Marina Abramović Satanism Controversy, Explained: Why Right-Wing Outlets Think She Is in a Cult

In one of the strangest art controversies in recent memory, a group of right-wing internet users and blogs have begun targeting Marina Abramović, accusing her of being involved in a Satanist cult. She has previously denied the allegations, but the claims have continued to be levied against her, and yesterday brought news that Microsoft deleted a YouTube advertisement for a new work by her after users had targeted it. But where did the claims come from in the first place? Below, a guide to the controversy’s background.

So, is Marina Abramović really a Satanist?
Not according to the artist herself. Back in 2016, when the allegations first came about, she told ARTnews, “Anybody who wants can read my memoirs and find out that [my work] is far away from Satanism…. My work is really more about spirituality and not anything else. I’ve been doing my work for so long, and this is a misunderstanding.”

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Spirituality in what sense?
Abramović’s practice has occasionally involved trying to commune with a world beyond this one. “Going in search of the unknown, this is the most inspiring thing for an artist,” she once said in a 2016 documentary called The Space in Between. In that film, she claims to have tried ayahuasca in Brazil in hope of achieving some kind of enlightenment.

Where do the Satanism claims come from, then?
Right-wing outlets have focused on a 1987 performance called Spirit Cooking, for which Abramović scrawled phrases using pig’s blood. She also issued a recipe book that, as part of the process for making dishes, instructed readers to commit violent acts. (James Westcott, Abramović’s biographer, has previously stated that carrying out those acts would be a grave misunderstanding of the artist’s intentions.) Spirit Cooking is a relatively obscure work within Abramović’s oeuvre, however.

What does her work typically look like?
She’s better known for durational performances—many of them done with the late artist Ulay during the 1970s and ’80s—that involve maintaining physically rigorous poses for extended periods of time. Some were re-performed for a 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, and documentation of the works recently appeared in a big-budget retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade.

How did Spirit Cooking get dredged up by people who have no connection to the art world?
Believe it or not, as part of a controversy in the American political arena. In 2016, Wikileaks posted a tranche of emails from the hacked account of John Podesta, who was the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. Among the emails leaked was a message in which John’s brother, an art collector named Tony, invited him to attend a reenactment of Spirit Cooking.

That happened four years ago. How did the controversy resurface?
On Monday, the far-right blog Infowars published an article about Abramović after Microsoft uploaded a new advertisement featuring her. Uploaded to YouTube on April 10, the video was an advertisement for the tech company’s HoloLens 2 product, which allows users to see mixed reality pieces. The product resembles a headset, but unlike virtual reality, a viewer’s outside surroundings can still be glimpsed while wearing it. Abramović’s new piece is The Life, which debuted in 2019 at London’s Serpentine Galleries and features the artist walking around in the same dress she wore for her famed piece The Artist Is Present. The ad, a two-minute video featuring interviews about the work, was deleted after it received 24,000 “dislikes.” A link on Google to a webpage for the project on Microsoft’s site now redirects to information about the company’s arts initiatives.

What has the response to the controversy been so far?
Abramović did not answer multiple requests for comment yesterday, and Microsoft has declined to comment. You can, however, see documentation of Spirit Cooking on YouTube for yourself.