Portrait by Mike McGregor
Marina Abramović has spent a good deal of the past 50 years inflicting pain and stress on her own body in the name of art. Earlier this year, her body got a bit of revenge. In May, having gone into hospital for a minor knee operation, the artist suffered a pulmonary embolism that nearly killed her. She was in intensive care for six weeks, had three operations, nine blood transfusions, and spent some time in a coma. For someone who has over the years – for the gallery-going public – lain naked on blocks of ice, gone a dozen days on a raised platform without food, deliberately induced unconsciousness and almost burned herself alive, hospital came as a shock. When I first spoke to her from her home in New York state a month ago, sitting on her deck in the sunshine, she was still high on survival. She held a picture up to the screen of the long string of blood clots that had been removed from her lungs and laughed at the oddness. She explained how she believed the practice of endurance in her work – in perhaps her most famous performance, The Artist Is Present, she sat motionless six hours a day for three months while thousands of people queued to occupy the seat opposite her – had speeded up her recovery. “To start with the doctors gave me opioids every four hours and I can’t deal with that,” she said. “I can’t take alcohol, I can’t take drugs, not even aspirin. I want to feel everything in my body, always. So I stopped taking them. The pain was unbelievable. But I knew this would give me a faster recovery because I could use all my willpower and everything I have learned to get up out of bed more quickly. Otherwise, I might still be there.” Did intensive care feel like another kind of performance? “No, because if you decide to do difficult things in front of the public, in order that other people can see and find some strength in their own life, that is your choice. Here, you can’t control it.” Her work has often had a blunt focus on mortality – for her 2002 piece Nude With Skeleton, Abramović adapted the practice of Tibetan monks and lay naked on the gallery floor with a human skeleton on top of her, the bones animated by her breathing. Did that kind of experience help? “It’s very funny,” she said. “I used to think constantly about my own death. I made this opera, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, in which I die seven times on stage. But right now I’m only about living! I don’t want to deal with any skeletons. Yesterday, I made olive bread! I never cook.” How was it? “Not bad. Could be moister. I think my second go will be better. I wake up happy! I’m singing all day.” A big part of that joy was the prospect of coming to London this autumn. Abramović is – incredibly – the first female artist in the 255-year history of the Royal Academy to be given the run of the gallery for a full retrospective exhibition (in 2021, Tracey Emin shared billing with Edvard Munch). As well as that show, Abramović is performing in her Maria Callas opera for the ENO at the London Coliseum, will take over the South Bank centre for four days, is promoting two books and has four guest lectures to deliver. Did she ever think of saying no? “Are you crazy?” she says, with a giggle. “I am 76 years old, 77 in November. What am I going to do? Sit home and wait for my pension?” One of her few irritations was that because of her illness she was unable to fly in a plane, so she had booked on to the Queen Mary 2 for the Atlantic crossing. Last week, I caught up with her again, this time in the grand surroundings of the Royal Academy’s private lounge, decorated with framed lists of academicians’ signatures dating back to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Abramović seemed entirely at home, sipping her tea, a stack of signed posters on the floor beside her, advertising her exhibition. How was the voyage over? “Oh my God,” she says, conspiratorially. “First of all, the ship is incredibly beautiful. Seven days looking at the ocean. Onboard you have 10% young people, who travelled by sea to save the planet, and 90% people probably on their last voyage. I’m not young, but I felt young.” Were you on your own? “I came with my partner [the film producer Todd Eckert]. And it was very romantic. We read books because the internet doesn’t work. Some people dance cha-chacha. There were trivia quizzes. In the evening, they wear tuxedos. Everybody’s very dignified. But then the same people are in shorts next morning – and you don’t want to see that. The worst part is the food. No salt. Because everyone has high blood pressure.” It sounds like a different kind of endurance test? “I was so happy to get on land.” There had been a plan for us to walk round the exhibition as it came together, but a week from opening it is still all cables and crates and health and safety. Abramović is used to drama, but she is having to contain any anxiety about whether all will go to plan. “The British are so relaxed these days. They go home at four, they don’t do weekends…” In the past, Abramović might have been using this time to get in the frame of mind to execute some new extreme act of will (she has an institution in New York that teaches the “Abramović method” to aspiring performance artists, a mix of mindfulness and “consciousness-raising” techniques designed to unleash determination and creativity). She has some surprises planned, but in London she has outsourced the performance of her greatest hits to a troupe of young disciples. They are currently at a retreat with teachers from her institute: “no talking, no eating, just drinking water and tea”. These 42 “re-performers”, actors or graduates of her institute, will recreate several of Abramović’s defining works. They include Imponderabilia – in which a nude man and woman stand either side of the entrance to the show, requiring visitors to decide which way to face when squeezing between them (there is an alternative way in for the faint-hearted) – and Luminosity, in which a naked figure is stationed high on the wall in crucifix-pose, seated on a bike saddle. Abramović