Misunderstanding Art as the Occult: Marina Abramović’s accusations of Satanism

In Art Collecting, Art Styles, News


Fame inevitably puts artists in the firing line, especially when their art pertains to spirituality, taboo and convention breaking. Marina Abramović is certainly one such artist. Perhaps the most well renowned contemporary performance artist, the native Serbian grew to prominence throughout the 1970s through a number of key performative works known as Rhythms.

These early works tended to push her body to its limits testing pain thresholds, lung capacity and, in arguably her most famous early work Rhythm 0, allowing the public to do their bidding to her with a set of 72 objects including a loaded gun.

Today, she is still incredibly prevalent and has been widely recognised as one of the most important living contemporary artists.

As is immediately noticeable, Abramović has always pushed the envelope putting everything on the line for her art. In various forms she has spoken extensively about the tensions and ends of offering up her body as a site for art, making her not only a hugely controversial individual but also a very outspoken one.

On April 10, 2020, Microsoft released a promotional video for their new mixed reality headset the HoloLens 2. Within it, Abramović outlined her most recent work This Life which evoked her presence and performance in real time through the aid of augmented reality. Soon after its unveiling online, this video received over 24,000 YouTube dislikes prompting it’s removal by Microsoft who, unfortunately, have not offered any public statements on its removal.

This boycotting of the promotional video has largely been accredited to Alex Jones’ right-wing site Infowars which released a story on the video three days after its premiere, calling out Abramović as a Satanist. The evidence sited by Jones’ blog also dug up previous allegations against Abramović which has similarly labelled her a Satanist.

Although Reddit, Twitter and other untampered opinion-led platforms have seen a barrage of claims against the artist, let’s take a look at the evidence, to make up our own minds.

Evidence of the Satanic

Without any mention of Satanism, religion or spiritual practices within the film, it’s hard to immediately see why the claims are being levied against Abramović. Although this lack doesn’t provide any hard evidence either way, it does signal something important—that this boycotting in fact has very little to do with the HoloLens2 or the artwork This Life.

That said, the video does contain some phrases which do point towards the spiritual. Abramović talks of the artwork appearing “like you’re facing your own ghost” and that “once you die the work could never die because the work of art can continue”. Communicating the ideology that “the future is art without objects. It’s just pure transmission of energy between the viewer and the artist”.

But this tendency towards the border between reality and alternative realities—be they spiritual or technological, in fact have little to do with satanic practice. As such it becomes immediately apparent that employing scapegoating name-calling could instead be a proxy for something else entirely.

Regardless, Alex Jones’ outlet has claimed the HoloLens spot is “a two-and-a-half-minute ad literally worshipping the head of the Church of Aleister Crowley”.

Out of Shadows

The second piece of evidence levied against Abramović by Jones’ blog is a YouTube documentary titled Out of Shadows in which two former Hollywood stuntmen attempt to demystify the entertainment industry by pulling back the curtain to reveal a Satanic plot that sits at its very heart.

The documentary saves its climax for homing in on Marina Abramović as a puppet-master behind the entire ploy, linking her to a number of Hollywood’s elite including Suicide Squad star Jared Leto.

With some of the documentary’s key evidence ranging from “television” instead being an order to “tell a vision” and the fact that the term Hollywood could be linked to ancient druid practices using holly branches to cast mind control spells. Needless to say, superfluously tenuous links like these are easy to see straight though again suggesting the claims are pointing elsewhere.

Spirit Cooking

Out of Shadows’ climax homes in on what could be identified as the entire cause for this hatred thrown at Abramović and her work. In the final days in the lead up to the 2016 election Wikileaks famously dumped emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta revealing links to “Spirit Cooking” dinners with Marina Abramović.

Taken at face value, this of course seems pretty suspicious and sparks links to spirituality and alternative religious practices.

The email itself outlined an invite, extended from John Podesta’s brother, to Abramović’s dinner party promising “traditional soups” and a coveted “Gold Ball”, a recipe brought from Abramović’s time in India.

However, any google searches of Abramović’s spirit cooking yields strong answers. In 1996 Abramović and Jacob Samuel produced a cookbook of “aphrodisiac recipes” entitled Spirit Cooking. These recipes—not always culinary—were “evocative instructions for actions of for thoughts”. For example, recipes call for “13,000 grams of jealousy” or to “mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm”. The recipes were inspired by popular beliefs that ghosts feed off intangible elements of humanity, commenting on “humanity’s reliance on ritual to organize and legitimize our lives and contain our bodies”.[1]

With such clear documentation of what Abramović’s spirit cooking is, and pertains to, even explicitly stating that this artwork is still often practiced by the artist at her own dinner parties, expunges the claims of satanism.

Ties to the Elite

Talk about any nation’s elite quickly sparks claims of conspiracy, wrongdoing and hidden agendas. Abramović’s existence within the American elite is no different, often hosting spiritualist events, including her Spirit Cooking, for friends, donors, collectors and even organisations. One such event, An Artist’s Life Manifesto saw many alienatingly decadent symbols be put on display, degraded and paraded in front of such an elite which raised a number of eyebrows.

But the icing on the cake for right-wing conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones was clearly the link between Abramović and Hillary Clinton, via John Podesta. Such a link provided clear grounds for a political agenda. Tying a presidential candidate to a group who are unfavourably looked upon is, of course, a shrewd, cunning way to sway public opinion in favour of specific political opinion.

In such a way, it seems no accident that this accusation of Abramović has come on the dawn of yet another presidential election, reigniting the cultural memory of the previous accusations against the democratic leader.

Abramović’s Response

In interview with the New York Times Abramović has expressed clear concern regarding the conspiracy theories saying “I really want to ask these people, ‘Can you stop with this? Can you stop harassing me? Can’t you see that this is just the art I’ve been doing for 50 years of my life?” But more concerning she has expressed the fact that she is “personally afraid that any kind of lunatic with a gun will come and shoot me, because they think I’m a Satanist”.

In this response, of a brave artist explicitly fearing for her life the ramifications of such a conspiracy theory comes into full force—with political agendas trickling down to the unsettlingly damaging realities of individuals.

What is most interesting about this entire turn of events is the approach of conspiracy theorists. It’s always perplexing how those who claim to see beneath the surface to reveal the truth focus only on on surface-level elements—for example taking the title of Spirit Cooking as fuel for an ideological fire, when the practice itself is clearly separated from any singular religious ideology.

Where it Ends

Taking us back to the HoloLens itself, to denounce taboo-driven art that incudes elements exploring beyond the currently perceived realities and claim it as Satanic or against contemporary beliefs reveals a deeper fear of change.

Not only this, but as sensationalist conspiracy-driven media often garners far greater attention than the relatively niche world of performance art, Abramović can quickly find herself outnumbered in popular opinion. Turning this whole charade into a modern-day witch hunt based on similarly unfounded beliefs.

In short, it’s tragic that in the 21st century we still find ourselves captivated by, propagating and believing conspiracy theories levied on individuals when the real evidence lies so clearly in plain sight—leaving legendary artists such as Marina Abramović literally fearing for her life despite her intensions and life’s work being readily available in memoirs, blogs, news articles and Wikipedia.

[1] This explanation was suggested to Alexxa Gotthardt.