"So, we're in hell," Marina Abramović begins, leaning across the table, "and the devil is sitting around, being bored."
It's a pleasant October afternoon in New York, and the most well-known, controversial, and influential performance artist of our time is sharing her favorite joke, which, she tells me, is always the last one she's heard. The joke—fittingly international, considering her birthplace of Serbia, former residences across Europe, and current base in Hudson, New York—goes like this: Former president-dictators Nicolai Ceaușescu, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milošević want to phone their former countries, to check in, see how their people are doing. The devil charges them accordingly: One million for two minutes to Romania, 2 million for two minutes to Iraq. When it comes to Milošević's two minutes to Serbia, however, the cost is surprisingly nothing.
"This is local call," Abramović explains, as an Eastern European–accented Satan. "Hell to hell."
Though her English isn't flawless, her delivery is—she dispatches the joke with a wry, deadpan tone at a focused, speedy clip, challenging you to keep up, never stuttering or missing a beat, and she lands the punch line perfectly. The effect is instantaneous: We both laugh out loud.
We're in a large meeting room in the Penguin Random House building in Midtown Manhattan, where she's in the midst of weeks of interviews for her new memoir, Walk Through Walls, with print, radio, and TV journalists from all over the world. For the past three hours, Abramović and her cheerful publicity manager, Allison, have been holed up doing an interview for German television. Now, Abramović is clearly relieved to be speaking off-camera, away from the crew and lights.
I ask where she heard the joke, and she says a friend in London. "You know, this country is politically overly correct—it's so boring," she confides, leaning in again, her face unconventionally beautiful and seemingly ageless (she is two weeks shy of 70, but looks decades younger). "And I really need to have my dose of humor, and I really need to laugh, because the black humor is based on truth and is also the way to survive."
She mentions removing a section from the book "because of all the problems I have recently." I understand this as a reference to a controversial passage, since removed, from an early version of the book in which Abramović describes her first meeting aboriginal Australians in the Outback, with whom she lived for a year learning, meditating, and generating new ideas for her work. "Nothing prepares Westerners—even Westerners used to extreme experiences—for meeting Australia's first inhabitants," she wrote in the deleted section, taken from a 1979 diary entry, alternating between lamentations over their poor treatment by the Australian government and Western civilization in general ("they should be treated as living treasures. Yet they are not") and uncomfortable descriptions of their appearance ("they look like dinosaurs") and smell ("to a Westerner... unbearable"). The passage sparked outrage and a hashtag movement called "#theracistispresent." Abramović apologized twice.
Yet here she is, in her publisher's office, opening herself up to an interviewer she's only met 15 minutes before. It's both thrilling and a bit shocking. Marina Abramović, I am beginning to suspect, kind of doesn't give a fuck. Not about her publisher, who would surely prefer her to avoid hairy topics. Not about the detractors, who have called her works "cheesy" (Roberta Smith in the New York Times), "exploitative" (performance artist Yvonne Rainer), and "Satanic" (right-wing misinformation site Infowars, in reference to a dinner party she threw). Not about the blow-ups, including criticism for having had three abortions because "[having children] would be a disaster for my work." And not about her former partner, Ulay, with whom she collaborated on a series of extreme and unforgettable works in the 70s and early 80s only to later be sued for a larger cut of the sales (he won).
And yet, whether she's withstanding razorblades to the stomach (Lips of Thomas, 1975), a bed of fire (Rhythm 5, 1974), a cross of ice (also Lips of Thomas), or the public in a kind of Stanford Prison Experiment scenario (Rhythm 0, 1974)—or, most famously, sitting silent and motionless across from visitors for eight hours a day over three months (The Artist Is Present, 2010), a performance that drew 750,000 attendees, a MoMA record for performance—Marina Abramović endures, outlasting everyone else through a singular combination of will and—depending on who you ask—openness, fearlessness, and/or recklessness.
