Not even a serious brush with mortality will stop her. A couple of months earlier, she recounts, “I had a very bad operation on my knee. This turned into embolism.” During the recovery period, her doctor forbade her from flying for at least seven months. “And I am the person who takes the plane every three days!” Never one to accept her limitations, the Serbian artist found a workaround to get to London, arriving from New York on the Queen Mary boat, a seven-day trip. “It’s a great thing!” she cheers. “No restrictions on luggage, and I received 20 pages on all the activities they have: Agatha Christie crime games, stand-up comedy, oh, my God! All new, different things for me.”
The retrospective spans pivotal works from her more than 50-year career, including video, sculpture, photography, restagings of her performance art with young creatives, and one new mystery work she will perform (“I am superstitious; I don’t want to jinx it”). “It’s a huge, huge pressure because, as you know, for 255 years, there was no woman in that space,” she says. “Tracy Emin had a show, [but] she had a smaller space, and I think it’s such [an] injustice not to give this great British female artist the big space.” Still, speaking in a deep, vampy voice, Abramović keeps a lively sense of humor and perspective about it all. “I’m older than her, so maybe they want to do a show before I die. This may be the reason why I’m first.” If that is the case, the RA needn’t have felt any sense of urgency. “I’m not planning to go anywhere until I’m at least 103 or 104,” she deadpans.
Below, the doyenne of the art world reflects on bringing the retrospective to life, and the future of performance art.
Vogue: What’s your process when training artists that will restage your performance work?
Marina Abramović: I have to be very strict and rigorous. We bring [the artists] to a place in the countryside and train—I’ll give you one example: opening and closing doors as slowly as possible for three hours. When you do that repetitively, at some point, the door is not a door anymore. It’s a kind of opening of the mind, of the universe; it is completely transformed into something else. You have to experience it, and to experience it, you have to do it—and you have to do it without food. That’s just one of the exercises—never mind counting rice for six hours! I learned these [practices] from Eastern cultures, being with the Tibetan communities, the aboriginals of Australia, the shamans in Brazil. Once you open your mind in this way, then you really achieve something. For The Artist Is Present, I had to train like an astronaut for an entire year not to eat or drink during the day, only during the night, because I couldn’t move during the performance. [You must] change your entire metabolism, because any time you’re hungry, acid forms in your stomach, and you can get headaches. It’s like retraining your body for going into space, probably.