Photo by Platon
Marina Abramović in her own words: ‘Why don’t we have a ménage à trois?’
It was 1984, and the artist’s relationship was falling apart. She describes her attempts to save it, in an exclusive extract from her memoir
• ‘I face so much jealousy’ – read the interview with Marina Abramović
Saturday 22 October 2016 09.00 BST
ur plan was for me to start the walk at the Great Wall of China’s eastern end, the Gulf of Bohai on the Yellow Sea, and for Ulay to start at its western end, the Jiayu Pass in the Gobi desert. After walking 2,500km each, we would meet in the middle.
About our original plan, to marry when we met there, we now spoke less and less. It was 1984, and my relationship with Ulay was falling apart. Since the death of his mother two years earlier – specifically since I had refused, on the night of the funeral, to conceive a child – we had been furious at each other, but saying little about it.
Our transition from frequent and ardent lovers to a couple living in mere physical parallel had begun with Nightsea Crossing, a piece in which we would sit across a table from each other, in chairs neither too comfortable nor too uncomfortable, and look into each other’s eyes without moving at all for eight hours. The performance required abstinence and distance in our off hours. And Ulay wanted so badly to do the piece all the way through, but he kept having to stop because of a pain in his abdomen, which was killing him. We were still performing the piece, trying to reach our goal of doing it 90 times.
He took his humiliation out on me. He would flirt with waitresses, airline stewardesses, gallery assistants – anybody – right in front of me. I feel certain, in retrospect, that he was having affairs.
That summer, Ulay was diagnosed with a herniated disc. Since his back was in a delicate state, our sex life stopped altogether. For almost a year, I was reduced to being his nurse, and nothing I did for him was ever good enough. If I brought him food, it was too cold or too salty. If I offered sympathy, he was distant and rejecting. I was hurt and angry, but there was more: I was in my late 30s, and feeling fat and frumpy and bad about myself.
For the last three years we were together, I was hiding, even from our closest friends, the fact that our relationship had fallen apart. I could not stand the idea of this failure. I had given up working on my own for an ideal I thought was higher: making art together and creating this third element we called that self – an energy not poisoned by ego. I could not stand the idea that it didn’t work.
And that we failed for the stupidest, pettiest reason – the failure of our domestic life – was the saddest thing of all. For me, private life was part of the work, too. Our collaboration was always about sacrificing everything for the bigger idea. But, in the end, we failed over something small.
In early 1987, Ulay made another trip to China to continue negotiations for our walk, and we were finally given a date: that summer. I was to meet him in Thailand to make final plans for the piece.
At this point, I felt like a failure. Ulay had cheated on me again and again. So when I arrived in Bangkok, I was desperate. I was insane with jealousy, dying to know who he was having an affair with now, and determined to play a role: the happy woman who doesn’t care. I was having a mad affair with a French writer, I told him; the sex was fantastic. It was a complete fabrication.
And it served its purpose: he told me she was a rich, Waspy American, whose husband, a musician, was in prison in Thailand on a drug charge.
“Great!” I said, in my happy, liberated woman role. “Why don’t we have a ménage à trois?”
This was how low I had sunk. Sexual excitement had nothing to do with my idea. But Ulay was turned on – and delighted. No more mad jealousy. He smiled. “I’ll ask her,” he said.
And the next day, smiling again, he brought back her answer: it was fine with her.
That night, we went to the house where he was staying with her, a woman straight out of the world of rock’n’roll, and they got really drunk. I didn’t touch a thing, but soon all three of us were naked. I couldn’t have been less turned on. It’s hard to explain my terrible state of mind: I had to see.
I’ll never forget that night. First Ulay and I had sex, very briefly, and then the two of them in front of me. And it was as if I didn’t exist – even I somehow forgot that I existed.
Around five in the morning, I was lying on the bed next to them, wide awake, while they slept, exhausted. I remember everything: the smell, the stillness, the two of them beside me in this bed.
I had put myself in so much pain that I no longer felt any pain. It was like one of my performances, except it wasn’t – this was real life. I didn’t want it to be real. I felt nothing. People say, when they’re hit by a bus and lose a leg, that they feel no pain; the nerves simply can’t transport so much pain to the brain. I had done it on purpose, to exorcise him. But the cost was very high.
I got up, took a shower and left. That was the moment I stopped liking his smell. And the moment I stopped liking his smell, it was over.
We had conceived our grand romantic idea of walking the Great Wall of China eight years earlier, under a full moon in the Australian outback. The notion had loomed so powerfully in our shared imaginings. We had thought – back then – that the wall was still an intact, continuous structure that we would simply hike along; that each of us would walk alone, and camp out on the wall each night. That after starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle, we would marry. Our working title for the piece, for years, had been The Lovers.
Now we were no longer lovers and, as seems to be the fate of romantics, nothing was as we had imagined. But we didn’t want to give up the walk.
Instead of walking alone, each of us would have an entourage: guards and a translator. The guards were supposedly to protect us, but the Chinese were also paranoid about our going to the wrong places and seeing the wrong things. Camping on the wall was out of the question: in China, nobody who had been through the Cultural Revolution wanted to be uncomfortable on purpose, especially the soldiers accompanying us. Instead, we stayed in inns or villages along the way.
As for the wall itself, this colossal, dragon-shaped structure, visible from outer space, was largely in ruins: in places, simply treacherous piles of rock.
And as for our initial motivation, it was gone. We were gone.
One day, halfway through the walk, a messenger brought me a note from Ulay, still far away in western China. “Walking the wall is the easiest thing in the world,” it read. That was all. I could have killed him. Of course the walk was easy for him: he was travelling through the desert; the path was flat. I was climbing mountains. On the other hand, this asymmetry wasn’t his fault. And I will also confess that, despite everything, I still had hopes of salvaging our relationship.
We finally met, on 27 June 1988, three months after we’d started, at Erlang Shen, Shenmu, in Shaanxi province. It wasn’t the meeting we had planned. Instead of encountering Ulay walking towards me from the opposite direction, I found him waiting for me in a scenic spot between two temples. He had been there three days.
And why had he stopped? Because this scenic spot was the perfect photo opportunity. I didn’t care about photo opportunities. He had broken our concept, for aesthetic reasons.
I wept as he embraced me. It was the embrace of a comrade, not a lover: the warmth had drained out of him. I would soon learn he had impregnated his translator. They would marry in Beijing in December.
My heart was broken. But my tears weren’t just about the end of our relationship. We had accomplished a monumental work – separately. My own part in it felt epic, a long ordeal that was over at last.
• This is an edited extract from Walk Through Walls: A Memoir, by Marina Abramović, published on 27 October by Fig Tree at £20.