Last week, dozens of people lined up outside the University Art Gallery at UCSD. Some might've been there to experience Marina Abramovi?'s rough draft of an audio installation she created with science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, but most were there simply to catch a glimpse of the famed performance artist herself.
"Is she actually in the gallery?" a young girl in line asks a woman holding a clipboard.
"She's in and out," the woman responds.
The girl's face flushes with disappointment. She really wants to see Abramovi?. She looks unsure if she'll keep her place in line.
Before I can witness the young lady's final decision, I'm ushered to a small office behind the gallery. Abramovi?, a striking figure thanks to her long mane of black hair framing her sharp-featured face, is sitting on a couch, eating from a plate filled with cheese and crackers smuggled in by one of her handlers from the reception in her honor taking place outside.
She's starved, she says, and completely exhausted. Up late the previous night and early again that morning, editing the audio that's currently playing in the gallery, Abramovi? says she's barely had a moment's rest. In fact, she just heard both her piece and Robinson's together for the first time as she sat in the gallery minutes ago. She's already thinking about the many tweaks they'll need to make before the piece plays again at the upcoming Venice Biennale.
Abramovi?'s charisma is immediately evident. Her tractor-beam-like pull on perfect strangers is, in fact, a big part of her recent and dramatic rise to international fame. Even folks outside the art world suddenly know her as the artist who, in 2010, sat inside New York's Museum of Modern Art during the three months that her Artist is Present retrospective was showing and invited museum attendees to sit across from her and gaze silently into her eyes. Many who sat with the artist wept. Others smiled. Everyone emoted in some way. One girl even stripped down naked before getting tossed out by museum security.
The performance piece was a hit. Hundreds lined up for hours to get their chance to look into Abramovi?'s eyes. The MoMA retrospective and the gobs of media attention it garnered catapulted the artist into a brighter spotlight than she had ever experienced before.
"My life was 100-percent changed after that show," Abramovi? says in her thick Slavic accent. "MoMA is such high exposure for any artist. Having a retrospective in MoMA, you're supposed to die after this, because this is the culmination of your career. There is nothing after. It's MoMA, and it's the end. So, everyone was thinking, I make the retrospective and I can go home and go on pension or something, which I didn't."
Instead, Abramovi? became busier than ever, capitalizing on her newfound fame with attention-grabbing solo shows in London and New York and collaborations with megastars like Jay-Z and Lady Gaga.
Since her retrospective, almost every news article that pops up about Abramovi? refers to her as the "Queen of Performance Art" or the "Grandmother of Performance Art." The latter is a title she bestowed on herself years ago as a joke, and she hasn't been able to shake it. If people want to call her something, she'd prefer being known as the warrior or soldier of performance art.
Abramovi? says she's grateful for the extra attention she's received in the last five years. She worked hard to get herself and performance art as a genre accepted and taken seriously in the art world. But her new status has its downsides, too.
"In America, it's very dangerous that moment when you come into celebrity or stardom," she says. "Because, it's not about me; it's about the work, but people are always mixing up everything . I'm trying to always figure it out: How can I help people understand? Everyone wants a selfie with me now. But I'm asking people when they want to take selfies, I say, OK, let's not take a selfie. How about you talk to me for three minutes instead?' You know, because that selfie is superficial and doesn't mean anything, but conversation does."
As if to illustrate her point, someone opens the office door and interrupts the interview to ask Abramovi? to come sit in the gallery again so her fans can see her in person.
"No," Abramovi? says politely but firmly. "If I go there, they look at me. It's not about me, it's about the work."
The work-in-progress playing inside UCSD's University Art Gallery through Jan. 30 features sound recordings captured during the "Abramovi? Method Workshop" that she hosted at the UCSD Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination over three days. San Diegans who completed the workshop were asked to read or perform portions of text written specifically for Abramovi? by Robinson, whose sci-fi novel 2312 famously mentions the artist (the brief literary tribute is what led to their unusual friendship and eventual artistic collaboration).
