Performance artist Marina Abramović just finished a mammoth three-month show at New York's MoMA gallery in which she was joined by international stars like Lady Gaga and James Franco. But when I interviewed her, what she really wanted to talk about was her time in New Zealand.
The first question Marina Abramović asks when I telephone her New York country house is whether I'm calling from Christchurch. The 64-year old, self-described “grandmother of performance art,” left her homeland in the former Yugoslavia in 1976. But hers is still a thick Slavic accent, not unlike that of the snake-handling matriarch played by Angelina Jolie in Oliver Stone's Alexander.
It turns out Christchurch is the only place in New Zealand she's been. She and her then-partner, Uwe Laysiepen (commonly known by the performance name of Ulay), came here in 1981 for a one-off performance organized by local artist Andrew Drummond.
“It's a piece that's almost unknown,” she says. “A work called Witnessing. Ulay was sitting on the floor and I was standing and pointing one finger in his direction. The natural light was becoming darker over the four hours of the piece. My feet were on a pedestal and they had to lift me down because I was completely cramped. It was a very strange piece.”
It's strange within the context of her work mainly because it doesn't involve the artist putting herself in extreme pain or danger. Abramović's work explores the limits of the human mind and body. She creates illuminating experiences for herself and her audience by putting herself through physical and mental endurance tests. Highlights of her career have included stabbing herself in the hand with twenty knives as part of a traditional Balkan soldiers' game, cutting a star into her flesh, and ingesting drugs intended for catatonic patients, making a performance out of the seizures the drugs induced.
So while standing on a platform for four hours may not be as much fun as the exploits of, say, Andy Warhol's Factory or the Dada movement, for her it probably counts as a working holiday.
“It was a bit of a trip,” she says. Once she got here, she found that she was only six hours from the South Pole. “I wanted to go on an expedition. But I only wanted to go at the time when there was ten hours of sunset. They wanted to sign me for six months.”
“I'm sure if you found the right person,” I say, “you could strong-arm them.”
“That's true,” she agrees. “Another thing is that every person I knew in New Zealand saw at least one UFO. I think there's a landing area there. I was in Christchurch for ten days and didn't see one. I'll have to come back for that.”
“I don't know anyone in New Zealand who thinks they've seen a UFO,” I say, then immediately feel bad because this makes it sound like I think she's wrong or crazy.
“Come on!” she exclaims. “Everyone I talked to there saw at least one UFO. Or at least, they told me they did.”
“Obviously,” I say, “You're mixing with the right crowds and I'm not. I'd love to find someone who's seen a UFO.” I think this is a good way of qualifying my earlier objection.
“The other thing that happened,” she goes on, “was a crazy situation.” She tells me about the farm she was staying in in Canterbury. “One morning I woke up and walked up the hill. There were hundreds of sheep giving birth, all at the same time. The sun was coming up and it was like one massive birth. I'll never forget seeing that in New Zealand. It was the most beautiful thing.”
“That seems like exactly the sort of thing that should happen when you come here,” I tell her. Themes of rebirth and renewal are constant in Marina Abramović's work. In the 1990s she performed a work involving scrubbing the flesh off 6,000 pounds of cow bones, an intentionally impossible attempt to render them pure (the piece, Balkan Baroque, was her comment on the Bosnian civil war). Another saw her reinvent herself by trading places with an Amsterdam prostitute for four hours: the woman took Abramović's place at a gallery opening, while the artist sat in the brothel window.
Her latest work at the New York MoMA, The Artist is Present, saw her sit motionless opposite visitors, one at a time. The piece went on for seven hours, every weekday for three months. “People haven't talked about this,” she says, “Because it's not something you're supposed to talk about. But that piece was really about giving unconditional love to complete strangers.”
“You mean treating each audience member as individuals?” I ask.
“At the moment he was in that chair,” she explains, “Every visitor was a unique universe. That's new to audiences. They've never been treated in that way.”
Many of her visitors have been the New York art crowd, but she says many more would never step into a gallery usually. Part of the appeal is the famous sitters on the guest list. “Lady Gaga came to see the show and talked about me on Larry King Live and YouTube interviews. She reaches fourteen year olds who'd never care about performance art. They become this whole new audience, which is a completely new thing for me.”
Another guest was Hollywood actor James Franco, a performance art devotee himself. Franco recently claimed that his recurring role on the soap opera General Hospital was an elaborate work of performance art. I ask Abramovic what she thinks of this use of the medium.
“That was such a mixed-up issue,” she says. “In the 70s, people would just do some stupid gesture and say, 'I'm doing performance art,' and this attitude is still here today. But James Franco studied performance at NYU. He did a dissertation on my work. We've talked a lot. He says as an actor, he reaches a wall so many times because he's trying to be someone you're not. Performance art deals with truly being what you are, and he wanted to incorporate that into his acting.”
The intersection of performance art with superstars like Gaga and Franco is new for her. Abramović considers her fame to have come quite late – her Christchurch trip may have been big news among the cognoscenti, but most New Zealanders probably didn't even know who she was. She suspects that her late breakthrough to mass-media stardom was a good thing.
“Look at me. Recognition came very late. That's very good, because then you don't get stuck on how great you are. When it happens at 25, you're young and you don't know who you are.” She laughs. “Then you die of an overdose at 41.”
And then you'd never get to see a UFO.