She has been threatened with a gun and set herself on fire. Now the woman called the 'grandmother of performance art' has come to Abu Dhabi
A pioneer of performance art prepares to set Abu Dhabi Art alight
Marina Abramovic may not enjoy the fame of some of the artists at this year's Abu Dhabi Art but her theatrical exhibits win critical acclaim. From having spectators hold a gun to her head or suck her blood, her work is powerful, boundary-pushing and captivating.
Any interview with the performance artist Marina Abramovic might expect to cover many things. There was the time, for example, when she set herself on fire, or when she lived with Aborigines in the Central Australian desert for five months, or when she recently sat in silence for more than 700 hours.
What I'm not prepared for is a conversation about bean soup.
"I love cooking bean soup," Abramovic confesses in her thick Slavic accent as she talks via Skype from the kitchen of her rural home in upstate New York.
She has escaped here from Hurricane Sandy and from a Manhattan studio rendered powerless by the storm. Her conversation has a similar effect and very soon I am mesmerised by the artist's flirtatious charm, generosity and self-deprecating wit. Even when she is not performing, Abramovic has the power to transfix.
She may not enjoy the widespread public recognition commanded by some of the luminaries attending this year's Abu Dhabi Art, but she arrives for a "conversation" at the fair in the ascendant and amid great excitement.
She is the ultimate artist's artist, a position that most critics would say is well deserved after 40 years defined by great personal sacrifice and very real physical and psychological risk.
During that time, Abramovic has stabbed her hand with knives, cut herself with razor blades and flagellated herself. In one of her most life-threatening performances, the 1974 piece Rhythm 0, Abramovic stood passively for six hours surrounded by 72 objects - including an axe, razor blades, a bullet and a gun - and allowed the public to do whatever they liked.
In the ultimate test of the relationship between an artist and their audience, Abramovic was stripped, cut, had her blood sucked and even saw the gun loaded and held to her head. As she said at the time: "That was the heaviest piece I ever did because I wasn't in control. The audience was."
Few artists today place such demands on themselves or on their audience as the 66-year-old Abramovic. Asked about the dramatic nature of her performances, she is keen to differentiate them from any type of theatre.
"In the theatre, you rehearse and you play a certain role. In the theatre, the blood is ketchup and the knife is not a knife. In performance, everything is real. The knife is a knife and the blood is blood," she says.
For Abramovic, the real power of her art comes not from the danger, but from the energy that a performance can create.
"This is why the power of performance is so great," she says. "When you see bad performance you never want to see one again, but when you see really good performance it can change your life.
"Art is about more than money, it's about raising the human spirit."
Despite her insistence on the ephemeral nature of her work - "you have to be there to see it, otherwise you miss it" - some of its overwhelming power is palpable even on film.
Visitors to Abu Dhabi Art can experience this for themselves in a video titled Rest Energy exhibited by Lisson Gallery in a small retrospective of her work.
Performed in 1980 with Ulay, a German artist who was Abramovic's collaborator and partner from 1976 to 1989, Rest Energy places the artists in a position of "total trust" as they stand, facing but leaning away from each another, holding a real bow and arrow under tension, with Ulay on the string and the arrowhead aimed at Abramovic's heart.
Microphones pick up the alarming creak of the bowstring, the couple's racing heartbeats and their whimpers as they struggle to maintain their balance and grip on the weapon that will safeguard Abramovic's life.
Despite knowing the outcome, I find myself transfixed by the artist for the second time in as many days. The danger of the performance appals me but again I am powerless to avert my gaze.
Ironically, it is a feature-length documentary, Matthew Aker's The Artist is Present, that has contributed to Abramovic's current fame.
Released this year, the film charts the eponymous retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 2010, the first show of its type ever held for a performance artist at the museum.
For The Artist is Present, Abramovic sat without food or water at a small table in MoMA's huge atrium for seven-and-a-half hours a day, every day, for three months, waiting to meet the gaze of anybody who might choose to sit opposite her.
The results took everybody by surprise, becoming a cultural phenomenon that moved out of the rarefied world of contemporary art and into the mainstream.
A record-breaking 850,000 people attended the show and more than 15,000 people queued to sit opposite Abramovic, including A-list celebrities such as Björk, Sharon Stone, Isabella Rossellini and Rufus Wainwright.
Some participants reacted with joy, while others broke down in tears. In an interview with the journalist Sean O'Hagan conducted shortly after The Artist is Present, Abramovic was clear that the performance had achieved something extraordinary.
"Oh, it's plain to me that this is something incredible," she said. "I give people a space to simply sit in silence and communicate with me deeply but non-verbally. I did almost nothing but they take this religious experience from it. Art had lost that power, but for a while MoMA was like Lourdes."
For Abramovic, the key to the success of The Artist is Present was an understanding of the performance's context, both in terms of geography and time.
"The Artist is Present was made for New York because nobody there has any time. So what does it mean if you place no limit on your time and you say, 'OK. You can sit there for as long as you like. For three seconds or 10 hours, it's up to you'. Then suddenly the whole world knew and there were 850,000 people outside. It was insane. Just because of something that is almost nothing."
Rumours of a potential performance have also surrounded Abramovic's visit to Abu Dhabi Art, but the artist is quick to quash these.
"Everything I do people call performance but performance for me is a very long process," she says. "It took years to make the piece at MoMA. I just want to come and talk to people and to explain my work."
Despite Abramovic's modest claims, however, she sees her trip to Abu Dhabi, her first to an Arab country, as research.
"I am enormously curious. Before oil, this country was completely connected with nature and then it made a dramatic transition into something else," she says. "What happened to society and to the traditions in this society? What is the understanding of art here?"
She is also looking forward to meeting Emirati women.
"This is incredibly interesting for me to see how women's society works. It seems incredibly powerful behind the scenes, not in a direct way, but in the house.
"This is very similar to my culture. My grandmother was the most powerful person in my life and I think there may be lots of connections I can find here."
Whatever her motivation may have been in the past, Abramovic is very clear about what is driving her in the present. To secure her legacy, she is working with the architect Rem Koolhaas to create the Marina Abramovic Institute in the town of Hudson near her home in upstate New York.
"Now I'm 66 and I want to spend another 10 years giving my experience to a younger generation," she says. "I'm not interested in glorifying my own work, in making a museum of me. I'm interested in making new work, a platform on which other artists can create."
Central to Abramovic's concept for the institute is the "Abramovic method", the process of preparing the audience to receive something new.
"When you come to my institute, you will sign a contract with me that you will stay for six hours otherwise you can't come in," she says. "If you give me the time, I will give you the experience but you have to give me the time. You are giving me your word of honour. I know this is very old-fashioned but I come from an older society where people really appreciate that. This is something I hope that people in Abu Dhabi will understand quite well."
After only 40 minutes spent in Abramovic's virtual company, I have no doubt that they will.
Marina Abramovic will appear in conversation with Valerie Hillings, associate curator of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim Museum, as part of Abu Dhabi Art at Manarat Al Saadiyat tomorrow from 3pm to 4pm.
A survey of her career is also on display at Lisson Gallery, stand P15, at Abu Dhabi Art until November 10. For more information visit www.abudhabiartfair.ae.