I Never Doubt
Jegors Jerohomovičs, Art Journalist
A conversation with legendary performance artist Marina Abramović
“You have to be here and now, you have to feel the moment of now. Present time always escapes us. We live in the past – in our memories, and we live in the future – in our plans. In the present, time stops, there’s no time. We have to forget about time…” There are 250 people in white coats hanging on to Marina Abramović’s every word. One of the pioneers of radical art in the 1970s is giving them hypnotic directions for the appreciation of performance art. “Performance is a mental and physical construction that an artist creates in front of the public in time and space. Performance is a dialogue between the artist and the public, its union. Both sides should be involved fully, they should give 100%. State of peace and concentration is necessary. Your mind should be here, not somewhere in Honolulu,” says Abramović. Her “initiation” of the audience lasts one hour. This is the start of the performance art exhibition Marina Abramović Presents….

Marina Abramovic. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes
This unique exhibition was held on 3–19 July, 2009, at Manchester University’s Whitworth Art Gallery, as the highlight of the Manchester International Festival. Marina Abramović developed the concept together with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (the magazine Art Review recently named him as this year’s most influential personality in con-temporary art), Whitworth Director Maria Balshaw and Manchester Festival Director Alex Poots. The exhibition lasted 17 days and ran for four hours each day, with 250 viewers allowed in per day (entry was free, but had to be reserved in advance). Everyone had to put on a white coat at the entrance. “This is essential for our collective experiment, for our unity. For these four hours we must switch off our own personality,” explains Abramović.
The Whitworth Art Gallery (founded in 1889) cleared its exhibition halls of all artistic objects, including paintings, drawings and sculptures. They were replaced by performance artists: Nikhil Chopra (India), Ivan Civic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Amanda Coogan (Ireland), Marie Cool (France) and Fabio Balducci (Italy), Yingmei Duan (China), Eun Hye Hwang (South Korea), Jamie Isenstein (USA), Terence Koh (Canada), Alastair MacLennan (Scotland), Kira O’Reilly (Ireland), Fyodor Pavlov-Andreyevich (Russia), Melati Suryodarmo (Indonesia) and Nico Vascellari (Italy). Following an introduction by Abramović, the public scattered throughout the gallery to spend three hours observing “living art” – performances.

Marina Abramović (born in 1946, in Belgrade) is a legend of extreme performance, whose rituals on the boundaries between life and death, experiments with the body and the nsubconscious, explorations of the boundaries of pain, and studies of the relationship between the artist and viewer are carved into the history of contemporary art. Abramović received the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Biennale for her performance Balkan Baroque. One of her most important 21st century works is the 12 day meditative performance The House with the Ocean View which took place at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York in 2002. In 2005, Abramović repeated historic performances of her own and by other artists (Bruce Nauman, Vito Akonchi, Valie Export, Gina Pane and Joseph Beuys) at the Guggenheim in New York. “I come from a communist background – we document everything! I have every work documented. I have to control everything, even my funeral!” says Abramović.

The performance The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, which the artist has created in collaboration with the director Robert Wilson, will be premiered at the 2011 Manchester Festival. “For the artist it’s important how he works, how he stops working and how he dies,” believes Abramović. She wants her funeral ceremony to take place in the three cities with which her life has been linked – Belgrade, Amsterdam and New York (Abramović has Dutch citizenship, but lives in New York). She would like Antony Hegarty from the group Antony & the Johnsons to sing ‘My Way’ in his own interpretation at the funeral... Besides planning her own funeral, Abramović continues to work, give lectures, make art, help young artists and is preparing for her retrospective to be held at the MoMA in New York from March 14 to May 31, 2010. She has founded the Marina Abramović Institute for Preservation of Performance Art and is planning to open an art centre near New York in 2012.

This interview with Marina Abramović took place in Manchester on July 11, 2009.

Marina Abramovic presents... Marina Abramovic leads the audience through the drill, which helps the audience with how to view and understand long durational art. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes
Jegors Jerohomovičs: In this performance art exhibition you’re a bit like a guru. You have an ability to hypnotise people. Do you feel this power, and how often do you use it to put people in a trance?

Marina Abramović: People don’t tell me that, but they do tell me I radiate authority – whatever I tell them to do, they will do. I think that comes from my experience, for 40 years I’ve been working with performance as a tool. I went through so many experiences myself: travelling to different cultures, learning different systems and applying them to myself. I don’t feel like a guru, but I feel that I have a certain credibility, that through my work certain changes came in my life too. I feel that I could serve like a bridge, that I could bring that knowledge to people and help them that way. For me the entire meaning of art is to elevate the human spirit. From that position I don’t think I’m a guru, but I can help with my own experience, so I think authority comes out of that.

