An excerpt from “Walking Through Walls”, an excellent profile by Judith Thurman on the performance artist Marina Abramović :
Birthdays are important to Marina Abramović, the performance artist who was born in Belgrade, the capital of what was then Yugoslavia, on November 30, 1946. The body is her subject, time is her medium, and birthdays mark the moment that the performance of life officially begins. Abramović has never been shy about her age – when she turned sixty, she celebrated with a black-tie gala at the Guggenheim Museum – and age has been kinder to her than she has ever been to herself. You would recognize her today from the grainy photographs of her earliest performances, forty years ago, when she was a dark, offbeat girl with sad eyes and chiseled features in a pale face. Perhaps it was too expressive a face to be pretty – the obdurate and the yielding at odds in it. But some charismatic women, like Abramović, or her idol Maria Callas, are beautiful by an act of will.
At sixty-three, Abramović radiates vitality and seduction. Her glossy hair spills over her broad shoulders. When she isn’t dressed for exercise or the stage, she is likely to be wearing designer clothes. She is fleshier than she used to be, and her body has a different kind of poignance than it did in her waifish youth, but she still has no qualms about subjecting it to shocking trials. In 2005, thirty years after she first staged “Thomas Lips” in an Austrian gallery (Thomas Lips was a Swiss lover whose androgyny had fascinated her), she revived the performance, protracted from two hours to seven, in the Guggenheim rotunda, as part of a show called “Seven Easy Pieces.” The program notes for the original read like the recipe for a banquet dish that would have pleased de Sade:
I slowly eat 1 kilo of honey with a silver spoon.
I slowly drink 1 liter of wine out of a crystal glass.
I break the glass with my right hand.
I cut a five-pointed star on my stomach with a razor blade.
I violently whip myself until I no longer feel any pain.
I lay down on a cross made of ice blocks.
The heat of a suspended heater pointed at my stomach causes the cut star to bleed.
The rest of my body begins to freeze.
I remain on the ice cross for 30 minutes until the public interrupts the piece by removing the ice blocks from underneath me.
Last August, Abramović invited me to observe a five-day retreat that she held at her country home in the Hudson Valley. The main house, built in the nineteen-nineties, sits on a rise overlooking some twenty-five acres of meadows, orchards, and woodland. Its design was inspired by a star-shaped castle on the Baltic. Abramović bought the property in 2007. Even though the star has six points, and the Red star that dominated her childhood, and which figures prominently in her iconography, is a pentagram, she felt that destiny had led her to it. The décor is minimal – a few modern sofas and chairs in bright colors – and the walls are bare. Until recently, she spent weekends here with her second husband, Paolo Canevari, an Italian sculptor and video artist seventeen years her junior. They met in Europe, in 1997, and divided their time between her canal house in Amsterdam and his apartment in Rome. In 2001, they moved to a loft in SoHo. After twelve years together, two of them married, they divorced last December. For the first time, Abramović has learned to drive. “I did it to be independent,” she explained. Her timidity and ineptitude behind the wheel seem incongruous in the character of a daredevil, but, she added, “I have always staged my fears as a way to transcend them.”
The retreat was an intensive workshop in hygiene and movement that Abramović calls “Cleaning the House.” She has taught performance art on several continents, and she has often used Ayurvedic, shamanistic, Buddhist, Gurdjieffian, and other holistic or ascetic practices to initiate her students. The participants were thirty-two of the thirty-nine mostly young men and women who she had chosen to participate in a full-scale retrospective of the Museum of Modern Art, “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present” – the first such honor for a performance artist – which opens on March 14th. They will be reenacting five of the approximately ninety pieces that she has created since 1969, including three that were originally performed with the German artist Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), her former lover and collaborator. “Imponderabilia,” a joint work of 1977, will include live, indeed interactive, nudity – another first for the museum. It involves a naked couple planted like caryatids on either side of a narrow doorway at the entrance to a gallery, their backs to the frame. Everyone who enters must sidle past them, deciding which body to face. MoMA will provide an alternative access to the space, an accommodation that Abramović thinks is a pity. Her role as an artist, she believes, with a hubris that can sound naïve and a humility that disarms any impulse to resent it, is to lead her spectators through an anxious passage to a place of release from whatever has confined them.
