In today’s contemporary art world, Marina Abramovic has become a living monument. With a career that spans more than five decades, she has used her body as subject and medium to investigate physical limitation while stretching the boundaries defining art. While traveling the world either to perform in some of the most prestigious cultural institutions (the Louvre, MOMA and the Guggenheim) or to spend time learning from shamans, discovering unknown people and places, Marina is always seeking new territories to explore.
She is currently building her own monument, the Marina Abramovic Institute, a space meant to revive and extend the 20th century Bauhaus, conceptual model, a place not just for artists, but for everyone to come and seek artistic development through time. Rem Koolhaas, the architect who designs the institute, calls the place, “a place where people can create and perform.”
© Abramovic Family Crest, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives
“In my life, I have no time. In my work, I take all the time I need,” Abramovic says. She dedicates her life to her art: She is a concept master and a medium, the subject and the object at the same time. Time and energy are her essential partners that allow her to experiment with human sensations and emotions. Like a classical tragedy, we have to live and overcome pain and passion in order to reach catharsis. In between a classical hero and Serbian Diva, Abramovic pushes the limits of what is physically and psychologically bearable. She believes truth appears in the moments of extreme exhaustion.
As a result of monumentalization, the public and publicity are becoming more and more inter-connected through mass media, celebrities and event managers. All types of celebrities, artists and creators, as well as common people, join Abramovic in performances for her projects and ideas. Robert Wilson, along with Abramovic, created “Death and Life of Marina Abramovic” (2011), an autobiographical, but much more metaphorical work about Marina’s life, in which she appears either as a Serbian soldier, a communist partisan, or as a cult-and-tragedy, incarnating diva. Abramovic sometimes crosses into the mainstream culture, performing with rapper, Jay-Z for three hours in a New York City gallery, prompting an inspiring pop star, Lady Gaga, to reflect on the meaning of their performance. For Abramovic, there are no limits in merging energies. She will keep on experimenting until final exhaustion: death and life.
AAA-AAA, Performed for television,15 minutes, RTB television studio, Liège, Belgium, February, 1978
© Marina Abramovicć and Ulay, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovicć Archives
RH: This edition of The GROUND Magazine explores the idea of “Shattering Boundaries and Globalism.” You have a very long career now as a performance artist in the contemporary arts, but at the same time you seem to challenge and transgress the borders between what is performance art, minimalism, concept art, and other art forms: How do you describe yourself right now, as a performance artist or something else?
MA: I think, first of all, I would like to describe myself generally as an artist, searching for many different boundaries. Yes, I’m being like a minimalist, and a special place has the performance art, but I’m also creating something where the public, too, can perform, I’m making films, and doing workshops.
How can I describe myself? I can describe myself as a warrior. I feel like a warrior these days, because people have overused the term “a grandmother of performance art.” I’m not any kind of grandmother! I’m a warrior. I’m a soldier. I have been working now for about 40 years, and in these 40 years I have explored many different directions! Performers always stay as a central point of reference, but at the same time I’m directing films, making video installations… I’m working the Abramovic method, I’m doing the Marina Abramovic Institute in Hudson now, the fundraising; I just finished Bolero, working with choreographers and doing the stage design (scenography). I’m thinking images in also something that happens in fashion. So it’s really a kind of crossing borders. My work takes me in so many different directions: I always think first about the idea and then see what kind of material I need to explore the idea. I recently spent three months in Brazil studying shamanism and the ability to incorporate spirits in the human body, to see whether we can actually use this kind of ancient cultural practice and knowledge in contemporary art. So really – I feel like I’m a kind of explorer, I’m an explorer in the field of art.
LIPS OF THOMAS (1975), Performance, 7 Easy Pieces, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, 2005 ph: Attilio Maranzano, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives
RH: The image of a warrior sounds quite militant. What kind of militancy do you strive for? What is your mission as a warrior and explorer: Do you “fight” for a better humanity, to explore the limits of human nature, to cross the borders and to “conquer” spirituality?
MA: Warrior can be militant, but it can also very much involve the poetical part in militant, not the one that necessarily is seen as today. I just discovered lately that my family has a 17th century crest. It’s not an aristocratic crest, but a warrior’s crest, and it’s really something interesting for me. The crest shows a wolf eating a sheep, and it’s a kind of balance between strength, a very strong physicality, and fragility: This really represents my soul! I come from a family with an abundance of national heroes; this fact determinates quite a lot my identity as a warrior.
