MARINA ABRAMOVIC: ARTIST AND MUSE
FROM THE VOLT (SPRING SUMMER 2011)
This May, Marina Abramovic completed one of the longest pieces of performance art ever created. She sat for three months within her MoMA retrospective, The Artist is Present, silently engaging with whoever took the chair opposite. When she stood up at the end of the final day of physical agony and psychological scrutiny, almost a million people had come to watch, with those who wished to sit with the artist often queuing outside the museum overnight. Over four decades the mother of performance art had pushed her body and her fears to the limit, from the early days performing nude, carving her belly or conking out on psychiatric drugs to the increasingly punishing endurance works. Now she’d brought her medium to the world. It was time to celebrate.
At the Givenchy-sponsored after-bash, the fashion house’s creative director Riccardo Tisci had dreamed up something ultra-special for his muse on the occasion crowning her career to date. The gown was floor-length and jet-black to match Abramovic’s hair. Tisci’s personal touch was the black leather jacket: made from 101 snake-skins homaging her series Dragon Heads, where snakes writhed about on top of her head. At the time he said his aim was to show, “you can be an artist but also be a woman, and look extraordinary and super-sexy.” After the three most intense months of her life where she underwent the rigours of a vow of silence, muscle cramps, squashed internal organs, swollen feet, a personal trainer, a masseuse and a special diet, she seized the limelight looking triumphant, statuesque and powerful like a noir heroine.
“Those snakes died a natural death somewhere, I hope,” Abramovic chuckles from her country home in upstate New York, where she is recuperating after a performance that really did become life. “The experience of still living, I can’t really get over it,” she says. “I had something like 1560 pairs of eyes [sitting opposite her during the performance], which is still haunting me even now.” You get the feeling she’s only half-joking.
Whether dressed right, or dressed at all, Abramovic’s image is an integral part of her work. There’s a sweet anecdote she tells about her first performance. She was a little girl and desperate to have a nose like Bridget Bardot. With pictures of her idol stuffed in her pocket, she spun round and round on her bed. The plan was she would fling herself off it, break her nose, be rushed to hospital and when the surgeon appeared she could present him with the desired image of the French sex kitten. Instead she ended up with one nasty gash on her head and an angry mother…
The aesthetic Abramovic has created for the world to remember her works by though has long been tightly choreographed. Her first performance created for video camera was Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful from 1975, where she’s seen in close up, repeating this mantra and manically brushing her hair with increasingly violent strokes until she bleeds. If this work was intended as an ironic comment on women’s position in the artworld, it’s also a principle Abramovic has taken to heart. She doesn’t simply document the one-off performances for posterity with photography or video. The kind of images she creates are just as important as the technological means.
Abramovic’s works inspire not simply as feats of superhuman bravery, but with the visual power of religious icons. To mention but a few instances, there’s her performance within a burning five-pointed star, 1973’s Rhythm 5, the gorgeously sensual momento mori, Nude With Skeleton of 2002 – 2005, where her pale flesh rises and falls beneath a skeleton’s white bones, or the unforgettable vision of her crouched in a cellar-like room atop a pile of bloody cow bones scrubbing them clean for the installation, Balkan Baroque, the work that won the artist the Golden Lion at Venice in 1997.
That Abramovic’s self-sacrificing art also tips over into narcissism and idolatry is just one of the contradictory qualities that arguably make her so compelling. She seems as much “diva” as “high priestess”, as her biographer James Westcott has noted, whose book When Marina Abramovic Dies was published earlier this year. Her own icon is the great, troubled opera diva Maria Callas, who she says she admires for her, “incredible strength and incredible vulnerability. She had a divine talent and a young girl’s insecurity… That’s a mixture that interests me.”
Clothes however are a passion that came somewhat late to the artist. It started not long after Abramovic turned forty and she’d walked the Great Wall of China, meeting her lover and creative collaborator Ulay in the middle to finish their relationship in 1987. “It was such a difficult moment in my life. I felt ugly and unwanted,” she recalls. Still it wasn’t all bad. As a pioneer of performance Abramovic had become a successful serious artist. Whether having an arrow pointed straight at her heart by Ulay while she held the bow taught, or playing a rapid fire game of five-finger-fillet with a series of lethal looking knives, she was at the centre of the most groundbreaking controversial work of the burgeoning medium. If she wore lipstick or nail polish, no one was going to think she was trying to seduce the curator to get a show. The 1970s were over. She’d made it.
And so, the artist followed in the footsteps of innumerable women who’ve been through a bad break-up. “I thought, I don’t have to prove anything. I’m growing my hair, wearing high-heeled shoes. I’m going to buy some different fashion.” The first designer she became interested in was fellow avant-gardey: Yohji Yamamoto. “I remember those first clothes so well. It was a suit with some kind of light shirt, abstract and geometrical. I felt good; I felt something really changed,” she says. With collections inspired by the likes of the Russian constructivist Rodchenko, Yamamoto showed her that fashion could be about more than surface appearance. So too, Issey Miyake: “Someone asked him why are your clothes so big?” she remembers. “He replied, ‘I need to have space for the spirit and the body to live in between clothes’. I thought, fashion isn’t empty of meaning – there’s a lot in it for my interests.”
After that initial wow of discovery, there came the inevitable period of false starts and experimentation. Abramovic credits Tisci with the moment her dress sense clicked. “He created the dress for my 60th birthday,” she says. Not one to shy away from her age, the artist staged a black tie dinner at the Guggenheim and assembled a crowd of her closest friends including other stand-alone performers like Bjork, Antony Hegarty and David Blaine. At the centre of festivities, was Abramovic in stiff midnight blue silk, with a delicate spray of feathers across the bust and a vast train. “I was like a sculpture in the space, I thought ‘my god this is amazing’. Now I’m mostly wearing his stuff because he knows my body, he knows how I look and I feel incredibly comfortable.”
You can hear the genuine enthusiasm when Abramovic raves about Tisci, how she has finally found someone who understands what she should wear, or the brilliance of his recent menswear show: “I never saw such a hot sexual thing!” The pair met by chance through her ex-husband Paolo Canevari, an artist who Tisci had chosen to create a collaborative project with for AnOther Magazine. A few years later Tisci and Abramovic would do their own collaboration for A Magazine. She was making work in Laos at the time and when Tisci sent her an ice-blue ball gown she decided to create a performance, wearing the dress under a waterfall. “I thought I’m going to wash all my emotions into this dress,” she says. “Then I left it in the rubbish and that was it!” The resulting images are high baroque. She stands at the foot of a cascade of water, her face lifted to sunlight, the silk and organza folds of the dress billowing from her outstretched arms like wings. They have plans for further art-fashion fusions too, with Marina suggesting she might do a workshop with models to bring some emotion to the catwalk.
All this of course will have to be fitted around her dizzying schedule. This month she’s an exhibition opening at London’s Lisson gallery, including documentation of her landmark 1970s Rhythm series and new photographic works where she does simple homely things, like peeling potatoes or sleeping with a lamb. “They show how you can process something painful into something peaceful,” she says. Meanwhile next January an HBO documentary about the artist will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
While Ambramovic sat day in, day out at MoMA, gazed at by multitudes, the camera crew filmed every moment. They even had the keys to her apartment and in the morning she’d often open her eyes to find a lens in her face before heading down to the museum for the day’s marathon sitting. The most difficult performance of her life is over but for Abramovic it seems the show always goes on.
by Skye Sherwin
Photograph courtesy of the artist and the Lisson Gallery