Marina Abramović on 'Rhythm 10' for VICE:
"It's really important, the title of my book," she tells me. "There's so many people they will come in the front of the wall and that will be the end of the journey. For me, it's just the beginning. I always say that my main motto [is], If you say no to me, it's just the beginning. And you have to go to the end, and when finally you can't do anymore, you have to let it go. You have to really give—100 percent is not enough anymore these days. Hundred and twenty is just enough. That 20 percent more over the hundred is what makes the warrior. Nothing else."
She continues: "You have to risk and then be not afraid to fail. Failure is very important. But that's the warrior, he never gives up, you know." She quotes the artist Bruce Nauman, whom she admires: "Art is a matter of life and death. This may be melodramatic, but it is also true."
"This book is absence of anger. I am not angry anymore. I am seeing big picture," Abramović says of her uncommonly candid, engaging, and at times quite funny memoir, which illuminates her path as the daughter of partisan war heroes in Communist Yugoslavia to the pinnacle of the international art world.
This lack of anger, she tells me, is why she chose to dedicate the book to both friends and enemies. "In the process of my life," she explains, "so many friends become jealous, become intolerant, actually because of success kind of hated me." Conversely, "So many enemies who was just so superficial in my work without knowing me and then started knowing me become actually my best friend."
Walk Through Walls was borne out of Abramović's awareness of her 70th birthday and a dinner conversation with literary agent David Kuhn. The memoir was written, over the course of almost two years, with the assistance of Jerry Lee Lewis and Frank Sinatra biographer James Kaplan, who was chosen for his ability to listen, ask the right questions, and allow her, ever the rule-flouter, the freedom to relate her life story out of chronological order.
"I think in circles. I think about something I see on the table, and then I see something different and that will bring me to past to future to present," she tells me, which perhaps explains how, over the course of our time together, she will reference Elon Musk, the United Nations, Kafka's executor Max Brod, the Dalai Lama (whom she's met), and Dracula, to whom she jokingly compares her vaguely gothic black-and-white outfit.
"I am very much for the great Slavic suffering, for the cosmos, for the soul, for the universe."
Walk Through Walls begins in early childhood and hews to the general format of a hero's journey, or perhaps a Portrait of the Performance Artist as a Young Woman and a No Longer Young Woman. Tonally, it's a bit like Patti Smith's Just Kids narrated in the style of Werner Herzog, with a bit of Slavoj Žižek—or at least his jokes—tossed in.
In the memoir, as she is in person, Abramović is a natural and perpetually engaging storyteller. The book begins with her earliest recollections of her childhood in postwar Communist Yugoslavia, "a dark place," "as though the leaders had looked through the lens of someone else's Communism and built something less good and less functional and more fucked up." Despite her family's privileges (her father was a member of President Tito's elite guard and her mother was an art director for the state), it was an emotionally and physically abusive time for the adolescent artist.
"[As a] young person, I could not even talk to anybody," Abramović confides. "I was so shy. I was so self-conscious—I could not even walk. And then I think when I find performance, that was the way to get into step, to dissemble reality. And then it start going away, it become free. Just be who you are. It's kind of intoxicating." Not that performance art was without its stresses, in the gallery space or even at home. In a memorable scene, Abramović relates arriving at her parents' house—in time for her strict 10 PM curfew—from a photo show to find her mother, Danica, waiting silently in the dark for her. Apparently someone had said that her daughter "was hanging naked in the museum." "I gave you life," screamed Danica, "and now I will take it away!" tossing a heavy glass ashtray directly at Abramović's head. She was 28 at the time.
Equally dramatic is her deeply romantic period with the German performance artist Ulay, 12 years in which the lover-collaborators crisscrossed Europe, living out of a black Citroën van with their dog, creating some of their most iconic and lasting works. There's AAA AAA (1978), where they screamed into one another's mouths for 15 minutes; The Other: Rest Energy (1980), where the two balanced a drawn bow and arrow pointed at Abramović's heart; and then the epic final performance, 1988's The Lovers, which spanned 90 days and more than a thousand miles as they walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to embrace in the middle and say goodbye.
