If you’re not totally sick of the Marina Abramović news cycle, check out Carl Swanson’s excellent profile of the performance artist for The Cut. Swanson spent a number of days with Abramović at her upstate New York home, and his remarkably transparent reporting comes off as both slightly barbed and intimate–his description of her personality is hilarious and telling, “[she is] a kind of shambolic mother goddess cloaked in a New Age self-help aura, her public image hovering somewhere between those of Joni Mitchell and Oprah, or perhaps Melisandre from Game of Thrones.”
Swanson reminds us that a mere 10 years ago, at age 60, Abramović was not nearly as well known. Unfortunately, what she had to say about her critics and celebrity blasts any possibility of a generous reading out of the water. Read Swanson in partial below, in full via New York Magazine.
MAI as Koolhaas conceived it was expensive to build — over $30 million. And it turned out that the old theater is full of asbestos, which will cost over $700,000 to fix. To pay for her legacy, she started to leverage her celebrity. She invited Lady Gaga up to be filmed doing the “slow-walking exercise” before the cameras. She contracted with Jay Z to appear in his “Picasso Baby” video in return for a donation to MAI. After she participated in the “Picasso Baby” video, her face pressed up against Jay Z’s, she complained to a website that he’d “used” her and not given MAI the donation he’d promised (he had, but her staff hadn’t realized that the money was from him). Some in the art press turned on her. The New York Times’ Roberta Smith called The Artist Is Present “cheesy.” Hyperallergic — a bomb-throwing art website very critical of her — called her, among many other things, an “aloof elitist.” Abramovic began to seem like a symptom of something larger that had gone wrong.
“You criticize me for being a celebrity,” she says. “It’s not my fault. You make me a celebrity and then you criticize me for it. This all happened out of nowhere.” Kelly explains that Abramovic doesn’t always understand how people see her: He likens her to a “little girl” whom some people feel instinctively protective of and others, well, have less generous reactions to. “It’s all driven by a desperate need to be loved,” says Kelly. “The whole ball of wax.” Because of this she has found “superhuman” strength, of the type most of us might tap into only in an emergency or accident. “She’s a warrior … She doesn’t go home at night and flip a switch and watch the Kardashians. Her life is seamless. And part of that imperative is that she has always exposed herself not just physically, by taking her clothes off, but psychologically.”
The memoir is the latest manifestation of that. It’s also likely to renew the debate about how the art world should see her. “There’s going to be huge reaction to this book, I’m sure,” Abramovic says. “The book is not meant for the art public. It’s meant for the general public. You don’t have to know anything about performance art; it’s accessible.” It was excerpted in Vogue, but the real reason many people have already heard of it is that controversial Aborigine passage. She finds the reaction — Hyperallergic’s coverage of the controversy deployed the hashtag #TheRacistIsPresent in its headline — “incredibly politically correct. I don’t know if you should write about it because they told me not to talk about it at all. But that hurts me so much. You have no idea. If you read in the context of it, it really changed my life, it was such an important experience,” being with the Aborigines. “And they just took it out of context.”
The book was written — spilled out, really — with James Kaplan, also the author of a two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra and another volume with Jerry Lewis. When she was introduced to him, Abramovic tells me, “I thought, I cannot be in better company. Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, and me. I love it.” Kaplan deftly preserves the vigorous, grousing poeticism and won’t-let-it-go intimacy of her nonstop self-narration. The memoir is really close to what it’s like to spend a weekend with her: Abramovic is funny, generous, and vituperative, a raconteur and comedian and the sometimes sad-sack hero of the epic tale of her mad life. In the end, these stories tend to involve triumphing over various people who get in her way. “You know, when I think backward at my life, when I think back to the early ’70s, the amount of bad criticism, the amount of shitty statements about art were overwhelming, and if I listened to them I would never be able to make my work.” Don’t get her started on Roberta Smith’s line. “She used the word cheesy. That really stung in my heart. You can say anything about my work, but you fucking can’t say it’s cheesy. It really got me. And then this racism thing: Everything you can say about me, that I like fashion and I’m a phony … but you can’t say these two things.”
*Image of Marina Abramovic via the New Yorker