Nick Leech speaks to the self-styled ‘grandmother of performance art’ about her contribution to Abu Dhabi Art 2012
As I begin my interview with performance artist Marina Abramovic, I expect to talk about many things. There was the time, for example, when she set herself on fire, or when she lived with Aborigines in the Central Australian desert for five months, or when she recently sat in silence for over 700 hours. What I’m not prepared for is a conversation about bean soup. “I love cooking bean soup,” Abramovic confesses in her thick Slavic accent as she talks to me via Skype from the kitchen of her rural home in upstate New York. Abramovic has escaped here from Hurricane Sandy and from a Manhattan studio rendered powerless by the effect of the storm. Her conversation has a similar effect and very soon I am mesmerised by the artist’s flirtatious charm, generosity, and self-deprecating wit. Even when she is not performing, Abramovic has the power to transfix.
Abramovic may not enjoy the widespread public recognition commanded by some of the luminaries attending this year’s Abu Dhabi Art, but she arrives for a ‘conversation’ at the fair in the ascendant and amidst great excitement. Abramovic is the ultimate artist’s artist, a position that most critics would say is well deserved after forty years defined by great personal sacrifice and very real physical and psychological risk. During that time, Abramovic has stabbed her hand with knives, cut herself with razor blades, and flagellated herself.
In one of her most life-threatening performances, the 1974 piece Rhythm 0, Abramovic stood passively for six hours surrounded by 72 objects – including an axe, razor blades, a bullet and a gun – and allowed the public to do whatever they liked. In the ultimate test of the relationship between an artist and their audience, Abramovic was stripped, cut, had her blood sucked and even saw the gun loaded and held to her head. As Abramovic said at the time, “That was the heaviest piece I ever did because I wasn’t in control. The audience was.”
Few artists today place such demands on themselves or on their audience as the 66 year-old Abramovic, so much so that she now refers to herself as the ‘grandmother of performance art’. When I ask her about the dramatic nature of her performances, Abramovic is keen to differentiate them from any type of theatre. “In the theatre, you rehearse and you play a certain role. In the theatre, the blood is ketchup and the knife is not a knife. In performance, everything is real. The knife is a knife and the blood is blood.” For Abramovic however, the real power of her art comes not from the danger, but from the energy that a performance can create. “This is why the power of performance is so great. When you see bad performance you never want to see one again, but when you see really good performance it can change your life. Art is about more than money, it’s about raising the human spirit.”
Despite Abramovic’s insistence on the ephemeral nature of her work – “You have to be there to see it, otherwise you miss it,” – some ofits overwhelming power is palpable even on film. Visitors to Abu Dhabi Art can experience this for themselves in a video of Rest Energy exhibited by Lisson Gallery in a small retrospective of her work that features at the show. Performed in 1980 with Ulay, the artist who was Abramovic’s collaborator and partner from 1976 to 1989, Rest Energy places the artists in a position of “total trust” as they stand, facing but leaning away from each another, holding a real bow and arrow under tension, with Ulay on the string and the arrowhead aimed directly at Abramovic’s heart. Microphones pick up the alarming creak of the bowstring, the couple’s racing heartbeats, and their whimpers as they struggle to maintain their balance and grip on the weapon that will safeguard Abramovic’s life. Despite knowing the outcome I find myself transfixed by the artist for the second time in as many days. The danger of the performance appals me, but again I am powerless to avert my gaze.
Ironically, it is a feature-length documentary, Matthew Aker’s The Artist is Present, that has contributed Abramovic’s current fame. Released earlier this year, the film charts the eponymous retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 2010, the first show of its type ever held for a performance artist at the museum. For The Artist is Present, Abramovic sat at a small table in MoMA’s huge atrium for seven and a half hours a day, every day, for three months, waiting to meet the gaze of anybody who might choose to sit opposite her.
The results took everybody by surprise as The Artist is Present became a cultural phenomenon that moved out of the rarefied world of contemporary art and into the mainstream. A record-breaking 850,000 people attended the show and more than 15,000 people queued to sit opposite Abramovic including A-list celebrities such as Bjork, Sharon Stone, Isabella Rossellini, and Rufus Wainwright. Some participants reacted with joy, while others broke down in tears. In an interview with the journalist Sean O’Hagan conducted shortly after The Artist is Present, Abramovic was clear that the performance had achieved something extraordinary. “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.”
For Abramovic, the key to the success of The Artist is Present was an understanding of the performance’s context, both in terms of geography and time. “The Artist is Present was made for New York because nobody there has any time. So what does it mean if you place no limit on your time and you say ‘OK. You can sit there for as long as you like. For three seconds or ten hours, it’s up to you’. Then suddenly the whole world knew and there were 850,000 people outside. It was insane. Just because of something that is almost nothing.”
Rumours of a potential performance have also surrounded Abramovic’s visit to Abu Dhabi Art, but the artist is quick to quash these. “Everything I do people call performance but performance for me is a very long process. It took years to make the piece at MoMA. I just want to come and talk to people and to explain my work.”
Despite Abramovic’s modest claims however, she sees her trip to Abu Dhabi, her first ever trip to an Arab country, as research. “I am enormously curious. Before oil, this country was completely connected with nature and then it made a dramatic transition into something else. What happened to society and to the traditions in this society? What is the understanding of art here?”
Abramovic is also looking forward to meeting Emirati women. “This is incredibly interesting for me to see how women’s society works. It seems incredibly powerful behind the scenes, not in a direct way, but in the house. This is very similar to my culture…my grandmother was the most powerful person in my life and I think there may be lots of connections I can find here.”
For Abramovic’s biographer, James Westcott, Marina’s family and social background lie at the root of her artistic life. Abramovic is the product of the improbable combination of parents who, thanks to their service during WWII, became Yugoslav national heroes and a grandmother whose hatred of Communism stemmed from her devotion to Serbian Orthodoxy, the church in which her great uncle was a Patriarch and canonized as a living saint. Writing in The Guardian newspaper he said:
“Growing up under dictator Jospi Broz Tito and the domestic regime of a militaristic mother… art was a way for Abramovic to create rules even more extreme than the ones she found herself subjected to. In that way she could demonstrate a different kind of freedom. Her performances were also irrepressible expressions of her natural theatrical bent, and her craving for attention and devotion. It’s impossible to disentangle the narcissism from the public service in her work; the diva from the high priestess.”
Whatever her motivation may have been in the past, Abramovic is very clear about what’s driving her in the present. To secure her legacy, Abramovic is working with OMA, the studio of architect Rem Koolhaas, to create the Marina Abramovic Institute in the sleepy town of Hudson near her home in upstate New York. “Now I’m 66 and I want to spend another ten years giving my experience to a younger generation. I’m not interested in glorifying my own work, in making a museum of me, I’m interested in making new work, a platform on which other artists can create.”
Central to Abramovic’s concept for the Institute is the ‘Abramovic method’, the process of preparing the audience to receive something new. “When you come to my Institute, you will sign a contract with me that you will stay for six hours otherwise you can’t come in. If you give me the time, I will give you the experience but you have to give me the time. You are giving me your word of honour… I know this is very old-fashioned but I come from an older society where people really appreciate that. This is something I hope that people in Abu Dhabi will understand quite well.” After only 40 minutes spent in Abramovic’s virtual company, I have no doubt that they will.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi