I was lucky enough to see Marina Abramovic at the Southbank on Sunday. Despite gripping Olympic athletics on every screen in London, beautiful riverside sunshine and a general Sunday afternoonishness, the Queen Elizabeth Hall was packed full of women – this was a women only event. This impressive turn out was deserved, as whatever anyone may feel about her performance art, it’s hard to deny how deeply impressive Marina is, now at a very deceptive 65 years old.
She’s long bored of justifying the place of performance art to critics now, and seems buoyed by its current vogue. It costs very little of course – unlike Hirst and the BritArt creations – but lasts forever in memory. She shared with us what performance has meant and means for her, along with a sample of some of her favourite pieces of performance on a screen: a scene from Sunset Boulevard (where one escape from pain is into madness), Maria Callas regressing under the weight of a rousing applause, Pina Bausch dances in the snow and through mud included.
Performance has allowed Marina to understand and transcend her pain, ‘which brings you to another consciousness’ – her early work meant cutting and blood. ‘I live for performance, it differs from theatre as all is real – a knife is a knife, blood is blood. But it doesn’t exist alone, the public completes the work…..A state of mind is crucial, the public will sense if your mind is elsewhere…. I need to be in the here and now, and then bring people together in that with me. That togetherness in the here and now is the only reality we ever have. We refuse to think about dying, but we must include it in every moment….We run for our lives, our daily life gets shorter and shorter so performance works best over long duration – this is the best amount of time needed to get to the essence of the work. When an artist can get into the zone, it is easier for the public to join in….
Many therapists also aim to work in the here and now with their clients – to create a connection that is finely tuned to our clients’ needs, screening out all mind chatter that doesn’t involve the relationship between them. This ‘relational depth’, as it is sometimes described, allows us to be met as we were when we were infants, in our care-givers arms – if all went well of course. I met someone who sat with Marina at MOMA in New York in 2010. The Artist is Present was a performance piece involving Marina sitting all day every day for 3 months, in silence, while members of the audience sat opposite her. It accompanied a retrospective. This woman said the few moments spent with Marina were deeply moving, as if she was being held by a loving maternal gaze. She wasn’t the only one who was moved – many cried who sat with her.
At the end of the hour with Marina on Sunday, she moved to the front of the stage and held our arms up high and wide. We (all few hundred of us) stood with her for a few moments in her long-distance embrace. Yes it was hot, yes I was tired, but it felt curiously emotional to be in her arms.