For Her Next Piece, a Performance Artist Will Build an Institute
By SARAH LYALL
In the name of art, she has hung naked on a wall and carved into her own stomach with a razor. She has masturbated in a museum; scrubbed at a pile of bloody, maggoty bones in a fetid basement; stood still while strangers put a gun to her head and stabbed her with thorns; and, in her best-known work, sat silently for seven hours a day, six days a week, as a succession of people lined up to bask in her aura at the Museum of Modern Art.
And now, Marina Abramovic, the celebrated performance artist, is embarking on perhaps the most ambitious project yet of her outrageous, audacious four-decade career. In the small town of Hudson, N.Y., she plans to construct a high temple to long-duration work in performance and other arts, a 33,000-square-foot center called the Marina Abramovic Institute that is to be the culmination of her life’s work: a place, she says, that can be a Bauhaus for our time, a mecca for artists, scientists and thinkers, as well as people willing to put on white lab coats and undergo three hours of mind-and-body cleansing exercises.
The plans reflect the turn Ms. Abramovic has taken in recent years, in a career of two distinct parts. Part 1: Ms. Abramovic, the avant-garde, inward-looking Belgrade-born experimentalist, stretching the boundaries by subjecting herself to punishing physical and mental extremes. Part 2: Ms. Abramovic, the post-MoMA celebrity darling, collaborating with movie, pop and hip-hop stars; posing glamorously on magazine covers; and the subject of a biography, a documentary, an opera and a video game.
All this has not been universally acclaimed. Mistrustful and possibly envious, some performance artists and critics are accusing Ms. Abramovic of cultivating something suspiciously like a cult of personality. She seems so enamored of the spotlight, they say — so caught up in dancing with Jay-Z, doing mind-cleansing exercises with Lady Gaga and hanging out with James Franco — that she is in danger of disappearing down the rabbit hole of her own mythology, betraying not only her own roots but also, perhaps, the true nature of performance art itself.
Performance art refers, broadly, to live experimental pieces that are not theater and that tend to emphasize the direct, unmediated relationship between artist and audience. There are no rules or boundaries to the form. But in the 1970s, when performance art became acknowledged as a legitimate art medium in the United States, many practitioners adhered to the principle that it should never be reperformed or commodified.
Which helps explain why a video of Jay-Z and Ms. Abramovic dancing somewhat awkwardly together at the Pace Gallery in July provoked such disdain across the Internet. “The Day Performance Art Died,” the online art magazine Hyperallergic said in its headline.
Lindsay Zoladz, a writer at Pitchfork, an online music publication, wrote on Twitter: “The video in ‘Infinite Jest’ that entertains you to death has finally come.” While not going that far, some critics say they believe Ms. Abramovic has stepped over some invisible line, from artist to personality.
“I respect Marina a lot in the overall sense, but I think the art world has lost its mind,” said Amelia Jones, a professor of art history at McGill University. “I keep wondering what’s next — is she going to set up her own small country somewhere?”
Such talk barely ruffles Ms. Abramovic, who says her renown has allowed her to fulfill her dream of disseminating her ideas about art and culture to an audience far beyond the narrow confines of the art world.
“When I stood up from the chair, I was changed,” she said in an interview last month, speaking of the moment she rose to her feet at the end of “The Artist Is Present,” her 2010 Museum of Modern Art piece. “I knew long duration was the answer to everything for me. And, with this, came the idea of the institute in the most clear form.”
She added: “Now I understand that my work is not my work anymore. It’s about culture in general, about changing the consciousness of human beings on this planet.”
Seemingly ageless at 66, Ms. Abramovic is just as striking, just as seductive, just as charismatic in person as her work would suggest. In conversation, she leans in close and speaks with an intimate urgency, her voice a low, soft, Slavic-accented purr that brings to mind both Christiane Amanpour and Natasha the Eastern Bloc cartoon spy. She is, by turns, serious and playful, self-aggrandizing and self-aware, earnest and funny. “I know this can sound pretentious,” she said at one point.
Speaking in her office in SoHo, she revealed that her ambition for her new institute is virtually boundless. It will not be a celebration of her work per se, she said, but something greater, a “cultural spa.”