J.J.: How exactly can you help?

M.A.: Until now we’ve never had anything to do with education of the public. I don’t see in history that anything has ever been done that really can elevate the public’s spirit. The public is always left unguided. There is art, and you can look at it, and you can take out of it what you want. I really think that long durational performance work is the key to a certain kind of transformation which I discovered through my work. In the beginning my work was very physical, but it was very short – 40 minutes, one hour, two hours. As the works became longer, I understood that transformation was taking place. And to be able to communicate that transformation of the artist to the public, they have to spend the same amount of time together. You have to give the public some kind of preparation, because people are not prepared. They don’t know why they have to walk in the gallery for four hours and there’s someone lying on the floor, doing nothing. After so many years that I have been doing performances it is my duty to educate the public how to see art, and to give them new ideas and directions. Hardly any other artist of my generation has been doing anything longer – they just stopped. So I feel I have to do it! If not me, who will do it then?! Right now I’m very busy with preserving the legacy of performance art.
I was reading an interview with Leonard Cohen in the newspaper The Guardian recently. He was asked about temporality, dying and about how life is going to end. Life’s final part he compared to the third act. He said: “I’m now actually in the third act.” It’s the same with me – I’m in the third act, next year I’ll turn 64. The third act always starts well and finishes badly – the main character dies. In this third act there’s a lot of space to prepare your legacy, what you will leave behind. I want to see that performance can live. From that point of view I’m not a guru, it’s more the credibility that people deal with.

J.J.: While preparing the public to see the exhibition you repeated a couple of times: “You have to be patient.” Do you think that performance art is about patience?

M.A.: Oh, no, no, no. Performance is not about patience. It’s about many different things: stamina, concentration, energy. Performance is a great tool for getting into the consciousness, how to get to your own state of mind, and how this state of mind can be changed and how the awareness will take place. Performance was always seen as an alternative form of art, and I think it’s about time that it should be seen as one of the mainstream forms of art. This is one of my main functions. Next year I will have a retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It will be the first retrospective of performance art ever. The exhibition will have not only me performing for three months, but also young artists performing my pieces. Three months is a long time; we’ll be performing 7.5 hours a day and 10 hours on Fridays. The title of the retrospective is The Artist is Present, and we want to investigate all the possibilities of how far we can go in really being there for the public.

J.J.: What would be the perfect state of mind for the public when taking part in such an exhibition/experience?

M.A.: The public should have the state of mind of a child. Being completely open and vulnerable, without any kind of pre-thinking statement. Only in that state of openness, vulnerability and having patience to see things the experience will have emotional impact. The performance is very emotional. And we don’t really like to be emotional about art. We think that art has so much to do with the brain and we never let ourselves experience emotions. We are afraid it will be revealing our vulnerability too much. Please be open as a child and let emotions flow. And when you have processed these emotions you can go and read about the performance, to meet the artists and get the knowledge.

J.J.: The performance is an action that doesn’t stop. During this exhibition in Manchester, performances were taking place simultaneously, in different spaces of the gallery. Even when the viewer doesn’t see what’s happening in other rooms, he knows that action is going on there anyway, and it’s impossible to embrace everything.

M.A.: Yes, and there’s also the sound. When you hear “Oah!”, you know it’s Amanda Coogan jumping. And wherever you are in the gallery you hear Nico Vascellari beating the stones in the basement. So you have this awareness. What is very important – when you come to see the pieces, you never see the beginning and you never see the end. When the public comes in, the performance has already started. When the public is asked to leave, the performance still goes on. Only when the public has left do we inform the artists that this is the end. It’s very important, because in your mind these things continue endlessly, you leave with that image, without it being stopped in any way.

J.J.: When the performances during this exhibition are about to end, you want to be in every room to see how they will end.

M.A.: There is no ending. Performance is not about endings. It’s not theatre. Performance is a part of visual arts just like painting. You come to the museum, you look at the painting and then you leave – the painting is still there. And the performance is still there, it will never leave.

J.J.: You said once that for you music is the highest form of art, because it’s immaterial. Where do you place performance?

M.A.: Immediately after music! The first is music, the second is performance and then everything else. Performance is energy between
the artist and the public. When there is an object involved, it will always be between the public and the artist. When the object is removed, there is direct connection.

J.J.: A performance cannot be sold at an auction. Performance artists cannot compete with Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. How do you see the place of performance artists in the contemporary art market?

