‘I face so much jealousy’: Marina Abramović talks friends, enemies and fear
The artist has always pushed herself to the limit, letting strangers cut her and turning her breakup into a performance. But only now does she understand whySimon Hattenstone
• ‘Why don’t we have a ménage à trois?’ – an extract from her new memoir
• ‘Why don’t we have a ménage à trois?’ – an extract from her new memoir
Saturday 22 October 2016 09.00 BST
ou are 10 minutes early,” Marina Abramović says. The performance artist leads me to her bedroom in the Greenwich Village apartment where she lives alone – minimalist, lime green sheets, huge TV on the wall – and hands me a book. “You have not seen final copy of my book yet? Now with pictures. Here, look. I am back in 10 minutes.”
So I skip through: here she is mutilating herself, setting fire to herself; naked, colliding at speed with her former lover and collaborator, Ulay. Here are her earliest paintings when she was a more conventional artist, rarely seen and rather great. And there is the more recent work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, when the audience queued round the block for the opportunity to sit opposite her and stare into her eyes. It was this work, in 2010, that made her a household name.
Ten minutes later on the dot she is back. “Twelve o’clock, as we agree.” Is time important to her? “To the second, yes.” She leads me to the kitchen, which looks as if it belongs to a steel industrial complex. The walls in the vast living area are bare apart from one life-size photograph of Abramović in a white suit, holding a white candle. She passes me a plate. “Here are your nuts. And now I make us a drink.”
Abramović is dressed all in black: black hair, of course (she has been dyeing it since she was 24, when parts turned grey overnight), full-length black dress, black boots. She is wearing no makeup and her skin is extraordinarily white. She is an atheist, but could pass for a Russian orthodox priest.
As she likes to say herself, there are three Marina Abramovićs: Warrior Marina (who can endure any pain and scream louder than anybody else), Spiritual Marina (who can endure any amount of stillness and remain silent longer than anybody else) and Bullshit Marina (who adores celebrity and likes to talk about fickle men and why she sometimes feels fat and ugly).
The Serbian artist is 70 next month and has never been so successful, or vilified. Many critics who adored her now say she has gone soft, sold out, started to believe her own publicity. Last month Ulay won a court case in which he had sued her for his fair share of royalties on their joint work. Before that, there was an allegation of racism after leaked proofs of her memoir, Walk Through Walls, revealed she had described Indigenous Australians as “looking like dinosaurs” (the references have since been removed).
She loves the Guardian, she says, but even we have turned on her. “You write of me like glorious image, then comes Ulay and I lost the case, then Abramović machine will destroy him, then calling me a racist and having three abortions for my art.”
Slow down, slow down, I plead – what are you on about? She smiles, and explains that parts of the media have alleged she had her abortions only to further her career. “Right now, the latest thing on the web is how I am killing children to make art. Only one man came to my rescue today and says George Clooney has two Oscars and nobody asks him why he doesn’t make children. Why me?”
Does it bother her? “No. If I worried, I wouldn’t have made it.” But, of course, she does care. “I’m so depressed that people don’t see important issues. They don’t see what this work means, how I am reaching a larger public than just the art public, how from 10 visitors to my performance originally, it is now hundreds of thousands. They don’t see that. They just try to find the shit in everything – especially if it’s good.”
She finally takes a breath; she seems to have got it out of her system. Right, she says, what would you like for lunch? Her assistant Allison is getting us some food in. I tell Abramović I’ll leave it to her. “Good,” she says. “I have bloody cold and need energy.” She orders chicken, kale and rice, as yummy as it’s healthy. We tuck in, and she says there is one important issue we have to resolve: “You speak different English to me, so we have to find common ground. I was recording audio for book and I realise I don’t speak English. I always speak in present tense. And the guys say, ‘What the hell.’ It took me 17 days, eight hours a day, to read 370 pages properly. Oh my God I am dead. I start a chapiter and they say, ‘No, chapter’ and I say chapiter. Oh my God.”
As with all things Abramović, her speech is a kind of performance. Her voice is a seductive Slavic purr; you sense she might be a Marlene Dietrich fan. Her vocabulary is wide, but it is true: she does restrict herself largely to the present tense. “It is a product of way I learned language, but also I love now. I really love it. It’s all now.”
But again this is not entirely true. Her art is autobiographical, rooted deeply in her past. At times, Walk Through Walls reads more like magic realism than memoir. Her parents were high-achieving communist partisans, as cold as they were tough. Like all true communists, they would “walk through walls” for the cause. For her first few years, Abramović lived with her grandmother while her parents advanced their careers. Her father Vojin was appointed to President Tito’s elite guard, her mother Danica became director of the Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade. Her grandmother was loving, but at six Marina was returned to her parents’ home to witness the slow, violent disintegration of their marriage.
