HOW MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ, THE QUEEN OF CONTROVERSY, USES PAIN FOR BEAUTY
The controversial performance artist currently has a retrospective in Bonn, Germany.
PHOTOGRAPY AND INTERVIEW
by TATIJANA SHOAN
by MASAYO KISHI
JACOB HOOKER, GEORGE QUITO & SASHA DIBENEDITTO
by CARISSA ASIF ZAIDI
by CESAR RAMIREX
to SONIA AGOSTINO
Marina Abramović—the 71-year-old performance artist best known for her dramatic, and physically strenuous, works—is one of the art world’s most controversial women. She is currently the subject of a new retrospective, titled The Cleaner, in Bonn, Germany, until August. Plus up ahead: Her next project will be allowing herself to be charged with 1 million volts of electricity by an English goat farmer.
Below, re-read an in-depth interview with Abramović from AS IF’s archives.
AS IF: You put yourself through degrees of pain, both emotional and physical, for your work. What does pain do for performance?
Marina Abramović: Last year I visited a shaman in Brazil, who can read auras through different minerals. The shaman looked at me and said, “You never feel at home anywhere.” I said, “Yes, this is so true, why is this?” And she answered, “Because you don’t come from this planet, your DNA is solar, it is from far away.” I was surprised to hear this, and she continued, “You were sent to this planet for a very specific purpose.” I asked her what my purpose was, and she responded, “Your purpose is to learn about the human race and how to transfer, translate, and work with pain.” It was a very interesting conversation with this shaman, because this is what I feel. The two big fears we all have to overcome are the fear of dying and the fear of pain. I stage very painful situations in public and use the energy of the public in order to create the situation for them so they can see pain for themselves. My point is, if I can go through these situations, they can also go through them. The only way to diminish the fear of pain is to actually understand what pain is, to feel it and then liberate oneself from it.
Felt scarf by Claudy Jongstra for InAisce | Dragonfly brooch made of Amethyst and Smoky Quartz by Iradj Moini | Gray occilating skirt by InAisce | Highlanders boots by InAisce
You have a tremendous amount of courage to put yourself through fear and pain in front of an audience, which exposes you emotionally, mentally, and physically.
Both of my parents are considered national heroes of World War II in my home country of Serbia. My father always talked about his war stories, so I knew he was a war hero, and I grew sick and tired of hearing the stories growing up. What I didn’t know was that my mother was also a national hero. I found out accidentally when I discovered her medals under her bed. I was so impressed. She also saved old newspaper articles about herself. When I found these articles describing my mother and what she did I couldn’t believe it. I always had trouble relating to her, yet had I found these articles sooner, perhaps our relationship would have been different because I would have finally understood her. The point is, I think everyone in my entire family bases their life on very high ideals about heroism and sacrifice for a higher cause; it’s not important what you do as an individual, what matters is what you can do for others.
So your mother would probably disapprove of your exhibitionism.
The word exhibitionist hurt me because for a long time no one could understand that what I was doing was a form of art. They didn’t understand the necessity of nudity, that nudity is actually required when you do this work. Nudity is the most pure and simple form of the human body, and artists have been using the naked form for centuries. I don’t think that any of my work is in any way exhibitionistic because I use my body as a tool, like a painter uses a brush. My tool communicates pain and tells a story. I am able to present different concepts with my body so the viewer can see differently.
Performance by Marina Abramović and Ulay, Galleria Communale d’Arte, Bologna (1977)
My body is material. Everything to me is about the mind and soul and the body houses the mind and soul. Without your mind, you can’t do anything, so my body is just my equipment! (Laughs) But this equipment has to be held, it must be seen, it must be in good shape and healthy so it can deliver the message that my soul requires. My body is my object, the subject of my research, and my tool all at the same time.
What does blood represent in your work?
Everything! Blood is life energy. I love life, and I love people. I take a deep breath when I wake up in the mornings and experience this incredible feeling of pure joy. The main focus for me in life is to live every day fully and to be in the present, be in the moment—that’s the most magical thing to do. But when I look around me I see so much unhappiness, doubt, and confusion in people. It’s so important to have clarity and to understand your purpose.
“I know now that you have to create art that lifts the spirit, not art that conjures up the evil in people During The Artist is Present, I was giving unconditional love to everybody.”
I heard you say once that audiences need to be educated in how to experience performance art. What are we missing as an audience?
The audience not only needs to understand performance art, the audience first needs to understand themselves, which has made pioneering this form of art a very difficult task. This is why it’s so important for me to create the Marina Abramović Institute. I am currently trying to raise the first seven million dollars to build it. The mission of the institute will be to pioneer a new kind of education where the public first must learn how to be with themselves—we need to tune the public so they can receive new ideas and new art forms. When I go to museums and just watch people, I notice they are always on their cell phones texting, talking, and taking pictures. They are so restless it’s impossible to receive anything; they are masking their experience with technology. You have to empty your luggage before you can put new things inside your suitcase, metaphorically speaking. My plan for people coming to my institute is that upon entering you must sign a contract in which you promise to spend six hours with me. If you don’t sign it, you are denied entry. Giving me your commitment in time is the most important thing because time is precious—you give me your time, and I will give you an experience.
In The Artist is Present, you said you gave unconventional love to each individual seated opposite you, and that you communicated not with words but with pure energy. You also said that you were transformed by this performance. What did you learn?
Oh, I learned so many things. After this performance I was contacted by many scientists that were very interested in my performance because they had never had a subject that could be still for so long. They asked me if I could sit for them for a series of tests. They studied an American, a Russian, and me. We underwent several experiments with caps on our heads to see what kind of brain waves we were producing. Apparently they discovered that my brain is somewhat special because I can concentrate for long periods of time, meditate, and go into my subconscious. But they also discovered that I actually send out and receive huge amounts of information. Much of my institute will be dedicated to this kind of science because that, together with art, is a combination we can learn so much from.
Performance at Studio Morra, Naples, Italy, (1974)
What do you do when you encounter hostility in an audience?
In Rhythm 0, which you performed in naples in 1974, you were actually harmed by the audience. Did you experience any hostility from people in The Artist is Present? That’s a really good question because as I grow I see that I am a student: a student of energy and of people. I was young when I did Rhythm 0. I put 72 objects on a table, including objects that could both hurt me and give me pleasure, and allowed people in the audience to choose any object and do whatever they liked with my body. In the beginning, people were just playing, and then they became more and more hostile and they really started to hurt me. Then I understood that when people see a possibility to be negative, they will take it. It was a terrifying performance, and literally, when I came back to the hotel, I had a large grey hair coming out at my hairline. I know now that you have to create art that lifts the spirit, not art that conjures up the evil in people. During The Artist is Present, I was giving unconditional love to everybody. No matter what energy they gave me, I gave them love in return.
You have been criticized for allowing other artists to re-perform your work, as well as you re-performing other artists’ works. Why do you think that is?
You know, we have very old-fashioned ideas of originality; we think that once an artist or performance artist creates a piece, nobody can touch it. I really believe that a good work of art has many lives, and I also think that an artist has to deal with the ego and let it go. Performance art is a living form of art, and it has to be performed live, otherwise it becomes something in a book that someone might read.
Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives & Sean Kelly Gallery, New York
Some well-known performers have copied other artists’ works without giving credit, unlike you or other artists, who always give credit when re-performing a piece.
Yes, and that is one of the reasons why I made Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. On seven consecutive nights for seven hours, I re-performed works of five artists from the Sixties and Seventies, as well as my own. However, I made conditions for myself. First, I asked the artists for their permission, and if the artist was dead, I asked their foundation. Second, I would pay for the rights, and third, I studied the work intensely. Each time I re-performed a piece, I listed the name of the artist and where the original work was performed and sourced, then I would write, “Re-performed by Marina Abramović,” and the current date.
If you had to interpret your favorite painting into a performance piece, what would that painting be, and what would you say about it?
A painting—wow—I am doing that now! It’s so funny that you asked me that! This morning I was rehearsing just that with the artist Terrance Koh! For the first time in my life I am taking spreads of performance art being reproduced and nowhere did they give the artist credit. This is so unfair because they never pay for the rights, nor mention where the original source comes from and that’s not right.
What was it like working with architect rem koolhaas?
I knew Koolhaas because I lived in Holland, and I respect his philosophy in architecture so much because he isn’t only about the master plan for the building, but he also considers the environment, the city, the purpose of the building, and how to integrate all the elements. I also really like his partner Shohei Shigematsu. The two of them together make a great team because they both have different sensibilities—Koolhass is a very strict Dutch Protestant, Shigematsu is a very functional, unemotional Japanese. So I just love the two of them together!
You also have a love for fashion. Fashion designer Riccardo Tisci has made you one of the faces of the spring 2013 Givenchy ad campaign. Tell me about your relationship with fashion?
I secretly always liked fashion, but in the Seventies, the general approach to fashion was vanity, so serious artists steered away from it. I was a young artist who wanted and needed to prove myself, so I never turned toward fashion. I was also broke and fashion costs money.