Portrait of a Performance Artist as Her Own Biggest Fan

Marina Abramovic loathes those artists who have 'egos as big as the Himalayas.' But that is not going to stop the New York artist from establishing a $17 million art institute in her name. Meet a (very successful) woman of contradictions.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

"A total nightmare. My life is a nightmare. All day long, every moment," says Marina Abramovic, in a heavy Serbian accent, as she opens the door of her apartment while walking frenetically.

"Welcome," she continues. "Come in, please. Sit down. Do you want a tea? I'll make us some tea. Come on, is this boiling already? Come onnnn. Oh, okay now, here we go. It's boiling. All right. Sit, sit. Drink up!"


A long sip.

Not made up, dressed in black gym clothes and sports shoes, from up close Abramovic looks motherly and vulnerable. Her face is suffused with a soft evening light. City sounds enter from a large window in the apartment, on Spring Street in south Manhattan.

"I'm the grandmother of performance art," she continues rapidly. "Forty years I've been doing art, oh my God. And really, it doesn't get easier. Eat some olives," she says, proffering a saucer on the table, "it's good for your brain.

She says that she hasn't rested for a second since the morning. "I'm on my feet for 12 hours straight already. Every day, when my gym trainer comes at 5:45 in the morning, I want to kill the damn guy. But I pay him, and he's there, so I wake up and work out like a soldier. Visible, though, isn't it?" she asks with a smile "I have to be in seven different places tonight. I have no idea how the hell I will survive this."

Abramovic, 66, is one of the most popular and admired artists in the world. In another two years and $17 million, Abramovic plans to open MAI, the Marina Abramovic Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art, in the town of Hudson in upstate New York. It will be a school for performance art, an experimental research laboratory for artists, in order to develop the field. "I have no kids, no one to take care of, no structure. The institute is my child, I'm pregnant with it."

For years she has been planning to open some kind of institution, she says. The decision to take action came at a time when she was doing "The Artist is Present," her retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2010). At the exhibition, which attracted over 750,000 visitors, Abramovic recreated several of her famous early performance works, such as "Nude with a Skeleton" and "Point of Contact" (which she created with her former partner and collaborator, Ulay). These are works that each time reshaped the meaning of 20th-century performance art. In them she developed a new stream, dealing with the limits of time and of physical and emotional endurance.

736 hours meeting visitors

But the centerpiece of "The Artist is Present "was a work that gave its name to the exhibition, in which Abramovic herself sat opposite one visitor every 15 minutes, for a cumulative time period of 736 hours. A few thousand people had the privilege of the few moments opposite her. Tens of thousands of others were left looking on from the sidelines or waiting in the long lines.

Abramovic puts down her cup of tea and suddenly gets up from the table.

"Wait a second here, I have to find this something to show you. Look. After this book came out, I got a letter from this woman. She wrote me that she came to sit in front of me at MoMA right after she got a notice from the hospital that her baby is sick with cancer, that it has a tumor in the brain. Since the exhibition, she wrote, the baby died. You know, sometimes I don't know what is this thing that I do – is it 'art', is it 'therapy', whatever. But seeing this pain in people, I felt I am necessary. I felt there is a necessity for me to teach what I know and let others experience what I had."

She bought an old building in Hudson which was once the town theater and was turned into a covered tennis court. In a short film that documents her in the building she can be seen walking around happily in the empty space, lifting her arms and saying "This is the future."

She is planning to change the building entirely, and for the purpose she chose the OMA architectural firm – the firm of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who has been her friend for 30 years. "I'm working with Koolhaas not only because of our friendship, but because I believe in his thinking as an architect and philosopher. I wouldn't like the institute to 'land' in Hudson like a spaceship, without a context. The immediate audience is the people of Hudson. And I'm sure that Koolhaas will succeed to tie my building to its surroundings."

At a lecture early in the month at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Shohei Shigematsu – Koolhaas' partner and the director of his branch office in New York – presented the building plans in detail. "Marina is a total visionary, she's a very different client," he said. Her demands for the building are exceptional and detailed down to the level of the bathrooms (three stalls: for men, for women and for artists) or the chairs (wheelchairs, which can be moved if one of the visitors falls asleep during the performance).

Abramovic's far-reaching demands are not limited to the architects. Each of the visitors to the institute who comes to see the performance art works will sign a contract with her in which he agrees to "give" her three hours (at least) of his time. Each visitor will deposit his telephone and all his personal belongings and will receive a white robe that he is required to wear during his entire stay.