M.A.: It’s so important for performance art to actually unbalance the art market. Many artists think that being good artists means being rich and successful, while these are only side effects. Art has a completely different function. If in your lifetime you become rich and successful, it’s fine, but that’s not the aim of art. The aim of art, as I said, is to elevate the human spirit, to help and change somebody who has questions. Art can predict the future, art can be disturbing – these are really important things. Just think how cheap are those materials that the artists use in this performance event in Manchester – paper and threads, two stones, three radio transistors – there’s hardly anything! Yet these works are so strong. So we are questioning the diamond skull of Damien Hirst which has to cost millions in order to be good, but it’s not necessary.

Performance questions the true and the fake values of the art market so much. Every time there’s a certain crisis – for example economic, like we’re facing now – performance comes to be more visible. It happened in the 1970s, it’s happening now. It’s like the Phoenix who gets burned and then is reborn from its own ashes. When society collapses, performance comes again, because we need that spirit. In our world it’s all about material things, art has become so celebrity driven. There were so many important pieces of art made in the past, in the Middle Ages and it’s never been known who the artists were, we don’t know their names. It’s all about the work, because it’s the work that has to tell you the story. Performance always brings things to the right state.
Performance can be documented on video or in photographs and you can sell that on the art market, but you can never sell the original thing: the performance itself. The only thing you can deal with here is memory, the memories of the witnesses. Aboriginal culture 30,000 years ago was based on memory – it has never been written down, but all the rituals and ceremonies are still here. So we shouldn’t underestimate memory.

J.J.: Do you consider yourself a celebrity in the art world?

M.A.: People are telling me: you’re known, you’re important. I’ve never felt that, I don’t put value on this. It never changed me. I worked for so long and for so long it was so difficult… You know, if you’re a young artist and in five years you become famous and you’re everywhere, you really start thinking that you are important. If success comes in a slow and difficult way, you understand that this isn’t important at all, it’s a kind of fake attachment. The main thing is the work – success is a side effect. I never make myself think that I’m important, because it would be completely wrong. I’d rather think that I have to be able to explain my work on every possible level. The artist has to turn to society, the artist has to be humble. You have to find a way how you can help young artists, which I’m doing by curating this kind of exhibition. You have to have human qualities which we forget by becoming a celebrity, by becoming arrogant. I find it so selfish that so many artists live that way. I don’t want to go that way. I’d rather think about the legacy of performance art and of so many things that have human qualities.

J.J.: What has performance art given you personally? What has it given you that you wouldn’t get if you were a painter or a sculptor?

M.A.: I don’t know. Performance is just a tool, and I don’t think it has more importance than painting, sculpture, video installation or photography. For every artist the first thing is to understand who he is. And when he understands who he is, he has to create the work. Some people become painters, and they are great painters. I just saw the Francis Bacon show at the Metropolitan Museum – and it was like, wow! And some people become performers, so it’s not that one is better than another. It’s just the idea that whatever you’re doing, you have to do it 100%. It’s the only way to have impact. Energy spent on making good art is never lost.
I used to be a painter before. When I started performing for the first time in my life, the energy I felt and the intensity of the feeling was so strong that I couldn’t do anything else. So I knew that performance was my medium – forever and ever.

J.J.: For the last 40 years you haven’t painted anything?

M.A.: No, I was radical in my decision. It’s so funny with me – I never doubt. Since very early on I knew I was an artist. I knew with every molecule of my body that I didn’t want to have a normal family, didn’t want to have children, didn’t want to have any of that. I just wanted to do my work. And having found performance as a tool, this hasn’t changed for 40 years.

J.J.: What’s the most important source of energy for your art?

M.A.: Not only for me, but for everybody the most important is sexual energy. That’s the main energy we have in our body. We have to figure out how we can transform sexual energy into creative energy. Picasso was a good example of how he transformed sexual energy into creative insanity and a huge amount of work.

J.J.: Your work was always about dealing with the public. How has the public changed over the years?

M.A.: In the beginning there were only friends in the audience, we were three or four people in the room. Performance then was a very small family, and no one was questioning if this was art. Only in the last ten years I was asked in interviews – why is this art? So I had nothing else to do but defend that this is art. There’s been a huge change. People have really started seeing performance. Performance has a huge influence not only on the visual arts, but also in fashion, theatre, dance, film making – in life and culture in general. It’s everywhere, it’s taking different forms. The audience now is much larger.

J.J.: Both actors and dancers are using a lot of performance art elements in their stage work. Where is the line between performance and theatre?

M.A.: It’s very simple to distinguish. Performance deals with reality, there’s no acting. A performance artist is showing his true feelings, and all the instruments he is using during this process are real. If you take a pistol and play Russian roulette as a performance artist, you could be killed. If you take a pistol and play Russian roulette as a theatre actor, you could be killed, but it will be a fake killing on stage, you will stay alive. Do you see the difference? The performance is about reality.

