“I’ve been attacked and ridiculed all my life.”
Marina Abramović has been making performance art for 40 years. Born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1946, her early work in the 1970s included dangerous and violent acts, raising the stakes between artist and audience by offering her own body as a canvas for revelations about human nature, or challenging the audience as voyeurs of and participants in her suffering. In Rhythm 0, for example, Abramović offered the audience an assortment of 72 objects and allowed them to interact with her in any way they chose during the six-hour performance, while she remained completely passive.
Exploring the relationship between performer and audience, the immaterial nature of energy and the possibilities and restrictions of body and mind, these works were set in opposition to the apparent pretense of theater and the commerciality of saleable art objects. Unlike theater, in performance art ‘the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real,’ she said.
In 1976, Abramović met and fell in love with West German performance artist Uwe Laysiepen, who went by the name Ulay. The pair collaborated until 1988 and produced several defining pieces of performance art, working so closely that they likened themselves to a two-headed body. Dedicated creative collaboration defined their relationship, which ended in 1988 with a final performance in which Abramović and Ulay set out from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, walking a distance of 2,500 km to meet in the middle and say goodbye.
In 2010, Abramović’s work was reconfigured into a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was the biggest performance exhibition in the museum’s history and broke all attendance records, attracting more than 850,000 visitors. The exhibition included re-performance of many of Abramović’s past works by a group of young performers, and its centerpiece was the 736-hour and 30-minute static and silent new work, The Artist Is Present – her longest ever solo single performance – for which Abramović sat immobile on a chair and invited visitors to share a silent moment with her, often provoking intense emotional reactions. Marina has acknowledged that the exhibition, with its many celebrity visitors, radically boosted her popularity amongst a younger generation previously unfamiliar with her work.
Alongside amplified fame, Abramović has faced amplified criticism; many reject re-performance as antithetical to a practice that has hitherto prized presence and transience; others object to the cult of personality – arising around an artist who puts herself at the center of the work – as contrary to the critical and anti-materialist origins of the art form. Still others have accused her of exploiting the bodies of other performers when she asks them to participate in the kinds of ordeals she has long devised for herself. Abramović attracted a particularly aggressive response for a gala dinner that she oversaw for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2011: the dinner featured hired performers silently kneeling under the dinner tables with their heads poking out through the middle and watching as guests feasted upon a three-course meal. Veteran performance artist Yvonne Rainer wrote an open letter of protest to the museum director Jeffrey Deitch, arguing against the abuse and exploitation of performers in the name of museum fundraising. Several performers later publicly defended the event and their participation.
In recent years, Abramović has extended her practice to collaborations in different creative fields, from appearances in music videos to creating a new ballet version of Boléro. Revising her rejection of scripted theater, Abramović has also invited several directors to create biographical pieces for the stage based on her life and work, culminating in the most recent collaboration with Robert Wilson and Willem Dafoe, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović.
Based in New York City, Abramović is currently working on the creation of the Marina Abramović Institute, dedicated to the presentation and preservation of long-durational and immaterial work. The Institute is due to open in 2015 in the city of Hudson, New York.