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She may like dirty jokes, but Marina Abramović is among the most serious artists of her generation. By Darryn King.

Performance artist Marina Abramović’s unusual methods

Performance artist Marina Abramović.
Credit: MONA / RÉMI CHAUVIN

In 2010, Marina Abramović sat in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art for close to three months, seven hours a day, a total of 736 hours and 30 minutes, sustaining eye contact with members of the public seated at a table in front of her. Following this most profoundly monumental work of her career, The Artist Is Present, she treated herself to dessert.

Abramović’s Volcano Flambé, a menu item created in collaboration with the Park Avenue Winter restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side, boasted a centre of dark chocolate ice-cream, almond sponge cake and banana mousse, encased in Swiss meringue and sitting atop a layer of chocolate cookie crumbs, crowned with gold leaf and a swirling halo of spun sugar, coated with dark rum and set alight.

In its review, Das Platforms enthused that the diner “inhabit[s] a different experience, one of distributed sensory intelligence, a slowing, a performance and a cycle of consumption that begs the question ‘what goes on between mind and body, subject and object, creation and destruction, artist and audience, and duration and time?’ ” 

Speaking to a surprisingly lighthearted Abramović over the line from São Paulo, it seems entirely possible she may have done it just for the fun of it. “Finally some fresh question!” she says. “No one has ever asked me about this! My work is so serious but actually I really like fun. I like telling dirty jokes! This is a part of me that only friends know because everything looks so serious.”

As a work of art, 2011’s Volcano Flambé may have struck some as the conceptual equivalent of empty calories. But if there’s one artist who has earned the right to indulge in a project for the sheer pleasure of it, it’s Abramović. For the most part of a career that stretches back to 1969, the 68-year-old Serbian artist has been pushing her body and mind to their breaking points, placing herself in mortal peril in the name of her art.

Her very first performance piece, in fact, was a variation of finger roulette, or the knife game, in which the player stabs a knife at the gaps between their parted fingers as fast as possible. In Abramović’s version, Rhythm 10 (1973), half the time she aimed for her fingers instead of avoiding them.

In less demanding performances, Abramović has screamed to the point of losing her voice, or moved until her body gave out. In more extreme performances, Abramović suffered a self-induced seizure by taking drugs intended for the treatment of catatonia, or surrounded herself with oxygen-quenching flames until she lost consciousness. In a single performance in 1975, Abramović consumed one litre of red wine then one kilo of pure honey, whipped herself until she was numb to the pain, cut the shape of a star into her stomach with broken glass, then lay nude on a cross of pure ice. 

She performed some of her most well-known works with her former life and artistic partner, Frank Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay). Despite the sadomasochistic element, these were works that expressed the poetry of their trusting, symbiotic relationship. At the 1976 Venice Biennale, they repeatedly ran at each other from opposite ends of a room, crashing into one another with full bodily force. Another time, they locked mouths and inhaled one another’s carbon dioxide for 17 minutes, at which point they both passed out at the same time. In Rest Energy (1980), the pair stood a few feet apart, her holding the large bow backwards and him drawing back the arrow, aimed directly at Abramović’s heart.

Abramović started as a painter and sound artist. It was an increasing interest in early Christian and ascetic rituals that gradually brought her to use herself as the raw material for her art.

“I was really interested in the rituals of different cultures, where the body goes through very physical pain, almost experiencing clinical death, in order to get through this passage to other reality,” says Abramović. “It was not creating pain because of pain. It was finding the door through the pain out somewhere else. Freeing yourself from the fear of pain.”

Abramović draws the line at dying for her art. She is intrigued but mostly appalled by the Japanese Gutai artist who, it has been said, leapt five storeys to his death onto a canvas to create the perfect painting: an extreme act of violence and art that has been all but lost to history. “It’s almost as if it never happened,” Abramović says. “It was a waste. Suicide is the easy way out. Living is more difficult.”

Abramović calls Rest Energy – which lasted four intense minutes and 10 seconds – the second most dangerous piece she’s ever performed. Her most dangerous performance lasted considerably longer, and was an even more disturbing surrender of control. For Rhythm 0, performed in Naples in 1974, Abramović arranged 72 items on a table and invited the public to use them on her however they saw fit for six hours.

“I am the object,” Abramović’s performance description read. “During this period I take full responsibility.”

Many of the items were ones you’d expect to see on a dressing table, or as part of a banquet spread: a brush, a comb, lipstick, perfume, flowers, bread, wine, cake, grapes, an apple, a spoon and fork.

But, as some of the other table items made clear, this would be no picnic: a whip, a pocket knife, a metal spear, a kitchen knife, a hammer, a metal pipe, a scalpel, a box of razor blades, an unloaded gun and a bullet.

The horrors Abramović has put herself through over the years were nothing compared with those inflicted on her in Rhythm 0. As an experiment on what evils humans are capable of performing once social consequences are removed from the equation, the results were grim: numerous photographs of the occasion show Abramović – with streaming, staring eyes but mannequin-like passivity – enduring all sorts of torment from the mob of well-dressed gallerygoers.