Her parents never kissed or praised her, she says. Her mother beat her, pulled her hair, told her she was useless and called her a prostitute after she was kissed by a boy for the first time (on the side of her face, aged 14). As a teenager, she believed she was “extraordinarily ugly… I had this grown-up nose in a child’s face full of pimples, the hair cut horribly, orthopaedic shoes for flat feet, the glasses thick, thick, not like these days.”
Her childhood was haunted by the spectre of blood. When she lost her first baby tooth, the bleeding didn’t stop for three months. Her first period lasted more than 10 days. The only thing she was confident in was her art. She recalls an artist friend of her father’s visiting and showing her how to paint. He splattered a series of colours on to a canvas, let it dry, set fire to it, and told her it was a sunset. Abramović thought it was wonderful. She went on to study art, but her own ideas were far more radical.
I tell her the book helped me understand her work. She looks delighted. “Oh my God! What you think, honestly? Have you seen dedication?” she says, gleefully. “For my friends and my enemies! Yes! You know how many friends become enemies and how many enemies become friends – it’s just changing all the time. So many people presume you are something, then they meet you and become proper friends, and the ones who really knew you can’t stand it, for whatever reason. I face so much jealousy and I am incredibly upset about it.”
She shows me a photograph from the 60s in which she is the only woman in a group of six radical student artists, close friends who wanted to change the world. In her early 20s, she married one of them, Nesa; they were married for five years, but never lived together. He is one of the group who don’t speak to her. “If I go back to Belgrade, they don’t want to see me. I remind them of their lack of success. I have so much love towards them but they don’t towards me.” She gives an example of how she hasn’t changed. “I can explain my work to the cleaner or the president, it’s all the same to me. I am very communist in this way.” But you can understand why her former friends are less keen on her now. It’s not only that she talks of them as failures: in her book she reveals that Nesa could never perform adequately in bed until after he accidentally impregnated her.
By her mid-20s, Abramović was producing brilliantly shocking work. In Rhythm 10, first performed in Edinburgh in 1973, she spread out her fingers on a white piece of paper and stabbed the knife down as quickly as possible in the spaces between. Every time she cut herself she took an alcoholic drink (she normally never drinks), picked up another knife (she had 10) and repeated the routine. She taped her groans as she cut herself, and when she’d been through all 10 knives, replayed the tape, starting the routine again, trying to nick herself in time with the previous accidents.
Rhythm 0, performed in Italy in 1974, was more shocking, testing the audience’s humanity as well as her endurance. On a table were 72 objects, from a rose to a razor and a pistol with a solitary bullet. Standing by it was Abramović. The audience were invited to do what they wanted to her over the following six hours. Initially, they responded with kindness. They passed her the rose, or draped a shawl over her. Gradually they became crueller. One man cut her neck with the razor (she shows me the scar); another put the bullet in the pistol, put the pistol in her right hand, moved it towards her neck and touched the trigger (a scuffle broke out, and he was grabbed and led away). Abramović had brought Lord Of The Flies to life in a Naples gallery. “I had to make a stand, with this opinion that in all of us there is that moment of evil. I became an object. It was frightening. I was thinking, ‘If I’m meant to live, I live; if I don’t, I don’t.’”
In the same year, she performed Rhythm 5: she set alight a huge wooden five-pointed star (the symbol of communism), cut her nails and threw them into the fire, then her hair, and stepped inside. She lost consciousness and was carried to safety.
At the same time as she was performing these pieces, she was living the most conservative of lives – in Belgrade with her mother, who set a 10pm curfew. After Rhythm 5, she somehow found her way home before the curfew and crept into bed. When she emerged the next day, her grandmother (who was then living with them) dropped a breakfast tray in shock. “She thinks she’s seen the devil because I look like hell. This living double life is crazy, you know.”
The newspapers said she belonged in a psychiatric hospital. Did they have a point? “No, I believe in the world I made around myself.” I ask if she has many scars. “I have some, yes!” She laughs. “I don’t have tattoos, I have scars!” Often, I say, you can tell the story of somebody’s life through their scars. Yes, of course, she says. I tell her I have my own, but she isn’t interested. Abramović is fabulous company – funny, warm, generous – but her one subject is Abramović. Which of her scars means the most? She points to a semicircle around her wrist.
“The one… that was unsuccessful. I was so unhappy, I think I’m going to kill myself. And there was so much blood and I’m going to die, and I hadn’t even reached the vein. My grandmother came, bring me to hospital, they put in the stitches, and I didn’t tell my mother anything. I was 14.”
