Photo: Marco Anelli. Courtesy of Show of Force.The allotted interview time is long over and the recorder’s off and the publicist is telling Marina Abramovic that I have read everything about her life, which is of course untrue. Abramovic doesn’t blush. “Okay,” she says. “But have you heard my Brigitte Bardot story?”
I hadn’t. I would have lied, though, would have listened to her read the goddamn weather report in that raw-silk voice. I’m not the journalist now but an audience of one; she is the artist famous for being present, but important for making a present of herself.
And when she presents the story it’s like she’s been waiting all day to tell it, tell how badly she wanted to be beautiful when she was small, how she put photos of Brigitte Bardot in her pocket and spun around the room intending to fall and hit her nose on the bed’s strict edge, intending that she would be taken to the hospital and given a new nose, Bardot’s nose. Instead she bled everywhere but from the nose and lay there with a dozen Bardots on the floor, and when her mother came in, she was slapped. Injury added to injury.
This story–in which pain is theatre and beauty is pain–stands in for most of the stories told by and about Marina Abramovic, about whom it is true I’ve read more than about almost any other living artist, and certainly about any other performance artist. The so-called grandmother of them all, she has repeatedly denied political and material aims while becoming one of the most politically intriguing and best-remunerated art stars in the world. You can imagine her, even at age 65, performing the tragicomic Bardot scene with impeccable seriousness. If it would be received less seriously, it is probably because Abramovic is the kind of artist who is called “a very pure person”–by her fashion designer bestie in Vogue.
Abramovic herself reached the covers of fashion magazines (POP in London, V in New York, Elle in her native Serbia) after The Artist Is Present, her near-endlessly debated and celebrated and celebrity-attended 2010 retrospective at the MoMa. A new and same-titled documentary, which made its international debut at Sundance last month and its Canadian debut at the Reel Artists Film Festival on Wednesday, opens with her on the set of one such cover shoot. It poses a challenge to the viewer: will you see her as a fashionable, narcissistic, unnervingly sexy woman, and also as a revolutionary, deserving artist?
In person, she doesn’t make you choose. Clad in customary black, her inky hair spilled everywhere, Abramovic resembles one of Riccardo Tisci’s beloved panthers and is as voluptuously happy to talk about wearing his couture (on red carpets for parties; into muddy rivers for photographs) as she is about her four decades of work. “In the ’70s, you could not wear lipstick and be an artist,” she says. “I loved fashion, but I was shamed of it. But after I walked the Great Wall of China, I wrote it in my diary that I felt fat, ugly, and unwanted, and I was 40 [ed note: she was 42]. I said, this is enough now. I have to keep myself going. I went and got a manicure and a pedicure, I went to the hairdresser, I did makeup, I bought a Yohji Yamamato suit. I felt so good. I felt coming out of the shop with this suit that it was the beginning of being feminine and enjoying beautiful clothes and still being good artist.”
Not coincidentally, that 1988 walk along the Great Wall was done to meet halfway–and then leave, forever–her greatest collaborator and 12-year lover, Ulay. Made in obsessive union, their work was seminal, was startling, was hard and tender and immaterial in that most material decade. It was also probably formative of ’90s-and-beyond relational aesthetics. But Abramovic the Biennale-winning, magazine-covering art star is entirely a solo project. To meet her now is to be a moth near a bonfire. Even at the MoMa, where she played slave to her audience’s attention for seven hours a day, seven days a week, she looked more like an imprisoned queen.
It’s an actual regret in my life that I didn’t fly there to see it; I would have liked to cry.
What makes Abramovic simultaneously the high priestess and critical scapegoat of the art world is her willingness to endure and self-inflict pain while demanding relatively little of her audience. In The Artist is Present, wrote Jerry Saltz, she “turned the usually introspective institutional sphere into an existential circus of bizarre self-help.” That wasn’t new, though. The daughter of two national heroes in Communist Serbia, Abramovic had ritually and variously lacerated her fingers (1973); whipped herself before carving the Communist star into her stomach (1975; also 1993, 2005); lashed cleaned bloody cow bones for four days straight (1997); ordered herself to be dragged across a field in Laos (2008). She’s long played the martyr–complete with something of a complex about her late-game fame, about which her attitude is more “finally than “really?”–and her most traumatic performances seem intended to atone not for her sins, but for the sins of others.
If her earlier feats of ordealism were more violent, it was because she grew up with incessant wars and oppressive religion (her mother, whom she doesn’t love, was a woman so tough she got her teeth pulled without anesthesia or a scream, and so strict that Abramovic had a 10 p.m. curfew until, at age 29, she moved out). If they have now become quieter, more meditative, it is because she believes we must escape technology (“for me it is a hell invention,” she says of her iPhone, “and anyway, telepathy is cheaper.” She is much, much funnier than she looks). And if her funeral takes place in a museum, it will surprise nobody; no surrender of flesh is final for her, and she could hardly leave her worshippers without that parting gift.
“There are so many different Marinas,” she says both in The Artist is Present and in our interview. In the semi-biographical play she had made about herself, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, there are three Marinas; they help you understand how it is that she endures what she inflicts. On the surface, she fully reifies the cliche of suffering for one’s art. But there are layers; there are floating entities; one self doesn’t physically register what she does to the other. “You have to see what pain is,” she says, “and then, like the Tibetan monks going naked in the snow, you don’t feel it.”
So it is ritual suffering itself that becomes rather than creates the art, while secret communion takes the place of suffering. Perhaps that’s why her stoic face and sleek body show no traces of agony. Perhaps that’s also why, besides her fame and fashionability and sacrilegious embrace of theatre, some performance artists disavow her; one whom I interviewed recently called her whole career a schtick. I can’t agree. I think you hate her because she makes the struggle look so unlike a struggle. I think you love her, or I love her, because she really does make it easier to feel; because she induces sympathy pains that are devastating in their cathartic sweep. Because, with her unyielding, unobjectified nakedness and fierce vulnerability, she plays out not our desires–although she is desirable to the maximum–but our fears.
And Abramovic can do all that because she herself (herselves?) is afraid of nothing–not even death, she says, not even nothing itself. She lives in white rooms with no art in them. She keeps almost none of the objects she uses in her performances, and her newer performances have no objects at all. Her relationship to immateriality, throughout her career, is asymptotal. If she has a legacy, she says it shall be that performance art is taken as seriously as other art forms, and is copyrighted, is protected. Other than that, she seems to want to leave nothing behind but her body. (Then again, her body is everything.)
“To me the 21st century should be art without objects,” she says. “That’s the truth. It’s the most effective thing. We hide behind the stuff, too much stuff. Stuff, stuff, stuff. When I sell my loft, or my house, wherever I am, I sell it with everything in it. I don’t want the memories. There is too much weight. I want always a new life.”
It is faintly hideous to think of art as “inspirational,” but I can’t help it by now, any more than I can help feeling in total enchanted spirit-lust with this woman. So I ask her to sign something for me. I shouldn’t; I’ve forgotten my role as a journalist, the way spectators at her most tormented performances forget their place and reach out to help her. She accepts. She takes a pencil and traces on the page of that Phaidon monograph her hand, her foot, her distinctly un-Bardot-like nose. Three Marinas. She gives them to me with an awesome and terrifying ease.
Sarah Nicole Prickett is Toronto Standard’s style editor. You can follow her on Twitter at @xoxSNP.