The undisputed grande dame of radical performance art, for over four decades Marina Abramovic has been using her own body to make intense and often deeply shocking works which explore her own mental and physical thresholds as well as those of her audience. Her artistic ordeals have included cutting a five-pointed star in her flesh before whipping herself and lying naked on a cross of ice; walking for 90 days on the Great Wall of China and sitting in an underground chamber, weeping, singing and scrubbing a pile of increasingly malodorous cow bones in the intense heat of the 1997 Venice Biennale. Earlier this year a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York not only spanned Abramovic’s prolific career but also included her most minimal and, arguably, most gruelling live work to date—The Artist Is Present—in which she sat motionless in the museum’s atrium all day, every day for the entire three-month run of the show while members of the public queued to sit opposite and gaze at her for unlimited periods of time.
The Art Newspaper: This is your first solo exhibition in London in over a decade and your first with the Lisson Gallery—I’m surprised it’s been so long.
Marina Abramovic: I was 21 when I first came to London and I went first thing to the Lisson Gallery to see Art and Language. Nicholas [Logsdail] was in the gallery and I was scared to death even to talk to him—I always wanted to work with him and I never did. Then he comes to see me in Manchester and he proposed to me, “Marina, do you want to be my Louise Bourgeois?” and I said yes. Then he came to see me on the last day of my performance at MoMA. I finished my 735 hours at 5pm, and at 4pm on the same day, Louise Bourgeois died. So now we have the famous Lisson show!
TAN: Among the most recent works at Lisson are three photographs of you cradling and lying down with a white lamb.
MA: After The Artist is Present at which I was exposed to the audience for three months without seeing daylight, I fled to the south of Italy. I needed to go back to nature, to do something very pastoral, to lie under a tree and hold the lamb and have the idea of something very domestic and very simple. I needed to smell the grass and the sheep shit! We’ve forgotten simplicity, that’s not what our life is about any more. I really feel that we are ending an era, we are ending this materialistic approach to art, we have to go back to earth, back to nature and I have this enormous urge to communicate this need…
TAN: Why the lamb?
MA: I started with a black lamb as I always felt…like a black sheep—I never fitted anywhere. When I was doing performances in Yugoslavia they thought I was insane: my mother and father were questioned in communist meetings about what was wrong with me. So I was thinking, OK, I have to do something with black sheep but I [was] drawn much more to this just-born white lamb. It’s very metaphysical and anybody from the public can project into it. If you are Catholic you can project Catholicism, Jews can project Judaism, the Orthodox can project Orthodoxy. It is very simple—it’s the kind of lamb that goes through so many different cultures and is a symbol of purity and innocence.
TAN: The idea that you need the response of the public to complete and create your work has always been crucial but, lately, you have been involving the audience more actively, whether in the individual encounters at MoMA or also in last year’s inductions at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester when you dressed the audience in white coats and put them through a one-hour programme before they could view work by the other artists.
MA: The audience is always perceived as a group and I really wanted to have the experience of one-to-one, where you take them out of the group and it becomes an individual experience. Art changes so much but we never change the attitudes of how to perceive art. There is no education of the public as to how it can behave or what it has to do to see new art, new ideas and especially performance. I think I am educating the public. In MoMA I created a kind of zone of life where you could come in and sit on this chair. During this three month period I looked into 1,656 pairs of eyes and I never set a time limit, so one person sat for seven hours, two people for six hours and there was an enormous [number] of people who sat for four hours [or] for three hours. I was incredibly overwhelmed by the reaction—I didn’t expect people to be crying and getting into it in the way that they did.
TAN: How did you relax at the end of the day?
MA: It was so painful I could hardly put my arms up to take my dress off! Sometimes I couldn’t even have a massage—I had pain in every muscle in my body and I took lots of hot baths in vinegar and sea salt. And I didn’t talk to anybody! I only talked to the nutritionist, to the security guard and my assistant for three months. But the worst part was every 45 minutes during the night I had to drink water because I had to take enough liquid for the next day, and then pee and sleep. So every 45 minutes it was: drink, pee and sleep, which was horrible in the beginning but later on I become like an automaton, a Swiss watch. I became totally vegetarian and I lost about 16 kilos. In the morning I had a lentils and yoghurt and then in the evening also a little food. Last liquid in the morning at 7am.
TAN: And no trips to the bathroom during the performance?
MA: No. All the stories that I had diapers and stuff were not true. It was willpower, complete control—it was crazy.
TAN: Apart from the Lisson show, what are you working on at the moment?
MA: In Madrid I’m rehearsing every single day with [Robert] Wilson. He is directing this theatre piece for the Manchester Festival in the summer of next year which is called “The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic” with [actor] Willem Dafoe and [musicians] Antony and the Johnsons. Basically it’s about life and death and Willem Dafoe is great, like a very sarcastic narrator of my life. It’s about childhood and insane stories, almost like slapstick, which is refreshing. I am playing my mother, which is the worst fear I have in my life. I have had so many problems with my mother—it’s my pure nightmare come true!
TAN: Tell me about the Marina Abramovic Institute.
MA: Right now I am putting all my efforts into my new institute of performing arts which is opening in 2012 in Hudson [New York state]. The main emphasis will be on long-duration works. I want to ask non-artists and young artists to develop long-duration works, everything from six hours onwards, not just performance. I want to see long-duration opera, dance, video, film…all different media. It is very simple: life is getting faster, the art has to go slower.
TAN: Your recent show at MoMA and Tino Sehgal’s at the Guggenheim both categorically underlined that performance art has come in from the margins—how do you feel about that?
MA: In the history of performance art there has never been [such support from] two major museums like the Guggenheim and MoMA! But it is also to do with the economic crisis—every time there is an economic crisis performance comes back in from nowhere because it’s cheap! I’m so happy with the economic crisis—the worse it is, the better for art. The economic crisis is the most healthy thing to revive performance.
Marina Abramovic is showing at Lisson Gallery, London, 13 October-13 November, www.lissongallery.com