The legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic has extremely soft, warm, dry hands. I know because I was plucked from a frankly terrified-looking crowd of arts journalists and critics at her preview performance in the
Nobody was quite sure, including me, what my status as living work of art was then – was I silenced, immobilised, off limits? Just one colleague came to ask me what she had said, too quietly for any other ear. He looked understandably disappointed at the answer: "10 minutes."
Standing there for 10 minutes was a discomfiting experience. Members of the public who dare are invited to join her in the
"We like to say at the Serpentine 'not our house but your house'," director
Nobody, including the artist, quite knows what will happen after she opens the door: one group of art lovers who met when they repeatedly visited one of her earlier shows are still meeting up for monthly lunches.
The white gallery spaces will be completely bare, though she will have some simple props hidden away, including folding chairs and tables. Her visitors will enter through a decompression chamber from the 21st century: all cameras, recorders, tablets, smart phones and digital watches must be stowed in lockers, and the "house full" sign will go up when all 160 lockers are full.
Once in, visitors can stay for three minutes or three hours. The curious, the baffled, the cynics, the sad and lonely are very welcome, but not those high on anything except art: "People who are drunk or drugged will be removed because I cannot deal with that," she said.
She has been in training and has lost weight for the performance, during which she will have no meal breaks, but she hopes to keep going on the nightly services of a cook, a masseur and a Pilates teacher – "but I will be allowed to go and pee," she said.
She will also also have a shifting team of black-clad helpers, described as "guards" not assistants, and drawn mainly from performance and arts students who have themselves been through intensive training.
Two came, with kind casualness, to check I was feeling OK when my 10 minutes were up.
Abramovic has performed all over the world and made a particularly famous piece, The Artist is Present, at the
However, she admitted that she was "terrified" of the British audience. "You are cynical, you like bad jokes, and you drink too much at the weekend."
"The only way to win through is to be extremely vulnerable and humble myself. In the second month you will say 'Oh my God she is still there', and then in the third month you start to be very kind and gentle to me."
It is 17 years since Peyton-Jones had lunch with her at the Venice Biennale, and invited her to come to the Serpentine. At one point Abramovic actually had a retrospective completely planned and ready to ship, when she decided it was wrong, that she should make a new work for the space.
"Our life is so busy now," she said. "Because of all the technology our concentration is a disaster case. Life is short, art should be longer."
• Marina Abramovic, 512 hours,
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