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Marina Abramovic Lead
Credit: Marco Anelli

With a vast body of boundary-pushing performance artwork and fans ranging from Patti Smith to Jay-Z, Marina Abramović has become a household name. But the woman behind the spectacle largely remains a mystery. Now, at the age of 69, Abramović is lifting the veneer in a new memoir Walk Through Walls ($22; amazon.com), out now from Crown Archetype. In it she traces the journey of her fascinating life, from her challenging childhood in postwar Yugoslavia as a child of Communist parents to her 12-year love affair with fellow artist Ulay. Of course, all of this is in the service of her performances, which she describes from their inception through their completion in a manner that is sure to capture the interest and focus of even the most novice art lovers. Here, the 10 most fascinating things we learned.

1. She has had multiple run-ins with ghosts.
Abramović’s interest in energies and spirituality is well documented, so it isn’t much of a surprise that she believes in ghosts. What was surprising, though, is that in her memoir she recounts multiple instances of paranormal activity in her life. In fact, she describes her childhood as “full of spirits and invisible beings” with “shadows, and dead people.” Later, while completing postgraduate studies in Croatia, she was allegedly visited by the ghost of a comrade who had committed suicide. The experience left her convinced that “when we die, the physical body dies, but its energy doesn’t disappear—it just takes different forms.”

2. She wished she had Brigitte Bardot’s nose.
As a teen, Abramović made an ill-fated attempt to “accidentally” break her nose. That way, while the doctors were repairing her nose, they could also make aesthetic changes so she could look like Brigitte Bardot. In the end, her plan never came to fruition, but she’s happy with the ultimate outcome. “Thinking back I’m so grateful that I didn’t manage to break my nose, because I think my face with a Brigitte Bardot nose would be a disaster,” she writes.

3. Her grandfather was murdered by the King of Yugoslavia.
Abramović recalls sitting at her kitchen table, listening to her grandmother share her life story of how her husband and his two brothers were killed by Alexander, King of Yugoslavia, in the early 1930s after one of them refused to unite the Orthodox and Catholic churches. “They went to the lunch, but the Patriarch refused to change his mind,” she writes. “And the king had the three brothers served food that had crushed diamonds mixed into it. Over the next month, all three, the Patriarch and my grandfather and the other brother, died terrible deaths from intestinal bleeding.”

Marina Abramovic Embed
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4. The moment when she decided to pursue performance art, she was watching planes in the sky.
When she was 14 years old, Abramović’s interest in art expanded beyond painting. “One day I was lying on the grass, just staring up at the cloudless sky, when I saw 12 military jets fly over, leaving white trails behind them,” she writes. “All at once it occurred to me—why paint? Why should I limit myself to two dimensions when I could make art from anything at all: fire, water, the human body? Anything! There was something like a click in my mind—I realized that being an artist meant having immense freedom.”

5. She once worked as a postwoman.
While Abramović has sold art before—installations and objects—as well as received grants, she never had the income of, say, a Jeff Koons. Therefore, she’s had some more unusual forms of employment to supplement her passion, including a brief stint as a postwoman, a position in a toy assembly factory, and an oddjob milking goats and making pecorino cheese on a farm in Sardinia.

6. Her 12-year love affair ended, fittingly, with art.
Abramović famously spent 12 long years living and working with her partner in life and art, Ulay. Their final performance together was a three-month trek along the Great Wall of China, where they started on opposite ends and approached each other, meeting somewhere in the middle. The piece began as a reflection of their love—they were meant to get married when they rejoined each other. Instead, they shook hands and parted ways.

7. She has her funeral planned.
After attending a friend’s particularly bleak funeral, Abramović planned her own service. It won’t be gray and gloomy, but rather joyous and celebratory, with a touch of her characteristic mystery. “I told my lawyer I wanted there to be three graves, in the three places I lived longest: Belgrade, Amsterdam, and New York,” she writes. “My body should actually lie in one of the graves—but nobody was to know which. Second, I said, I want nobody to wear black to my funeral. Everyone is to wear vibrant colors, acid green and red and purple. Also, all my jokes, the good and the bad and the terrible, should be told. My funeral should be a going-away party ... a celebration of all the things I had done, and of my leaving for a new place.”