“I am the most non-feminist human!” Marina Abramovic announces. It’s not the first time she’s disavowed the title, but in 2015, year of celebrity feminism, it seems deliberately provocative that she’s sticking with it.
She's sitting in the banquet hall at the Brooklyn Museum, erect in monochrome, tailored menswear and a Givenchy patchwork coat at the Women in the Arts Luncheon, where she’s making a rare, non-performance-based appearance before starting work on her newest show, Goldberg Variations. The luncheon, held by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, is celebrating Abramovic’s range of work from the '70s in Europe to her 2010 MoMA retrospective, The Artist Is Present, which inspired an almost cultlike frenzy among New Yorkers.
“My statement is very simple,” she says. Her voice has a soothing quality. “I’m a woman. I’m an artist. But I’m not a feminist artist. Artist has no gender.”
Though Abramovic's performances comment on femininity and beauty, she says her work is about the nature of human relationships beyond the gender binary. “I come from a part of the world where a woman has all the power,” she says of her hometown of Belgrade, where she grew up with a strict mother who was a museum curator and national hero. “[In America] it is so different. We are women, we give life. It’s the most powerful role, but we willingly play into this stupid fragile shit.” Is that rage sparking in her deep-brown eyes?
For someone who does such intense, focused work, Abramovic has a surprisingly warm, inviting presence. She’s eager to turn the tables in our interview, asking me questions like, “What do you want to write about?” Taken aback, I mention I’ve been working on a humorous erotic short story. “Sex is so funny!” she enthuses, launching into a Serbian old wive’s tale: “Put a fish in your vagina, wait through the night, in the morning put it in a man’s coffee. Do this and he will never leave you.” She smiles. “But of course, it didn’t work for me.”
A sense of humor is not the first thing you'd expect from an artist who has lain over open flames, but only a certain kind of prankster could sit spread-eagle for thousands of viewers at the Guggenheim. “There’s one Marina who’s very emotional, who cries if she cuts her finger while cutting a cucumber. But the other Marina uses the energy onstage. She doesn’t connect with the trauma. That Marina can do anything; she could even die.”
“In love, I love to the end, and if I suffer, I suffer to the end,” she says in reference to the pain she felt with her ex-lover and performance partner, Ulay, the years of living with her controlling and manipulative family, and how these hardships have made her an artist. “The suffering doesn’t make you weak,” Abramovic confides, leaning in close. “When the trouble comes, the difficulties, this is good material. And if you survive all that,” she laughs again, “then the art will be even better.”
Abramovic might use pain in her work, but she is far from the trope of a tortured artist wallowing in misery. Talking to her is — dare I say it? — fun. “In life, I’m hilarious because my world is so dramatic,” she declares, clasping my hand. “If I wasn’t funny, I would die.”