Now that the election is over, we’re looking back at one of the most bizarre topics that surfaced from the campaign. Days before the election, Wikileaks released a batch of emails containing a note from performance artist Marina Abramovic to Tony Podesta, brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, and set off a strange chain reaction of accusations that tied Clinton and Podesta to the occult and Satan worshipping from the alt-right. James Westcott, Abramovic’s biographer and the author of When Marina Abramovic Dies writes this post to clear the air.
BREAKING FAKE NEWS —Clinton’s campaign manager participates in occult ritual with bizarre Balkan satanist…
Of all the crazy tales fabricated in this election, this one might have been the most insane. Not just for the paranoid conspiracy posited by the alt-right—Clinton’s satanic network—but for the fact that a performance artist, Marina Abramovic, found herself tossed into the hollow core of the nation’s election news cycle. Enduring decades of obscurity in a tiny artworld niche, Abramovic may have been elevated to A-list celebrity aftåer her MoMA performance The Artist Is Present in 2010, but to now show up on the alt-right’s radar is a whole other level of fame.
Just to recap what happened: an email Abramovic wrote to her longterm friend and collector Tony Podesta showed up in a wikileaks stash. In the email, Abramovic invited Podesta’s brother John, now Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, to join them at a “Spirit Cooking” dinner in her apartment in New York. Infowars reported what they thought Abramovic’s “Spirit Cooking” is and concluded that she and Clinton’s retinue are straight-up Satanists.
For the record: Spirit Cooking is nothing but a little-known (and, measured in her ouvre, a rather throwaway) performance Abramovic did in an Italian gallery in 1996, in which she painted apparent instructions on the white wall with pigs blood. Instructions like: “with a sharp knife cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand eat the pain.” She also painted a small kind of icon in the corner with the blood too. It’s pretty repulsive and rather luridly aims to shock but it’s also clearly not serious. Abramovic also published a Spirit Cooking cookbook, containing comico-mystical, self-helpy instructions like: “spit inside your naval / until the lake is filled / lie motionless / listen to the heartbeat / of a dog.” You’re not really meant to actually do these things. As Abramovic said at London’s Royal Festival Hall last night in a launch event for her new memoir Walk Through Walls, it’s just poetry.
Spirit Cooking later evolved into a form of dinner party entertainment that Abramovic occasionally lays on for collectors, donors, and friends. That’s where John Podesta comes in—or doesn’t, since he never actually attended the dinner, where anyway guests simply made soup, not out of blood or any other bodily fluid, while overseen by Abramovic in full-on comedy schoolmarm mode.
They probably made a “golden ball” too, a recipe given to her by Tibetan monks after a meditation retreat in northern India. A golden ball is supposed to be eaten after a long period of fasting and meditation. I’ve had one, at the end of a “workshop” she gave to her students—I was her assistant at the time—in Andalusia in 2005. A golden ball consists, precisely, of seven almonds, three coriander seeds, two black peppercorns, one white peppercorn, and a dribble of honey, all ground together and wrapped in a sheet of 24 carat gold leaf. It was delicious, but I was confident that I wasn’t going to become a Buddhist by eating it.
Having known Marina for fourteen years now, and having written a biography, I don’t think she’s ever actually worshipped anything. What she has done is graze world religions and esoteric spiritual practices as source material for experimental performances and as meditation tools to salve her bottomless emotional pain. She essentially takes the spiritual and squeezes it into the purely bodily. It’s all about the management of stimulations, deprivations, and aesthetics to achieve—in a down-to-earth cause and effect way—certain physical effects and mental states. She kind of believes in everything—and therefore, in a way, in nothing. Except the power of the body.
The literalism of the alt-right’s interpretation of the Spirit Cooking dinner recalls the culture wars of the 80s and 90s, where the line between representation and advocacy, between artifice and reality, got blurred… and apparently never got back into focus for some. Since the 1980s, Abramovic has spent months in retreat at Buddhist monasteries in Northern India—does that make her a Buddhist? She’s also spent months with Aborigines in Australia—does that make her a shaman adept in reading Songlines and recalling the Dreamtime? She habitually performs numerological readings on new people she meets, breaking down their date of birth to a single significant number—does that make her a Hindu mystic? She’s twirled with Sufis—so is she one? She’s suspended herself from wires in homage to the levitations of Saint Teresa of Avila—does that make her a Christian? She’s stared at snakes for hours and sat determinedly still while a python wrapped itself around her head and neck—does that make her a snake charmer? She’s knelt down face to face with a donkey, gazing into its eyes while trying to telepathically communicate with it—does that make her… Dr. Doolittle? She’s lived with quartz miners in Brazil—does that make her a miner too? She’s milked goats in Istria and helped make cheese—does that make her a dairy farmer?
Maybe it makes perverse sense, since the mission of the alt-right is to “reveal” reality as a lie, that they would also convert artifice—in Abramovic’s case, performance—into cold hard fact. But this confusion of performance and reality, experiment and faith, does inadvertently point towards something curious and essential about Abramovic: she’s simultaneously utterly sincere and totally comedic. To neophytes she may well look like a convincing modern day witch. But it doesn’t take much googling to surmise that this is also performance in the traditional sense of the word, and that in reality she’s funny, frivolous, and game for anything—in her own words, she’s a lover of “bullshit” like celebrity and fashion.
Probably it’s only possible to throw yourself headlong into the type of activities she does with a strong taste for the absurd. At the end of the workshop in Andalusia I was surprised when, after five days of starvation and detoxification of the body and the psyche, Marina cracked open a can of caffeine, sugar, and artificial color-filled Fanta one morning. When I joked with her that she was undoing all that detoxification in a stroke, she said rapturously “Baby, come on, the Fanta is beyond!”