“Marina Abramović Still Doesn’t Give a Fuck”

By James Yeh, originally published on (2016)

Photo by Elizabeth Renstrom

"So, we're in hell," Marina Abramović begins, leaning across the table, "and the devil is sitting around, being bored."

It's a pleasant October afternoon in New York, and the most well-known, controversial, and influential performance artist of our time is sharing her favorite joke, which, she tells me, is always the last one she's heard. The joke—fittingly international, considering her birthplace of Serbia, former residences across Europe, and current base in Hudson, New York—goes like this: Former president-dictators Nicolai Ceaușescu, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milošević want to phone their former countries, to check in, see how their people are doing. The devil charges them accordingly: One million for two minutes to Romania, 2 million for two minutes to Iraq. When it comes to Milošević's two minutes to Serbia, however, the cost is surprisingly nothing.

"This is local call," Abramović explains, as an Eastern European–accented Satan. "Hell to hell."

Though her English isn't flawless, her delivery is—she dispatches the joke with a wry, deadpan tone at a focused, speedy clip, challenging you to keep up, never stuttering or missing a beat, and she lands the punch line perfectly. The effect is instantaneous: We both laugh out loud.

We're in a large meeting room in the Penguin Random House building in Midtown Manhattan, where she's in the midst of weeks of interviews for her new memoir, Walk Through Walls, with print, radio, and TV journalists from all over the world. For the past three hours, Abramović and her cheerful publicity manager, Allison, have been holed up doing an interview for German television. Now, Abramović is clearly relieved to be speaking off-camera, away from the crew and lights.

I ask where she heard the joke, and she says a friend in London. "You know, this country is politically overly correct—it's so boring," she confides, leaning in again, her face unconventionally beautiful and seemingly ageless (she is two weeks shy of 70, but looks decades younger). "And I really need to have my dose of humor, and I really need to laugh, because the black humor is based on truth and is also the way to survive."