Marina Abramovic Is Still Pushing Buttons and Limits

Performance art at its absolute finest: Abramovic’s works make you feel.

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What gives shivers to the famously provocative artist? The idea of retirement.

“Don’t look away!” exclaims performance artist Marina Abramovic as she pushes my face toward her iPad screen. Just back from a 4-year sojourn working on a new project based in Brazil, she is showing me the trailer of a film she made about her travels that includes, for one thing, some unsettling, graphic shots of a human eyeball.

Audience discomfort is nothing new to Ms. Abramovic, 67, who is known for her shocking performances and propriety-pushing shows. In a retrospective of her work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010, for instance, visitors were invited to brush up against nude performance artists in close quarters. Ms. Abramovic wasn’t nude herself, but she participated in the show by sitting perfectly still in MoMA’s grand atrium and staring straight into the eyes of visitors who lined up to sit across from her.

Many in the art world questioned whether she’d be able to top it. After that show, she said, everyone thought, “‘That is the end of her career. She’s going to retire.’ ” But she says that she has no plans to call it quits. “You say ‘retire,’ and it makes me shiver.”

This week, she opened her first solo show in New York since the MoMA exhibit—“Generator,” at the Sean Kelly Gallery. Set up in an enclosed library at the Chelsea gallery, this exhibit, she says, will involve even more risk-taking than her last. Influenced by performances earlier in her career that featured physical contact and the idea of energy transfer between strangers, Ms. Abramovic decided to focus here on sensory deprivation.

At “Generator,” which runs until Dec. 6, visitors enter an empty space wearing blindfolds and headphones, so they can’t see or hear. The experience is meant to heighten their other senses and force them to slow down—an antidote to the fast pace of modern life.

Ms. Abramovic will participate in the exhibition and interact with visitors, but on an irregular and unannounced schedule. Only 68 people will be allowed in the room at a time. Ms. Abramovic says that the installation is a statement about the loss of human contact. “It’s quite radical,” she says. “It could totally fail, but the real failure would be if I stop believing in myself, that I can do it.”

A few weeks before the show, she was fasting in preparation. She’s put her body through harder tests before, such as when she tested the limits of human violence in her 1974 work “Rhythm O,” a performance art piece in which she laid out 72 instruments for pleasure and pain and asked the audience to use them on her. (She ended up with a few minor cuts and scrapes.) On her fifth day without solid food, she was swallowing vitamins and drinking raw milk. “This morning, I was kind of screaming with no reason,” she says. “It’s not easy, but it’s a very good feeling, and your skin becomes like a baby’s.”

Born in Belgrade, Serbia, to a father who was a World War II commander and later a national hero, and to a mother who was an army major and director of the Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade, Ms. Abramovic says that she has always felt more immune to pain and fear than most. “I think it’s in the DNA,” she says. “My entire childhood was like, ‘Who cares about your private [stuff]? You have to sacrifice for the cause.’ ” She went on to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, and then earned a postgraduate degree in Zagreb, Croatia, before her first solo performances in the early 1970s.

Early on, she remembers that it was difficult to get representation from a gallery since, as a performance artist, she wasn’t actually selling anything. Finally, Sean Kelly, who is still her dealer, agreed to represent her. She makes money through selling artworks such as photographs of her performances.

What makes her interested in pushing boundaries? “I was born that way,” Ms. Abramovic says. “You know how you know you’re an artist? It’s like breathing, it’s a necessity…but that doesn’t make you a great artist. It just makes you an artist.”

She thinks that being a great artist requires “total sacrifice of everything and loneliness.” Has she done that? “Look at me!” she exclaims with a laugh: Ms. Abramovic is currently single—she is divorced and has no children—and spends much of her time traveling. She divides people into two classes: “originals” (like herself) and “those who follow.” “I’m interested,” she says, “in originals.”

Ms. Abramovic hopes to make an impact beyond the art world. She points out that she has been listed on Time’s list of its 100 most influential people. “Artists come and go, but here my work influences people who are not necessarily dealing with art at all, and that’s when art becomes life,” she says.

This morning, I was kind of screaming with no reason.

—Marina Abramovic

To solidify her legacy and methods, she is in the process of raising $20 million to build a Marina Abramovic Institute in Hudson, N.Y. Some of that money has come already from Kickstarter donations, including more than 1,000 people who gave a dollar for a hug from Ms. Abramovic. On a recent weekend, she gave out 600 hugs in Brooklyn. She hopes to raise the rest of the money from public and private donors. Her goal is to make the institute a “new Bauhaus” (the early-20th century German art school combining architecture, applied arts and design). She says that its purpose is to “lift the human spirit,” and she hopes that it will become an exhibition and educational space for mixing art, technology and science.

At the institute, she says, she will teach “the Abramovic Method,” which includes tasks such as cleaning the house, fasting while enduring difficult mental exercises and taking an hour to write your name on a piece of paper. “The best students are those who can’t even finish their name in an hour,” she says. Her institute would endure, she says, and “at least [my] good ideas will have a long life.”

In just over two years, Ms. Abramovic notes, she will turn 70. “Do you know how serious this age is?” she asks with a laugh. But she doesn’t shy away from getting older—when she turned 60, she celebrated with a birthday gala at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

What will she do for her 70th? “Something crazy,” she says. “I think I want to pole dance.”

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