The big news from a WikiLeaks release this week shows that John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, was invited to a Spirit Cooking dinner at the home of performance artist Marina Abramović. Internet rumors abounded about Satanism, most of them unfounded. But what is Abramović’s connection to the occult?
Marina Abramović’s Occult Influences
There’s no doubt that Abramović is interested in the occult. She was raised in the house of her Orthodox grandmother in communist Belgrade, Serbia. Her great uncle, an Orthodox Christian church leader, became a saint after his death. Abramović says she has a “living altar” and is very interested in Tibetan Buddhism. She lived with Aborigines in the Australian outback for a year. She has studied Brazilian crystals and hangs out with Buddhist monks. She says spirituality is an important part of life and art, distinguishing it from religions, which are institutions.
Abramović calls both Alexandra David-Néel and Madame Blavatsky her “favorites.” David-Néel was an explorer, Buddhist, and anarchist best known for her book Magic and Mystery in Tibet. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was an occultist and Theosophist, author of Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, and is also known for being a charlatan and plagiarist. Modern theosophy, the movement founded by Blavatsky, combines eastern religion, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, the Qabalah, mysticism, and New Age thought into an eclectic system that’s definitely occult, but far from Satanic.
Abramović believes that “computers can be used as a tool for meditation tools” and developed the Abramović Method, “a series of meditation and introspection exercises developed over the artist’s 40-year career.” The technique involves muscle relaxation, eyesight, and breathing exercises; wearing headphones to block out sound; a series of poses including standing, sitting, lying down, and walking slowly; and uses numerous crystals. Here’s a video of Lady Gaga practicing the Abramović Method. It appears to be a typical mishmash of occult and eastern traditions.
Much attention around the Spirit Cooking/Podesta scandal centered on the photo above, which shows Abramović posing with a bloody goat’s head that looks like Baphomet.
Abramović is 69 but looks much younger, leading people to speculate that occult practices must have kept her youthful, with some calling her a vampire. Given that she’s quite wealthy, her anti-aging could be the result of any number of surgeries or treatments reserved for the rich or it could be a result of her life of deep self-exploration. She claims women in her family simply live long and don’t age.
Marina Abramović: The Occult as Performance Art
Much of Abramović’s performance art is ritualistic, meditative, or even sinister, such as:
Carving a pentagram into her stomach and whipping herself onstage;
- Playing the knife game “five finger fillet” in which she cut herself repeatedly (see Rhythm 10, right);
- Cutting her hair and fingernails and offering them to a burning star, then laying down at the center of it and passing out from the fumes (see Rhythm 5, above);
- Taking medications for catatonia and schizophrenia;
- Losing consciousness by inhaling from an industrial fan, while naked;
- Letting her former partner and collaborator of 13 years, Ulay, hold an arrow pointed directly at her heart for four minutes. Microphones amplified their racing heartbeats and the creak of the bowstring (see Rest Energy, below);
- Scrubbing 1,500 cow bones for six hours a day while singing folk songs from her home country (see Balkan Baroque, below);
- Letting an audience do whatever they want to her from a table of 72 props that included grapes, perfume, razor blades, a gun, and one bullet. The performance was stopped when an audience member held the loaded gun to her chest (see Rhythm 0, below).
The connection to occult spirituality is not lost on Abramović in her performance art. It could be said, in fact, that her art is her religion, as the preparation is often like a meditation or ascetic practice:
I’m interested in everything to do with aestheticism, high spirituality experiences and ecstasy. In performance, when you push your limit to a certain point and overcome the pain, you reach a state of ecstasy, which is very similar to religious and spiritual ecstasy. All of those pure saints had that aspect. There’s a deprivation of food, the solitude, the silence, all the techniques I’m using. For the MoMA show, I stop talking for three months. I cut everything out of my life. No computers, no emails, no telephones. Everything is very minimal. When you cut off all that, then you really concentrate on yourself. Then your inner life becomes really alive. This is the way. When you purify yourself, you can create a charismatic space around you, which is invisible, but you can feel it, the public can feel it. The public is like a dog. They feel insecurity, they feel everything. When you’re there 100%. The only thing I’m concerned about is to be in that state. The moment I’m in that state, everything’s going to be fine. To reach that state is the most important goal for me.
There’s no evidence so far that Abramović practices occult rituals outside of her performance art. That doesn’t mean the rumors of private occult rituals aren’t true, just unsubstantiated. In a Reddit AMA she said:
If you are doing the occult magic in the context of art or in a gallery, then it is the art. If you are doing it in different context, in spiritual circles or private house or on TV shows, it is not art. The intention, the context for what is made, and where it is made defines what art is or not.
