The performance artist has starved and cut herself for her art, but can she survive celebrity?by Hephzibah Anderson / May 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
Marina Abramovi? in The Biography Remix, 2004: “Her critics acuse her work of being exhibitionist and narcissistic. That is to miss the point.” © Anne Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
It takes a particular skill to turn a mineral tablet into a feast, but that’s exactly what Marina Abramovi? manages as I sit across from her in her New York City office. “It’s so good. This is a chocolate taste. Mmm,” she says in her plangent Slavic accent.
In preparation for her summer exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, she is on a cleansing diet that requires her to fast every weekend for a month. On weekdays she’s allowed a meal at noon plus “snacks.” At 5pm that meant two almonds, which she ate on the hour, and the tablet, which she remembered only seconds ago.
“Oh my god, it’s already 5:25!”
Abramovi? is performance art’s high priestess—or warrior, as she would have it. Anything but grandmother. “I said this like 20 years ago and it was just a joke, then everybody uses it. I’m more warrior. I really go for it, you know?”
During her 40-year-career, “going for it” has entailed driving a van in circles for 16 hours, starving herself for 12 days in a gallery, masturbating in a museum, scrubbing clean 1,500 maggot-infested cow bones, and reclining naked on a crucifix made of blocks of ice, having first carved a Yugoslavian red star into her stomach with a razor (she still has the scar).
These works have won her acclaim and notoriety. Her fame is such that she attracts the kind of meaninglessly overblown descriptions that attend celebrity. According to the BBC’s Will Gompertz, she is the “Picasso of our day,” and in April, Time magazine named her one of its “100 Most Influential People.” The fact that her entry was written by the actor James Franco, plays directly into the hands of critics like Blake Gopnik, for whom “Abramovi?, the daring and experimental young outsider… has now become a histrionic grande-dame artiste.”
At 67, she looks more warrior-like than ever. She is tall—pushing six foot—and full-featured, with a youthful complexion that appears almost waxen. The tensile leanness of her younger years has yielded to diva-ish solidity. She often wears couture. In person, she projects messy charisma: she hugs, she swears, she laughs at herself in great gulps as if gasping for air. It doesn’t feel contrived but nor does it feel quite like warmth. Her hazel eyes—so important to her art—are placid behind thick-rimmed glasses.
Surprisingly, the Serpentine exhibition will be her first solo show at a UK public institution. It will consist of a single piece. Titled 512 Hours, it takes its cue from The Artist is Present, her performance at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2010, where for three months she spent six days a week sitting silently at a table. Gallery-goers participated by sitting opposite her for as long as they chose. Some stood in line or even slept outside the museum for the privilege. The performance was physically exhausting—Abramovi? sat, not moving anything except her head, for seven hours each day. 716 Hours, it might have been called, and it set a record for the longest durational work ever mounted in a museum. In all, more than 15,000 people sat with her and 750,000 saw the exhibit, many of them moved to tears by the experience, inspiring a Tumblr titled “Marina Abramovi? Made Me Cry.” There was also a Facebook support group for “sitters,” a book of photographs, a feature-length documentary and a video game.
With that exhibition, Abramovi? ascended—or descended, depending on your viewpoint—to a new level of pop culture influence. An earlier work, The House with the Ocean View, had already been referenced in Sex and the City. Now, Sharon Stone, Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed all came to sit across from her. So did Lady Gaga, who’s since become a kind of disciple. Post-MoMA, Abramovi? has been photographed alongside Kim Kardashian, danced with Jay-Z, and modelled for Givenchy. She’s even collaborated with a Park Avenue restaurant on a $20 dessert called Volcano Flambé, an ice cream and meringue concoction that came with gold-leaf decoration and an MP3 player pre-loaded with an Abramovi? talk. And then there is her planned Marina Abramovi? Institute, where pilgrims will be trained in the “Abramovi? Method,” which will enable them to better appreciate—and perform—long-durational art.
Much of Abramovi?’s work is about surrendering control. In Naples in 1974, she famously gave an audience six hours to do what they liked to her, using any of 72 props. These included lipstick, alcohol, a saw, matches, chains, a bullet and a gun. This last prop was loaded and aimed at her head at one point. Titled Rhythm 0, it was her first long-durational work.
Abramovi? makes herself vulnerable to allow viewers to open up to the experience. It’s this that worries her about the Serpentine show. “I have to know that I am dealing with British public, which is very cynical, and incredibly suspicious about everything and also very easily bored. And I am not there to entertain them.”
