The celebrated performance artist discusses how Australia helped define her creative identity and getting a publicity bump from Lady Gaga.
15 Nov 2012 - 10:21 AM  UPDATED 15 Nov 2012 - 10:21 AM

To meet the Belgrade-born Marina Abramović is like being privy to one of her shows, because as MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach puts it, “Marina is never not performing”. The incredibly well-preserved 65-year-old performance artist and long-term New York resident is most famous for her 2010 MoMA installation, The Artist is Present, a 736-hour and 30-minute stare-fest where she sat Buddha-like peering continuously into the eyes of a member of the public sitting opposite her. The performance is now the basis of a film directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre and it will screen as part of The Brisbane International Film Festival.

I went to places that Australians don't go

Today Abramović is seated in a garden in Venice where she is a juror on the Venice Film Festival jury. Hardly Buddha-like, she is lively and delivers fascinating monologues so you feel you are privy to a very different kind of performance. Toweringly tall and wearing bright red lipstick and designer garb (which she has to return, she points out), she willingly accepts her role as the diva of performance art and presents her own very special opinions on life, the universe and love. Even if in her famous performances she draws on the duress of her horrific childhood by using her own body as a vehicle to push herself beyond physical and mental limits, in person she is far from the tortured artist.

“As I say, the shittier childhood, the better artist you become,” she pronounces of her early life. (She was raised by Communist parents and following her father's departure in 1964, her mother took complete military control, decreeing she had to be home by 10pm until the age of 29.)

Abramović is proud to be the first performance artist on the main Venice Film Festival jury, and this occurred in part because she'd won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the prestigious Venice Biennale art event in 1997. Alongside other jury members (including British actress Samantha Morton, French actress Laetitia Casta and Italian director Matteo Garrone), she stuck out like a sore thumb as she does almost anywhere. This wry observer of human nature was greatly amused when together with her fellow jurors she was stuck in a lift.

“I was very happy because I love movies since always,” she says in her deep authoritative voice and distinctive Slavic way of speaking. “It's interesting our group, because they are directors and actresses, with me as an artist. So the directors look at the technical aspects, the actresses look at the acting and I really look at the concept. For me, concept is everything: what the film means, what is the message. On the first day we didn't know each other and it was very reserved but when we got stuck in the elevator for half an hour, it was the best thing that happened to us because we really got human together.” She stops for a laugh and claps her hands. “It was a very nice experience because one was claustrophobic, one was a smarty, one was afraid and I had a great time. For me these kinds of situations are the best!”

We are actually meeting to discuss her new movie, Robert Wilson's Life and Death of Marina Abramović, based on a play created by Wilson and co-starring Willem Dafoe. Directed by Dafoe's Italian wife Giada Colagrande, it's the kind of performance Australians usually miss as Wilson's visual spectacles are rarely staged here. (The Black Rider played at the 2005 Sydney Festival.) To my mind, works by Wilson and The Wooster Group (founded by Dafoe's ex-partner Liz LeCompte) are two of the most exhilarating experiences in any artform. So hopefully this film will show up at an Australian festival as well. Nobody would love that more than Abramović, who, following her participation in the 1979 Sydney Biennale, together with Ulay (German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, her partner of 12 years), experienced a defining creative moment when spending a year living with Aboriginal tribes in the Australian outback.

“That was the happiest moment in my life,” she pronounces. “I was in the desert with Ulay, but we lived with two different tribes. He lived with the man tribe and I lived with the women. We only were together in the full moon nights; that's how the tribe does it. We make love like crazy and then we go separate again. Then it was incredible. I lived one year without money because we just lived on kangaroos and rats and lizards and honey ants and you don't even want to know what I was eating! The only important thing all day long was sunset and sunrise. I learned so much. I had these amazing out-of-body experiences. There were things I can't even explain rationally. The Aborigines are the only tribes that don't use any drugs at all but they have incredible power of perception, telepathy and so on. It starts with sitting around the fire with the women and we are not talking and they are talking to my head and oh my God, I am going crazy. I woke up in the morning and I was happy just being alive and being connected to the landscape. I went to places that Australians don't go. I have been at Lake Disappointment [in Western Australia] where there's only water every seven years.

“The outback is very strong stuff. This really marked my whole career, life, everything after that, because I learned so much and I started to understand I had a purpose. What is my purpose? I am an artist and whatever I experience I have to transmit it to the public. This is what I have been doing ever since. Then I went to Tibetan culture and over 25 years I was learning from Tibetan monks. I am going now for three months to Brazil, because Shamanism is another incredible thing. I am working with an immaterial form of art; it's not about touch. It's all about energy and you don't learn about energy in our shitty culture, which is completely technological. We are so busy with all this stuff and gadgets, we don't understand how that works and they know. So, my function as an artist it's to go there, to get knowledge and come back and transmit it. That's all I do.”

Following her Australian outback experience, Abramović and Ulay produced Nightsea Crossing, a series of 22 performances that took place in different locations around the world between 1981 and 1987 with the pair facing each other for 7 hours while sitting motionless in a state of tranquillity at either ends of a table.

“We first performed at a gallery in New South Wales and this was the beginning of The Artist is Present, actually. It happened in Australia,” she says.

Currently Abramović, in her own inimitable style, is attempting to raise $15 million to establish the world's first school of performance art in an old theatre she has bought in Hudson in upstate New York.

“I don't want to raise money just sitting and having endless lunches with rich people, which would drive me crazy,” she asserts. “I am doing personal fundraising which means I am not sending emails; I am going to young people. They have to look in my eyes and say no,” she laughs. “To me, the no is just the beginning!

“My public generally is very young, which I am so happy about. The one person who really helped me in reaching the extremely young public is Lady Gaga. She came to MoMA to see The Artist is Present and everybody was tweeting, 'Lady Gaga is in the museum, Lady Gaga is in the museum'. I never met her. I still don't know her. We are having emails to have lunch one day without paparazzi but it didn't happen yet. Anyway, after that every kid of 15, 16, 17, 20 all ran to the museum. So it was full! They would never go to a museum these kids, ever! So they went to the museum to see Lady Gaga but they also went to see my show on the sixth floor. So Lady Gaga left and they started coming back and they became my audience, which is wonderful.”

The Artist is Present screens at the Brisbane International Film Festival on Thursday November 15 and Sunday November 24. Visit the official website for more information.