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Marina Abramovic just wants conspiracy theorists to let her be
Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where a major retrospective of her work opened, in Belgrade, Serbia, Sept. 20, 2019. Marko Risovic/The New York Times.

by Alex Marshall

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On April 10, Microsoft uploaded a film to its YouTube account about Marina Abramovic, the Serbian performance artist known for pushing her body to the limit.

Abramovic’s work can be violent, sometimes bloody, but the Microsoft video was more innocuous: It was focused on “The Life,” in which museumgoers wear special headsets so that Abramovic seems to appear before them.

The video was essentially some PR fluff for the tech company’s role in the artwork, which is scheduled to be auctioned by Christie’s in October. But in one corner of the internet, it was seen as something else entirely: evidence of a Satanist conspiracy.

Soon after the film appeared, it was being discussed in those terms on Reddit and other social media platforms. An article on the conspiracy theory website Infowars accused Microsoft of working with a “witch,” a “black magic performer” and a “Luciferian individual.”

As the online clamor escalated, the YouTube clip racked up more than 24,000 dislikes. Microsoft took it down on April 14. “We recognize that our association with this project served as a catalyst for online attacks,” a Microsoft spokeswoman said in an email.

Abramovic said in a telephone interview that she was not consulted before Microsoft took the video down, adding that she had rarely spoken about her treatment by conspiracy theorists because she did not want to encourage them. She is breaking that silence now, she said, because she is fed up.

“I need to open my heart,” Abramovic said. “I really want to ask these people, ‘Can you stop with this? Can you stop harassing me? Can’t you see that this is just the art I’ve been doing for 50 years of my life?’”

The conspiracy theory goes back to October 2016, when WikiLeaks released hacked emails from the account of John Podesta, then the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The emails included one from Abramovic, in which she discussed Podesta’s invitation to a “Spirit Cooking” dinner at her home.

Some internet users saw this as evidence that tied Abramovic to a wider conspiracy known as #PizzaGate, in which Podesta was said to be involved in a child-trafficking ring run out of a pizza parlor.

Abramovic said the “Spirit Cooking” dinner, which had the same name as a book and a performance in which she painted absurd recipes in blood on the walls of an Italian gallery, actually involved her cooking a few simple dishes for about 20 people who had donated to her art institute.

“We had lots of fun,” she said. “There was no human blood, or baby serving, or sex orgies.” So when the conspiracy theories started popping up, Abramovic said, she thought it was “just insane.”

“I am an artist, not a Satanist!” she said.

Abramovic said she expected the rumors to last a few weeks, at most, then disappear. Four years later, they haven’t.

Since then, Abramovic has received many emailed death threats — sometimes three a day, she said. The organizers of some of her shows had also received threats, she added, including the Royal Academy in London, where she is scheduled to have a retrospective this year, and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where she is hoping to stage a new opera.

On the same day Microsoft released its video, a group of conspiracy-minded filmmakers uploaded a 78-minute film to YouTube called “Out of Shadows,” which resurfaced all the old claims about Abramovic, and also suggested that she had used mind-control techniques on Lady Gaga, the pop star. That video has since been viewed more than 9 million times.

Abramovic said she was most hurt by how the conspiracy theorists took images from her work and twisted the meaning to bolster their case. Among those images, she said, was a picture of her sitting on a pile of bloody cow bones. The image was from “Balkan Baroque,” a work that Abramovic performed at the 1997 Venice Biennale, where she won the Golden Lion for Best Artist.

In that piece, she spent five days in a sweltering Venice basement, trying in vain to scrub the bones clean. It was a comment on the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Abramovic said, and how, once blood is spilled, you can’t wash it off your hands.

“How can this be satanic?” she said. “Tell me!”

Another image used repeatedly shows Abramovic holding a bloody ram’s head: This photograph was taken from a 2014 photo shoot for Vogue magazine’s Ukraine edition, and was intended as a comment on that country’s war, she said. (This one did “look like something out of a satanic movie,” she said with a laugh, but that was clearly not the intention.)

Conspiracy theorists have even used some of Abramovic’s oldest, most renowned works to bolster their case, including one in which she laid down in a flaming five-pointed star, and another where she carved that shape into her stomach. Abramovic said the stars were meant to invoke a communist symbol she had grown up with in Yugoslavia, not a satanic pentagram.

The online harassment hadn’t impacted her professionally, Abramovic said, since “the people who really have common sense in this business see this as nonsense.” But the threats have taken a toll on her private life. “I am personally afraid that any kind of lunatic with a gun will come and shoot me, because they think I’m a Satanist,” she said.

Last year, religious protesters picketed the opening of a retrospective of Abramovic’s work in Poland. And, in 2018, an artist smashed a painting over her head at an exhibition opening in Florence, Italy, though this appeared to be unrelated to any conspiracy theories. (Abramovic’s attacker told her it was a piece of performance art.)

Abramovic said she had considered taking defensive measures: She said she consulted lawyers on Thursday about suing Alex Jones, founder of Infowars, over articles about her on the site. “He’s making money from hurting innocent people,” she said. But she ultimately decided any action would be too expensive and take years.

“All I want to know is how I can overcome this and have a positive outcome,” she said. “Fear is the worst human emotion.”

Abramovic added that perhaps if the people attacking her really engaged with her work, they would see that their view was mistaken.

Thousands of people came to see her 2010 work “The Artist Is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Abramovic said, often waiting hours for the opportunity to stare into her eyes. Many found the experience moving, she added.

She added that she would be willing to let the conspiracy theorists sit opposite her, too, if it would help them understand her work.

But even that might not help. “Their energy is driven by conspiracy theory,” she said. “They don’t have another theory to replace it.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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