Did she turn her self-harming into an art form? No, she says. When she cut her wrist, it was a one-off. “I was always feeling pain and afraid, and I was confronting my fear in my art. The five-point star was in every schoolbook. It was the symbol of restriction and control, and I wanted to liberate myself from this by confronting it.”
When her mother discovered what she was doing in the name of art, she threw a glass ashtray at her head, telling her she had given her life and would now take it away. Abramović ducked.
Did she always understand what her own art was about? “When you are a young artist, you have no idea what you are doing. Every artist who says he knows, it is a lie.” In fact, it is only in writing her book that she has really understood it: “I think the absence of love in the family and the need to create a family with art world and public is really strong. Psychoanalyst would say it’s a clear picture! But it didn’t appear like that in the beginning.”
At 29, Abramović met Ulay (born Frank Uwe Laysiepen) on a trip to Amsterdam. They shared the same birthday, same passions, and fell in love. They weren’t exactly famous then, but Abramović describes it as two groups coming together to form a supergroup. Endurance was at the heart of their work: they screamed at each other till they lost their voices, sat in silence till they could no longer bear it, slapped each other until they could slap no more. In Rest Energy, 1980, she held a massive bow and he held the pulled arrow, pointed at her heart. The piece lasted four minutes and 20 seconds. One false move and she was dead.
Abramović says their work was about trust, not violence. “It was understanding how the body can be a musical instrument; how the slapping can create a sound and rhythm.” Their work was also funny. In one performance, they stood naked either side of a narrowed exit from the gallery. In order to leave, the public had to choose whether to turn to Ulay or Abramović on their way out. The exit was so narrow that physical contact was inevitable. It was sexy, confrontational, embarrassing; a simple idea beautifully executed.
For much of their 12 years together, they lived in a black van with their dog Alba, travelling across Europe. The immateriality of their art was reflected in the simplicity of their lives. They learned to make pecorino cheese, grew tomatoes, hung out with goats and sheep. They spent a year in the Australian outback, which took their pared-down existence to a new level.
“We just lived like nomads. It was two people in love doing what we want. I think there was no better life ever. If I’m nostalgic, it is for that kind of freedom. Now I go to different countries to research things, but it’s always by myself. “And I love aborigines more than anything.” As for the controversial description, she says this is something she wrote in a diary in the 70s. She has always been careless with language. “The bad press hurts me, because it is people I love so much. They changed my whole attitude about the world.”
But her relationship with Ulay soured. The last three years together, she says, were a sham. They were becoming well known, but she was regarded as the star. In one piece in 1981, inspired by their time in the outback, they sat in silence without moving for eight hours a day for 16 days. Ulay gave up before the end. He expected Abramović to stop when he did – but she didn’t. The same thing happened when they toured the piece the next year. They fought in private, and he slapped her – for real. “He could not deliver the piece because he could not sit as long as I can, and the public divided us because they were talking about how I am stronger. It was terrible for our relationship because his punishment was being unfaithful.”
In March 1988 they turned their separation into an epic performance – a walk from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China. At the end, in June, they met in the middle and hugged; but in reality the split was bitter – emotionally, professionally, financially. They had joint ownership of their archive, but Ulay controlled it. Abramović resented this; she felt she didn’t see her share of the money, and disapproved of the galleries he sold to. In 1999, more than a decade after their separation, Ulay sold her his share of the archive for DM300,000 (about £100,000) when he was broke. Abramović borrowed money to buy him out and they came to an agreement about future sales of their joint work: 50% for the art dealer, 30% for Abramović, 20% for Ulay. In 2015 he sued her, accusing her of breaking their agreement. The court ordered her to backdate royalties of more than €250,000 (£225,000), pay more than €23,000 in legal costs and provide full accreditation to joint works from 1976 to 1988.
Did it shock her when he turned against her? “Yes, but that is life. Of course it was painful but I have to take it. He was always playing the role of victim; now he is the winner. I am the victim. Things change in life.” Was it fair, what he was asking for? “I don’t want to talk about this. Really no. He win, I lost – next! I have to look for the next.”
Is it fair that the public saw her as the strong half of the couple? “That I can’t say.” Abramović pauses. “We split 30 years ago; it is interesting to analyse in this 30 years what he made as an artist.”
After they separated, she began to look after her own finances. She bought a wrecked apartment in Amsterdam squatted by heroin addicts for $25,000, did it up, and later sold it for $4m. She learned to monetise her work – selling photographs of original pieces for huge sums. The immaterial had become material.
