Out in the Open

Marina Abramović cuts, slaps and whips to conquer pain

Performance artist Marina Abramović wants you to lean into pain to free yourself from its grip
Marina Abramovic prepares for her performance art piece Rhythm 10.

In one of Marina Abramović's first performances, she cut herself on purpose in order to confront her longtime fear of blood head on.

Since then, the Serbian artist has slammed her body into walls, whipped herself, been slapped, sat motionless for hours on end, and more. And yet, Abramović swears she's not a masochist.

"I hate it," she says of pain, "even if I'm cutting garlic and by accident cut my finger, I really don't like (it). I don't like anything painful. I love life. I'm not interested in dying. I'm staging these difficult situations in front of the public, using the energy of the public in order to figure out and get free from these fears."

Abramović often inflicts pain on herself for the sake of art. She considers The Artist is Present, her best known work, to be the most physically painful thing she's ever done. For 700 hours, over the course of three months, Abramović sat on a wooden chair in silence at New York's Museum of Modern Art while visitors were invited to sit across from her and gaze into her eyes. "It's very easy to make something which is painful one hour, three hours," she says, "but three months is life. It's life itself."

The intensity of that experience was heightened, she says, because it didn't just involve physical pain, but emotional too. "Emotional pain is so much greater than physical. Much greater. I can handle physical pain because I know it's physical but emotional, I can't handle it."

Abramović says she subjects herself to pain so we can all confront it and understand it better. In her new memoir, Walk Through Walls, she traces her personal and public relationship with pain, and explains how she found total freedom.

"The physical pain is almost like a secret door. If you pass the physical, certain secrets will be revealed to you. When you lose the fear of pain you enter into different state of consciousness."