Does she feel she’s failed before?
“Oh yeah, I’ve done some shitty works, definitely.”
Though she began talking with Julia Peyton-Jones, the Serpentine’s Director, 17 years ago, the idea for 512 Hours came only very recently. “About two months ago, I wake up during the night and I got this idea and I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. I said, my God, oh God, I have to do this.” Abramovi? likes ideas that “shake my body completely,” she explains. Her plan is that every morning, she’ll unlock the gallery space and let the public in; every evening, she will lock up. What happens in between is largely down to the public, who will be able to take turns standing opposite her. “It’s so simple,” becomes a refrain as we chat and in this instance it’s true. While her performances have always been a collaborative process with her audience, imagery and props and her own strict rules have lent them structure. This time, it will just be her stood in the gallery space, moving around and “working” with the visitors. She will not reveal anything else at this stage.
It will be her first major work since MoMA, which left her legs swollen, her back sore, and her whole body in such poor shape that she was unable to remove her scarlet robe at the end of each day without assistance. The Serpentine, she thinks, will be physically easier and mentally harder. Halfway through The Artist is Present, she decided to remove the table. For 512 Hours, there will be no chairs, either. While the MoMA piece was accompanied by other rooms filled with photographs and videos, and reperformances of earlier works by artists and dancers, 512 Hours will stand alone.
“The one work is nothing, is no work. Is like emptiness,” she tells me gleefully. Expert manipulator of her image though she is, it’s hard to believe that her increased fame won’t corrupt the purity of her encounter with the public. The piece’s success or failure seems to rest upon a single question: having endured outlandish ordeals of her own devising, can she now survive celebrity?
When she’s not performing, Abramovi?’s life is minutely managed. She loves routines. Her three favourite places in the world, she says, are prisons, monasteries and sanatoriums, “because of regularity.” We’ve already been chatting for some minutes when she decides to impose order on our interview. “OK, let’s start from the beginning,” she declares, adjusting her posture and draping her raven hair over one shoulder. “I am ready.”
The beginning could be many places. It could be when she first became disillusioned with painting as a student, while lying in the grass studying clouds and watching military planes draw their own lines across the sky—a “spiritual realisation,” she calls it. (Afterwards, she went to the military base and asked if they could give her 15 planes to make a drawing with. They declined.) It could be when she met Ulay, the German performance artist with whom she lived and worked so intensely in the 1970s and 80s, or when they broke up 13 years later, after he got their Chinese translator pregnant. They marked their break-up with a work that had them meet halfway along the Great Wall of China. It could even be when she moved to New York in 1999 with an Italian sculptor 17 years her junior whom she would eventually marry—and divorce—finding herself triumphantly alone in a city that is, she says, made for her.
Really, though, it should be Belgrade, where she was born to two Yugoslav Partisans, who fought against the Nazis in the Second World War. “Crazy” is how she describes her background. Her mother, an army major and later Director of Belgrade’s Museum of the Revolution and Art, came from an affluent, bourgeois family; her father, a philandering commander, from humbler stock. Both slept with loaded pistols, even after the war. Until she was six, Abramovi? saw them only on weekends and lived with her grandmother, whose piety dictated the rhythms of their life together.
Once, when Abramovi? was very small, her grandmother had to leave her home alone. She sat the child down with a glass of water and told her not to move. When she returned two hours later, Abramovi? was in exactly the same position, the water untouched. That stamina was honed at the hands of her disciplinarian mother. Further lessons in pain management came with the crippling migraines she suffered in adolescence, and she came to view pain as the threshold to another form of consciousness.
Yet whatever she lacked emotionally, the family was materially comfortable. They holidayed in villas owned by Josip Broz Tito, wartime leader of the Partisans and communist President of Yugoslavia from 1953 to 1980. At art school, she was able to afford larger canvases than the other students, painting huge images of car crashes involving communist trucks.
Living under Tito and with her devoutly religious grandmother (all those icons) made her acutely aware of the power of images and personality cults. She also loved El Greco, Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein. And then there’s Vida Joci?, whom she met through her mother. As James Westcott explains in his thorough biography, When Marina Abramovi? Dies, Joci? witnessed a friend beaten to death by guards in a concentration camp. The woman’s cheek left its imprint in the mud and when they carried her body away, Joci? tried to lift it from the ground. It disintegrated, inspiring her career as a sculptor. For Abramovi?, it was an introduction to the notion of immateriality, so crucial to performance art.