“It’s really about immaterial work, a collaboration between art, science, spirituality and technology,” Ms. Abramovic said. “It’s almost like a new idea of Bauhaus — how the different minds from different fields come together to create some kind of new reality.”
She intends to remove herself from the institute once she builds it. “It’s not about my work,” she said. “It’s about culture itself.”
This is more complicated than it sounds, given that her name will be on the institute, and given how she envisions how the public might experience it. The current thinking is to have visitors pay $75 each and pledge in writing to remain in the building for at least six hours, half of it to be spent undergoing the “Abramovic Method”: three hours of mind-and-body cleansing exercises.
There are people who are deeply skeptical, starting with performance art purists who feel that Ms. Abramovic has betrayed the form by reperforming pieces at all. They have been critical of not just the MoMA show, which included a retrospective of Ms. Abramovic’s career and re-enactments of some early work, but also her 2005 Guggenheim show, “Seven Easy Pieces.”
There, Ms. Abramovic reperformed two of her works and five by other artists, including Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed,” a 1972 piece in which Mr. Acconci sat out of sight beneath a ramp in a New York gallery, masturbating and talking dirty, his X-rated monologue broadcast to visitors above.
Mr. Acconci, who abandoned performance art in the 1980s for sculpture and installations, said in an interview that he believes performance art to be, by definition, ephemeral, that he questions whether it should be done again at all, and that he wonders if building an institute to celebrate the medium even makes sense. “I think what she’s doing is turning performance into theater,” Mr. Acconci said.
“It’s not necessarily her fault that she became a big name,” he added. “But I wonder if, when this person has this glorification, reputation, whatever, they start to become more like a music performer, someone who people gather around and turn into a star figure.”
Klaus Biesenbach, who was the curator of Ms. Abramovic’s MoMA show and is a longtime friend, said the institute was an effort by the artist to redirect the conversation away from herself.
“She is aware of the danger she is in and is looking for another subject and object of her work by redirecting the attention and love, or whatever, not to herself, but to the institute,” he said. Also, he said, if she has celebrity friends, it is because he introduced her to them.
“I don’t think she’s leaving who she was,” he said. “It’s just that this is New York.”
The actor James Franco, who appeared with Ms. Abramovic on the September cover of L’Uomo Vogue and is the subject of a documentary she says she plans to make, said by e-mail that “fame is very seductive” but hardly a sin.
“When she first did it, not many people knew about it, and she was very poor,” he said, speaking of her art. “Now that she has success, critics want her to go back to living in a van?”
This summer, Ms. Abramovic turned to Kickstarter to raise $600,000 for an early phase in the building of the institute, which is being designed by the architects Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu, and which she hopes might open in 2014. Aided by a computer game that allowed participants to perform Abramovic Method-style tasks electronically, like separating and counting sesame seeds and rice grains, and a much-watched video of a sometimes naked Lady Gaga undergoing the method with Ms. Abramovic in Hudson, the effort raised $661,452.
The method, Ms. Abramovic explained, flows from exercises she devised to prepare participants to enact or experience art. Examples include swimming naked in a freezing river, expressing your anger to a tree, spending an hour drinking a glass of water, or walking for four hours in one direction and four hours in another.
At the institute, visitors will be issued white lab coats and ushered from room to room as they follow the method: pressing their bodies against crystals, perhaps, or lying atop a platform, or meditating wearing blindfolds and earplugs. (Should they fall asleep, staff members will wheel them into a rest chamber and leave them there.) After all that, they will be released to experience the institute’s performance spaces, lecture hall, artworks, cafe and library.
Ms. Abramovic says that some of the ideas are “crazy,” but that does not dampen her excitement.
“One idea is to take 250 drops of blood of the most important human beings on this planet who contribute to humanity — in science, technology, writers, filmmakers, whatever,” she said. Once a year, “the most important shaman of that century,” she explained, would energize the blood drops, using the “life force” that connects body to blood.
As she says, the possibilities are endless.
“Artists have to be the servant to society,” she said. She loves the seeming contradiction: creating an institute in her name, but then bequeathing it to others.
“Ego is a huge obstacle to art,” she said.
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For Her Next Piece, a Performance Artist Will Build an Institute