Performance artist brings sound and silence to UCSD

‘3015 Work in Progress’ highlights work of artist Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic may not be a name you’ve heard of, but she’s a superstar performance artist who has been pushing the boundaries of her art form for almost 50 years.

She began her life and career in the former Yugoslavia, performing her radical, often dangerous, pieces while still living under the rule of strict Communist parents who insisted she be home every night before 10.

In 2010, more than half-a-million viewers waited in long lines to see her in “The Artist Is Present” at New York’s MoMA, where she sat silently every day for three months, inviting audience members to come, one by one, and sit across from her, meeting her intense, unflinching gaze.

Challenging the whole concept of performance, doing nothing but staring and enduring, she created a riveting experience. An HBO documentary, “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,” premiered at Sundance in 2012, and last year, Abramovic was listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

At home in Hudson, New York, she has launched her own institute, dedicated to cultivating long-durational works of art. Last week, she was at UC San Diego, with her latest project, “3015 Work in Progress,” which will be shown this spring at the Venice Biennale.

Her collaborator on “3015” is Kim Stanley Robinson, a science-fiction writer affiliated with the on-campus Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, which sponsored Abramovic’s visit.

To begin, she offered a free workshop to interested volunteers, who would then help create a soundtrack for the project, culminating in a gallery exhibition. Applicants had to have some background in yoga or meditation, and commit to the full six-hours-a-day, three-day program.

The public was invited to observe portions of the workshop, but watching participants sit around a table counting grains of rice wasn’t really worth the view. The artist was not present; there was no focal point.

Two days later, the exhibition opened. A line formed outside the gallery; people would be admitted in groups of 30-40, allowed — in fact, required — to stay for a 20-minute sound show, and then asked to exit, giving the next group its turn.

Inside the all-white gallery, there were pale beach chairs, stools, and a scattering of bright orange cushions; everyone was encouraged to get comfortable. Then the soundtrack began, a hypnotic mix of space-voyage story, celestial factoids, thoughtful pronouncements and Tibetan chants. Enveloped by sound, we became more than casual listeners; whatever was going on, we were totally there.

“We are all cyborgs ... Flying through an absent presence ... Around us, the stars ...”

At the end of the first session, as the audience filed out, the artist appeared, with her collaborator. “It’s a work-in-progress,” she said softly, stopping to pose for a photo before finding herself a seat for the second show. She and Robinson had each done a separate version of the soundtrack.

“Are we conscious? Are you sure ... Anybody else out there?

Everything had come together at the last minute, a blend of artistic vision, sci-fi text and high-tech sound. The charismatic Marina had kept herself virtually invisible, but the piece drew participants all into the heart of her process: being present.

“Space is not empty ... Anybody else out there? ... Be kind, be resourceful, be beautiful ... Do something new.”

Abramovic is somewhere in Brazil now, continuing the development of 3015. But the sound installation remains in the gallery until the end of January, so locals can still experience the work she left behind. u

If you go: “Marina Abramovic Exhibition: 3015 Work in Progress” through Jan. 30 at University Art Gallery, Mandeville Center at UC San Diego, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. (858) 534-2107.