Seb Jarnot's illustration of Marina Abramovic
© Seb Jarnot

Belgrade, early 1970s. A young woman leaves the cavernous flat where she lives with her mother. She heads to the city’s underground art scene, where she creates her performances. She is already well known there. She does her thing — cuts her body, sits for hours in agony, burns or asphyxiates herself, invites strangers to degrade her, pushes her endurance beyond limits. Her small audience applauds, enthralled. Then she hurries back, anxious to be home for her 10pm curfew. If she is late, her mother will beat her until more blood flows. She is 29 years old.

Reading such stories about the early life of the acclaimed performance artist Marina Abramovic in her recent memoir, Walk Through Walls, makes me a little nervous about our lunch date. I’ve spent a couple of days immersed in the wildly extraordinary story of someone who has, in the creation of her immaterial, transformative, time-based art, inflicted on herself more physical and psychological tortures than I can possibly imagine. And even when the clothes are on and the knives are safely stowed, she can be dangerous: in 2010 the artist’s celebrated performance involved nothing more than sitting on a chair and inviting strangers to sit in silence in front of her, staring for many minutes on end into her unmoving eyes. Around 750,000 people queued up — sometimes round the clock — for “The Artist is Present” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art over the course of three months: many were reduced to tears by the intensity of the experience.

You’re a professional person, I tell myself sternly as I head to En Japanese Brasserie on Hudson Street in the West Village. You are a grown-up. You are not to cry.

But it is nothing like that. Settling myself in a sunny window on a quiet New York Saturday opposite the slightly magnified, powerful features I know well from watching clips of her performances — smooth face with a strident nose, piercing but luscious dark eyes, long jet-black hair, the slash of a brilliant curvy red mouth above the plainest of black sweaters — I find myself instantly warming to a generous presence that could not be further from the scary images of the videos.

“You must have some of this,” she says straight away, pushing towards me the bowl of warm, pillowy tofu already in front of her. “They make it here in the morning and it’s wonderful.”

It is. It’s like eating a cloud. Comfort food made of thin fragrant air. She is drinking lavender tea — she pronounces it lavANDer — so as the courteous waiter hovers at my shoulder I say I’d like the same. I find it disgusting, like drinking watery soap, and after one sip quietly give up on it.

After a little chat we get to the menu. “Order for me,” I say, “I like everything.” (Mentally excluding the lavender tea.) But when she asks, “Meat or fish?”, I feel a jolt of disgust: I can’t block out a sudden violent flashback to the only other time I have seen Abramovic in the flesh — literally, as it was at the Venice Biennale in 1997, where her Golden Lion-winning performance had her sitting in a sweltering basement on a giant pile of bloody, stinking, maggot-ridden cows’ bones trying to scour the gore off them with a scrubbing brush, hour after hour, day after scorching day — an Augean-stables task intended as a comment on the gruesome war raging in her homeland, but also a personal endurance test that left us spectators half-mesmerised, half-revolted, gasping for clean air.

“I’d prefer fish, please,” I say. I can’t think of any particularly horrible performance of hers involving fish, although there probably is one, and anyway I’m really hoping she’ll choose the black cod.

She does, and we chat about food like a pair of housewives. And as middle-aged women watching their waistlines do, we order just a couple of bowls of miso — why not? — and just one portion of rice between us, quite enough. She is obviously a regular of the restaurant, which is close to her New York home, and a painterly dish of Aburi sea trout appears along with the cod, with the compliments of the house. The cod is just as good as I’d hoped but the fat little slices of sea trout are sublimely delicious, delicately and meltingly raw-pink with a tickly tinge of chilli and an unexpected thwack of garlic that seems to chime with the power of the personality in front of me. They definitely do know her here, I think.

“Now that I’m nearly 70 — 70!” she says, “I just want to be hilarious. Tell jokes. In my country, jokes are always about survival. Heavy.” She tells me one. It’s very silly.

I feel I’m seeing double, as if I’m watching a movie through a cheap pair of 3D glasses. In front of me, this warm and intriguing woman is chatting to me as if we’re old friends; in my head, the vivid memory of a passage in her book where she describes one of her performances, a variation on a Slav drinking game in which you spread your fingers out on a table and stab down between them with a knife, faster and faster, and every time you cut yourself you have another drink, so you drunkenly cut yourself even more. Abramovic’s still more extreme version featured tape recorders of her groans of pain and blood-spattered sheets of paper, and was followed by something that could serve as a mission statement for her whole artistic practice: “I had experienced absolute freedom — I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn’t matter, that nothing mattered at all — and it intoxicated me. That was the moment I knew that I had found my medium. No painting, no object I could make, could ever give me that kind of feeling, and it was a feeling I knew I would have to seek out, again and again and again.”

No psychiatrist could ever need a more eloquent description of masochism — but suddenly the chatty and friendly Abramovic in front of me in the sunshine is saying: “Shall we have something sweet? They have a beautiful panna cotta here.”

In her heavily accented, husky voice, she continues: “What I want to do when I’m 70, I want to enjoy every day like a god-present from the sky — because it’s been hard, often hard, though I have learned so much.”

