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The artist is present

Marina Abramovic is the best-known and most controversial performance artist in the world. At her star-shaped home in the New York countryside, she has created a calming minimalist retreat where she welcomed our editorial team for an exclusive visit.

Anabel Cutler
Reto Guntli and Agi Simoes

“I’m an artist and I need white space to think.”

“It took me around 30 seconds to make up my mind to buy Star House,” the perform­ance artist Marina Abramovic says of her home in Malden Bridge, New York State. The house, which is built in the shape of a six-pointed star, had languished on the market for five years before she snapped it up for 1.25 million US dollars in 2007. Too avant-garde for American sensibil­ities, it spoke to the artist on many levels. “I was brought up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, a communist country, so the star is a potent symbol for me,” Abramovic explains. “It is on my birth certificate; it was on all my textbooks in school.”

“Star House is an ever-evolving project. A few months ago we painted the wooden façade in dark grey. We opened an entire wall with glass and painted the barn bright red. I call it Marlboro red – it changes with the light,” Marina Abramovic explains. The terraced seating area and swimming pool lie to the west of the house, making the most of the early evening sun.

It has also been a recurring theme in her work. Performances have seen her lying in a burning star (nearly dying of asphyxi­ation in the process), and carving a star in the flesh around her navel in what she refers to as an anti-communist act. Marina Abramovic, whose work explores the boundaries of the body and the mind, has spent four decades putting herself through trials most people would pay to avoid.

“Dozing Consciousness (Body)” from Marina Abramovic’s latest collection was photographed by Reto Guntli and Agi Simoes. Dye sublimation print on aluminIum (104.8 ×208.28 cm), courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives, © 2016 Marina Abramovic.

Last year, Marina Abramovic art-directed one of Givenchy’s fashion shows. It is the physically and emotionally demanding nature of her work that led Abramovic to seek refuge in the country, away from her apartment in SoHo, New York City. “I moved to Manhattan from Amsterdam, and knew within two years that the place would kill me if I didn’t have somewhere to escape to,” she says.

Marina Abramovic and two guests meditating on her Art Furniture in the woods on her estate. At the museum, visitors are invited to enter the experience themselves and relax body and mind in a crystal embrace. The exercise is based on the original perform­ance “The Artist Is Present” staged in New York, during which the artist sat opposite some 1,400 people for a period of 721 hours.

The 26-acre plot that Star House sits atop, complete with woods and a river, was a perfect salve. “The river is a life force. The house has an unbelievably peaceful energy. It’s a place to rehearse, rest and think between projects.” That said, the décor and the gardens needed paring down to comply with Abramovic’s  minimalist aesthetic. She contacted the New York architect Dennis Wedlick, who designed the original 3,400-square-foot house for a heart surgeon in the 1990s so that he and his three adult children could all have an equal and private space. Each of the four bedrooms on the third floor occupies a different point of the star; the bathrooms are in the remaining points. The family’s taste was fussy, and Marina Abramovic tasked Wedlick with stripping everything back: Columns that were not supporting walls or ceilings were removed; interior walls were painted white; and the wooden floors were refinished in a natural colour. The clean white inter­iors are brought to life with pops of colour provided by sculptural vintage furniture Abramovic picked up in Hudson’s antique shops. “I find that colours like red, blue and orange make me feel happy,” says the artist, who often uses colours to punctuate her performance pieces.

The “crystal cave” is empty but for a quartz crystal, which Marina Abramovic believes radiates positive energy. “I’m very interested in things that our rational brains can't explain. There are lots of things that science proves later on that spirituality has actually practised for a long time. The house has an unbelievably peaceful energy. It’s a place to rehearse, rest and think between projects.”

Now Abramovic uses the house as a retreat, a work space and the headquarters of the Marina Abramovic Institute – or MAI – where she workshops “consciousness-raising exercises” that range from slow-motion walking and sitting in the forest blindfolded to counting grains of rice and meditating inside a “crystal cave”. A few years ago, Lady Gaga came to stay and immortalised the MAI experience in a video. Here, Marina Abramovic has been training the performers she had chosen for a very special Givenchy show, who were standing on high platforms for four hours. “If you want to perform somewhere for four hours, you have to really train. Where is your body? Where is your mind?” Abramovic spent two years training for the MoMA show and believes strongly in the positive power of changing consciousness. “I have a hut by the river where I can retreat. I sometimes go there for six days without any food and I never come to the house. I wash in the river; I don’t read, just write. The transformation is amazing,” she says. “I could change my apartment in New York easily, but not this house. I feel incredibly peaceful here.”

Marina Abramovic’s autobiography “Walk Through Walls", published by Crown Archetype, in October 2016.

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