VICE Meets Marina Abramović:
Throughout Walk Through Walls are numerous jokes "from Communist times." Her favorite, she tells me, is the first one, about a man who retires. Because he was such an exceptional worker, he is awarded, instead of a watch, a new car, to be delivered on such and such date, 20 years later. "Morning or afternoon," the man asks. "What do you care?" says the official. "I have the plumber coming the same day," says the man.
"Finally I can be funny!" she says, when I bring up the humor of the book, which is far less evident in her work. "I'm always funny, but people don't know." Still, much of the humor in Walk Through Walls, and when speaking to Abramović in person, arises from pain, of difficulties that have been transcended, bulled through, or simply allowed to become such old news as to be seen more objectively, such as her lifelong battles with her mother whom, after death, she would learn had been her most devoted fan, keeping a meticulous list of every mention of her work (sans nude photos, which she had carefully removed). I ask, near the end of our first interview, how suffering has informed Abramović's art, as so much of her work has involved extreme physical endurance and the occasional David Blaine-like trial—whipping herself until she bled, living for 12 days within three open-sided cubes at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, carving up 25,000 cow bones in a fetid basement for a performance that captured the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Biennale.
"You know, the suffering has so many different levels," she says. "I am very much for the great Slavic suffering, for the cosmos, for the soul, for the universe, you know?" She says it's very important to project one's own suffering so that it can also be the suffering of others, not just their own. "That's why the great writers, the great moviemakers, the great theater—if they talk to that kind of thing, then they become universal."
"Suffering as a kind of empathy," I offer.
"We all have the same thing: [We] are afraid of mortality, afraid of pain, afraid of suffering. Three things. Everything about our culture is based on dealing with this in different ways."
Before completing her answer, she detects something in my eyes and suddenly shifts course—asking permission to shuffle my papers and have me pick our next (and final) question, blind and at random, to which I naturally consent. It's the first of three times she will introduce spontaneity into our conversations (and shift the power dynamic from interviewer to interviewee).
"Did we answer this one? OK, then fine," she says, undeterred. "Next." We reshuffle and try again.
Two weeks later, I'm giving Abramović a tour of VICE headquarters in Brooklyn, as part of the video interview we are producing. For verité, I suggest a stroll through the rooftop garden, which appeals to her. Nature and spirituality are significant interests and influences for her—the recent Vimeo documentary The Space in Between: Marina Abramović in Brazil follows her travels in the 2010s to meet spiritual healers and sages from the Brazilian countryside.
Outside is cool and threatening rain. I look over at the two VICE cameramen and ask whether they'd prefer us to walk around the garden or through the middle.
"Just don't tell them. We do whatever we want," she says, smiling and taking my arm. She gestures to our floral setting—wildflowers and various tall grasses and vegetables amid ceaseless urban development—waterfront condos, Whole Foods, an Apple store. "My generation, just buildings so cruel, without any need for this stuff."
I ask if she saw much of this, green space, growing up in the former Yugoslavia.
"I grew up on main street of Belgrade across from the political newspaper," she says as we continue to tread deliberately for the cameras. "I did not even know how the chicken have eggs. I just didn't know anything about nature. I remember going to the farm and trying to milk male goats. The goats scream and run away from me and kick me. I was 14. I have to learn everything from experience."
"Elon Musk is preparing the trip. And I'm thinking, How can I create Abramović Method on the ship?"
We come upon an uneven section of the path. "Ach, give me the hand," she requests. "I love walking with the hand. Look at this." She excitedly directs my attention to a small grassy hill that's off the path. "That looks so good. Is this wet? Let's lie down." She directs me to look up at the sky, and we sit, gazing up for a few moments, taking it in.
"So," she exhales contentedly, spreading her arms wide, eyes closed, smile on her face, "ask me anything." I look over from my perspective about a foot away from her on the grass and take a mental snapshot: Marina's striking, angular face in profile, the suddenly pristine light blue sky, wisps of cloud behind her. I ask her a question I had been planning to use in the video interview, and she immediately disapproves.