A product of the 1960s, performance art embodied a rejection of materialism and the commodification of art. You can’t hang performance art on a wall. Visceral, sometimes childish, occasionally extreme in its use of self-harm, it bound performer and spectator in a real-time experience that provoked revulsion and titillation in equal measure. By the 1970s, Chris Burden was crucifying himself to the roof of a Volkswagen, and Joseph Beuys was spending time caged with a coyote.
Performance art is challenging for both viewer and performer. Most of Abramovi?’s contemporaries have since burnt out or turned to other media. Some died before their time. It’s so varied that formulating a critical opinion can be tricky, and it’s absurdly easy to parody—check out the spoof website “Marina Abramovi? Retirement Fund of America.” But if its messages can seem literalistic (when Abramovi? brushed her hair until her scalp bled, she was challenging notions of beauty), then so, too, can her critics, who have accused her work of being exhibitionist and narcissistic.
That is to miss the point. In a way, Abramovi?’s oeuvre is about the dissolution of self. She hands over her body to the service of art, becoming a conduit in the manner of an oracle. There’s certainly something of that in the way she describes her process and role as an artist.
“It’s really strange how ideas come to your head. I really, truly believe that your only job as an artist is to be receiver and sender, but for that you have to clear yourself. I always think it’s very important for an artist to go to the places of solitude, to go to the rivers or ocean or mountains. Nature really is the huge healer and also messenger,” she says as blaring horns drift up to the 10th floor from the street below, at once heckling her and proving her point.
Marina Abramovi?, Rhythm O, performance at Studio Morra, Naples, 1974. Photograph: Donatelli Sbara © Marina Abramovic. Courtesy of Marina Abramovic and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, DACS 2014.
A short while into our conversation, Abramovi? becomes distracted by a flurry of activity in the outer office. Clothes have arrived for a collaboration with Adidas and her young staff have flocked to see. “You could die in this,” enthuses an Italian with smoky blue eyes and a complicated haircut. Lifting a layer of gauzy sports fabric, Abramovi? takes a different view.
“What is this shit? I can’t wear this, it’s too sexy!”
Which brings us back to the question of her celebrity. It seems to have become just another mode of provocation for her. She delights in telling me, for instance, that’s she’s soon off to Necker Island to meet with Richard Branson and the founder of TED. But does she not worry that in becoming an art icon she’s interfering with the public’s reaction to her work? “Oh listen, I don’t at all, because my success came so slow. You know, ’til I was 50, I didn’t have any money at all. Performance was not even considered as any kind of art. I spent all my life fighting for that position.”
Context and intention, she’s always maintained, are what distinguishes her actions from a 21st-century teen filming self-harming and putting it on YouTube or a flagellant making his way through the streets of medieval Europe. Although journalists no longer ask Abramovi? what makes her work art, it’s a question she’s been asking herself as she puts together her passion project, the Marina Abramovi? Institute (MAI).
“Is this art, what I’m doing? I really think it’s art because it’s in context of art. If I will be baking the bread and have the most incredible taste and it will change everybody—you know, consciousness is just eating piece of great bread—I still will not be artist, I will be baker. Context makes the difference,” she says.
She intends to house the institute in a building in Hudson, two hours north of New York City and close to the star-shaped home where she does most of her work. There is, as yet, no date of completion in sight. Abramovi? bought the building in 2006 as a storage facility for her archive (ironically for an artist whose work is immaterial, she throws nothing away—costumes, films, photographs, notebooks.) In 2010, the response to her MoMA show persuaded her that she had a mission greater than her own performance projects. The institute, she is quick to point out, is not a temple to her but a platform for long-durational art in all its forms that merely bears her name. Even that, she hopes, will eventually be subsumed, as works by others fill its space and “MAI” comes to stand for the Many Artists Institute.
It will, however, be a centre for the advancement of the so-called Abramovi? Method, a distillation of all that she’s learnt about consciousness on her travels, spending time with Aborigines, Sufi mystics, Buddhist monks, and most recently a female shaman in Brazil. Visitors will sign a contract, pledging to stay for six hours, stow away their belongings—mobile phones in particular—and don white lab coats. By spending an hour drinking a glass of water or half-a-dozen counting grains of rice, they will become better able to experience or perform art.
