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Marina Abramovic on ‘violent’ childhood: My parents slept next to their pistols

Artist Marina Abramovic has said she had a “very violent” childhood and that her parents “slept with their pistols next to their bed”.

The 77-year-old Serbian artist grew up in Belgrade, which was then in post-Second World War Yugoslavia.

Speaking about her upbringing to Lauren Laverne on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Abramovic said that the expectation was for her to focus on her education and study.

She said: “I had French lessons, I had English lessons, I had a ballet teacher, piano teacher. We had (a) maid.”

Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year 2023
Marina Abramovic with the Artist of the Year award at the Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year 2023 awards (Ian West/PA)

She added: “It’s very spoiled, looking from (the) outside, but at the same time, most parents never talked to each other.

“It was very violent, it was one of the darkest parts of my life.”

Abramovic said that when you grew up communist and had parents who were “national heroes” like hers, you were “privileged”, like a “red Bourgeois”.

In spite of this, she said she had an unhappy childhood and described her parents’ marriage as “hell”.

“I never felt happiness at home, back home mother and father never even talk(ed) and there was incredible violence toward each other,” she said.

“They slept with their pistols next to their bed. And, I was thinking, that’s the way how it was.”

She said she realised she was “completely deprived” of happiness and love when she looked at the way other families functioned.

In spite of the violence, she said she would not go back and change her childhood.

“It’s been very hardcore, my upbringing, but I learned so much, I became so strong,” she said.

“Now I’ve been doing this work 55 years and I’m 77 and people go to pension and they stop working, I’m not even thinking of stop(ping) working.

“I mean I have so many projects still in my mind.”

One of her most well known projects was her 1974 performance art piece Rhythm 0 in which she laid out 72 objects on a long table and invited the public to do whatever they wanted to her body as she stood there, still and passive.

Fashion For Relief Gala – Red Carpet – London
Marina Abramovic (Ian West/PA)

She told Laverne that the public were “getting more and more violent” as the six-hour performance went on and described how people had cut under her neck to drink her blood.

Abramovic has been creating performance pieces for decades and said solitude was an important part of her life and work.

She said: “I love solitude. I spent three months in the forest, in a cell, just repeating (a) mantra and I finished (the) mantra after three months, repeating one million, one hundred thousand (and) one time(s).

“And I only had one meal, which the monastery (would) bring me up in the mountain.”

She said that she did not see anyone and would have a meal a day which would be taken to her at 12 o’clock.

After three months, once she had finished her mantras, Abramovic said that she sent a message to the monastery, left the cell and then burned all of her possessions.

She currently has her work on display at the Royal Academy of Arts and in November she won the artist award at Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year awards ceremony, in recognition of her decades-long career.

Desert Island Discs airs on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 at 11.15am on Sunday.