My mother the drill sergeant

Abramovic was born in Belgrade to parents from Montenegro. Her father, Vojo, was an officer in the Red Army and her mother, Danika, also served as a commander. Her father left the family home when Abramovic was 18 and from then on her mother imposed the discipline of an army camp at home. Abramovic, who continued living with her mother until the age of 29, often described the dictatorship in which she lived – among other things she had to return home every evening by 10 PM - and her mother's lack of understanding for her artistic work.

To a great extent she now recreates in her work the discipline that characterized her childhood and adolescence. "Perfection, for me, is to combine one kilogram of rice with one kilogram of sesame seeds, then separate them and then count how many pieces are in each pile. I require from myself everything I've got, all my discipline in terms of mind and body. And it's important for me to ask my audience to agree to give up some things for me too. At first the audience and participants hate me and curse me, After, I see they all stand in line to see me again.

In the simulation of the building presented by Shigematsu, the name "Marina Abramovic Institute" is chiseled in large letters above the entrance to the building. "You can attack me and say the name of the institute, this whole 'branding,' is self appraisal. But it's not a museum, it will be a living place with artists coming to work and experiment, a space where they can work quietly and develop their art with assistance. I'm not going to run the place, just be on its board, as an advisor. The name itself – well, that's something else. Marina Abramovic is an icon, a brand just like Coca Cola or Levi's. But it is a brand that makes people think about performance and art".

Don't you have a problem with the brand that you've become, especially in light of the communist background of your childhood?

"And Tito, what about Tito? He was the same thing! A communist star with his own propaganda. These ideas are haunting me since I was a child. Capitalism, communism, what stays, what turns around, what fails. I don't find my name to be a symbol for self-adornment. From the communism, I took this sense of responsibility – for the society, for humanity even. I need to invent new things, to reach new places, make people happy. In communist times, there is always a plan: a 5-year plan, a 10-year plan. These were great ideas, many times, but they all failed. However I am still left with this desire to progress, always, as an artist."

How is that reflected in the design of the institute?

"First of all, I want people to be equal. It sounds quite basic but it's not. Artists are totally arrogant and egoistic, especially the young ones with an ego as big as the Himalayas. I don't buy it. Everybody needs to be able to explain their work, if you're the president of the country or a homeless guy. That's your job. Even more than that, you have to learn to give up as an artist. To make something and then let it go. That's hard to accept. It's better when other artists re-perform my work than if it was just documented in some book, dead. It's interesting for me to see when someone re-performs my work, someone that comes from a different history, a different charisma, different body and visage. Something else that talks about equality is the white robes of course."

Never said I was a feminist

It won't be the first time that Abramovic is using these robes, which she calls "lapcots." At a fundraising event that took place in 2011 in Los Angeles, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, she made Hollywood stars, who arrived at the event in expensive suits and evening gowns, wear white robes. She claims that this act symbolized equality and hinted at communism, but critics actually attacked her and interpreted the installation as totally condescending and capitalistic, especially during a period of economic recession in the United States. Abramovic was also criticized after undergoing plastic surgery, including a breast-enhancement operation.

"I never said I was a feminist. I'm an artist. That's it. Doesn't have to come together."

"I think more and more about what I want to leave behind when I die, what is the legacy of an artist. An artist is not what people think, not some tormented person with dirty clothes and drugs and alcohol. Don't know why people still imagine this image about an artist but they do.

Abramovic's present apartment really is very clean, almost empty except for books arranged in small piles on the floor and a few minimalistic pieces of furniture. "I moved here a week ago, after my other place was completely flooded. It was such a mess, all in piles, too many things." She gets up again and reaches for another book: "When Marina Abramovic Dies," a biography written about her by James Westcott. The book was published in 2010, after four years of intensive research during which Westcott examined every detail of her life.

At the beginning of the biography, as an introduction, there is a list of Abramovic's instructions for her own funeral: It will be a performance art installation that will include, among other things, three coffins (two of them empty) and a large cake in Abramovic's image (pieces of which will be distributed to those attending the funeral).

Isn't it strange that someone is writing a biography about you when you're still alive and far from retiring?

"It wasn't my idea for the biography. James approached me and asked if I'd agree to this. I had no damn idea what I was signing up for, my gosh. And I never read the whole book. It's too hard. Actually, I just checked the facts before it went down to print. That's all.


Marina Abramovic: "At first the audience and participants hate me and curse me, After, I see they all stand in line to see me again.”Credit: AP
Marina Abramovic, left, and architect Shohei Shigematsu with a model of the art institute that will bear the artist’s nameCredit: Courtesy of OMA