In 1997 she won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for Balkan Baroque, a harrowing piece reflecting her horror at what had become of the former Yugoslavia. Abramović sat next to hundreds of bloodied, meaty and stinking cow bones, scrubbing them clean for six hours a day over a four-day period.
In Venice, she met Italian sculptor Paolo Canevari, who became her second husband (another 12-year relationship that ended badly). They moved to New York, and she enjoyed all that success brought her – designer clothes, designer friends, designer life. Pop stars wooed her: collaborations with Lady Gaga and Jay Z gave them gravitas, and gave Abramović cool.
Abramović loves talking about her celebrity friends. “You know in this building live another wonderful artist, Cindy Sherman. She is great. She live here with parrot. And round the corner is Laurie Anderson, who I having dinner with last night. And Patti Smith, too. So it is wonderful neighbourhood. They are all really good kids.”
In recent years Abramović’s work has focused increasingly on her death. “You always do things you’re afraid of,” she says. “When you get to my age of course you know you have to confront death. I want to die without anger, without fear and consciously, and these three things are not easy.”
Abramović calls to her assistant, also in head-to-toe black. “What time is now?” She says she needs to choose what to wear for the Guardian’s photoshoot. Along one side of the open-plan living room are doors from floor to ceiling. An artwork? No, this is where she keeps her clothes: one closet for coats, one for dresses, one for shoes. There is a lot of black, and clothes by Yohji Yamamoto and Maria Pinto. She grabs some Givenchy and we get a taxi to the studio.
When the photographer Platon tells her she reminds him of the actress Monica Bellucci, I see a new Abramović: Siren Marina. She ignores the Givenchy and opts for a jumpsuit. (“It costs $19.99. Now I’ve got all the designer clothes, I can afford to go back to my roots.”) “Gorgeous, lovely,” Platon says as he snaps away. Then there is an orgasmic shout as he gets his shot. “Beau-ti-ful!” At which point Abramović unzips her jumpsuit and bares her cleavage defiantly at the camera, death now a distant shadow.
Of all her shows, Abramović seems most proud of the one at MoMa in 2010. Every day for three months thousands queued for the opportunity to sit opposite her in silence. Paler than ever, eyes teary, face beatific, she stared into the eyes of strangers, many of whom broke down.
Why did people respond so emotionally? “I give them tools to become themselves. There is nowhere to go except in themselves, where they found the depths and pain and loneliness and everything else. This was so simple to do, but it took me 45 years to get this kind of concept.”
The defining moment came when Ulay walked up and sat opposite her (she had invited him, but didn’t know if he would come). She reached across, took his hands, wept, then closed her eyes. It is a profoundly moving moment, one that has been watched more than 14m times on YouTube.
What was going through her mind? “Everything in my life, good and bad, went in front of me in 30 seconds.” Where does Ulay fit in the book’s dedication – friend or enemy? “Both. Because I can’t deny I loved him as much as my life.” Does she still love him? “I don’t think so because it is 30 years later. The hurt was so much, and something died in me.” Even at MoMa, she says, he hurt her by turning up with his then wife. In recent years, she has invited him to share their joint birthday. But that won’t happen this year. “We are not on talking terms. This birthday, no, I will not invite him.”
Abramović once said good artists have one good idea in their life; great artists might have two. How many has she had? “I have produced just one good idea. My good idea is working with the body.”
Actually, her other good idea is incorporating the audience into her art. In a 2014 show at the Serpentine called512 Hours, she took it one stage further. For the duration of the show, Abramović was present, but the audience were the exhibits; standing still, counting grains of rice, sitting in silence. The critics hated it. They said she was playing God; that this was just mindfulness masquerading as art.
There will be plenty of people who want to do her down, she says – particularly now that she is so successful. As for her wealth, she never said she wanted to be poor. “One of my aims was to be paid as well as a plumber. Plumber was better paid than any performance artist who was always doing this for free. It is so important to make a good living from art. You know John Cage, until he was 60, he couldn’t pay electricity. And I had a very simple life. But the last 12 years’ life I am OK.”
She looks at her assistant, then at me. “Kids, I am sick and tired. I need to go home.” The three Marinas – Warrior, Spiritual, Bullshit – have just about had it. But before she leaves, she wants to tell me about her modest plans for the future. There is a retrospective at the Royal Academy in London in 2020, an opera in Munich she has spent 12 years preparing, and one project that tops everything: “How the art becomes a humanitarian experience. But now I go home to sleep.”
The queen of endurance is finally done. As she gets out of the taxi, she says we have spent all day talking about her; now it’s time for her to ask me something. “What is your impression of me, by the way? This is my question to you.”