RH: Your background is Serbian. What role do your personal, ethnical, social origins play in your artistic work? We see you in the costume of a Communist partisan, holding a flag; we hear Serbian folk songs, then Communist partisan music (for example in Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, Robert Wilson). How do you access this past? How do you use it for your contemporary work?
MA: First of all, I have already made lots of works that reflect my past, for example the film Balkan Baroque (1997) for which I received the Golden Lion award in Venice. Balkan Baroque addresses directly the war in Yugoslavia. I made another piece Count on us (Video, 2003) with the children of Ex-Yugoslavia. You come from where you come from; this is your personal blueprint. But right now, in addition to my personal blueprint I explore so many other cultures! So it’s really a work about a mixture, and how to mix things, because I always get inspiration from nature and from indigenous people. I’m interested in Aboriginals in Central-Australia; I learn from them, I learn from Tibetans, and right now I am learning from Shamans. And then, underlying all this is my past, and my past is more about my upbringing, and this gives me an enormous amount of discipline. So that really, when I set up a goal, it doesn’t matter how many years it takes, I’ll do it. I never give up anything. This is a part of my blueprint of the past; it’s always there with me.
LIPS OF THOMAS, Performance, 2 hours, Krinzinger Gallery, Innbruck, 1975 © Marina Abramovic
RH: Your research delves deeply into your inner human nature, to questions about spirituality, ancestors, forces, energies, and their transmission. How do you manage to access Shamanism, to feel its deeper sense, and what is it that interests you here? Is it the idea of transcendence and healing, the idea of a dialogue between past and present, between the unconscious and the conscious of your self?
MA: It’s very simple: First you have to go to a place where you have never been; you have to go to a place you’re afraid of. You have to go to the place where you don’t understand anything, because it has nothing to do with your culture. You have to be open-minded and you have to be curious. You have to be ready to live something probably very uncomfortable and to face a huge amount of fear. And once you’re going into this kind of situations, you experience them! So many people are afraid to make such experiences because they prefer the security of their hotel room. But I don’t. I’m now 67, and I don’t feel this age. Really I’m just going. I enter the most impossible situations, and then ideas emerge, like a mission. They emerge from most interesting situations, and then I realize them! But I also examine these ideas that they can matter to others, to everybody else, so that they are not just personal! I always have to find the key to the transcendental, and to find the way that everybody, every single person, can project some little part of himself into my work! Marcel Duchamps always said the public is necessary for a work to be complete. In my case it is this! It is really highly emotional, and the only thing I must know is whether I succeed to go 100 percent into the idea; then the result is what it is: It has a very strong emotional impact, because I live it! Everything I do I live completely!
RH: Attracted by experiencing the unknown, then, you search for experiences beyond language, beyond knowledge, and beyond common symbolic meaning. In your performances do you want to transmit these dimensions to the public? The experience of the not yet experienced as a physical and mental voyage?
MA: Let me say something: I hate the studio. I would never sit in a studio to make anything, because a studio is like the dead end. When an artist sits in a studio, he or she is attempting to invent things. I go to life! From life come ideas, not from anything else! I never get ideas in New York! New York is not the place to get ideas. New York for me is a place to realize them. For ideas I go elsewhere!
RH: What does it mean for you to be a warrior? Does it mean that you transgress the borders of what is familiar, like symbols, knowledge, daily life routine, and you conquer the unknown, emotions, sensations…
MA: As a warrior, the main thing is to conquer yourself. And when you conquer yourself, then you can really give your best, because you conquer your Ego; because the Ego is the biggest substance and challenge for an artist to express himself wholly. Only when you conquer yourself, you can be available to others.
REST ENERGY, Performance for Video, 4 minutes, ROSC’ 80, Dublin, 1980, © Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives
RH: I’m intrigued by the fact that you live in a house that’s a six-pointed star. The five-pointed star is a recurrent sign in your work: As symbol of the Soviet Union or Communism, it is political and deals with your past. In “Lips of Thomas” (1975/2005) and “Seven Easy Pieces” (2005), the five-pointed star injures you, it hurts your skin. Your navel is in the centre of the wound which has the form of the star. The navel is a highly symbolic place, the place where you and your mother were connected and then separated. The wound and the flowing blood trace the lines of life and pain, and leave their imprints in white fabric. Life here seems to resist the geometrical, symbolic, and political repression of the sign that caused you pain. The star in your performance represents a painful life experience, but it seems to reflect birth, life, and rebirth. Is your point the antagonism between navel (body, bally, mother) and star (sign, symbol, order)? Is it the antagonism between the feminine and the phallic order? Why did you choose a star as your living space?