“It worked for me, so this is what I’m giving as a present to anybody else who wants to try. I’m giving possibility to go back to self. We can’t change the world if you don’t change consciousness,” she says. That combination of hubris and humility is typical of Abramovi?, who speaks rapidly and often dispenses with the past tense, creating a perpetual present.
Along with art and spirituality, she hopes to make space for science and technology at the MAI. In their exploration of empathy and endurance, her works have long seemed like social science experiments but lately she’s become interested in the hard stuff. And so one room will contain a project called the Compatibility Racer, designed by a Princeton neuroscience graduate student, Lauren Silbert, and her sister, an architect. A dinky two-seater cart, it harnesses participants’ brain activity to create motion.
Abramovi? is fond of calling the MAI a Bauhaus for our age (she has also described it as a “cultural spa”) but at present, there are some doubts as to whether it will ever see the light of day. A Kickstarter campaign, in which Lady Gaga appeared naked in a forest in order to practice the Abramovi? Method, snagged over $600,000. But a further $31m is required to realise the architectural design by Shohei Shigematsu and Rem Koolhaas, which was unveiled two years ago.
I visited the site on a recent weekday morning. The former theatre, turned antiques warehouse and indoor tennis facility, is abandoned, its tall white pillars seemingly rotting at their wooden bases. The inside of the building is no better, having been torn up from asbestos tests, with electrical cables tangled up everywhere. Built in 1929, it’s one of the larger buildings in a town settled by 18th century merchants and whalers, and known as the
birthplace of the Hudson River School art movement. Predictably, on one of the building’s boarded-up doors someone had sprayed, “Is this art?” in yellow paint.
The graffiti is not the only sign of a backlash. In Matthew Akers’ HBO documentary about Abramovi?, her ex-partner Ulay reflects on her career trajectory following their split. “She got into theatre productions—because there was money,” he says, theatre being the ultimate insult in performance art circles. Abramovi?’s restaging of past performances—her own and other artists’—has scandalised many. “The Day Performance Art Died,” declared online art magazine Hyperallergic in one headline.
There have been rumours, too, of artists and dancers being asked to perform gruelling tasks for very low wages. But the truth is that there are many people willing to work for her for free, beginning with the interns at the MAI, which is headquartered back in New York City, just across the hallway from Abramovi? LLC. Its Executive Director is Serge Le Borgne, a middle-aged Frenchman who met Abramovi? in 1997, when he saw her Venice Biennale performance and sent her a fan fax. Shortly after, he quit his job as a trader in Hong Kong to open his own gallery in Paris. When she asked him to close it and move to New York, he accepted immediately.
Spending time in her downtown office, with its crystals and white roses and her tribe of beautiful young assistants, can feel a little like induction into a New Age commune. She speaks of “energy flow” and of letting the spirit wander, and sketched me a diagram as she laid out her idea of the digestive system as a washing machine. She believes strongly enough in numerology that she took her first New York apartment based on its street number.
“It’s not a cult,” Le Borgne laughs when I ask if working for the institute has changed his way of being. “Basically, I think that we are really all like her. We have the same kind of sense of humour and concerns and interests,” he adds. Which really does sound a little cult-like, now that he mentions it.
But Abramovi? is right to note how afraid we’ve become of “spiritual connotations” in art. Art’s most important function, she believes, is to convey a “transcendent element.” Ultimately, the most striking aspect of her practice isn’t its naked gore and extremes of endurance, it’s the gravity of her intentions, and her old-fashioned belief that art can change people and shape society. With pieces like The Artist is Present, she’s shown her fearlessness when it comes to making work that evokes the intangible, that cannot easily be compressed into catalogue copy. People respond to her work emotionally.
Yazmany Arboleda, a multimedia artist who got up early on his 29th birthday to queue outside MoMA and sit with Abramovi? for 70 minutes, talked of a “mysticism” to the experience when we spoke by phone. “Sitting with her was almost like a hallucination. At some point I thought that her hair was growing, and that it was flooding the gallery floor because we had been sitting for such a long time. Later, I thought there were flowers growing from her dress. The lighting washed her out—made her look like a saint.”
There is certainly some sorcery to her work, and it inspires a kind of hushed reverence in those around her. A few weeks after my afternoon with Abramovi?, a press release from the Serpentine arrived, noting that 512 Hours will feature props after all. This was not something she mentioned. What sort of props will they be and how numerous, I asked her assistant. “My darling,” he replies by email, “when you work with immateriality, everything becomes quite unpredictable.”