Published November 20, 2014
It's taken her 40 years, but performance artist Marina Abramovic says she's learned to relax the iron self-control that's at the heart of her craft.
The Belgrade-born artist best known for her piece "The Artist Is Present," which in 2010 saw her sit silent and motionless for 736 1/2 hours opposite a parade of strangers at New York's Museum of Modern Art, said a thirst for novelty pushed her to relinquish control to two movie directors.
"If you always control all points of view it's always the same," Abramovic told The Associated Press in an interview in Rio de Janeiro, where she's promoting two documentaries about her life and four decade-long career.
"Bob Wilson's Life and Death of Marina Abramovic," by director Giada Colagrande, chronicles the staging of a play loosely based on Abramovic's traumatic childhood at the hands of an abusive and tyrannical mother. Matthew Aker's "Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present" examines the 2010 MoMA piece that drew more than 750,000 spectators to watch her do nothing.
Both movies, playing at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, feature extensive footage from her performances and candid interviews with the artist.
"Artist Is Present" is the more intimate of the two films, with footage of Abramovic's early, self-flagellating pieces from the 1970s and interviews with her champions, friends and old lovers.
"Contractually, I couldn't be involved at all in the actual film, beyond receiving the crew in my house at six in the morning, with no makeup on, even when I was sick and throwing up," said the 65-year-old Abramovic, whose smooth, striking face belies her years. "I had to not really care about 'how do I look,' and trying to control the image part and all that."
First-time filmmaker Akers racked up more than 600 hours of rushes, including moving footage of legions of ardent Abramovic fans who lined up outside MoMA for hours or even days for the chance at taking a seat opposite the Sphinx-like artist. Staring into Abramovic's dark eyes, a surprising number of her "sitters," as they were known, broke down into tears.
When she and Akers met through a mutual acquaintance and launched into the documentary a few months before the MoMA show, he was "a total disbeliever in performance" art, Abramovic said. "He didn't believe it could be considered any kind of art. I believe so much in the power of performance I don't want to convince people. I want them to experience it and come away convinced on their own."
In "Life and Death," Abramovic relinquishes control not to one director, but to two, respected theater director Robert Wilson and filmmaker Colagrande.
"Theater is something that as a performance artist you have to hate," on the grounds that acting is based on artifice while performance art hinges on its veracity and carnality, she said. "But I thought it would be a perfect way to get away from myself and free myself from the pain."
She surrendered "complete control" to Wilson, handing over old journals and diaries as fodder for his poetic staging of her biography.
The play, which stars Abramovic playing her authoritarian mother, and Willem Defoe of "The English Patient," was commissioned by the Manchester International Festival and Madrid's Teatro Real.
"I told him (Wilson) all these terrible stories about myself, about what my mother did to me, my big nose," she said. "Bob took something so personal and turned it into art."
Both the play and the documentary about the play begin with a staging of Abramovic's funeral, which she has said she wants to take place with simultaneous burials in the three cities where she has spent most her life: Belgrade, Amsterdam and New York. No one will be sure which of the three coffins actually contains her remains.
"You can't choreograph death, but you can choreograph your funeral," she said.
"When you get a retrospective or the kind of lifetime achievement awards I've been given recently, you're expected to die," she added, an impish grin spreading across her impeccably made up face. "I'm expecting to stick around a bit longer."
Given the sheer number of projects she is negotiating, Abramovic would have to stay a lot longer. In addition to a foundation in the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro to help foster the next generation of performance artists and a collaboration with actor James Franco, Abramovic says she's doing research for a piece that's to debut in Rio during the next World Cup, which Brazil is hosting.
"I'll be back in 2014," she said. "You won't be able to miss me."