Byline: Hermione Eyre
Marina Abramovic reigns supreme as the queen of painful performance art. She has been inflicting tortures on herself since the 1970s: high points include the 1997 Venice Biennale when she invited visitors to watch her sitting in a fetid basement for four days, while she scrubbed rotting cow bones, wept and sang the Slavic folk songs of her homeland, the former Yugoslavia (she won the Golden Lion for Best Artist). Now, for the first time, she is coming to London, with a show at the Lisson Gallery that will reprise her greatest hits as well as new work. Be prepared for ice blocks, knives, nudity and tears.
Fashionable New York adores Abramovic and this year she ruled the city's art scene with retrospectives at the Guggenheim and MoMA, where she staged a 700-hour performance piece, The Artist is Present, during which spectators - including Isabella Rossellini, Rufus Wainwright, Bjork and Lou Reed - took turns to sit opposite her in a public ceremony described as 'silent opera'. The end of that feat of endurance was celebrated with a Givenchysponsored party (Riccardo Tisci is a great friend) attended by Liv Tyler, Christina Ricci and, of course, the artist-actor-whatever James Franco. Another fan is the magician David Blaine, whose latest project, sealing himself inside a super-sized bottle and casting himself out to sea, con-firms him as a fellow 'ordealist'. He recently called Abramovic 'one of my greatest inspirations'. She is, at 63, a grand dame of the scene, and yet she has never been so hip.
She was a child of President Tito's regime, with both her parents occupying favoured positions in his government. The family home was a grand apartment that had been confiscated from Jews during the Nazi occupation; Marina's mother, niece of the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, was in charge of public art and monuments and was extremely house-proud. 'We were Red bourgeoisie,' Marina has said. She trained as a painter at Belgrade's Academy of Fine Arts (where she met her first husband; they never lived together and divorced in 1977), became radicalised as a student and discovered performance art.
In 1974, the same year Joseph Beuys cohabited with a coyote for three days in a New York gallery, Marina was in Naples, staging a work called Rhythm 0, in which she presented her naked body to a gallery audience along with 72 implements including nails, chains, olive oil, saws, lipstick and guns. For six hours the crowd was invited to do with her 'as they desired'.
Two factions emerged: vandals and protectors. Photographs show her being manipulated like a mannequin, doused in water and, finally, with 'END' written on her forehead in lipstick. But this was only the beginning.
She went on to make art in which she brushed her hair until her scalp bled, danced until she collapsed and screamed until she was hoarse. …