Marina Abramović interview: 'I see the artist as a servant'

She trained Gaga, danced with Jay Z and had a loaded gun pointed at her in the name of art. Now Marina Abramović is attempting her most daring performance art piece yet: doing nothing

Photo: Marco Anelli © 2014

In 2010, visitors to New York's Museum of Modern Art were confronted by a woman sitting on a chair, behind a simple wooden table. Facing her was a similar, empty chair. People came and sat in the chair, shared some moments of silence with the woman, and then moved on. Day after day she sat there, for 736 hours and 30 minutes in total: no breaks, no trips to the loo, no movement, no words.

This was Marina Abramović's 'The Artist Is Present'. It was a milestone piece, characteristically both confrontational and cerebral, confirming the Belgrade-born iconoclast as not only the queen of performance art, but also as one of the most exciting artists in the world.

Now 67, Abramović has been putting extreme performance into galleries for the last 40 years. She's been stripped, had a loaded gun and a crossbow pointed at her, taken dangerously powerful medical drugs, deprived herself of oxygen, nearly died. She's also inspired Jay Z, who was so taken by 'The Artist Is Present' he made his own (rather briefer) version: a six-hour gallery performance of his song 'Picasso Baby'.

Now Abramović is coming to London to stage another gruelling artistic event at the Serpentine Gallery. Typically for an artist who puts risk at the heart of her work, she has no idea what it's going to be yet. But if anyone can pull off a 512-hour show about 'nothing', it's her.

Photo: Marco Anelli © 2014

Are you nervous about performing in London?
‘Unbelievably so, because you are not an easy audience. You have a great sense of humour and are sarcastic. You want to be entertained and you get easily bored. It’s hell, but I wanted to see how I could get you on my side.’

What is the thinking behind '512 Hours'?
'Recently I discovered an old TV interview from 1989 when I was asked what art in the twenty-first century would be like. I said: "Art without objects that would directly use energy." Now, 25 years later, I finally have the courage to do it. For "The Artist Is Present", I had two chairs and a table and [during the run] I removed the table. Now I'm removing the chairs. I'm trying to see if it's possible to remove structure and instructions and create things out of pure energy.'

What will that actually consist of?
'When I remove everything, what is left? The present is left, and in the present a lot of things can happen. It will be different every day. There is a great expression, "In the river you can never wash your hands in the same water", and that's exactly what's going to happen.'

Why do this in London?
'In England, art is a commodity and everything is so expensive. Do we need all these things? Can we do something only with energy?'

What do you want people to feel?
'I want people to come to me open and vulnerable. When they come to the gallery they have to leave their watches, their computers, their Blackberrys, iPads, iPhones, because we are so incredibly used to technology and I wanted to remove that.'

'I'm a great chocolate eater'

Will you be opening the gallery each day?
'Yes. I like this idea of museum as a home. In an early performance called "Imponderabilia" [1977], [former partner and collaborator] Ulay and I stood naked and people had to go between us to get into the museum. Now I am literally opening the museum at 10am and closing it at 6pm.'

How do you prepare for these feats of endurance?
'I prepare a lot. For "The Artist Is Present" it took me a year to teach my body not to produce acids. For this performance I've been going to shaman retreats to learn about energy transfer and I'm also on an isogenic diet because I have to lose all my fat so I will be fit. I'm a great chocolate eater.'

Your work uses spiritualism and very strict discipline. Where does that come from?
'My mother and father were partisan national heroes: I learned sacrifice and discipline from them, and that a private life is not as important as the message you want to leave. I grew up with my grandmother because my parents were making careers and didn't have much time for me. She was a highly religious Serbian Orthodox, spending most of her time in church. It's a great mix and I use all these elements in my work.'

© Scott Chasserot

You've referred to yourself as the 'grandmother of performance art'.
'I said it in fun and now everybody uses it. Can we invent some other terms, like "warrior" or "soldier"?'

I was going to call you a 'doyenne'.
'Yes, just don't say "grandmother". Oh my God!'

As a doyenne, then, does it make it easier to create work now that you're accepted?
'It's much harder, my dear. Every time you have to be more radical. "512 Hours" looks so simple, but it's very hard: to go to the Serpentine every day for eight hours and try to fill this space with energy and involve people. Maybe it will work and maybe it won't. It's important to take this risk because so many artists make the mistake of finding their signature which they just repeat. The older I get [the more] I want to push the borders even further.'

People make pilgrimages to see you; they queue for hours. Have you broken your own manifesto rule that an artist should not become an idol?
'I don't believe that I am an idol. There are lots of artists who believe they are idols: their egos are higher than the Himalayas, but my ego is not. I'm humble and I'm vulnerable and I'm accessible to everybody. I see the artist as a servant. I don't think I'm the greatest human being on the planet. I love that sentence from Woody Allen: "Today I'm a star, tomorrow I'm a black hole."'

'Oh, baby, I don't have a personal life!'

How did your collaboration with Jay Z happen?
'He said he was influenced by "The Artist Is Present" and wanted to recreate something with rapping. I accepted because it's interesting for me to break taboos. When you're a visual artist you're not allowed to do anything with pop music or fashion. I don't accept any of these taboos.'

You also helped Lady Gaga give up smoking.
'She had to give up. I did teach her the Abramović Method. She's a great student: really focused and smart.'

You devote yourself to your art. How does that affect your life? Finding Mr Right, for example?
'Oh, baby, I don't have a personal life! I'm so non-marriage material, you can't believe. It's a sacrifice in terms of children and family, and it's completely necessary if you want to do what I'm doing.'