THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Psychoanalyst Meets Marina Abramović is aptly titled. The book focuses on the friendship between performance artist Marina Abramović and psychoanalyst Jeannette Fischer. Written by Fischer, the text is built around a series of conversations between the two women in 2015 exploring the relationships between art, psychoanalysis and personal history.
The introduction quotes Abramović as having said to Fischer, “From my point of view, you’re making a book for me, to clarify my soul. There’s something I’d like to understand better: Explain the links between my work and my life to me. What do I take from my personal life and transform into work, into art? I’d like greater clarity about that.”
The book succeeds in doing exactly this while also opening up both performance art and psychoanalysis to a broader audience. By weaving Abramović’s personal history through interpretations of several of her outstanding performances and a range of psychoanalytic topics, Fischer manages to illuminate all three in a straightforward, easy-to-follow, conversational mode.
The writing does not follow the typical back-and-forth interview format. Instead, Fischer creates a much more compelling dynamic. The book is organized topically by subjects such as pain, rejection, guilt, and impotence. Within these chapters, Fischer follows a format whereby she first offers a quote from Abramović, then records her response to Abramović, followed by a brief analysis of the contents of the exchange. Each of these analyses is prefaced by the phrase, “This is what Marina Abramović’s performance is about:”, followed by a summation of the proceeding analysis.
Some summation analyses include: “being trapped as someone else’s object with no hope of escape,” “nobody notices her pain,” “emptying herself to escape the void,” and “violence is the bass line of all Marina’s performances, and it is always kept silent.” This format allows for the same performances to be discussed and interpreted multiple times in relation to different pieces of Abramović’s history and differing psychoanalytic frames. The result permits us to continuously reevaluate the content, unravelling an array of potential meaning within the art and the artist’s life.
Much of Fischer’s discussion, unsurprisingly, revolves around Abramović’s relationship with her mother. Probing the lifelong dynamics between the artist and her mother, Fischer explains a kind of abnegation which forms the foundations of both Abramović’s work as well as her romantic partnerships. Fischer describes a process through which the artist must deny her autonomy in order to make her mother satisfied.
This process repeats itself in Abramović’s capacity to endure pain in order to serve the needs of those around her. In her art, the process manifests as performances in which the audience is given permission to do anything they wish to the artist—including the act of ending her life, while she takes on full responsibility for their actions.
In her personal relationships, this manifests as giving all her energy to her partners without taking care to fulfill her own needs. She has taken the process of giving up her self to its extreme. Fischer writes, “The re-enactment of her exploitative relationships, the repetition of the need to fill and feed other people, hints that the same processes were at work during her childhood and youth. By this we mean the pain re-enacted in her performances, for it hurts to dissolve oneself for someone else’s benefit.”
I found the discussion around pain particularly relatable. Early in the book, Abramović is quoted as saying that “pain is a door” which, if opened, allows one access to a “different state.” This way of understanding the process of pain sounds very similar to the emotional recovery one aims for through psychoanalysis. Fischer writes about how the pains of our childhoods create our patterns of behavior in adult life.
Defense mechanisms formed in childhood, which become routine in our relationships with spouses and friends, or ritualistic behaviors which allow us to process traumas, remain ever-present in our lives, informing our future relationships.
The book’s text avoids needless jargon and lays open a dialogue in which any reader who has experienced pain in a personal relationship can relate to the grieving and long-lasting emotional ripples that emanate from such experiences. The re-enacting of pain, in either a performance or in psychoanalytic therapy, can be understood as the process of walking through pain’s door to find emotional growth on the other side.
The book, while small both as an object and in length (with photographs of Abramović’s performances), allows for an intimate and accessible reading experience. The content doesn’t suffer from feeling overly dense or rhetorical as some highly analytical art books can be. Instead, it offers insight for anyone interested in understanding performance art or psychoanalysis better.
I found myself evaluating my own personal relationships through each chapter’s framing and felt that the book was particularly successful in making the mechanisms of Abramović’s performances relatable to common complications in human intimacy. Psychoanalyst Meets Marina Abramović is a quick, enlightening read that I’d recommend to anyone interested in this artist, performance art, psychoanalysis, or their interrelation. The book’s strength is that there is no singular takeaway but rather a multifaceted exploration which may even teach readers something about themselves.
Book is published by Scheidegger & Spiess, 2018, 160 p., 8 color plates, 14 halftones, 4.5” x 6”, ISBN-13: 978-3-85881-794-5, cloth, $20. Distributed by the University of Chicago Press.
Shanna Zentner is a Post-MFA teaching fellow in the Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) at the University .of Chicago. This is her third appearance in these pages.
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