Public Pain vs. Private Pain


This story was written for by Anne M. Sewall.

“So, Marina’s violent upbringing as well as the violence in Yugoslavia may have influenced her use of self-inflicted pain. However, she says it is to make a connection with her audience.”

I am sitting in my senior seminar looking at slides of the mutilated Yugoslavian-born artist with 13 other girls and Michael Jois, the professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at my small liberal arts college.

She is Marina Abramović. She’s probably the foremost performance artist in the world. Her face, art, and antics are famous, and she has never ceased to provoke since she preformed her first piece in 1968. With a tape recorder on, Abramović stabbed at the space between her fingers with ten different blades, replayed the recording, and did it again. Her art hinges on audience intervention. She provokes until someone is driven to help.

Michael interrupts the silence in the room, “When she was growing up she was hospitalized for 3 months and her parents only came to visit her once a week. She is quoted saying that she doesn’t ever remember being kissed by her mother.”

I stare at a picture of a bleeding Abramović. She is fully nude with her pubic hair both abundant and exposed. She wears a look of displeased focus on her make-up-free face. This is what Marina Abramović does. She pushes herself to the brink of survival and then depends on the viewers to intervene, or the hospitals to rehabilitate, or the body to heal itself. If there is someone watching, Abramović will live. If not, she will probably die. But if there is no one there, does she perform at all?

She wakes up. It’s dark outside. Turning her head to one side, she stares out the window into the pitch-black night. It’s only six o’clock but the January sunset had happened two hours earlier. Her body doesn’t want to move, her mind sinking back into sleep. Sleep is the easiest. Sleep is all she really wanted to do anymore.

The class breaks into smaller groups to discuss the reading on Abramović we had done. We hear about Marina’s life in Yugoslavia. Her distant parents, the unstable living conditions, her tumultuous and always unsuccessful relationships with men. Nearly all the groups draw the conclusion that Abramović’s self-mutilation undoubtedly comes from her upbringing. The students draw that her life had been so traumatic that it resulted in a depression that lends itself to her disturbing and sinister work. Her sorrow, the unstable political situation of former Serbia, and her lack of familial love all lead her to do the things that she does. She attracts thousands of followers because she is sorting out her own issues through her extremely public art. I don’t buy it.

The room is still dark when she pulls herself from her bed. Sitting up first, she lets the weight settle back onto her hips. She grabs her phone and texts a few people about dinner. These naps have got to stop. She has got to get back to a regular schedule. The girls she knows are already in the dining hall. There’s no time to shower. No time to look nice, lest she eat alone. And she would eat alone - but that is one of the things the doctor told her to avoid:isolation. Finally, getting off of her bed and walking across the one-room double, she turns on the light.

For the latter part of the class, we watch Abramović’s work “Seven Easy Pieces” that she preforms in the New York Guggenheim in 2005. The upper-level art students have settled into more comfortable positions, legs are propped on the table and heads sit in the hands of their owners. Some of our faces are shriveled in disgust; some are just fluttering their eyelashes in disbelief.

Abramović sits naked at a table with a white tablecloth and one chair facing the audience. On the table there is a liter of red wine and a kilogram of honey. She consumes both without breaking her gaze on her viewers. Breaking the glass with her right hand, she then reaches for a razor blade. Moving to sit on the ground on the surgically white stage, she cuts a communist star around her belly button, extending into her pubic area. Legs spread, face stoic, she grabs the whip next to the empty honey jar. While Abramović repeatedly whips herself, the audience gasps, and everyone begins whispering.

The video shows the audience’s reaction. Mothers cover their children’s eyes as artistic genius gives way to squeamishness Her body is gashed and bleeding when Abramović. announces, "I no longer feel the whip.”

Avoiding the mirror she realizes, again, that she hasn’t taken her medication. It’s a trial: one per day for 30 days. On her desk sits the bottle of small orange pills. What if she just took them all at once? No. After pulling on jeans and a sweater from her laundry hamper, she presses on the pill bottle and twists releasing the cap. She takes two out and pops them in her mouth. There’s no taste.

Abramović is really moving now. Covered in blood and languid in her movements, she stands in front of her audience so that they can view the fresh wounds. Are they wounds? There are foot-tall blocks of ice in the shape of a cross on the floor and a heater suspended it. She lies down on the cross and the heater, pointing at the cut, starts up.

It’s cold after dark. She walks up the little trail form her dorm that leads to the major pathway that’ll get her to the dining hall. It’s a class dinner. She was supposed to wear a dress. Sophomores tend to overdress for these things. The two pills have inspired a small twitching in her right hand, or maybe it’s all the sleep that she has been getting. Is it getting sleep or it is oversleeping? I have to lie down to forget things, to not have to socialize. I don’t want to worry, to have people making me anxious, sad, and even more alone.

She will be herself to this meal. She will smile and laugh. She will eat a normal amount of food, though that plan has recently been giving way to multiple slices of pizza followed by different kinds of desserts. These meals have been leaving her even more lethargic than when she arrives to eat them. It’s binge eating. It’s a symptom.

Abramović is bleeding onto the ice. Her back is visibly turning blue while her wound cannot heal due to the heat. She is dripping red over the translucent ice gibbet she has built for herself. A man and woman approach the stage and begin removing the ice from under Abramović’s body. She lies limp in their hands as they move her onto the floor. The audience is now chattering audibly in the background. They are concerned, Abramović has inspired human reaction. Maybe they feel her pain. Maybe these museum-going strangers are helping her sort out her issues.

Dinner is the same. The girls talk about people she doesn’t know. She gazes over at other tables looking for something, anything, she doesn’t even know what. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, yeah. Yes. I’m like so out of it today.”
“Okay you look really sad.”
“No, not at all! I’ve just been so busy.”
It turns out if you put pizza in a bowl and eat it with a fork and knife, less people notice you are on your third piece.

As museum security approaches the stage, Abramović begins to come back to life. She stirs from her position on the floor and mumbles to the audience members who removed her from her icy blood bath. The audience begins to clap. The performance is over. Abramović is going to be just fine. Michael says, “So that’s it. She might have been a goner! The audience’s reaction— that is her art.” She inflicts emotion with her emotion. She inflicts pain with her pain.”

Her stomach is full as she walks back up the pathway to her dorm. The plan is to get her books, go to the library, do her homework, and talk to other people. The doctor said that spending time with other people was key. That the medication, proper sun exposure, and social interaction would help lift the disorder. She would start to feel connected. She would want to do things again. She could lead a normal life with weekly counseling and a monthly prescription.

She didn’t go to the library. She sat alone in her room for a couple hours, looked at her reading. She pretended to be asleep when her roommate came back, and it only took a few minutes before she fell into her subconscious sanctuary.

Marina's mother beat her when she was young for supposedly “showing off."

She wakes up at 4:06 a.m. Her roommate is across the room, lightly snoring. Looking at her phone she sighs, she is wide-awake. That happens when you sleep 14 hours a day. When did this happen? Why am I not working? I need to tell my friends. No, I can’t, not worth the conversation. Tears begin to fill her bottom eyelids. Warm and ticklish, they roll down her face and onto her neck, seeping into the pillow. Crying, at least, is exterior.

Michael is talking to a few students after the class ends.
“You know, I really think that it is both of those things, her own issues and her art. She is a show-off. She will do anything for attention - even if it is standing on a stage and cutting stars into herself.” But does that work?

“How’d you sleep?”
“Really well! How about you?”


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