself a piece of art.

Marina Abramović - A Visual Biography: Marina Abramović, Balkan Baroque I, performance, 4 days, 6 hours, XLVII Biennale Venice, June 1997, © Marina Abramović, Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Marina Abramović, Balkan Baroque I, performance, 4 days, 6 hours, XLVII Biennale Venice, June 1997, © Marina Abramović, Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

New York City: Marina Abramović in Conversation with Katya Tylevich

You can join a talk/Q&A at Barnes & Noble – Union Square in New York City on the 4th of January, 2024. Marina Abramović and Katya Tylevich will discuss the project and give autographs. This is a unique opportunity to meet the artist and the author and learn more about the creation process of this exceptional work.

You can get your copy of Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography on the publisher’s website.

Bibliography

1.

Katya Tylevich, Marina Abramović, Marina Abramović — A Visual Biography, London, Laurence King Publishing, 2023.

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