Abramović’s career falls into three periods: before, with, and after Ulay. He was the son of a Nazi soldier, born on November 30th – Marina’s birthday – in 1943, in a bomb shelter in Solingen, an industrial city in Westphalia that has always produced Germany’s famously superior cutting implements: first swords, then knives and razors. By fifteen, he had been orphaned, and was fending for himself. Abramović met him on November 30th, in 1975. A gallerist in Amsterdam asked Ulay to driver her in from the airport, and to help with the logistics of filming “Thomas Lips” for Dutch television. Their chemistry was immediate. Her first impression was of a tall figure, rock-star skinny, and flamboyantly strange. “He has a heart face,” she recalled, alluding to its double-sidedness. “Half is a tough guy, unshaved, short hair; half has makeup, long hair, and like me, he wears chopsticks in it.” Ulay’s art, until then, had consisted primarily of Polaroid self-portraits that documented his experiments with mutilation – piercing, circumcision, tattoos – and an obsession with twinship: a male/female duality. That night, after a Turkish dinner – he showed her his diary at the restaurant, she showed him hers; they had both torn out their birthday page, which she took as a karmic sign – she told me, “We go straight to his house and stay in bed for ten days.” She added, “Back at home, I get so lovesick I cannot move or talk.” She was married, at the time, to a former fellow-student from the Belgrade Academy of Fine Arts, but it was an oddly slack union. Both spouses still lived with their parents, and Abramović had a strict curfew: ten o’clock. (They divorced in 1977.) Her mother called the police when Marina “ran away” a few months later, at twenty-nine, to rejoin her soul mate.
Abramović and Ulay made art symbiotically for twelve nomadic years, from 1976 to 1988. They spent one of them living with Aborigines in the Central Australian desert. Amsterdam was their base, but their home on the road, in Europe, was a black Citroën van, which figured in their performance of ideal couplehood. It miraculously survived the beatings it took, and is part of the MOMA retrospective. Their union was also much battered and repaired, though it ultimately couldn’t survive the demands of such intense proximity, of primal wounds, or a discrepancy in ambition that Ulay suggested in an e-mail. “It is very important to understand how much Marina invests in her artistic career, it being her life,” he wrote. That is “one of the reasons why she never wanted to have children.” Their parting was wrenching for Abramović, whose nerves can defy almost any blow except for abandonment. She still believes in true love, and she dispenses affection with a lavishness as intense as her craving for it. But, she reflected, “people put so much effort into starting a relationship and so little effort into ending one.” On March 30th, 1988, they embarked on their last performance. She started walking the Great Wall of China from the east, where it rises in the mountains, and Ulay set off from the west, where it ends in the desert. After three months, and thousands of miles, they met in the middle, and said goodbye.
While Abramović’s stand-ins are performing, in rotating shifts, on the sixth floor of the museum, she will present a new work, “The Artist Is Present,” in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium. From opening time to closing – eight to ten hours a day – for seventy-seven days, until the show ends on May 31st, she will sit immobile at a bare wooden table, gazing fixedly into space…The one given is the “enormous bodily pain” that Abramović knows she will suffer – “especially at the beginning. Motionless performances are the hardest.” Pain is the constant in her art. (Only rarely has she aborted a performance, although once the audience intervened to save her life. This happened in 1974, at the Student Cultural Center in Belgrade, where she performed a piece called “Rhythym 5”. She lost consciousness inside the perimeter of a burning star, and was dragged to safety.) She has screamed until she lost her voice, danced until she collapsed, and brushed her hair until her scalp bled. In an early piece, she ingested anti-psychotic drugs that caused temporary catatonia. She and Ulay traded hard slaps, hurled themselves at solid walls, and passed a breath back and forth, with locked lips, until they fainted. He pointed an arrow at her heart as she tensed the bow. These performances were works of dynamic sculpture, with a formal rigor and beauty, but what, I asked her, distinguished their content from masochism? “Funny, my mother asked the same question,” she replied. “All the aggressive actions I do to myself I would never dream of doing in my own life – I am not this kind of person. I cry if I cut myself peeling potatoes. I am taking the plane, there is turbulence, I am shaking. In performance, I become, somehow, like not a mortal. All my insecurities – having a fat body, skinny body, big ass, long nose, a guy, being abandoned, whatever – aren’t important.” What makes it art? Context and intention, she said: “The sense of purpose I feel to do something heroic, legendary, and transformative; to elevate viewers’ spirits and give them courage. If I can go through the door of pain to embrace life on the other side, they can, too.”
Read the full article here. Abramović’s retrospective at MoMA will include approximately fifty works spanning over four decades as well as the first live re-performances of Abramović’s works by other people ever to be undertaken in a museum setting. It will run through May 31, 2010.