Marina Abramović Is Present — and Connected

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At 23, Marina Abramović lay on a table and invited the public to do what they wanted to her. Various objects and implements sat at the ready: flowers, a feather boa, a knife, a pistol. The first attendees were shy. But soon enough, someone cut off her clothes. Another pushed the thorn of a rose into her flesh. The gun was aimed at her head. After six hours, Abramović says, she rose, battered and bloodied, and limped out, with a kind of terrible knowledge about the harm that humans will inflict on one another.

Some 40 years later came a different kind of experiment. In “The Artist Is Present,” a three-month-long performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Abramović sat for eight hours a day in a simple chair. Opposite her, a few feet away, sat strangers, who had waited hours to sit down opposite the stern-looking Serbian with jet-black hair and “exchange energy” in the longest, and perhaps most demanding, ongoing performance work ever mounted in a museum. It consisted of nothing more than eye contact between strangers — and, as Abramović recounts in a TED Talk that will co-premiere on OZY today, it changed her life.

Watch Marina Abramović’s TED Talk — click above.

“When you give the public things to harm, the public can actually harm. But if you give them things to make them better, they will become better,” she told OZY in an interview last week. The connection she witnessed in that chair turned her on to the ever-growing “need of people to actually experience something different” in a world in which online networks and electronic devices have in some ways isolated us from ourselves. And so Abramović’s latest, and most ambitious, experiment invites her audience to discover themselves as never before — in a kind of culture spa where visitors purify themselves for six hours before experiencing “immaterial” art.

Abramović’s fears, as well as her hunger for a connection, originate in her youth in postwar Yugoslavia, where her parents gave her a first-rate education in the arts but not a loving childhood. She found love in 1975, at age 28, in the form of a tall, flamboyant artist named Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen). Sparks flew during their first encounter, the married Abramović wound up staying in Ulay’s bed for 10 days and the two artists quickly became lovers and collaborators. Abramović put aside the implements of pain (and her first husband) in favor of love and trust, albeit with an often pointed edge, as in the pair’s famous collaboration “Rest Energy,” in which the two pulled on opposite sides of a drawn bow and arrow, the arrow aimed straight at Abramović’s heart. Her early work with Ulay, says Peggy Phelan, a performance-art expert at Stanford University, demonstrates a “commitment to performance as a way of understanding love and power that remains … unsurpassed in the history of live art.”

Truth and Dare, Session 1, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

Source James Duncan Davidson/TED

Since her split from Ulay in 1988 — the pair broke up by walking thousands of miles toward each other, in China, for a final goodbye — Abramović has embarked on a new stage of her career. As her fame has grown, she has become as much art celebrity as artist, one whose ambit now includes the likes of Jay Z, Lady Gaga and James Franco. Gone are the days of putting herself in grave danger with “no security apparatus,” says Phelan, replaced with a “fundamentally different kind of event,” like the one in the MOMA atrium, which had ample security.

Abramović’s evolution has not dulled her ambition. Her chair-inspired insights have sparked plans for a 33,000-square-foot center in Hudson, N.Y., designed by Rem Koolhaas. The Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) represents not only a chance to cement her own artistic legacy but also to give back to her audience in a more permanent fashion than the all-too-transient performance world typically allows. Still, the MAI is fundamentally about immateriality. Visitors, who must pledge to stay six hours and don white lab coats, will make their way through a series of exercises, from counting rice grains to sipping water, designed by Abramović to help them restore simplicity in their own lives.

On the surface, such a cultural spa seems a long way from Abramović’s own staged encounters with the razor’s edge. If confronting fear and loneliness requires a sharp instrument, is it sufficient for the rest of us to be threatened with the absence of our phones? Of course, being true to your art is about more than placating the purists. James Westcott, a biographer of Abramović as well as a former assistant, says she has always seen herself as public property, more like a shaman or priest — with the MAI now as her temple — and she is not one to put her followers in the same danger she would place herself. “As long as she can get people to an elevated state of consciousness,” says Westcott, “it doesn’t matter if the methods aren’t as extreme or as personal as they were for her back in the ’70s.”

Abramović, in her way, is in accord. Artists exist not just to answer questions but also to “give you a different vision,” she told OZY — including finding connection and beauty and love right in front of you. “Ultimately, my message is very simple,” she says. “The only way to change the world is to change the self.”

— Pooja Bhatia contributed reporting.

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