performed these pieces for hours on end, but union restrictions here require a rotation of performers. In perhaps the most challenging piece, House With the Ocean View, three women will occupy separate open-sided platforms on the gallery wall, 24 hours a day for 12 days, observing and being observed by the public, without talking, drinking only water. “For that, we have a doctor, we have a psychologist, we have a nutritionist standing by,” Abramović says. “All the stuff I never had when I did it. But they are great performers – people that I trust.” How does she feel about these creations of hers taking on lives of their own? “It’s incredibly emotional for me. I have been criticised in giving permission for other people to redo my work. But I’m proud of it. Because if the other person has charisma the pieces have a new life – and they can live for ever.” It is easy, talking to Abramović, to get involved in the how of her work: the mechanisms for repeating some of these extreme acts. The why of it, as her show reveals, demands questions that are buried in her past. Abramović grew up in communist Belgrade. She was born in 1946, the daughter of parents who had both been famous partisan fighters in Marshal Tito’s army during the war. Some of her character was formed by her formidably strict mother. “I didn’t even know that she was a national hero until she died,” Abramović recalls. “If I had read one page of her diaries while she was alive, my relation with her and my life would be totally different. She wanted to make me a warrior, so I would not suffer as she did. And the only way she knew was this incredible coldness. She never kissed me in my life. If I slept messy, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to make my bed straight. Now when I stay in a hotel people don’t know I’ve used the bed. I lie like this,” she draws her shoulders to attention, “dead straight”. With her parents engaged in Communist party duties, Abramović was raised mostly by her grandmother, who took her to mass every day. “I never played with dolls; I only played with shadows,” she says. “I was a very strange kid.” Observing church rituals, she came to believe that if she could only drink all the water from the font she would become holy. “So I stood on a little chair and drank the water. I got terribly sick for days.” In her teenage years she started to rebel against those strictures of home and church, and against the oppressive state. “I was against everyone: my family, my professors, the government.” She drew and painted obsessively, creating alternative worlds. Her first performance pieces grew out of her involvement in the student protests of the late 1960s; one inspiration was the martyr Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in Prague in response to the Soviet invasion. “Communism was really such a big stamp on my childhood,” Abramović says. “There were images of Tito everywhere. And this five-point [Communist] star. I wanted to burn this image.” For her piece Rhythm 5 in 1974, Abramović traced a star on the ground in wood shavings and set it alight with litres of petrol. She cut her hair and her nails and burned them in the fire and then lay down in the centre of the star. She hadn’t realised that the fire would deplete the oxygen, and she lost consciousness. There was a doctor in the crowd who pulled her out of the flames. A film of that event appears in her show. “There was a little funny story,” she says, looking back. “Because my mother was very strict, I had to be home by 10. So I kind of sneaked to my room after the performance. I looked like hell. I was half burned and my hair was all gone. In the morning, my grandmother was making coffee and breakfast. She was bringing a tray to the table. She looked at me and just dropped everything on the floor.” Abramović was not deterred by that first near-death experience. Her Royal Academy show will also include her infamous piece Rhythm 0, in which the artist laid out 72 objects on a table – “gun, bullet, blue paint, comb, whip, lipstick, perfume, matches, feather, chains…” – along with the instruction that the audience could use them on her as they desired. “I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility.” The performance was designed to test what the public might do with this freedom. What began kindly – she was offered a rose, sprayed with perfume – quickly became darker. Her clothes were ripped from her; one man cut her neck with a blade and tasted her blood; a fight broke out between audience members when someone loaded the gun and held it to her head. The year after that performance, Abramović finally left Serbia when she met her soulmate, the German artist Ulay, while filming a TV programme in Amsterdam. “Half his face had long hair, lipstick, and eyeliner, like a woman” she recalls, “and other half shaved with short hair like a man.” It was love at first sight. The pair worked and lived together for 13 years, including months staying in the Australian outback with Indigenous people; “the happiest of my life”, Abramović says, “when I really started to experience things that the rational mind could not explain.” Famously, she and Ulay had the most dramatic of all breakups. They had long wanted to make a piece involving walking the length of the Great Wall of China. By the time the Chinese authorities granted permission, however, their relationship was on the rocks. They started their walk from either end of the wall, and after three months, when they met in the middle, they split up. In some ways, Abramović says, that solo walk was the hardest thing she ever did, all the time thinking that “the man I loved was going, and our work was over”. She is nothing if not a survivor. One of the books she has coming out this month is Nomadic Journey and Spirit of Places; it collects all the notes and drawings she has made on hotel stationery over half a century of travels. “There were times in India when toilet paper was more expensive than my hotel room, with rats and cockroaches. And then later on it was five-star hotels.” A turning point for