At Abramovi?'s workshops, she employs long exercises aimed at helping attendees disconnect from technology and reconnect with themselves, each other and the present moment. The workshop includes exercises like having attendees write their name just once for an entire hour without lifting the pen from the paper and meticulously counting rice and lentils while wearing noise-cancelling headphones for an excruciating amount of time.
"I think everybody was just blown away by the experience," says Katherine Harroff, artistic director of the Circle Circle Dot Dot theater company and one of the two-dozen locals selected to participate in the workshop. "It was kind of like attending a spa. It provided this internal reset, and I was able to just count lentils for an hour and it was actually a luxury. I was able to completely clear my mind and focus on these ridiculous tasks, and I didn't want more than that. I didn't need anything else or feel any outside pressure. My phone wasn't there, and we had no idea what time it was, so we were all just committed to being there in that place with Marina, each other and ourselves."
Harroff says she left the workshop realizing how rarely she's fully present in the moment. She says she plans on setting time aside every week to clear her mind, meditate, disconnect from technology and reconnect with her immediate reality. Aside from that, she says the thing she'll most remember from her experience with Abramovi? is the hour the artist sat with attendees and simply offered up quirky life advice.
"The very first thing she said is that the most important thing we need to do is shit before sunrise," Harroff laughs. "She had her justifications for it; you know, it's a cleansing of yesterday's toxins and it helps with your energy in the morning—those kinds of things."
Abramovi? laughs, too, when asked about her shitting-before-sunrise routine.
"Oh yes, I told a huge shitting story at the workshop," she giggles. "It's very important. You should try it."
Abramovi? is often lambasted by art critics who think her work teeters dangerously close to new-age self-help. She sees the criticism as another downside to fame—scrutiny and jealousy, she says, is now everywhere around her.
Recently, Abramovi?—or more specifically, the Marina Abramovi? Institute she founded—came under fire for seeking unpaid workers. The news articles covering the issue cited the institute's Kickstarter campaign—which raised more than $660,000 to help renovate a building in Hudson, New York, and turn it into an educational center for presenting and preserving long-durational performance art and workshops—and questioned why the institute wasn't able to pay the employees, especially since Abramovi? appears to be such a hot commodity.
"Oh my God, I'm so tired of all this," Abramovi? says. "We were just asking for volunteers, and this $660,000 that we make, this was two years ago, and every single penny of it went to the architects."
She says the institute operates like a nonprofit and, like other arts nonprofits, depends on volunteers and interns. She's still struggling to figure out ways to raise millions of dollars more to get the institute off the ground.
"It's so easy to put the human spirit down and so difficult to rise up," she says. "I can't do anything about these sort of things; I can only know that my conscience is clean."
Abramovi? says that even now, while she and performance art as a whole are enjoying a hard-earned moment in the sun, she still often gets asked her least favorite question of all—the question that has plagued her career since it was launched in the early 1970s: Is what you do really art?
"But this time, I'm really smiling," she laughs. "Because, baby, I'm 68 . And I have it all, you know? I just go on with my work, and I will die working, and whoever asks, Is this art?' I have to just smile. I can't even have the energy to start explaining. Before, when I was young, I was so hurt by this, but, you know, there will always be people who will never get it, and this is how society works."
Again, someone opens the door and interrupts the interview.
"Everyone is soooo wanting to see you out there," the panicked-looking woman says to Abramovi?.
"But you know what that mean, right?" the artist answers. "I'll be swamped by hundreds."
Abramovi? answers one more question before finally giving in to her fans' demands and walking outside to a crowd of mostly young UCSD students, many who do end up asking to take photos with her.
She's an artist whose most famous work relies on the use of her own body as a canvas, so I want to know, before she goes, how does she expect to continue when her body finally starts to fail?
"It's already failing—what are you talking about?" she laughs. "I'm going to perform in a wheelchair."