It is around noon and Marina Abramovic is incredibly hungry. There is a large chocolate chip cookie in front of her but she doesn’t touch it. Instead, she awaits the post-interview delivery of beef soup from her favorite Vietnamese place around the corner. Since the round of interviews she’s giving will last an hour, she will continue to wait, moving the cookie a few inches away from her seemingly each time she thinks about food. This is not about empty calories, this is about control. The grandmother of performance art has an almost superhuman ability to wait for time to pass, a skill she took to extreme levels during her last –- and longest –- continuous performance to date.
For three months, Abramovic spent seven and a half hours each day sitting across from strangers and loved ones at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for her 2010 performance piece titled, “The Artist is Present.” In a new HBO film by the same title, director Matthew Akers investigates the impact of the Serbian artist’s work on the public and attempts to answer the question plaguing performance pieces since the beginning of the genre: “Why is this art?”
Around 750,000 people attended the performance at MoMA during this three-month period, from fans and curious onlookers to Lady Gaga and her little monsters. One of the lessons learned in the film is that despite the walls built up by living in the modern world, it seems everyone cries when they spend a few moments with Abramovic. Reflecting on the performance, she says, “I am very perceptive of people’s energy and I never saw so much pain in my life.” She continues, “When you have a nonverbal conversation with a total stranger, then he can’t cover himself with words, he can’t create a wall. Sometimes I have to cry because there’s so much pain.”
What the audience seems to want is empathy; a few moments of unconditional love from this powerful Slavic woman occupying the seat across from you. There is something undeniably holy about her as she sits there, illuminated by two large stage lights, seated in a simple wooden chair. She is able to display power and vulnerability simultaneously.
At a key moment in the film, the table that separated Abramovic from the audience member in the chair across from her was removed. The effect is palpable. “I began questioning the necessity of the table, because it’s not only obstructing the view, it’s obstructing the energy,” Abramovic said. “Then there were a lot of discussions about security, but I didn’t care about this, because it was an absolutely important decision. The energy came off the charts.”
But control is ultimately what drives her to continue taking risks and creating challenging works. In previous performances like her "Rhythm" series, she’s staged events that could end in serious bodily harm, or even death. She says, “I think it’s very important to find out what pain is and how to liberate ourselves from the pain and fear… By staging [these moments], you actually understand the mechanism, so when they’re really coming in your life you can deal with them. That’s what performance is about.” This ability to ultimately control all aspects of one's life is reflected in the incredibly provocative statement she relayed during one point in the interview. “Cancer is an emotional disease,” she stated, and then quickly moved on. For Abramovic, our energy controls our destiny, and so we must take the time to channel our power in the right ways.
Though many of her peers gave up performance art in order to pursue more stable forms of art making, Abramovic kept at it. Performance art wasn’t just a phase in her career -– it was her career. But how do you preserve something that is by nature ephemeral? At 66, she is devoting the bulk of her time to establishing and preserving her legacy through re-performances and interactive experiences. Her new piece, titled “The Abramovic Method,” just ended its run at the PAC Contemporary Art Pavilion in Milan on Sunday.
She says, “The public hasn’t been trained to actually experience something long-durational, so after the MoMA piece I felt I had to patent this knowledge.” Upon arrival, participants will don a white lab coat with “Abramovic Method” embroidered in red across the chest and then will have to sign a contract that says they’ll stay and participate for two and a half hours. At the end, everyone who stayed for the allotted time will get a certificate of completion, signed by Abramovic. She says, “By end of June there will be 8,000 people experiencing [the piece].”
The Abramovic Method has a lot to do with the transfer of energy, which is the foundation of the artist’s work. In Abramovic’s eyes, we are the conduits for energy, which is facilitated by the use of crystals. Big ones. Twenty-nine boxes of them, in fact, were shipped from South America and embedded in the tables, chairs, and rectangular copper cages around the Pavilion in Milan. Participants can sit in these uncomfortable chairs or stand in a copper cage with a giant crystal suspended over their heads. It's your own personal sword of Damocles, though it isn’t intended to be viewed as such. In fact, Abramovic thinks the experience will be liberating. Through the project, we all become performance artists, ready to take on the challenges the world throws at us in stride.
So what's left to do for an artist at the peak of her power? When asked what she fears, Abramovic said, “Right now, I fear that I won’t have enough time to do what I want to do. I work so much right now, because I am very good at recognizing the chance –- when you have the chance, you have to take it.”
“The Artist is Present” is directed by Matthew Akers and produced by Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff. The film premiers at Film Forum in New York today, June 13, and will show July 2 on HBO.
See a behind the scenes slideshow below: