Marina Abramović
The Art of Performance

8 May 2015

Marina Abramović has no need of introduction, or perhaps she does. Before stepping into the international limelight, alongside celebrities like Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and James Franco, and even before turning an exhibition, her one-woman show at the MoMA in New York in 2010, into an exchange of glances, Marina Abramović legitimized the art of performance. A revolution tailored to suit the times of action of the artist’s body, and those of the reaction of an ever broader section of the public, extremely polarized between feelings of devotion and hostility. Always imperturbable, she has put her life in danger with guns, knives and other instruments of torture, and has attained levels of intangible poetry by walking 2500 km along the Great Wall of China to bring her love affair and artistic partnership with the German performer Ulay to an end. For many people she is now a rock star, for others the guru behind the Abramović Method: a system of preparation (of the body and mind) for artistic performances of long duration, around which the activities of her Marina Abramović Institute (MAI), under construction at Hudson, in New York State, will turn. We met her in São Paulo, where she has been the protagonist of the exhibition Terra Comunal at the SESC Pompeia.

As you embraced performance as a method of artist expression, you began to expose your body to many painful experiences, all evoking a sense of violence and death. I am thinking of more explicit works like the Rhythm series (1973-74), in which you cut yourself and play the knife game, as well as more meditative pieces like Nude with Skeleton (2002/04/10/15), which was recently performed again by Brazilian artists at the SP-Arte fair. Then something suddenly changed in your approach to your body. Stillness took over. Are there two Marina Abramovićs, one before and another after?

It wasn’t my work: I changed. When you do this kind of work, you learn and you change through the work. There are not two Marina Abramovićs. There’s one, who has gone through and learnt certain things. It’s very easy to be violent to your body, it’s much more difficult to work with your brain: they say we only use 33% of it.

Marina Abramović, Brasil, 2015.

Marina Abramović, Sesc Pompeia, Brasil, 2015. Photo: Erika Mayumi.

Are you saying you have gone through a learning process?

Every performance is about learning. And it’s difficult. When you create a work of art you always try to put everything into it, but you never succeed. This is unfair, but it is also the reason why the artist goes on to make another work, and then another work. If you were able to put everything into a work of art, then you would stop making art. To me, every work is a learning process, a step toward the next one. It’s really important that you mature through the work. I don’t see any more reasons to cut myself: I have done it already, I’d be repeating myself. And an artist should never repeat him or herself. I have come a long way since my early works in the seventies, and now I am more interested in being a conductor for the public. I could never have imagined this when I started. It took years, because years are needed for evolution.

It seems that this process became an inward movement, from the body to the mind. Is that right?

Yes, absolutely.

However, even during and after what everyone believes to have been your turning point, The Artist is Present (2010), I still perceive a certain need for you to exhaust the body. For that performance you sat silently for seven hours a day, six days a week, for the entire duration of your exhibition at the MoMA in New York. Is this an intentional common thread in your work?

No, time is. And what I am investigating now more than ever is time through works of long duration. Time is very important, and the time it takes for you to exhaust your own energy in order to be able to connect with universal energy is important. A very simple example: after a long run in a park, you feel so tired you just want to go home, take a shower and rest. But if at the very moment you’ve finished running a man with a gun came up and told you “I kill you if you don’t run,” what would you do? You would certainly run, even though you have exhausted all your reserves of energy. This is when you plug in to universal energy, and you can run endlessly.

Marina Abramović, Brasil, 2015.

Marina Abramović, Sesc Pompeia, Brasil, 2015. Photo: Erika Mayumi.

Even though you are a performance artist and all of your work is related to time, most of us can only appreciate what you do through photographs or videos, where the passage of time is compressed or eliminated. The images are also highly structured and convey a sense of stillness, just like icons. 

Photographs and videos are just another way to reach a public which can’t be there during live performances. Then I give them images, but live performance will always be much more powerful than any image people look at. And today live performance is even more important, because of the use people make of technology. Performance is a timeless art, you have to be there: any mediated experience of it won’t be the same. You would still be missing the real thing.

Then what happens when the artist isn’t or cannot be present anymore?

This is why I introduced re-performance (reenactment) through other people. Here in São Paulo I asked young Brazilian artists to reenact Nude with Skeleton at SP-Arte and three other works in my exhibition at SESC Pompeia. This is really the way performance can stay alive, through other people’s lives. I get a lot of objections from colleagues, from artists of my generation. They say: “This is my work, how can it be reenacted by someone else?” I think this is a very selfish attitude: you have to give other people the rights and the opportunity to experience your piece. This is also the only way your piece can live: if the other person brings his own personality, charisma and interpretation, it’s still better than if it didn’t happen.

You are in the process of building a place called the Marina Abramović Institute. Will it be responsible for managing the rights of your performances?

Yes, and not just mine. It will be an institution of reference for the reenactment of other artists’ historical performances too. When I created Seven Easy Pieces (2005) for my show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, I chose some performances I had never seen. I was only given images from the archives and had to reconstruct them before re-performing them, which meant turning them into something different. Going through this process I came to understand the great potential of such an activity, and thought I could open it to everybody.

How did your colleagues react?

When I went public with this project of mine I received a lot of criticism, which I think doesn’t take into account a fact: young artists are reenacting your performances anyway, even if you don’t want them to, and most of the time they are stealing from you. That’s not right. It’s important to know history and to share history, so people can ask for permission to use your work.

Marina Abramović, Brasil, 2015.

Marina Abramović, Sesc Pompeia, Brasil, 2015. Photo: Erika Mayumi.