Abramović’s account of the event is not for the faint of heart. “God, it was incredible,” she says. “They cut my clothes, they stuck the thorns of the rose in my stomach, then one guy took the knife and cut close to my neck and drank the blood. Then somebody put me down and started putting water slowly over my head, then they carried me around the room, put me down on the table and stuck knives in between my legs. One put a pistol in my hand, another took it away, then they had a fight. And at the end of six hours, the moment I became a person again, they all ran away. It’s very interesting: if you give the public opportunities for pleasure and for pain they can kill you.”

Abramović has long since moved away from such provocative acts of messianic self-martyrdom. Her mission now is to elevate and empower the public, in a way that contrasts fundamentally with the way they were empowered in Rhythm 0. “My trust in the public is not so great to give them guns in their hands,” she says. “But I can give them crystals instead.”

When Abramović embarked on The Artist Is Present in 2010, there was some scepticism that impatient New Yorkers and wornout tourists would be receptive. Its huge success led Abramović to realise there was a widespread need for stillness, quietude and contemplation. “I mean, look at Instagram,” she says. “It’s madness.” 

She conceived the Marina Abramović Institute, a facility currently in the works in Hudson, New York, as part museum space, part holistic retreat. Visitors can experience durational works of performance art, theatre and music, but also channel their own energies in dedicated spaces. There is the Water Drinking Chamber, in which visitors drink special water “as slowly and consciously as possible”; the Crystal Chamber, in which visitors sit quietly among growing crystal formations; and the Eye Gazing Chamber, in which visitors engage in mutual gaze with another person.

These exercises are part of a wider program of meditative practices called the Abramović Method. This month, as part of Marina Abramović: In Residence, Abramović and her assistants will share the program with the public for 12 days at Sydney’s Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay. It is accompanied by a major exhibition at MONA, in Hobart.

“It’s the system that I developed that really helped me for concentration, and anybody can actually be a part of it. It’s not for the ‘art public’ anymore – it’s for the general public. Anybody in any field can use this in their own life.”

Visitors will be invited to ditch their digital devices, don lab coats and noise-cancelling headphones, and reflect on “emptiness, time, space, luminosity and void”.

“The experience is so new,” Abramović says. When I speak to her, she is in the middle of Method training sessions in São Paulo. “People keep returning because they become completely attracted to the silence. One woman sold her car just to do the Method every single day. So that means something’s working.”

Not everyone will achieve transcendence, of course. Some critics of Abramović’s recent sensory deprivation projects in London and New York were only too pleased to report that they were underwhelmed.

“There are people who get irritated – the people who are thinking this is a post-hippie, shitty, New Age stuff. And it’s not.” Abramović says she’s not there to persuade anybody. “I’m here to propose something that works. Some people will get it, some people won’t.”

A number of surprising people do “get” Abramović’s work. Conspicuous and line-skipping celebrity sitters during The Artist Is Present included James Franco, Rufus Wainwright, Björk, Marisa Tomei, Sharon Stone and Kim Cattrall. Lady Gaga released a video of herself performing the Method in the nude and made a $100,000 contribution to the institute. Jay Z, also a contributor to the institute, was inspired by The Artist Is Present to conduct a six-hour rap session in a Chelsea gallery for the video to his track “Picasso Baby”, which starred Abramović. She counts Franco as a friend (“I love his energy!” she says) but is less amused by Shia LaBeouf, who has performed his own imitations of The Artist Is Present (conducting an all-silent interview with Dazed) and Rhythm 0 (“Let him do whatever he wants,” she tells me. “I am laughing at it.”).

The celebrity company Abramović keeps, and her own celebrity status, has raised eyebrows in art circles. It’s certainly remarkable that a pioneer of uncompromising performance art should have edged towards the mainstream and collaborating on a dessert – sorry, a “multisensory culinary intervention” – with an upscale New York restaurant. 

But Abramović laughs off such observations as “typical”. “This makes my work bad? In the ’70s you were not supposed to wear lipstick and nail polish because that makes you a kind of shitty artist. And you know what? I wear fashionable clothes, I wear lipstick, I wear nail polish, and I think my work is still okay! People project these things to me and that’s a side effect of working 45 years. I’m one of the few artists who still perform from my generation. Everybody else has a pacemaker or is dead.”

Abramović has become comfortable – even, in her words, “friendly” – with the idea of her own death. She has already made plans for one final performance to be carried out posthumously on her behalf: three separate burials in three different cities, only one of which will inter her actual body. If all goes to plan, no one will know for sure where her remains are.

In a sense, Abramović has experienced her own death many times, having devised and performed in several productions of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a large-scale blend of theatre, opera and performance art that includes a staging of her funeral. 

“Oh, it’s wonderful, I can tell you,” says Abramović. “Confronting your own mortality on a daily basis is a helpful exercise to live life and enjoy every single moment. In the last one, I’m lying there for at least 40 minutes before the public even enters the auditorium. So much time to reflect, thinking of all your friends, who’s going to be in the front row, who’s going to cry…”

Abramović laughs. “It’s lots of fun.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2015 as "Method interacting". Subscribe here.

Darryn King
is a New York-based arts writer.