In 1974, Marina Abramovic did a terrifying experiment. At a gallery in her native
This June, Abramovic, who at 67 sometimes refers to herself as "the grandmother of performance art", will open an exhibition at the
Now here she is on a dull morning in a studio in
When performance art is bad, it is worse than almost anything and even the good stuff is vulnerable to ridicule. It looks like nothing on paper; a woman wanders around a gallery – where's the artistry in that? Those tempted to scoff should watch the HBO documentary on Abramovic's MoMA show, to see how an unpromising premise turned, in reality, into an extraordinarily moving series of encounters. Since her early days in
"You have to be in a state in which you are completely secure about your ability create this kind of charismatic space," she says, and is currently lying awake at night "in total panic" about doing it again at the Serpentine. "That's really hell."
It is only recently that any of this has hit the mainstream, and Abramovic as rock star – as well as knocking around with Lady Gaga, who she helped develop strategies to stop smoking (such as counting grains of rice), she is on the cover of fashion magazines and her
When she and Ulay broke up, it was in grand style: they turned the death of their relationship into a piece called The Lovers (1988), in which they walked towards each other from two sides of
Abramovic came out of a tough background. Her parents had close ties to the post-war communist regime of what was then
This was after years of critiquing the repressive nature of both her family and her country through performance art. In her piece The Lips of Thomas (1975), she carved a five-pointed communist star into her own abdomen, a monstrously sly up yours to the regime and appropriation of brutality for her own purposes. In other gallery settings, she and Ulay slammed into each other, shrieked in each other's faces, or sat staring at each other for interminable lengths of time to test, and conquer, the boundaries of what is endurable. It was thrilling, shocking, above all, moral and sailing always in the face of accusations of meaninglessness. The great danger with this sort of art, of course, is that pain is mistaken for meaning.
"In the beginning there were just masochists doing this shit and it was ridiculous. They needed to go to a psychiatric clinic," she nods. "It's more complicated to explain. In every culture, [there are those] shamans or medicine men who endured incredible physical pain, because it's a door opening to the subconsciousness. And the way we can actually control the pain – it's how to control everything. This is the key."
The experience at MoMA would have turned most people mad – sitting still for that length of time, neither speaking nor moving. (There was a concealed hole in her chair, with a chamber pot fitted beneath it, so she didn't have to get up to go to the loo). Abramovic was not daydreaming. The whole point of the exercise, she says, was to be fully present, concentrating on connecting with whoever came in to sit down opposite her, and "I never saw so much pain in my life." The huge number of people who wept, she thinks, was brought on by this staged situation in which "there is nowhere to go except in yourself. It was shocking. But how simple it was."
Before the show opened, both Abramovic and MoMA half worried that no one would turn up. As the thing took off, celebrities started to drift in to sit opposite her, including, inevitably,
What is her compulsion to move towards, rather than away from the things that most terrify her?
"From a very early time, I understood that I only learn from things I don't like. If you do things you like, you just do the same shit. You always fall in love with the wrong guy. Because there's no change. It's so easy to do things you like. But then, the thing is, when you're afraid of something, face it, go for it. You become a better human being."
What's the cost?
"Ah, a big one. Lots of loneliness, my dear. If you're a woman, it's almost impossible to establish a relationship. You're too much for everybody. It's too much. The woman always has to play this role of being fragile and dependent. And if you're not, they're fascinated by you, but only for a little while. And then they want to change you and crush you. And then they leave. So, lots of lonely hotel rooms, my dear."
Ulay and Abramovic split up in part because she was moving ahead of him as an artist, something he reflects on rather bitterly in the documentary, saying caustically that she became "very ambitious" after they separated. Abramovic has been slammed by some of her peers for making money and dressing in couture, when her whole career has been dedicated to anti-materialism – her least favourite era was the 90s Brit-art scene, with its "commodification of art".
She has no time for this. "I've been criticised by my generation, artists from the 70s – and there's nothing more tragic than artists from the 70s still doing art from the 70s – because I blur all these borders between fashion and pop. I really got angry yesterday, because there was a lady who said 'Marina is not serious because she wants a fashion magazine cover.' And because I did an event with
Anyway, she says, "I love fashion. Who says if you have red lipstick and nail polish you're not a good artist."
Her art is still deeply anti-materialistic. It is hard to package and sell performance art, which is why she was drawn to it in the first place. The nearest you can get is video or photographic stills of her now iconic shows. In 1974, when she invited the public to use those objects on her frozen figure, Abramovic exposed a savagery lurking beneath the surface of otherwise civilised human beings. At first, visitors to the gallery were hesitant to approach her. Then, in a kind of
But at MoMA, the transactions were loving.
"Yes. I understand that you can bring out the worst in people and the best. And I found out how I can turn that into love. My whole idea at MoMA was to give out unconditional love to every stranger, which I did. And the other one [in
Incredibly, just before she started the sit-in at MoMA, she began divorce proceedings from her then-husband,
Is she in a relationship at the moment?
"No. Of course, I dream to have this perfect man, who does not want to change me. And I'm so not marriage material, it's terrible. But my dream is to have those Sunday mornings, where you're eating breakfast and reading newspapers with somebody. I'm so old fashioned in real life, and I'm so not old fashioned in art. But I believe in true love, so perhaps it will happen. Right now, no, I have no space. But life has been good to me. Lots of pain. But it's OK."
It is an intensely weird way to live and she knows it. How things will work out at the Serpentine, she doesn't know. British people are so inhibited, she says, and also inclined to ridicule. She is perhaps remembering what happened to
Anyway, she says, "working with the British public is particularly hard. They're very sarcastic. They're easily bored. They don't want to be involved in anything that might embarrass them, or make fun of them. And that's a huge challenge." She is nervous as hell.
She is also looking beyond August to September, when she will stage another performance piece at
Or to put it another way, she says, "I love bad jokes. I love to enjoy everything. Then comes this moment to work – and it becomes a question of life or death."
• Marina Abramovic: 512 Hours is at
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