MA:The performance “Seven Easy Pieces” (2005) showed a part of an early performance in Yugoslavia “Lips of Thomas” (1975). The “Seven Easy Pieces” are repeated pieces, and the only difference between the original performance and the present one is that now there were seven pieces and I had to cut the star a few times, because in the original it was too long. You know, at that time it meant something to me, but now it’s the past. I never look to the past; I always look to the present, what is now and what will be in the future. The star represented Communism, a part of my past which I didn’t like. When I traced the star with a razor blade on the top of my navel, it became both a pentagram and an upward-facing star; I basically experienced the idea of this symbol, what it meant to me.
RH: The symbol of the star permeates your work; it can be magical, scientific, and political. But its symbolism shifts during a single performance: The symbol seems to be “brought back to life”; you experience it with your body, and your mind. Do your experiences challenge abstract symbolic meaning in general?
MA: It’s really funny that now, right now during this interview, I’m in my country house in Upstate New York, and this house is in the form of a six-pointed star. I didn’t build it; somebody else built it and then put it up for sale. When I drove up here, I couldn’t believe that the house was a six-pointed star! So it took me 30 seconds to decide: This is the house I want. It’s a six-pointed star, not a five-pointed one. So I’m making progress. Though I’m not Jewish, I find the six-pointed star is very harmonic.
RH: There are other symbols in your work, and numbers – the number seven?
MA: Well, I use snakes, I’m using scorpions, I use a horse, I use animal; I use everything. Every artist uses symbols; just my symbols emerge from different experiences. I use a knife, I use a skeleton, and I made it myself: I modelled the skeleton after the size of my own body. If I think about it, I use many different objects and things. But right now I’m very much involved in true ideas, so that I don’t need anything; I shouldn’t use anything. Energy alone is enough, because performance art is such an immaterial form of art, so when you use lots of symbols, you are doing it for your own security to make things more clear. But if you actually don’t use anything, it’s so much better! It is more pure, because then you only have to deal with energy and energy is not visible! That’s why the person, the public has to feel it, and that is the most immaterial form of surprise! So you can use this energy which can forge a connection between a person who is seeing it and the one who is sending it. So you don’t actually need objects, you really don’t! After the first 40 years of performance art, the main things all performance artists agree upon, is that you actually don’t need anything at all.
The Artist is Present, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 2010 © Marina Abramovic, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives
RH: The audience has a different role in performance art than they have in front of a painting. How do you receive energy from the audience?=
MA: Like everybody else! I mean, how do the Rolling Stones receive energy from the audience? They receive it. I receive it. It’s very difficult to describe. Every human being has energy, and to receive it, I learnt to receive energy from the air, from the sun, from the moon, from the human being, from anything, and then I give it back. You can’t describe it. It is just, how can we describe, how can we see energy? I just feel it!
RH: So it is a form of exchange and you have to be available for this exchange? Does everybody have the availability for this sort of exchange?
MA: It is different if you’re a dentist or if you are working in an office. It is my job to feel. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing! I’m good at this, better than anyone else.
RH: How do you explain why you are so successful right now? Is there a special need for performance art at this time, a special need for experiences (empiricism) rather than knowledge (rationalism)?
MA: At the beginning, nobody took us seriously! Now, after 40 years of career, people finally see/understand the effort. It’s just the result of a lot of work and nothing else! It is even a good moment to make more known the ideas of performers.
The Marina Abramovic Institute for me is really my life’s project. I want to achieve it before I die, to create the center that would be like the Bauhaus where different minds, different cultures can come and create something new, really something that unifies art, science, technology, and spirituality. It deals with real life, and this is a real motivation for me. So I have to realize it, because once you are gone, you’ll find any material ridiculous, but a good idea can have a long life, a good idea for the human kind. So I’m making a book and I’m literally dedicated to humanity. So it is not any more only my part of the performance, but it is generally about culture.
RH:Your work reminds me of something that is expressed in the classical sculpture “Laocoon”: the antagonism between suffering and heroic attitude, like endurance, and between spiritual and physical resistance. This antagonism is shown as a process of time; time, physical, and mental processes are very important in your long durational work too. You are very focused on being able to withstand pain and to overcome it, like the classical hero. What about “heroism” in your work?
MA: This is not up to me to say; this is up to the public to see and to feel! You know there are so many interpretations of my work. The only thing I can do is enter 100 percent in an idea and in whatever I do! I don’t care how painful it is, I don’t care how long it takes to do it. If I work with that kind of honest and uncompromising spirit, I think that the public just trusts me. If there is a kind of projection of heroism, it comes from the public side. I’m not thinking about what I feel, I only worry about to do as best as I can, that’s all. So I do it, and at the moment I do it, the reaction of the public is really satisfying.
