The scene of the crime, the Nationalgalerie. The time, Winter 1976. An unknown man snatches a painting and runs out through an emergency exit. Guards follow, shooting at him. The bullets narrowly miss their target and the man escapes before anyone can recognise him. His haul - one of the icons of German art history, Hitler's favourite picture, the Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg. The police launch a search, without success. 'Leftist terrorists steal our most beautiful painting!' say the headlines in the tabloid press the next day.
The thief makes for his hide-out in Berlin-Kreuzberg, the flat of a Turkish guest-worker family. He is soon joined by his female accomplice, who stood look-out and filmed the theft. The picture is hung on the wall. Hanging there already are kitsch pictures and devotional objects - perfect company for the Poor Poet, in the opinion of the thieves.
That evening the thieves call Dieter Honisch, Director of the Nationalgalerie. They tell him they want to give back the painting and arrange to meet him at their hide-out. The police set up a huge road block, then storm the flat. The couple are arrested, questioned and after two days released. Now the headlines read: 'They were lunatics!'
The thieves were Ulay and Marina Abramović. The long-planned theft was an art action which supposedly made it clear that there was no structural difference between Spitzweg's Poor Poet and a porcelain knick-knack. Spitzweg painted classic icons for the pre-capitalist German bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 19th century, when art was seen as an extension of middle-class emancipation, and the museum as a purveyor of aesthetic values. The action of Ulay and Marina Abramović illustrated the link between ideology and institution, making a fundamental critique of the museum and its function of representation. They placed Spitzweg's picture back in its original kitsch context.
17 years on, Marina Abramović is returning to the scene of the crime with a solo exhibition set up by the DAAD (Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst/German Academic Exchange Service). For the Yugoslav artist now resident in Amsterdam, a participant in three documentas, a teacher at the Hamburg School of Art and 1992 recipient of a DAAD grant, this is something of a personal triumph. She used to be blacklisted by the gallery, even though she and Ulay were exhibiting at the major museums around the world. Marina Abramović has a scepticism towards galleries that is borne of having to work with them to fund her performances. She has now set up a foundation and takes care of the marketing and sale of her works herself.
In the Nationalgalerie, she has created a meditative space, a transit room for weary museum-goers. Seven wooden highchairs are set in a line facing a wall hung with mirrors and crystals. Visitors are asked to climb onto a highchair, to relax, and to reflect upon themselves. Abramović is familiar with both medieval and New Age alchemy and believes in the healing power of natural minerals, which she uses here as artistic metaphors for the hostility of civilisation towards nature.
She calls the objects, installations and environments that she has created since the mid 80s 'Transitory Objects' - works of art to be used, vehicles to communicate the dialogue between the viewer and him or herself. Because they remove the distance between subject and object, these works are often criticised as crude natural-mysticism - an expression of New Age esotericism. The 'Transitory Objects' define nature as a constitutive element of the work of art. They return to the idea of working with one's own body which Ulay and Marina Abramović took to extremes in their performances: in these sculptural works, the body of the viewer becomes absorbed in the process of experiencing nature. 'My vision of the art of the 21st century is that artists and public will be able to communicate with each other on a high mental plane without the intermediary of the art object, using only their energy,' says Abramovic.
Beuys gave us the idea that art has its origins in myth and ritual, and so is a generator of energy. Abramovic's work does not adhere to the innovative principle of Modernism whereby art pursues an explanation of its own forms. She has for years led a nomadic life with the indigenous peoples of Australia and Tibet and she passes on their mythical world to Western civilisation through her art.
Her collaboration with Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) ended in 1988 with a spectacular action The Lovers - Walk on the Great Wall of China. Ulay's journey began in the Gobi Desert, Marina's by the Yellow River. Each walked 2,000 kilometres until they met at the middle of the wall, where they said goodbye to each other forever. Hollywood could not have conceived anything more melodramatic - but the action clearly illustrated how tenuous it is to attempt to make a subjective experience objective by means of a simple declaration. The use of one's own body and one's own life as artistic material can turn art into something dangerously close to obsession.
The Poor Poet, the corpus delicti, has long since been restored to the Nationalgalerie, where it attracts hordes of visitors. Marina Abramovic's Waiting Room installation is set directly next to it - a place for weary philistines to rest.