"No," she says. "Question right now. Not the one you prepare. The question you want to ask in this minute."
"How often do you... lie down like this?
"Who cares? Think about, What if we would go to Mars and start a colony there?"
I laugh. "Would you go?"
"Absolutely," she says. "Elon Musk is preparing the trip. And I'm thinking, How can I create Abramović Method on the ship? Because it's a long way, you know. Maybe counting rice would be not bad," she laughs.
"It's good to lie down like that," I say, afterward, unexpectedly impressed—I do indeed feel better, more relaxed, more present.
"It's also good to do unpredictable things. Just to break the patterns," she says. When it comes to spending time with Abramović, pattern-breaking swerves like this are common, veering from the playful to the profound, the personal to the universal and back again.
Back in the office, we conduct the on-camera interview, and I again see her desire to disrupt conventions and the everyday when she goads me into asking "a question you've never asked anyone, something you haven't planned." I mention something about interviewers often wishing to become friends with their subjects, asking, "How do you think this is going so far?" Which, of course, is simply a more roundabout way of asking: "Are we friends yet?"
"I think we're doing well, because you give me this book of these jokes," she says, referencing my gift of an obscure Norwegian edition of Žižek's Jokes, which I'd seen her mention in a previous interview. She smiles lightly in approval. "This is a good kind of opening."
The next morning, it occurs to me that my desire to forge a meaningful personal connection with Abramović is a not insignificant part of my interest in her. It's an obvious desire, of course—so obvious I have managed to forget it, during the course of my research and our time together. I recall, during her performance of The Artist Is Present, seeing images of countless audience members deeply moved from simply gazing into her eyes. An earlyish Tumblr page, Marina Abramović Made Me Cry, was created to show these images—57 women and men of diverse ages, races, and ethnicities in varying stages of weepiness. At the Marina Abramović Institute—her namesake project dedicated to furthering performance art in Hudson—and in pop-up residencies across the world, young artists and even the occasional celebrity pop singer (Lady Gaga) have flocked to undergo, at the direction of Abramović, strenuous ordeals and physical depravation—fasting, lying still on the ground, moving naked and blindfolded through the woods, hugging a giant crystal—to learn what she has called the "Abramović Method." What is it that Abramović possesses that draws these people to her, as worshippers might seek a guru?
"Since the very beginning, the focus of so much of her work has been about this really strong emotional response and presence," explains Nat Trotman, curator of performance and media at the Guggenheim Museum, which presented her 2005 performance Seven Easy Pieces and will host the private celebration for her 70th birthday at the end of the month. "Her body becomes a sort of vessel for this emotional response, for the audience." Works like The Artist Is Present are "really about creating this individualized, physical experience with the audience."
"She's got a very idiosyncratic way of being, the way she engages with people," artnet News editor-in-chief Rozalia Jovanovic tells me over the phone. She describes Abramović as "very authoritative." "Her artwork and her life seem very intertwined. The boundaries between the artist and the person are lost, and that's frustrating to some people."
Trotman charts Abramović's rise in popularity and visibility in the late 2000s to the proliferation of YouTube and social media, along with the rise of performance art, including major exhibitions like Tino Sehgal's 2010 This Progress. "It's interesting to me that Marina started pushing her work more into these situations that were about the audience becoming a more active participant," he said, citing The Artist Is Present, 2014's 512 Hours, and 2014's Generator. "It's still about her and her endurance, but it's more like her becoming a leader, or educator, or even a yogi that's guiding the audience into this situation where they are themselves becoming the performers."
He added, "As we all become performers and we all become agents in this new way, there's also a desire to look for role models or leaders who can become idols of this movement, because we all do feel like we're performing for the camera now, all the time. And someone like Marina, who's such an iconic and important figure, and has this incredible long history of having engaged these issues, and has such a presence about her—she literally embodies this. She's not hiding that, in the way that some artists do."