The comment led to conspiracy theorists to surmise that the Spirit Cooking dinner at her home wasn’t a dinner at all, but a secret occult ritual.
Though I agree with Abramović that “intention” is a defining feature of what constitutes occult magic, I don’t draw such hard and fast lines between performance art and ritual. Most religious ceremonies are public and some are on TV, which doesn’t make them less efficacious. And most people would be uncomfortable chanting a phrase they disagreed with, even if it was performance art or a parody, intuitively knowing that doing so could have an effect even if it went against their intent. Doing certain things will always produce certain results, even if we can’t see those results with the physical eye. The line between Abramović’s performance art and intentional ritual is blurred, at the least.
The Satanic Panic of 2016: Spirit Cooking, John Podesta, and Aleister Crowley
John Podesta is the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, whose thousands of emails are currently being published by WikiLeaks. (Yes, the guy whose password was p@ssword.)
In 2015, lobbyist Tony Podesta emailed his brother John an invitation to a “Spirit Cooking” dinner at Abramović’s house. Tony Podesta has been a collector of her work since the 1990s. He was invited to the dinner as a reward to large donors of her 2014 Kickstarter campaign. John didn’t attend the dinner, Abramović told ArtNews, and says the two have never met. However, WikiLeaks reveals that the two have emailed.
We still don’t know why Abramović wanted John Podesta to attend, but it’s probably because there appears to be some connection with Abramović and the Clinton Foundation. Abramović has given $2,950 to Hillary’s 2016 campaign, an FEC search confirmed. In 2013, Hillary Clinton wrote an article in Vanity Fair that revealed Abramović as one of the artists whose work is displayed in U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world.
Far from being a Satanic dinner ritual, “Spirit Cooking” was a series of etchings Abramović created in the mid-1990s. In a video from 1997, Abramović can be seen painting the absurdist poems in pig’s blood, poems like “mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk / drink on earthquake nights.” The poem may allude to sex magic practices that involve drinking sexual fluids.
There are other poems from the companion book that sound like sex magic instructions too: “engage in intercourse with partner / who went through the same process / for 3 days and 3 nights / drink each others nectars / postpone climax / until the last hour before sunrise / on the third day.”
Others reflect more universal spiritual themes: “spin around / until you lose consciousness / try to eat / all the questions of the day.”
The connection with Aleister Crowley, strangely enough, didn’t come from the allusions to sex magic but from ingredients in the poem such as breast milk and sperm. Citing Everipedia, Infowars erroneously reported that Spirit Cooking refers to “a sacrament in the religion of Thelema which was founded by Aleister Crowley” and involves an occult performance during which menstrual blood, breast milk, urine and sperm are used to create a “painting.”
The truth is that Crowley’s religion, Thelema, includes a sacrament for a public ceremony called the Gnostic Mass, in which Cakes of Light are made from flour, olive oil, honey, wine leavings, Abramelin oil, and Ingredient X. The final ingredient is open to interpretation. Some Thelemites will use menstrual blood, blood, semen, any of these that have been burnt into ash, or leave it out altogether. Just because a recipe uses these ingredients, however, does not make it Thelemic, as there are tribal traditions from around the world that have used blood and strange ingredients in their rituals. In addition, Abramović reportedly used pig’s blood in the videotaped performance.
The theory falls apart even more after reading the description on her Kickstarter page. This is the description of Abramović’s dinner, presumably the one Podesta was invited to:
A dinner night with Marina during which she will teach you and other backers at this level how to cook a series of traditional soups, which you will all enjoy together. The night will end with the making of a golden ball, a recipe given to Marina in a Tibetan monastery. Marina will bring to this dinner a Spirit Cooking memento for each backer to keep.
It certainly sounds like an actual dinner, not an occult ritual.
That didn’t stop conspiracy theorists from making the connection from John Podesta being invited to a dinner, to Abramović being influenced by Crowley, to Crowley being Satanic, to the dinner being an occult ritual, to John Podesta being a Satanist himself.
It’s a common misconception that Crowley was a Satanist, given that he called himself the Beast 666, despised Christianity, and reveled in shocking behavior. Crowley was trained in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Christian occult society, and for the rest of his life claimed that the purpose of his Ceremonial Magick was to unite with the Divine. Though he used unconventional methods–something he has in common with Abramović–it was always for the one purpose of coming closer to God. There are people, however, who use similar methods for sinister ends.
We have no idea what camp Abramović’s occult art falls into. It’s possible that the only intent behind her work is self-examination, self-transformation, and performance art. If she does engage in magic and rituals, we have no idea what her intention is. But her donations to Hillary Clinton, and her close relationships with the Hillary camp and people accused of pedophila, don’t lend themselves to a positive interpretation.