RELATION IN TIME, Performance, 16 hours without the public, Last hour of the performance with the public present, Series of photographs taken every hour, Studio G7, Bologna, Italy, 1977
© Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives
RH: Your work based on suffering, compassion and catharsis brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History.” Looking back to the past, he perceives an immense field of destruction. Yet at the same time that he feels sorrow and pain, he moves forward towards a hopeful future. This allegory deals with a painful past, a respectful presence and a hopeful future; the angel faces the pain of the past in order to be able to move forward. What about compassion and suffering in your work? Are we to feel compassion, or to denounce suffering? As you show how to resist pain and suffering, do you show a way how to overcome or how to escape it?
MA: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing! I upstage suffering in front of the public and the public can see themselves in me, as a reflection of themselves in a mirror. If I can overcome suffering in my life, they can do the same in their own life. That’s exactly what the suffering in this performance is. May be we trust in pain! Everybody has pain, and the question is, how you can transcend it? How can we be creative? What happens in our consciousness?
RH: You said you are a warrior – not an Amazon? As a woman artist, don’t you feel like an Amazon rather than a warrior?
MA: No, that’s a different story. The context is different, because I’m an artist. Those girls are different!
Since you started your career, did you ever feel disadvantaged because you were a female artist? Have you been less recognized, or was it a problem to get into art institutions? Has writing about your work been neglected or even absent?
MA: No, I never felt so. I always felt stronger than any man. I’ve always respected men and I never had the kind of problem you describe, and that is why I don’t want to be a feminist, because then you put yourself in a Ghetto, and make it a challenge; it’s not a good thing. Art has no gender. Art is either good art or bad art, and that’s it! That’s always been my position.
RH: You engage both material and spiritual life in your work. When you revive, or re-enact the works of artists as Bruce Naumann, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, Valie Export, Vito Acconci, as you did in the “Seven Easy Pieces,” do you feel these artists are members of your artistic family, your spiritual family? Do you just evoke their work, or do you interpret it?
MA:These are totally different stories. First of all, “Seven Easy Pieces” was made as a reaction to all the people who appropriate the works from the ’70s without attributing them, without mentioning, where the works come from, like the fashion, film, and design industries, like MTV and theatre have done. They all just look at the images from the ’70s and repeat the words that don’t belong to them. So “Seven Easy Pieces” was a reaction to this!
If you take a piece of music or a phrase of a book, you cite the author, and you ask and pay for the rights for it. So I made “Seven Easy Pieces” to show how it should be done. If you want to repeat somebody else’s work, you have to write to the artist, or to the artist’s foundation. You have to get permission, and pay for it. You have to understand the original material and you have to be credit it. So in “Seven Easy Pieces,” you can see when I re-enact Joseph Beuys talking to the dead hare about art, I re-perform as Marina Abramovic. That’s the correct way it should be done! This is how I have been doing. Now I give permission to anybody who wishes to perform my work, but with the same conditions. After my colleagues of the ’70s stopped performing, I was the only one who put some order in this chaos.
7 EASY PIECES, performing Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), Performance, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, 2005 Ph: Attilio Maranzano, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives
RH: Re-enacting and reinterpreting: in the end, is it imitation, translation or a new creation?
MA: It is still a remake of the original idea! When you play Bach and then play techno-Bach, it still comes from Bach!
RH: So you protect and defend actively authorship and copyright – aspects only recently discussed in the art world, paradoxically at a moment, when the multiple reached its apotheosis in the contemporary arts.
MA: I think that we can use every kind of source. I’m in the process of making a film about Brazilian Shamans and of course I credit the original creators, I mention where the material comes from. That is normal, the right way to do it in the field where you make your own work.
RH: What are your present and future projects?
MA: I have two shows in Switzerland, one in October. One is in Basel, at the Tinguely Foundation. It will show the Marina Abramovic Museum Prototype, and this will be a very big event. The next one is in Geneva, a show of portraits from 1975 to 2014.
RH: Last question: Your performance “The artist is present” at the MOMA (2010) was amazing: You gave so much energy to so many people for such a long time, the reaction to it was very moving, and the people really interacted with you. I noticed that you wore beautiful dresses, in just three colours – blue, white, red.
MA: I was very strict about these colours; I wore blue the first month, in order to concentrate. In the second month I wore red, to save energy. And the last month I wore white for pureness and clarity. I made the dresses myself.
RH: I noticed you use these colours in your home too – in your living space.
MA: Yes, I like these colors!