Marina Abramović on Preparation for VICE:
Back in August of this year, this openness caused a backlash, when the aforementioned section about aboriginals from an uncorrected proof of Walk Through Walls was leaked and widely criticized. "When she says that she loves and respects Aboriginal people and culture, that she 'owes everything' to us, I believe she is totally sincere," wrote Sarah-Jane Norman, an aboriginal Australian artist who participated in a two-week program at the Kaldor Public Arts Project in Sydney with Abramović in the summer of 2015. "The problem is, she is totally sincere within an oppressive framework of fetishistic essentialism," which Norman described as a white person "skimming our culture for the parts that are useful or interesting to her, whilst failing completely to engage with the muck and pain of dispossession and coloniality and her own complicit position as its beneficiary."
"She said a bunch of indefensibly racist shit," the 32-year-old Norman puts it bluntly, over Skype, from the Byron Bay hinterland in Bundjalung country. "What needs to be talked about is Marina Abramović as a symptom for a problem that is complex and systemic. And when we engage in this kind of culture of controversy around whoever the kind of 'racist of the week is,' it reduces the complexity of the problem, and it just becomes a lot of white people arguing on the internet for about five seconds about Marina Abramović on the internet. I was just feeling like, this stuff is my life, and part of all our lives as non-white people in a white-dominated society."
Christian Thompson, a 38-year-old Bidjara Australian artist who also first met Abramović at the Kaldor residency, sees it differently. When the controversy arose, he wrote a public message in defense of her.
"To be honest, is it an unfortunate kind of phrasing? Yes," Thompson tells me, over Skype from London. "But are her intentions bad? No. I felt that it was important [for me] to respond, because it turned into such a storm. It seemed like people were just cherry-picking parts of the paragraph that served their purpose, instead of remembering that it was a diary entry that was written 40 years ago. I just felt like I needed to defend the character of someone who I consider to be a friend and who has also been very generous to me, as an indigenous person, and a mentor. I mean, I grew up in Queensland in the mid 1990s during Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, which is our version of Sarah Palin—or actually Donald Trump. That's just a poorly written paragraph. That's not racism."
My own take lies somewhere in between. Norman's point about Abramović's essentialism here is convincing to me, although I understand it to be part of the way Abramović views the world, herself included. I recall her categorizing her own unhappiness as "Slavic suffering," or her strange view of Haruki Murakami's work as possessing " surreal Japanese mysticism." Calling your own suffering Slavic is your right, but defining someone else's suffering according to their background isn't, particularly if that background has been historically attacked and marginalized. She's not a bigot, but neither is she exactly "woke." Perhaps it could be said that she's a flawed ally from a much earlier generation, who is trying—whether that's enough, depends on your own point of view.
"All this criticism on me, about the work, or about, whatever, my life—it's fine," Abramović says, when I bring it up. "[But] that controversy really hurts me. I was hurt absolutely profoundly because the entire living with the aborigines one year in the Australian desert, that changed my life and influenced my work, changed my perspective. And if you read 50 pages, you see the respect I'm giving these people. That statement from the 70s diary, that I think that aborigines look like dinosaurs, I meant in a sense of the extinguished race. They are the oldest race on the planet, but taken out of the context it becomes racial, which has never been my intent."
"Marina was the one who actually pushed for indigenous inclusion in the residency," Thompson says of the Kaldor project. "That's what I was trying to get out of [my] statement—actually, she has been very supportive of indigenous people. Without that push, we probably wouldn't even have been involved."
In Walk Through Walls, Abramović writes of the idea of three Marinas: "There is the warrior one. The spiritual one. And then there is the bullshit one," which she "[tries] to keep hidden. The poor little Marina who thinks everything she does is wrong, the Marina who's fat, ugly, and unwanted. The one who, when she's sad, consoles herself with watching bad movies, eating whole boxes of chocolates, and putting her head under the pillow to pretend her troubles don't exist."
