Artist’s bug bites Abramovic |

Artist’s bug bites Abramovic

Several decades ago, Marina Abramovic became known for performance-art pieces that put her body at risk. In a piece from the early ’70s, Abramovic jabbed a knife in the spaces between her splayed fingers; each time she would hit a finger, she’d pick up a new knife. After 20 cuts to her fingers, she would start over, this time trying to duplicate the original mistakes. In later works, she gave her body over to the effects of fire, smoke and repeated bashings against another person’s torso.

Abramovic, now 66, remains vigorous in mind and body, but she seems to have entered a more placid era with her art. “The Artist Is Present,” her enormously popular 2010 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, featured no physical contact. Instead, the exhibition invited people to sit, one at a time, across a small table and spend a quiet, meditative moment with Abramovic. For 21/2 months, crowds lined up to participate in the piece. Abramovic eventually tallied 736 hours in her chair, which, while not as obviously brutal to her body as earlier works, took its physical toll.

On Thursday afternoon at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, it might have seemed as if she had returned to harsher bodily processes. Following a lecture that attracted an overflow crowd, Abramovic lifted her shirt for a camera crew to display a spider bite that had left a horrifyingly large, painful-looking mark across her hip and lower back. She advised the media crew that the interview would need to move along quickly; she had a doctor’s appointment to get to. She then spoke patiently about her work and life — how she had no regrets about sacrificing family life for her art that, if given a chance to go into space and never return, she’d do it in an instant; that she didn’t see her work as violent in nature. Her demeanor was as it had been through the 40-minute video lecture just before; Abramovic showed no sign of discomfort or distraction.

It was not a return to Abramovic’s more physical work — the spider bite was unintended. (Given her past, that clarification seems appropriate.) But the incident did point out an essential aspect of what her work has been about. Through the lecture, Abramovic spoke about raising consciousness, her own as much as the audience’s. One segment of the video presentation was titled “Cleaning the House,” and Abramovic explained: “It’s your own house, your own body. It’s to develop endurance and concentration.” She also spoke about eliminating the distractions — technology, alcohol, anger — that interfere with our true purposes. Evidently, Abramovic’s artistic and spiritual investigation over the past five decades has strengthened her will; most people likely would consider a spider bite of this magnitude a sufficient reason to cancel a lecture.

“If you don’t create, you die. That means you’re an artist. But to be a great artist, that means to sacrifice everything you have.”
Marina Abramovic

Much of the lecture was informational in nature, with Abramovic introducing the audience to her latest project, the Marina Abramovic Institute, currently under construction in Hudson, N.Y.

“It came as a vision, during ‘The Artist Is Present’ — like a hologram image,” Abramovic said. “A place where human beings can at least try to change their consciousness: That’s necessary.”

She laid out a list of components to the institute: levitation, water drinking, the acknowledgement that spirit beings exist, opportunities for visitors to put themselves on display.

The key element to the institute — to be funded, maybe, with a Kickstarter campaign that begins today — is an emphasis on what Abramovic calls long-durational work. The video mentioned works from Wagner’s 15-hour “Ring” cycle of operas to Christian Marclay’s 24-hour film “The Clock” to what Abramovic called the ultimate long-durational work, John Cage’s “Organ2/ASLSP,” whose performance began in 2001 in a German church and is expected to finish in 2640. To Abramovic, such works foster an engagement that sharpens focus, eliminates distraction and opens up space to dream and be purposeful. To enhance the long-duration experience, visitors to the institute will be asked to sign a contract promising to spend at least six hours in the facility.

Abramovic seemed to suggest that anyone willing to engage with such artistic experiences could experience a spiritual uplift. But she doesn’t think that everyone should be making art; instead, she believes each person should find their purpose and pursue it with intensity. For the pursuit of making significant art, it is best left to those with the highest level of commitment.

“How do you know you’re an artist?” Abramovic asked early in her lecture. “The same way you question breathing — if you don’t create, you die. That means you’re an artist. But to be a great artist, that means to sacrifice everything you have. You have to understand loneliness. It’s a disease, a virus.”

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