When I was 14, I thought I looked terrible. I wore these typical Slavic shoes with metal bottoms so you could always hear me coming and this really ugly princess skirt and blouse with the top button closed. I had a boy haircut, a baby face covered with pimples, and a really big nose. My only dream in life at the time was to have Brigitte Bardot’s nose.
I would go through all the newspapers and cut out every single photograph of her. I would show them to my mother and beg her to let a surgeon fix mine, and every time she would slap me and say, “Appreciate your nose.” But I was the black sheep; every time she slapped me I only wanted to rebel more. So I devised this perfect plan. My parents had a big matrimonial bed with sharp edges, and the idea was to spin around on the bed as fast as I could with the Brigitte Bardot photographs in my pockets. Then I would fall on the edge of the bed, break my nose, and when I arrived at the hospital they would see the Bardot photographs and fix my nose to look like hers. Easy.
So one Sunday morning, I spun around in circles on the bed. I fell, but of course I didn’t bang my nose on the sharp edge—I just cut my face. My mother heard this terrible crash and came into her room to find me lying on the floor with the photographs scattered all around me. She slapped my face, and that was it.
I failed to break my nose, but later realized it was the best thing that ever happened to me. A Brigitte Bardot nose would look ridiculous on me; my nose fits my face very well as it is. The whole thing was also a kind of childhood performance, and going through such a tremendous amount of pain to achieve what I wanted definitely reflects my work today. I was very curious and never afraid to try things.
I had a very difficult relationship with my mother. She used to wake me up in the middle of the night if I wasn’t sleeping straight and was messing up the sheets. Now when I stay in hotels I sleep so straight they don’t even think I’ve used the bed. But she taught me an enormous amount of discipline and control that I apply to my work now. I could never do what I’m doing now if I hadn’t pushed limits when I was younger.
It’s very important that young artists push boundaries, because sometimes you have this urge to do something—like the impulsive and dangerous urges I had as a child—and if you don’t follow through with it you might miss out on a developmental experience. Looking back on all the crazy things I did in my youth, I see this perfect line of development as an artist. Every time I have a new idea, I may be afraid of the idea itself, but then I push myself to get to the other side.
I recently found my diary from when I was 14, and I realized I’m still the same bloody little girl with the big nose. My emotions have changed, but the blueprint for who I am is the same.
Interview by Lizzie Crocker
Fails to break her nose in her first unofficial performance.
Begins decade of exploration of ego and artistic identity with Uwe Laysiepen.
Reimagines other artists' works in Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim.
Stages a retro- spective at MoMA, where she performs for 736 hours.
Featured in the doc Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, airing on HBO July 2.