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ARCHIVE FEATURE  The dynamic of Performance Art strikes a chord with the me generation weaned on self image and extreme expression. As Marina Abramovic opens her 512 Hours at the Serpentine Gallery, Michaela Freeman recollects a collaboration with Robert Wilson in his tribute to her career: The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

Text: Michaela Freeman | Images: Lucie Jansch

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ROBERT Wilson’s theatre production The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, a biographical piece about the famous pioneer of performance art at The Manchester International Festival (MIF), staged her funeral. But Abramovic is very much alive and stunningly beautiful - and even starred as her own mother in that show.

Born in Belgrade to a respected high-ranking army family, with an extremely controlling mother, Abramovic's first performance was a childhood attempt to break her hated nose so it could be remodelled. She studied art, starting as a painter, but soon swapping the brush for the use of sound, her body and audience participation. Richard Demarco met her on his visit to Yugoslavia in 1973 and invited her to the Edinburgh Festival. She stayed in Scotland for 6 months, creating her violent knife finger-stabbing piece, Rhythm 10, first in the series of using her own body in challenging experiments (screaming until losing her voice, brushing her hair until bleeding, dancing to the sound of African drums until falling exhausted).

In 1975, she went to Amsterdam to film her Lips of Thomas performance, inspired by a self-mummification method of Tibetan monks, for Dutch TV, and met a fellow artist, Ulay.(1) It was an instant attraction and they lived and worked together for the next 12 years, including nine months with Australian Aboriginals. In their endurance performances, often appearing naked, they slapped themselves, threw their bodies against a wall, held their breath to the point of fainting, and braided their hair together for a day. Most famously, in Night Sea Crossing, they simply sat down, facing each other, still and silent, for various lengths of time (16 days at most). Their intense relationship ended at a spectacular walking piece in 1988, The Great Wall of China. Starting from opposite ends of the wall and watched by Chinese government officials all the time, they walked for up to 15 hours a day. When they met in the middle after three months, instead of the wedding originally planned to mark the end of the journey, they split up. Abramovic went on to produce solo works with increased audience participation. She also persistently promotes Performance Art, which she's never stop evolving and reprising, unlike some of her 1970s colleagues.

In 2005, The Guggenheim Museum in NYC hosted a seven-day event where she repeated seminal performances by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane and Joseph Beuys. 'Performance makes sense if it's live, not as documentation,' she says. Her Marina Abramovic Foundation for the Preservation of Performance Art is due to open in Hudson, New York, with an artists-in-residency facility. In 1997, she was kicked out of the ex-Yugoslavia pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and her controversial piece Balkan Baroque (a four-day-long cleaning of 6,000 pounds of bloody cow bones – a reminder of the Balkan war) was shown at the main exhibition instead, winning her the Venice Biennale Prize.

In 2002, a year after her move to New York, Abramovic lived without food for 12 days inside three furnished open wooden cubes (rooms) at the Sean Kelly Gallery. The House with the Ocean View performance made it into the mainstream in a TV episode of Sex in the City.

Regretting the amount of props she used in this piece, she decided on a more minimalist set-up for her longest ever performance at the major retrospective of her work at New York’s MoMA in 2010, The Artist is Present. During the entire exhibition, 736.5 hours in total, she sat at a wooden table, visitors taking turns to face her concentrated stare for as long as they wanted. It was very demanding, but she said at the time: 'The concept of failure never enters my mind'. There were special guests too, including other performance artists and, at one point, Ulay too, in an emotional silent reunion. 35 performers were trained by the artist in an intensive four-day-long performance boot camp. They would recreate five of her works at MoMA including three collaborations with Ulay, such as Imponderabilia (a naked couple standing in the doorway facing each other, forcing visitors to pass in between). In this age of political correctness though, an alternative way to get in was also offered!

Abramovic's performances are intense, raw, full of perseverance, strength and energy. Inspired by Eastern philosophy, she challenges the boundaries of her body and mind, in pieces that are both personal and intimate but also inviting and communicative. In 2010, she explained in a New Yorker interview that all the aggressions she does to herself in her art, she wouldn't do in real life. 'I cry when I cut myself peeling potatoes... In performance I become, somehow, not a mortal, and my insecurities... aren't important'.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic had known each other and wanted to do a project for many years, but when she asked him to direct a piece on her life, initially, he couldn't imagine how their different aesthetics could merge: 'As our careers developed, I became more interested in theatricality, illusion and artificiality. Marina's career was as a performance artist, where she wanted everything to be a real experience.' But interestingly, she vowed to leave the entire choreography to him and perform in his theatrical way of presenting work. 'She had to rethink how to walk and speak on stage, how to be formal, how to dress, what it was like to wear make-up and create an illusion. The surprising thing is that she did it, and she did it quite well. She is truly an amazing artist. The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic was co-produced with The Lowry and Madrid’s Teatro Real Madrid, where the show was due to tour in 2012, alongside to other European theatres and the USA.

STATE is indebted to the Sean Kelly Gallery, Calum Sutton PR and Clare Henry for invaluable help in preparing this feature.


Marina Abramovic
512 Hours
11 June - 25 August 2014
Serpentine Gallery. London.


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