her in that particular journey was her contribution to the Venice Biennale of 1997. Balkan Baroque was a response to the horrors of war and ethnic conflict in her native Yugoslavia. She sat for days on top of a huge pile of bloody cow bones in a white dress, and tried and failed to scrub them clean of blood. “It was a protest against war that was dedicated to what was happening in Yugoslavia,” she says now, “but it is an image you could use in Afghanistan, you could use in Iraq, or right now in Ukraine.” Partly because of that work, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, invited Abramović to make a war memorial in Kyiv to remember the massacre and mass burial of tens of thousands of Jews and Romani people by the Nazis at Babi Yar. Abramović created a 40-metre (130ft) wall of black coal embedded with crystals, a symbolic extension of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. When the Crystal Wall of Crying was unveiled in October 2021, the presidents of Germany and of Israel spoke at the ceremony and declared that such atrocities must never happen again. Four months later, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the TV tower 100 metres from the wall was bombed and destroyed. Miraculously, despite continuous shelling of the city, the wall remains intact. Sitting in the Royal Academy lounge, Abramović shows me a message on her phone from the actor Sean Penn, a friend, who is in Kyiv. The picture shows Penn beside the crystal wall, with the message to her that, despite everything, it was being well looked after. Scrolling through her WhatsApp returns Abramović from those horrors to the present. Next up in her pictures is a series that she has had taken for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. She smiles and winces a little at the images of herself wearing wild creations by Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garçons. She finds it “still strange” to be a cover story in a fashion magazine. “When I was young I was so ugly, I had a big nose and funny hair and lots of pimples. I was incredibly shy. But I don’t have those fears now.” We talk a little about that unbelievable fact that hers is the first solo show by a woman within these old walls, and she thinks about some of the female artists who might have gone before her: Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois. She tells me a partly apocryphal story about the great American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. “You know this? When Georgia O’Keeffe was in her 80s, and living in the desert, this beautiful young guy, 27, came and knocked on her little door one night. [One story goes that] he’d had a dream in which God appeared and told him to find Georgia O’Keeffe and look after her. She’s there in Santa Fe, beautiful grey hair, white linen shirt. She invites him in and rumours start that they became lovers. He stays with her until the end and he’s now taking care of the foundation of Georgia O’Keeffe.” I wonder if she has had any God-sent young men on her own doorstep lately? She laughs. “My partner is 21 years younger; not half a century, but not bad.” They have been together for six years. “We met,” she says, “after a really bad divorce from my Italian husband when I nearly died for love – which is why I made this piece about Maria Callas, because she literally died for that bastard Onassis. In my case, the work saved me. But yes I really, really need love. I like just reading a newspaper together. Drinking tea. We have this thing that each evening he reads to me, but he never manages more than three pages because I fall asleep.” That image, I suggest, sounds quite a long way from the extreme passions that seemed to rule her early life. Has she, whisper it, mellowed? One thing that has changed, she says, is that she has learned to listen to the wisdom of her body. “Our mind fucks us up all the time because it is always overthinking,” she says. “Our bodies are wiser.” She gives the example of her epic sitting-still at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for The Artist Is Present in 2010. “I could never do this piece if I was 30 or 40 because I didn’t have this wisdom then,” she says. “I did it when I was 63. After just two or three hours on the first day, the pain was excruciating because I had chosen a chair without arms. I couldn’t even raise my body, my ribs sink down. The pain became tremendous in my back. After some days, I was thinking: if I don’t move I will lose consciousness. But then I said to myself: ‘OK, lose consciousness, so what?’ And then after maybe two months where each day I thought: I cannot go on, there was this incredible moment; my body took over and the pain disappeared as if it had never been there. It was pure elevation of spirit.” Having spent some time in Tibet she must have met many hardcore monks over the years. Had she learned some of that from them? “I never forget the guy I met that lived for 10 years in a cave,” she says. “Some food was brought to him each day, but he saw no human being. When he came out of the cave he returned to the monastery and I was one of the guests there, and they sat me next to him. He didn’t speak one word but it was like sitting next to a fireplace. Indescribable energy. I know that feeling.” Would it not be more fun to try to reach those states through pleasure rather than suffering? She laughs. “I don’t know, but one thing is, I’m more content in my life than I have ever been, after surviving this year. I am changing! For example, I always believed that if you had children you could never really be an artist because you would not have enough energy. And then in the summer I went to see Meryl Streep and her three daughters in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. She was amazing. Such energy. And she had four kids!” And another thing has changed. “If you read the books of art, they say: ‘who made any work of happiness? Nobody. It comes from tragedy.’ But I don’t believe that any more. I want to start making work from happiness.” You never know, I say. It might just catch on.