On Editing Marina Abramović

Editor Tricia Boczkowski talks to Read it Forward about the performance artist's signature sense of humor and her love for Lady Gaga.

Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramović might be the first performance artist to become a household name. The Yugoslavian artist’s prolific career has spanned four decades and her work examines the intimate relationship and interaction between the performer and the audience, as well as the physical limits of the body and mind.

Her 2010 exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art included the 736-hour performance The Artist Is Present, wherein Abramović stoically sat in silence and invited museum visitors to sit across from her as she maintained eye contact with them. The show spawned daily lines as soon as the museum’s doors opened and an estimated half a million people returned Abramović’s gaze during the three-month long installation. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world tuned in via an Internet live stream.

In anticipation of her 70th birthday on November 30th, the incomparable artist has finally written her memoir, an honest and candidly-told story of her difficult childhood in postwar Yugoslavia, her subsequent career and her professional and romantic partnerships. Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright sat down with Abramović’s editor Tricia Boczkowski, who spoke about what the artist reveals in Walk Through Walls.

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RIF: What can readers expect from Walk Through Walls?

Tricia Boczkowski: Marina Abramović is a complete force of nature and you understand why when you read her memoir. She’s just extraordinary in every way. She grew up in the former Yugoslavia under Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito’s regime—her father was Tito’s body man and her mother was a kind of cultural attaché to Belgrade—but Marina was brutalized as a child, and developed such toughness in standing up to her mother, who, along with her aunt, used to beat her viciously. She lived at home until she was 29, remaining a virgin until she was 26, and was kept to a 10 P.M. curfew, even after she was married.

Marina is so open in this book—she’s got nothing to hide. In addition to being a totally raw and honest telling of her own life, the memoir also elucidates a lot about her art and her coming-of-age as an artist and a woman. She talks about will and your will to do something. [She’s developed a method now over all these years of doing her performance art to teach her method to students—some of those things involve slow walking, drinking water, not speaking—really getting back to the basics.] For so many people, the moment she really broke out into superstardom was with the MoMA exhibit in 2010, The Artist is Present, where she had 750,000+ visitors and 17,000 people sitting down in front of her over the course of three months. The power of that piece, of sitting in one place and being totally present, or as present as she could be for each person and developing skills, recognizing that people would leave their auras behind when they got up from the chair. She’s really in tune with another layer of existence. You know, if the world is made of energy, she’s tapped into some deep layers.

And just in her private life, she had this incredible story about a house she bought in Amsterdam for 40 thousand guilders, back in the 80s when there were drug addicts living in it. She got the former drug dealer who lived on the top floor to strike a deal where she wouldn’t kick him out of his place if he got rid of all the drug addicts so she could buy it. He wound up cleaning up his act, getting custody of his kids back, and ultimately, the social worker who came to the house to check on them fell in love with him and they ended up getting married. There are just all these incredible stories of people whose lives she touched and who touched hers.

And Marina and Ulay is another major thread in the book, looking at their twelve-year partnership. She had two long relationships in her life; one with Ulay that lasted 12 years and one with Paolo, an Italian artist, which also lasted 12 years. He really broke her heart—they both did—and I think that piece of the memoir really resonates with people, how to get over something so monumental. Her collaboration with Ulay, she really thought that the art was the most important thing and they both had the same priorities and that they were two halves of the same person, and they grew apart. She considers one of the greatest failures of her lifetime is not being able to make their personal relationship work since they had such a great professional relationship for many years.

RIF: Was Marina the driving force behind the writing of this memoir?

TB: Absolutely. She’s turning 70 this year and she said, ‘now’s the time. I want to reflect on my life.’ And she really did it, no holds barred.

RIF: So tell me about this striking cover. Is it meant to mimic her performance in The Artist is Present, where you’re forced to look at one another in the eye?

TB: Yes, that was definitely Marina’s one request for the cover. Her gaze is one of the most important things about her and it is so powerful. We worked with Inez & Vinoodh, quite famous fashion photographers and they shot the cover. We took four different takes: one where she’s looking straight-on at the camera, wearing a jumpsuit with a Communist medal around her neck; one with a live python, where the snake was kissing her forehead and licking her lips—snakes play prominently in the book too, she has many moments with snakes over time, including in the opening of the book; and then we had a more fashion-y shot with her hair blowing everywhere and then a fourth where she is burning her finger over a candle. We had a wealth of incredible images to choose from, but ultimately what we had always said we wanted was that gaze, where she’s looking right at you and you’re forced to respond in kind.

RIF: The book is going to be so striking on shelves. Her eyes really invite you in, which imitates her art in a way.

TB: Yeah, and the writing in the book is the same way. She really gets into it all. And her memoir is really funny! She’s got this crazy Balkan sense of humor. I don’t think people know that about her. She’s very warm, very funny. And I think people are more intimidated by her, but when you read this book you feel like you know her and the voice is so strong and so unique to her in her perfectly imperfect English and her way of speaking really sucks you in.

RIF: What was it like editing that?

TB: It was a pure joy. It really was. I tried to maintain as much of the voice as possible and after 70 years, she had a wealth of stories—they couldn’t all possibly fit into one book—so the last minute changes have been ‘wait, I forgot this one anecdote!’

She literally covers a lot of ground in the book—it spans the globe, and she’s had this worldwide art career. I think The Artist is Present brought a whole new generation to become aware of Marina’s work. In the 70s, there was a real community around performance art and that doesn’t exist anymore. I think she ended up making that happen, it happened organically but the show got a lot of attention and then celebrities started to come. Lou Reed sat with her and Laurie Anderson, Jemima Kirke from Girls, and James Franco and Lady Gaga.

Lady Gaga, in particular, Marina talks about this in the book, she took it quite seriously and came to Marina’s house upstate and took a workshop with her and learned the method—counting lentils, walking naked in the woods, all of the rest. So Lady Gaga was really helpful in spreading the word. Her fans just heard that she’d gone and then suddenly this whole new young community started coming out to Marina’s show. So she’s bridged the gap—and some people say that she’s sold out for that reason, but selling out when you don’t make hardly anything as a performance artist, is hard to measure. To have experiential art go almost ‘viral’ in this way is important. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

RIF: Who is the ideal reader of Marina’s memoir?

TB: Well, certainly fans of memoir will flock to it. I bet fans of Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls would love it, as well as people who enjoyed Sally Mann’s Hold Still. Anyone interested in the art world will certainly take to it. And it’s unisex too—I know women and men alike will relate to her struggles and heartache. She’s such an accomplished woman and the humor in her writing is universally appealing. Marina has a completely unique story and a completely unique way of storytelling and this memoir is not to be missed.

Read the first chapter of Walk Through Walls here.


Featured image: Tricia Boczkowski and Marina Abramović, courtesy of Tricia Boczkowski.

MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ was raised in Yugoslavia, and now makes her primary residence in New York, NY, and at the Abramović Institute in the Hudson Valley.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.