J.J.: Your performances were extreme and dangerous – both physically and mentally. How has it all affected your senses and feelings? Have you become stronger or weaker? Maybe you are superhuman now?

M.A.: I’m definitely not a superhuman being! I cannot turn spoons into pulp, and I cannot move objects with my eyes. I’ve become incredibly receptive to the energy and the public, those are incredible feelings. There’s something that opens during the performance; this doesn’t happen so often in life. The moment I perform, I step into another state of mind. It’s a highly spiritual experience of unconditional love for the public which takes over me every time I perform. Everyone who is coming close to me during the performance starts feeling it. That’s why the experience in my late performances is extremely emotional. The public comes and cries with me for some reason, there’s something very mysterious happening in these performances. I’m always afraid whether I can reach that kind of state, if I’m able to get there. I’m always in panic before each performance, I’m in a state of anxiety, I’m nervous, but the moment the performance starts, it all disappears. There’s just an enormous peaceful moment. A very charismatic moment.

J.J.: You look great. How do you keep fit? Does performance have a rejuvenating force?

M.A.: I turned 63 in November. For me art is purification. My life is getting so fast, that’s why my performances become longer and longer. When I step into the time of the performance, everything else ceases to exist. I live in the performance fully. It’s very important to maintain good physical form for your body. Your physical body is like your own car. You have to clean it, you have to put oil in it, you have to know if there’s enough gasoline, if there’s enough air in the tyres. The same thing is with the body. In our culture we deny our bodies so much. People are drinking, taking drugs. I don’t do any of this, I put all my effort into art. In life I’m very old-fashioned. I’ve never had a drink in my life, because I just don’t like it. I don’t smoke, I don’t use drugs, I don’t drink coffee. I exercise, I have a trainer who comes three times a week. I keep fit, so that I can be physically able to endure these pieces. I can be fit as much as I want, but if I don’t have mental strength, it’s impossible to do what I’m doing. When I was younger, I could never do the performances that I’m doing now, because I didn’t have the mental strength it requires and that I have now. It seems so strange – you’re getting older and you can say you have less strength, but you can be an athlete and still you won’t be able to do certain things, if mentally you don’t have this incredible discipline. So you have to generate that, and it comes with time and experience. At this point of my life I’m mentally more fit than I have ever been.

J.J.: The performances you’ve been doing since the 1970s have be-come the classics of contemporary art. Those were brave, radical and provocative pieces which make it almost impossible for young artists to “compete” with your body of work. What can surprise you in other artists’ work?

M.A.: Have you seen a book that I’ve made, Student Body? It’s much bigger and has more pages than any book devoted to my work. This is
a book about young artists, some of them are represented in this exhibition in Manchester and they make very original work. Here in our show in Manchester I’m surprised every day. A girl from South Korea, Eun Hye Hwang, with three radio transistors creates incredible charismatic contact with the public. She creates trust, and something is really happening. The Italian artist Nico Vascellari and his shamanic beating of the stone: it represents another state of mind. Every single piece in this show is a new language, and it’s wonderful. I’ve never done anything like that. I think there are still so many things to be done. There’s always a place for good art. I hate how some artists of my generation think that they’ve made great work and nothing else can be done after them. The younger generation gives you the scent, the spirit of the time, and you can give them the experience – that’s a wonderful energy exchange. And this is what you have to look for.

J.J.: You’re creating the Institute for Preservation of Performance Art. How is this project going?

M.A.: I just bought the building, and now I need to raise 2 million US dollars. I will do it after my show at MoMA, I don’t have time at the moment. It’s going to be an institute for performing arts. We will educate public about performance art, we will teach young artists. We will commission works. I want to have all the performing arts represented there: dance, video, film, opera, theatre, music. We will have only long durational work, every piece will have to be at least 6 hours long. That will be the main difference from other arts centres that already exist in the world. I want the public and the artist to live inside the work. We will need special chairs that will transform into beds, so that in the middle of a piece that lasts 10 hours you can fall asleep comfortably, there will be blankets. In the arms of the chairs there will be cool drinks on one side and a hot meal on the other side. It means that you will be able to live fully inside the piece while you’re sleeping or while you’re awake – that doesn’t matter.

J.J.: Are you going to live inside the museum during your retrospective in the MoMA?

M.A.: Due to all kinds of restrictions and security reasons I will not live there. When the public comes to the museum, I’m there. When the public leaves the museum, I’m there, so they never see the ending. In total I will spend 596 hours in the museum.

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