In four decades as a performance artist, Marina Abramovic has had a stranger point a loaded gun at her head, sat in silence for 700 hours and set herself on fire. Now, as she prepares for a new show in which she enacts her own funeral, the 63-year-old reveals why “Freud would have had a field day” with he
Earlier this year, just before she began her 700-hour-long performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Marina Abramovic was asked by an art critic to define the difference between performance art and theatre.
“To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre,” she replied. “Theatre is fake… The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.”
In her 40-odd years as a performance artist, Abramovic has dealt in what she calls “true reality”, often at great physical and psychological cost. She has stabbed her hand with knives and sliced her skin with razor blades. She has lain naked on a cross of ice for hours. She has allowed the public to prod, probe and abuse her prone body. Once she almost died when a performance, in which she lay inside a huge flaming star made of petrol-soaked sawdust, went horribly wrong. (The fire sucked the oxygen from around her, causing her to pass out. An audience member intervened and she was rushed to hospital with burns to her head and body.)
“I test the limits of myself in order to transform myself,” she says, “but I also take the energy from the audience and transform it. It goes back to them in a different way. This is why people in the audience often cry or become angry or whatever. A powerful performance will transform everyone in the room.”
I travelled to Madrid to meet Abramovic, where she is preparing a new theatrical work tantalisingly titled The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, a collaboration with the avant-garde director Robert Wilson, the actor Willem Dafoe and the singer Antony Hegarty. (It will be one of the biggest shows at the Manchester International Festival next year.) A retrospective of her work, including videos of her many performances, photographs and an installation, also opens at the Lisson Gallery in London this month, and she will deliver a lecture on performance art at Tate Modern.
My request to sit in on a rehearsal for The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, in which she will enact her own funeral, has been turned down. Thus I find myself sitting nervously in the foyer of a very grand hotel awaiting her presence and wondering what I have let myself in for. Like most right-minded people, I reach for my bullshit detector when I hear the term “performance art”. I have no interest in seeing people inflict pain on themselves – and the audience – in the name of art, much less watch them bleed. Abramovic, though, is the exception. She cites Josef Beuys and Yves Klein among her inspirations and, to a degree, she has a similar kind of charisma, inspiring a devotion that borders on the obsessive from her legions of fans.
Abramovic is 63 years old but looks 20 years younger. Dressed head to toe in black like a designer goth, with a mane of dark hair that falls over her pale, unmade-up face, she has the energy and enthusiasm of an eager teenager.
To my immense relief, she’s also self-deprecating, flirtatious and funny. “Will we have the English tea?” she says, sitting down and looking around for a waiter.
She is, she says, still exhausted from the marathon Moma performance which ended almost four months ago. Entitled The Artist is Present, it redefined the parameters of performance art, and in the process became a huge cultural event discussed on talk shows and in news features. It took the form of what Abramovic calls “a pared-down, long-durational piece that destroys the illusion of time”. To this end she sat motionless and silent on a wooden chair inside a circle of light in the huge atrium of Moma, seven hours a day, from mid-March until the end of May. Anyone who was prepared to queue could sit opposite her just as long as they agreed to remain silent and motionless and to stare back into her eyes.
The results were surprising even to her. Every day several people broke down in tears, usually after just a few minutes of silent staring. On personal blogs and MySpace, people shared their experiences of sitting with Marina, often in quasi-religious or life-altering language. “I gazed into the eyes of many people who were carrying such pain inside that I could immediately see it and feel it,” she says, still sounding excited. “I become a mirror for them of their own emotions. One big Hell’s Angel with tattoos everywhere stared at me fiercely, but after 10 minutes was collapsing into tears and weeping like a baby.”
The Artist is Present broke attendance records at Moma, attracting more than 850,000 visitors, many of whom queued all night for a one-to-one audience with Abramovic. At first a few interventionists refused to obey the code of silence but, extraordinarily, most people respected the rules of engagement. The performance soon took on a momentum of its own. People who sat with her more than 10 times formed their own club, and a group of New York artists gave out badges – “I cried with Marina Abramovic” – to those who had broken down before her. She was most impressed, though, by the man who sat silently opposite her for seven hours, an entire day’s duration. “The others in line grew angry and aggressive,” she says, laughing, “but then they realised that the waiting was also part of the performance.”
On the last day, when the queue was several thousand strong, one man walked into the circle of light, stuck his fingers down his throat and threw up. “It was an enormous amount of liquid he was carrying inside,” she says. “I am almost certain he was a performance artist.”
It is hard now to get a word in, but when she pauses for breath, I ask her why she thought her presence had such an extraordinary effect on people. Was this art as therapy, or something much deeper? “Oh, it’s plain to me that this is something incredible. I give people a space to simply sit in silence and communicate with me deeply but non-verbally. I did almost nothing, but they take this religious experience from it. Art had lost that power, but for a while Moma was like Lourdes.”
