Marina Abramovic

We meet the bold Serbian artist for an interview and covershoot in advance of Frieze Art Fair 2010

© Scott Chasserot

You wanted to tell me a story about rats?

'It's really a metaphor for the entire Balkan War. I met this Serbian ratcatcher who told me that rats never kill members of their own family, so he developed this method of making a "wolf rat". He puts 40 male rats in a cage with only water to drink and eventually they eat each other, until only one is left. Then he takes the wolf rat's eyes out with a knife and lets him free, completely out of his mind, to kill every rat in his path.'

Are animals – such as hawks, lambs, rats – important to your work?

'I work with symbols, so everything is important. The hawk recalls old-fashioned ideals of heroism, sacrifice for the cause and being a proud warrior. I use snakes a lot, which have become a symbol of evil in Christianity, but are very important in Asia. The Chinese liken the Great Wall of China to a dragon.'

When you set out to walk from one end of the Great Wall of China to meet Ulay in the middle in 1988, you didn't know that it would mark the end of your personal and working partnership, did you?

'No, because it took us eight years to get permission, so we didn't want to give up. I didn't talk to him for seven years after that, but now I don't even remember why I was so angry at him. It was a very intense relationship.'

Interview: Ossian Ward

See Marina's London shows

  • Frieze Art Fair 2010

    Critics' choice Until Sun Oct 17, Regent's Park

    Marina will be showing at stand B7 at the Fair.

  • Marina Abramovic

    FreeCritics' choiceLast chance Until Sat Nov 13, Lisson Gallery

    Major showing of work by the influential and confrontational artist, whose performances challenge her own body's physical and psychologic...