Marina Abramovic: What a performance for an artist taking on ‘cynical, drunken’ Brits

Serb Marina Abramovic says she’s ready for 64 days of interacting with the great British public

For someone who believes that the British enjoy bad jokes and drink too much at weekends, the acclaimed Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic is about to get close to them for a very long time – eight hours a day, for 64 days, to be precise.

The 67-year-old self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art” kicks off her new work, 512 Hours, at an otherwise empty Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park tomorrow. The show consists entirely of Abramovic interacting with visitors. She will even open and close the gallery doors herself at the beginning and end of each day.

This will be the US-based artist’s first major performance since The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York four years ago, where visitors sat in silence opposite Abramovic and gazed into her eyes. She performed every day for three months. Many were extremely successful. One video that documented the moment when a former partner sat opposite her received more than eight million hits on YouTube.

The Serpentine’s gallery spaces will be completely bare, save for some simple props, including folding chairs and tables. Her visitors will enter through a decompression chamber where all cameras, recorders, tablets, mobile phones and digital watches must be stowed in lockers and the “house full” sign will go up when all 160 lockers are full.

Abramovic, who features in this year’s Time magazine list of 100 most influential people, and who is beloved of celebrities including singer Lady Gaga and the actor James Franco, said the public was “absolutely essential” to making the piece work. She said she received a different response to her art in all of the countries she visited. When asked what characteristics she expected to see in her British audience, she said: “The British – you are so cynical. You really like bad jokes and you drink too much at the weekends. So for me the only way that I can win this British public is to be extremely vulnerable and humble.”

She came to her conclusions after a weekend visit to Manchester. For the exhibition’s run, the 40 “guards” in the gallery have been instructed to throw out any drunks. “Whatever I say seriously about performance art, you always try and make fun out of it,” she added. “Out of everything. Sometimes that gets tired... Maybe it’s because you are intimidated or not open enough. Maybe the reason to drink is to open yourself up.”

While performing in other countries, she found that Germans “discuss things to death” while Italians, Mexicans and Spanish “cry all the time”. The most frightening, she said, were the Japanese. “In Japan, if you are a teacher [or a performer] you are like a god. If you say to someone, ‘Jump from the fifth floor’, they will jump from the fifth floor.”

It has taken 17 years for Julia Peyton Jones, co-director of the Serpentine Galleries, to stage a show with Abramovic after she first invited the artist to London. “The work is a kind of marathon,” Ms Peyton Jones said. “She talks about it as the most ambitious project she has ever done. After 17 years, something extraordinary has emerged.”

Abramovic also revealed that she had buried the hatchet with a fellow artist who demanded that her influence on the new piece be recognised. Abramovic had a “friendly” conversation with Mary Ellen Carroll on Skype after critics wrote to the Serpentine demanding Carroll’s influence on the show be referenced. The gallery has since agreed to mention the New York artist’s work Nothing, which has been running since the 1990s.

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