And you’ve pushed yourself extremely hard, I suggest. I don’t need to say I’m thinking of the extremes of discipline, endurance and deprivation at the basis of her transgressive, transformative works — and her belief that this kind of art can conquer the needs of the body and therefore transcend time itself.

Tell me about willpower, I say.

Urgently now, and with sudden seriousness, she replies: “It is so important to get out of your comfort zone, to understand yourself. That’s how you find a new self.

“But I wanted to be inspirational, too, to say, ‘You know, if I can do it, you can do it, too — you’re the one that makes your destiny’. Especially for women, to stop blaming yourself — which we do so well. To stop being the victim.” The straightforward confessional style of the book — which was ghost-written by the American author James Kaplan — will prove an inspiration to younger women, I suggest. But clearly the reviews have touched a raw nerve.

“A few days ago I woke up and I looked at the Guardian and I read the critic saying that my work was honest, remarkable. Then I read the New York Times, who said the complete opposite. Oh my god, did you see that one? This guy said I was pretentious, outrageous, masochist — completely pretentious and fake.

“My life has always been too hot or too cold, never in between, and these two articles were exactly like that.

“I tried to be straight in the book because I think it’s very important not to have anger, not to be judgmental, looking back just saying, this is my memory, and to see how it was for me. Five years ago it would have been too hard for me — my second husband really broke my heart but I had to deal with this, and now it’s the right time.”

The end of her marriage to the Italian artist Paolo Canevari marked another moment of sadness in her life story, and her face still clouds as she mentions him. Being alone — she candidly admits that she chose work over motherhood, and had three abortions — brings thoughts of a solitary future.

“You know, it’s the last phase of your life, and you have to be ready. I’ve been dealing with the idea of dying every single day since I was 17 — it makes you see what’s really important, that what is now is now.”

We’re interrupted by the arrival of the wincingly sugary chestnut-topped panna cotta. It’s clear she has a very sweet tooth. Which shouldn’t be surprising given one of her performances involved eating a kilo of honey with a silver spoon. During this two-hour performance she also lay down naked on a cross made of ice blocks and cut a five-pointed star on her stomach with a razor blade. Of course, what I really want to do is ask about her stomach and the scars. As well as the ravages from all the other tortures she has put her body through over the years. But the mood seems too light for that and instead I say, “You have very beautiful skin.” Which is absolutely true: she has a face that looks decades younger than her chronological age. “I’ve never drunk alcohol,” she replies, “and drugs never interested me. I had other forms of . . . ”

“Extremism?” I suggest.

She smiles, and tells me about the month-long retreats in India she takes at least once or twice a year, fasting for days on end. I remember that the students she now takes on her Abramovic Method courses are required to start off, before anything else, with a five-day fast. Still licking the delicious remains of my panna cotta I ask, Isn’t that, perhaps, a bit tough for them? For the first time she looks at me a little witheringly. “It’s really not hard,” she says simply. “You get used to it.”

Abramovic seems to be someone from whom trouble and controversy is never far. She has recently lost a painfully public lawsuit over royalties brought by her former lover and collaborator, the German artist known as Ulay, with whom she shared her life and her work for more than a decade. This particular pre-election Saturday lunchtime brings more trouble: she is being viciously trolled over a WikiLeaks revelation mini-row that has erupted about her hosting of a “spirit supper” that included a close associate of Hillary Clinton among the guests. It has escalated into “Clinton camp linked with satanic rituals” headlines and a level of poisonous abuse towards the artist herself that would floor most mortals. But she passes me her phone to show me one vile message after another: “I’m quite used to abuse,” she says. “But oh my god, we have had 24 hours of this, it’s everywhere now — I am the witch . . . I do the satanic cooking, I had abortions, everything . . . These people . . . 

“I’m leaving for London tonight, I’m so glad.”

And miss the election? I ask.

“Oh yes,” she says. “Can you believe that 50m people have already voted for Trump? This country is deeply racist, deeply racist.”

A passionately political strain has run through her work since her youth in a then-Communist Belgrade, though she was born to Serbian parents who lived in relative comfort, and was allowed to travel as her reputation grew. Work, and Ulay, drew her to make Amsterdam home for many years, but New York has been her base for the past decade.

The magnet here is the richness of the city’s art scene, which is underlined as suddenly, in a flurry, she wants to go and see a show by Ai Weiwei that has just opened nearby. “I hear he’s doing something that’s extremely similar to something I wanted to do,” she says with a glint of competitiveness. I am happily swept up into the plan as we meet her collaborator Lindsay and set off, now giggling in the back of the taxi like a trio of schoolgirls, swapping more and more unprintable quips about the supposed satanic suppers. It is, I begin to see, her release and her defence.

After the exhibition, in the street outside the gallery, Abramovic says goodbye to me with a warm hug. A passer-by, recognising her, is rewarded with a 1,000kW smile when he says, simply: “Thank you for your work.”

In the coming year, important museum shows from Stockholm to Shanghai and Doha could cause many thousands more to feel the same. She wouldn’t be drawn on exactly what they will contain but, as her 70th birthday passes, I think we can be sure that although she may have given up on slashing her belly, there will be plenty of cut and thrust.

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

Illustration by Seb Jarnot

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article