It’s a lot of work to obtain instructions and permissions to reenact other artists’ pieces too. How do you cope with it?

We had a lot of trouble finding the money for the building and the research: we raised some through a Kickstarter campaign. Now we are traveling, and we will only stop when we can actually enter the new building. Till then we will be setting up the institute every place we go: now it’s in São Paulo, tomorrow in Australia. I am very satisfied with what has been done here. I was able both to do the exhibition and instruct people in the Abramović Method, which is preparing them to experience works of long duration by young Brazilian artists.

Tell me more about the MAI. Why did you decide to locate the MAI in Hudson instead of in Europe, where you were born and lived most of your life?

You know, I lived in Europe a long time, and have done works in every country and museum. Then I turned 58, and I happened to come to New York because my boyfriend at the time wanted to. I said “OK, let’s try,” though I felt the competition there would be brutal. More than 400 000 artists live in New York, how I would have managed to do things? Then I have done only four works in the city since I came there, but those four works put me on a level that everything I had done in Europe didn’t. The truth is Europeans care a lot about what Americans do, while Americans don’t give a shit about what other people are doing. If you look at American news programs, they talk about Brooklyn and whatever is happening around them. They are not international at all. And now I have many more opportunities in Europe then I had before because I live in America. And America is such a disturbed, materialistic society: artists should go and live where things are difficult, not easy. I lived in Amsterdam for so long: there everything is paid for by the government, people are mostly stoned all day long, you have a great life, you can do nothing. That’s not stimulating to me at all. In New York it’s crazy, there is pressure, visual information, sound pollution, you are constantly stressed. Wow. This is the place I created The Artist is Present for, this is why I introduced stillness and peace: here this is much more effective. Any other place in Europe is in very slow motion anyway.

I have read that you see it as a “Bauhaus” with energies coming from an array of disciplines as diverse as art, science, technology and spirituality. You also said it will not be about your work. I am a bit confused: why did you name it after you then?

Because I have really become a brand, like Coca-Cola. When you read my name you know it’s not about painting or sculpture: it’s about performance. All the people who give money to museums and big institutions, the billionaires, get to have their names all over those places. I think it’s not fair that the artist who contributes to culture with his or her own work can’t do the same. I want my own legacy and it’s not a matter of ego: I have put my entire life, 45 years and even more as long as I’m still alive, into something, into creating life, into bringing the art of performance  to life. Before me, performance was not even mentioned as a regular form of art in art history books. Yet I have no money and have to struggle with fundraising.

Marina Abramović, Shoes for Departure.

Marina Abramović, Shoes for Departure, 1991. Courtesy: the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

Critics say that after The Artist is Present your work stopped being about performance and turned into autobiography. Have you ever compromised to obtain an objective?

I never compromise, and still I don’t read critics or listen to them. I do whatever I want. My price on the market didn’t get any higher after the Artist is Present: I have a middle-of-the-road artist’s prices. Yes, my popularity has been greater since then, but among the young generations who have no money to buy art.

What is it like being so popular with this public?

It is very new to me, and kind of wonderful because it means I have crossed a border: before I was only seen by artistic circles, now I attract the attention of a more general public. Half an hour ago I was walking down a street, far away from SESC Pompeia, and ran into a bunch of kids. They were 15 or 17 years old, no more. Suddenly they started to scream: “Marina, we love you!” And I thought: “How can they possibly know my work?” I am sure they don’t know other artists’ names because they weren’t the crowd you would find in a museum. But they knew mine: they must have come to do the Method. They probably put the headphones on, and instead of listening to music got silence…

Is this something you imagined possible?

No, because as an artist you normally come, do your exhibition and then leave. You don’t drain your energies by working every day, on both the Method and the lectures. But it pays off.

I came to one of your lectures, and felt that the common ground may be this new spiritual element which encompasses both your recent work and the Method. Funnily enough, I read you learned most of what you do from two Brazilian shamans. Is that true? What did they tell you?

It is. I invited both of them, a man and a woman, to give a lecture here at SESC Pompeia, because they taught me many things. There is a very old wisdom that we have lost because of our materialistic culture, and because of the faith we put in technology. Those are people who work with knowledge, are in contact with nature and deal with a universal energy we are not even conscious of. I’ve experienced them moving the wind.

Then you make me wonder: what’s the difference between a shaman and an artist?

The context. Artists exhibit in museums, shamans don’t. What I can do is learn from them how to create a charismatic place, and get people to come to it. It’s nothing tangible, but it makes you feel different.

Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present.

Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2012.

Marina Abramović, Crystal Cinema I, 1991.

Marina Abramović, Crystal Cinema I, 1991.

Marina Abramović, Rhythm 5, 1974. Photo: Nebojsa Cankovic.

Marina Abramović, Rhythm 5, 1974. Photo: Nebojsa Cankovic.

Marina Abramović, The Rest Is Silence, 2013. Photo: Knut Bry and Ekebergeparken Oslo.

Marina Abramović, The Rest Is Silence, 2013. Photo: Knut Bry and Ekebergeparken Oslo.

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Marina Abramović, Shoes for Departure, 1991. Courtesy: the artist e/and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

Marina Abramović, Shoes for Departure, 1991. Courtesy: the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.


Sara Dolfi Agostini

A curator and journalist, she lives between Italy and the United States, but often changes course to visit museums, biennials and artists’ studios. Specializing in contemporary art and photography, she is a member of the Milan Triennale’s advisory board. Sara co-curated the public art project ArtLine Milano and wrote the book Collezionare Fotografia (2010, with Denis Curti). She has been contributing to Il Sole 24 Ore since 2008.


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