It was, though, Lourdes with a celebrity guest list. Among the famous who turned up to sit with her were Sharon Stone, Isabella Rossellini and Rufus Wainwright as well as Björk and her partner Matthew Barney and their kids. Lady Gaga came to the show, but did not – or could not? – sit in silence. “She created a big buzz though,” says Abramovic. “Madonna takes so much from art and performance and never mentions it; Gaga is more generous.” There was much online scorn poured on Moma’s PR department for its decision to let the famous jump the queue, a decision that, according to Abramovic, had nothing to do with her. “I didn’t even know it was Isabella Rossellini. I kept thinking: ‘She looks familiar.’ I didn’t even recognise Sharon Stone. I was in another zone.”
The zone that Abramovic enters when she undertakes “a long-durational performance” is perhaps the defining aspect of her art, yet it remains an ambiguous and hard-to-define element in her work. In the months leading up to the Moma show, she underwent a training programme devised by Nasa, the American space programme. “Physically, mentally, I have to prepare myself for a feat of endurance. I became a vegetarian, I did deep meditation, I cleansed myself. I train the body and the mind. I learn to eat certain foods so that I don’t have to go to the toilet for seven hours. I learn to sleep in short bursts at night. This is very hard: sleep, wake, drink, pee, exercise, sleep, wake and on and on. So even the not-performing is intense.”
The sitting-still, she says, was the worst part and choosing a wooden chair without armrests her biggest mistake. “This one detail makes it hellish. The shoulders sag, the arms swell, the pain starts to increase. Then the ribs are going into the organs. I had an incredible amount of physical pain and even some out-of-body experiences where the pain just vanishes, but always it comes back. In the end, it comes down to pure dedication and discipline.”
The underlying question in all of this is, of course: why? Why put yourself though such suffering in the name of art? Abramovic has no easy answers to that question. “I am obsessive always, even as a child,” she says, suddenly serious, and, for the first time, pausing for thought. “On one side is this strict orthodox religion, on the other is communism, and I am this little girl pulled between the two. It makes me who I am. It turns me into the kind of person that Freud would have a field day with, for sure.” She hoots with laughter again and reaches for the English tea.
Marina Abramovic, Balkan Baroque I. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist for the Guardian
Abramovic was born in Belgrade in former Yugoslavia on 30 November 1946. “When people ask me where I am from,” she says, “I never say Serbia. I always say I come from a country that no longer exists.” (In 1997 she performed Balkan Baroque at the Venice Biennale. It involved her scrubbing clean 1,500 cow bones six hours a day for four days and weeping as she sang songs and told stories from her native country.) Her mother, Danica Rosi, came from a very wealthy, very powerful, very religious clan; her father, Vojin Abramovic, came from peasant stock. Both were born in Montenegro and fought for the communist partisans during the Second World War, their bravery making them national heroes and earning them prominent positions in President Tito’s post-war Yugoslavian government. “We were Red bourgeoisie,” their daughter once told an interviewer.
The family dynamic seems to have been explosive. Her parents quarrelled constantly and Abramovic was often beaten by her disciplinarian mother for supposedly showing off. For six years she lived with her grandmother, an extremely religious woman who loathed communism.
“The brother of my grandfather was the patriarch of the Orthodox Church and revered as a saint. So everything in my childhood is about total sacrifice, whether to religion or to communism. This is what is engraved on me. This is why I have this insane willpower. My body is now beginning to be falling apart, but I will do it to the end. I don’t care. With me it is about whatever it takes.”
As a child, Abramovic escaped into painting. She had, she tells me, three distinct phases of development as a painter. In the first, she painted her dreams, which tended towards the traumatic. In the second, she painted “big socialistic trucks crashed together” and “little innocent socialistic toy trucks that I have placed on the highway”.
She hoots with laughter. “Don’t even ask me why. I do not know, I have no answer to this insane behaviour.”
In phase three, she simply lay on her back and painted the clouds above her. Then, one day, as she puts it, “12 ultra-sonic military planes whooshed by overhead and left behind these beautiful lines in the blue sky”. This, she says, was her epiphany as an artist. She went to a nearby military base to see if she could get permission to go up in one of the planes in order “to paint the sky with smoke”. The officer in charge, suspecting that she was having a nervous breakdown, called her father and had her taken home.
“From that day on,” she says, “I never painted again. Instead I started looking at what is around me and using it for art. It took me just a little while to realise that I could be my art.” Initially, though, she experimented with sound and with confrontation. “I made a tape recording of a bridge collapsing and I wanted to play it suddenly and very loudly when people were walking over a big bridge in Belgrade. The council forbid it,” she says shaking her head as if she still cannot quite believe it. “Their imagination is tiny; mine is big. I want always to shake everything up.”
Which, in her own way, she did. She placed a series of big speakers in her apartment block in Belgrade and played the tape of the bridge collapsing very loudly inside the building. She seems excited still by the results. “Suddenly the people, they are rushing out into the streets, freaking out everywhere, thinking they are being bombed. For me,” she says, sipping her tea, “this was an incredible thing. I realise the power of art that does not hang on the walls of galleries.”