Later that week, I'm at a sold-out event for the book at the New York Public Library, featuring Abramović and Blondie's Debbie Harry. As Abramović effortlessly holds court with Harry onstage, before 500 enthusiastic (and audible) admirers, I witness many more Marinas: Marina the guru, Marina the interviewer, Marina the therapist, Marina the raconteur, the guide, the stand-up, the teacher. With Harry somewhat laconic and checked-out, Abramović slides into the role of affable and inquisitive conversationalist, hands folded across her lap as she leans forward with an attentive and lightly smiling expression: "Did it finish tragically?" she asks a reclining Harry at one point, and then later: "Did you suffer from broken heart?" And then: "Tell me something that the rational mind cannot explain, something that you do."
"And don't laugh too much—just light smiling with no changing facial expression."
Because an event with Marina Abramović without an interaction with the public is no event with Marina Abramović at all, about 35 minutes into the program, the floor is opened up to question-askers—"Under 30," Abramović requests, ever interested in the youth—and a line of devotees forms, 20 or so of them, skewing female and white, but there a couple men and perhaps four or five people of color. The first woman has no question; she just wants to give Abramović a rather mysterious note. Do you know so-and-so, the woman asks. "Of course," Abramović replies. "But do you think this is the place?" Again she has created a situation blurring the lines between private and public.
The second question-asker inquires about work. She says she's making difficult, unlikeable music that she herself doesn't enjoy, but feels compelled to keep making it. "OK, what you have to do," Abramović says, authoritatively, to laughs from the audience. "You have to go home, and really take hot bath. Then, sit on the chair and look out of the window. Switch your cellphone, switch your computer, switch everything you have. And sit at least three or four or five hours and reflect. One thing that is wrong is that you don't like what you're doing. This is the main problem—you have to love what you're doing because it's useless [otherwise], from my point of view."
Another attendee, who says she's trying not to cry, asks for advice for her 15-year-old daughter. "Don't overprotect her," Abramović offers. "Send her to travel around the world, send her to see poverty, to know how difficult it is, so she doesn't take anything for granted. Don't overprotect—leave her free. The free spirit is so important. It's so easy to break the spirit. So put this is mind, that's all."
"You have validated everything I have taught, thank you so much," says the mother.
I recall having seen a similar side of Marina the teacher, and veteran star performer, earlier that week at VICE headquarters. Our cameraman Jonny had been filming additional verité after the interview, when she launched into an impromptu master class on how to appear before a camera.
"Slowly, going down the steps—it's going to be very glamorous," she said in her characteristically rapid, deadpan tone, this time whispered, since, I'm assuming, what's important isn't what's being said here, but that it appears flattering yet natural. "You know Sunset Boulevard? This is the scene, and then she say, 'I'm ready for my close-up.'" I again complimented Abramović on her preternatural ability to perform, and she continued giving tips as we descended the stairs and then moved toward the exit: "And don't look the camera, it's very important: Just passing by. And chin always down. And don't laugh too much—just light smiling with no changing facial expression."
Carl Swanson's enviably well-written profile of Abramović for New York locates her drive in a deep-seated need to be adored and accepted, a rather Yungian view: Abramović has spent her life trying to obtain the attention and adulation she never received as a child. It makes a certain amount of sense from the memoir, and from the way she suddenly lights up during moments like these, her relish to perform filling her and the room with a kind of uplifted aura. To me, however, her mission seems less psychological, more teacherly, even—daresay—maternal. For all her unconventional decisions—to become a performance artist, to have abortions for the sake of her art, to pursue spirituality to the literal ends of the earth—I feel it's actually unexpectedly traditional, an idea of inheritance. She found her purpose through performance, which transformed her and everything she knew and experienced in the world, and now she wants to pass it on to the next generation.
"I should be the guide," she chuckled, before ducking into a black SUV, off to the next interview, the next performance of her many versions of self. "And then when you get really self-conscious, just check your breathing."
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All photos by Elizabeth Renstrom.
Flowers by Marisa Competello.