by Ann Jones
Until recently I had always considered Marina Abramović to be formidable to the point of scariness and possibly not entirely of sound mind. Her work is extraordinary and utterly compelling but its intensity and seriousness seemed to leave no space for the woman herself to have a sense of humour. But then until recently, though I’d read about her work and seen it in reproduction, I’d seen very little of her work in galleries and had never seen Abramović herself in the flesh, something of a limitation when talking about the work of a performance artist. Somehow I never quite made it to Manchester in 2009 to see her piece at the Whitworth Art Gallery for that year’s MIF and, more annoyingly, was in New York a few weeks too early to see her retrospective at MOMA in 2010, for which she created a new performance The Artist is Present which saw her sitting virtually motionless facing a succession of visitors to the exhibition for the duration of the exhibition (over 700 hours in total). But last autumn, I saw her Lisson Gallery show and talk at Tate Modern, and discovered that the woman who has made uncompromising performance art for several decades, at times risking her life (usually, but not always, intentionally), is unexpectedly personable. Indeed at Tate Modern she started with a story – one of the childhood memories that featured both in Confession (2010), shown at the Lisson Gallery, and in The Life and Death of Marina Abramović (2011), which had its world premiere at MIF last week – and ended with a joke. Perhaps age is softening Abramović. Or perhaps she was never as scary as I’d assumed.