Soon afterwards, having enrolled at Belgrade’s Academy of Fine Arts, Abramovic joined a loose collective of artists who had taken over a local cultural centre. It was the late 60s and the tremors of the global youth quake of student unrest were being felt even in Belgrade. She orchestrated protest marches and sit-ins, but it was art that took up most of her energy. She started performing in public – “short, intense political pieces where I am plunging the knife between my fingers and cutting the communist star on my body”.
Abramovic insists that she had no knowledge of the existence of performance art or body art when she started doing her first performance-based pieces. “I heard about Beuys later and then the others. I was incredibly naive and innocent. I mean, even when I am 23 and I have started with the blood and cutting, I still have to be back home by 10.30pm every night or my mother would be ringing the police to say I am missing.” This double life continued, she says, until she was 29. “Even now, I have traces of the good little girl. When I am not performing, for instance, I am really very quiet and ordinary. I don’t drink or smoke and I have never taken drugs. I am probably,” she says, laughing, ” the most boring person you could meet.”
From the beginning, pain, suffering and endurance were central to Abramovic’s art. In the early 70s, she performed a piece, Lips of Thomas, named after a lover of hers, which involved her whipping herself, cutting a five-point communist star – a recurring motif in her work – into her stomach with a razor blade, and then lying on a cross made of ice beneath a suspended heater for 30 minutes, bleeding all the while. It was in 1974, during a performance of a piece entitled Rhythm 5 at the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade, that she had to be pulled unconscious from the burning star. “I burnt off my hair. In the morning, my grandmother see me and drop the breakfast tray on the floor and start to shriek like a cat who has seen the devil.” Did it make her think twice about her calling? “No. It made me angry that I had not completed the performance.”
Marina Abramovic, Rest Energy with Ulay, 1980. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and the Lisson gallery for the Guardian
I ask her about another now legendary and even more potentially dangerous performance she gave in Naples in the early 70s. Called Rhythm 0, it involved her lying prone on a table for six hours surrounded by 72 instruments of her choosing, including matches, lipstick, saws, nails and even a gun with a single bullet in the chamber. Visitors were invited to do what they “desired” to her body and many responded with vicious intent, marking, probing and scratching her, blindfolding her, dousing her with cold water and pinning slogans to her skin. “I still have the scars of the cuts,” she says quietly. “It was a little crazy. I realised then that the public can kill you. If you give them total freedom, they will become frenzied enough to kill you.” What was the worst thing that happened? “A man pressed the gun hard against my temple. I could feel his intent. And I heard the women telling the men what to do. The worst was the one man who was there always, just breathing. This, for me, was the most frightening thing. After the performance, I have one streak of white hair on my head. I cannot get rid of the feeling of fear for a long time. Because of this performance, I know where to draw the line so as not to put myself at such risk.”
Of late, Abramovic has courted a different kind of controversy, this time within the still small world of performance art, by her decision to re-enact works by other performance artists, including Beuys, Klein, Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. She stretches the original, often relatively long works to sometimes absurd lengths to tap into their transformative power. This has drawn ire from the purists, including her ex-partner, an artist called Ulay with whom she lived for a year among the Australian Aborigines. He recently told the New Yorker: “I don’t believe in these performance revivals. They don’t have the ring of truth about them.”
Abramovic is adamant, though, that, as she puts it: “Performance art has to live and survive. It cannot be put on walls. If we do not perform and recreate it, the art fuckers and the theatre fuckers and the dance fuckers will rip us off without credit even more than they do anyway. I am sick and tired of the mistreatment of performance art. Even the pop-video fuckers steal from it. I want to bring young people in afresh so they can experience the beautiful work of Beuys and Acconci. The best way to do that is to bring those works alive, to perform them.”
To this end, she has created the Marina Abramovic Institute in San Francisco. She is currently raising the money to open the Marina Abramovic Foundation for Preservation of Performance Art in downtown Manhattan. It will be dedicated to the performance, cataloguing and propagation of the form and, in the process, the immortalising of her name. Like one of her heroines, Maria Callas, she seems acutely aware of her own greatness.
At her forthcoming retrospective at Lisson Gallery, you can see videos of Abramovic’s Rhythm series and trace the 40-year trajectory of her work from one kind of intensity to another. It is, in every way, an extraordinary journey of endurance, performance and constant reinvention. Now, as age encroaches, she has become an artist whose main subject is time itself. “I still look at my body as a machine and I still use the mind – the will – to control what I do,” she says, “but there is something more Buddhist now about the performances. At 63, I can do seven hours, but the energy and the work is more distilled. I could not do that before, but now I have more knowledge of time and energy. For me, the long duration of a piece is the key to real transformation – and performance art is nothing without transformation.” She should know.
The Observer, Sunday 3 October 2010