How do you know an artist has made it? While Marina Abramović , the self-styled ‘grandmother of performance art’, has been feted by the art world since the 70’s – winning the Golden Lion at 1997 Venice Bienalle – it’s only recently that she’s attracted the kind of media coverage and celebrity fans that capture the attention of the general public. With 512 Hours, her most recent installation at the Serpentine Gallery, it’s become almost impossible to escape her.
The concept of 512 Hours was simple. Abramovic wandered the gallery from 10am to 6pm, six days a week, for a cumulative 512 hours. As with her 2010 MOMA performance, The Artist is Present, Abramovic herself was the main draw for the crowds. Visitors were invited to engage in simple tasks alongside the artist, like sorting peas from lentils. Drawing largely on the techniques of mindfulness, the durational performance has drawn equal parts praise and derision. Many who visited spoke of an almost transcendental experience, while others criticised its overtones of new-age self-help practices. Either way, it has received an extraordinary amount of attention and coverage. It even inspired its very own (spot-on) canine parody, Marina Abramopug.
Her much-publicised relationship with fellow performance artist Ulay is yet more evidence of her talent for self-promotion. The documentary which accompanied her MOMA retrospective, also titled The Artist is Present, showed Ulay sitting opposite Marina, capturing an intimate yet very public moment of reunion – supposedly the first time they had met since parting with typical dramatic flair atop the Great Wall of China in the 80s. However, this narrative has been disputed by the curator Klaus Biesenbach, saying that they had met sporadically throughout the years and that Ulay had in fact been their “guest of honour” at the opening of the retrospective. That hasn’t stopped the clip of their ‘reunion’ from being widely shared online.
With this level of public awareness has come celebrity fans (she has worked with Jay Z, Lady Gaga and James Franco, among others) and, inevitably, the corporate tie-ins. Performance art from its real beginnings in the 60s has always been a reaction against the over-commercialized art market. A performance can’t be bought or sold, or hoarded away in a Saatchi warehouse. It’s therefore unsettled many fans to hear of her collaborations with Illy and Adidas, for whom she created a short advertisement with overbearing themes of co-operative work, called ‘Work’. Abramovic has defended these big-business collaborations, saying: “In the old days if you see who was sponsoring art it was the popes, and aristocracy and the kings and now it’s industry, and this is reality.”
While this is of course both pragmatic and true, I worry that the really interesting aspects of her work have been lost in this veneer of celebrity. 2005’s Seven Easy Pieces, for instance, is much less discussed, but arguably much more interesting in the context of the field of performance art. In addition, I would argue that one of her earliest works, Rhythm 0, may be one of the most striking and thought-provoking works of performance since the medium’s inception. Perhaps her own thoughts on fellow artist-slash-genius-marketer Damien Hirst are most apt here: “Good artist, incredible business man.”
Words: Clara Murray
Illustration: Daisy Kinahan Murphy