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Artist Marina Abramović: ‘I have to be like a mountain’

March 21, 2010

Now 63, the grande dame of 1970s performance art is spending three months in silent vigil at at New York’s Moma alongside a major new retrospective of her work. James Westcott sits down to see if he can hold her gaze

Marina Abraomvic, left, with a visitor in The Artist is Present at Moma

Frail yet ferocious … Marina Abramović gazes at a spectator in her three-month performance piece, The Artist Is Present. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

Last week, the 63-year-old queen of performance art Marina Abramović, dressed in a flowing dark-blue dress, and looking extremely pale, sat down at a small table in the towering atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She will be there, motionless and silent, every day during museum opening hours for the next three months. This is the duration of her retrospective, The Artist Is Present – the first career survey Moma has ever given to a performance artist – which is taking place concurrently up on the sixth floor. In the atrium, Abramović is making the title of her exhibition literal. And members of the public can share in her presence by sitting in the empty chair opposite her and engaging in silent eye contact for as long as they want, or as long as they can.

“I have to be like a mountain,” the artist told me a couple of days before going into her “big silence” for the performance. She will go home every evening when the museum closes, but, in order to sustain her meditative state, she will not speak until 31 May. “The atrium is such a restless place, full of people passing through. The acoustics are terrible – it’s too big, too noisy. It’s like a tornado. I try to play the stillness in the middle.”

While I was talking to her, Abramović was anything but still. Her habitual anxiety and jovial hyperactivity – so different to the formidable power and placidity she has demonstrated in 40 years of extreme acts of endurance – were in overdrive. “People don’t realise it is pure hell sitting so long,” she said in her thick Serbian accent, while fidgeting. Cramps will set in after an hour or so. Her bum will begin to hurt. But she will ride out the pain. “The concept of failure never enters my mind,” she insists. To insure against it, a masseuse, a nutritionist and a personal trainer will visit her apartment before and after each day’s work.

Read more at: ‘I’m the stillness’

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