An artist should not make himself into an idol
Marina Abramović is everywhere lately.
A marathon performance at MoMa, another retrospective in Moscow, on the cover of POP magazine, hosting a star studded event at Jeffrey Deitch’s MOCA in LA and an exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery slated for 2012, the HBO documentary “The Artist is Present” just screened at Sundance. An ever growing list of projects that is taking her across continents…
Exclusive long form of interview first published in POP magazine FW2012
Marina Abramović is everywhere lately. She has emerged from what was considered an alternative section of contemporary art, Performance Art, to finally occupy an untouchable position in the Pantheon of Pop.
A marathon performance at the MoMa, another retrospective in Moscow scheduled, and an exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery slated for 2012, day and night filming of an HBO documentary and an ever growing list of projects. Marina is known for her works in which she tests and pushes her emotional,mental and physical strength, but her schedule takes its toll: Marina is exhausted.
Broad recognition has come comparably late for Abramović, who was often categorized as some sort of Exotic Serbian Vixen. Nevertheless, she has shaped a significant slice of art history like no other.
Today, less considered for her public sexual identity, and more appreciated for her timelessness and her bravery, one could unarguably call Marina “the diva of contemporary art”, were she not so grounded.
Freja Beha Erichsen with her "Mini Me". A collaboration by Marina Abramović for POP magazine Photography by René Habermacher
Our conversation takes place just after Marina’s return to New York from Manchester, England where she spent six weeks collaborating with Robert Wilson on a new biography, “The Life and Death of Marina Abramović”. The play was staged with accompanied music written and conducted by Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) and narrated by a ferocious Willem Dafoe.
The audience witnessed him meticulously rummaging through the details of her life chronologically. Marina has been clear about her lack of appreciation for theatre as a concept and this play marks a sharp departure from her concept of herself as a performance artist.
She participates in what she used to essentially despise: “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”
René Habermacher: With this piece you staged something that you call artificial theatre. It lacks the realness that is central to your work. How was this experience for you?
Marina Abramović: I am his material. I completely gave all the control to Bob (Robert Wilson). That is the only way to really be material for someone else, which is very interesting, because its just absolutely the opposite of what I do. This is first time that i have this really radical approach with Bob – he absolutely refused anything to do with performance. This was an amazing experience for me and very difficult, because his approach to rehearsal is like mine to performance, – but yet it’s just rehearsal! Just be there for hours and hours in order for him to fix the light. I lose my reason, I need the public, I need another kind of dialogue. This was a huge discipline not to kill him!
RH: How did this project with Bob come together?
MA: Oh, I know Bob Wilson since the 70s. He came to ex-Yugoslavia in 1971, when I was a student, and performed. What I like about him is his relationship to architecture, to theatre, to light, to time, to slow motion. All of these elements are very close to my work. We didn’t find any difficulties to connect.
RH: What was the initial spark to collaborate for this?
MA: You know, its because I wanted to include death – to do life AND death. And there was something about this idea of life and death in the connection with Bob Wilson’s kind of work. I think he is the only one who can actually edit it in the way that he did.
RH: It is very interesting to have this forward look to your own death and play with his idea. Is there any relation with your orthodox upbringing, the kind of philosophy where the walk of life is transcending into the eternal?
MA: Yes, you are completely right, absolutely! Yes. Because, you know, thats the point. It was definitely the idea – my grandmother used to have her clothes ready for the funeral since 40 years. She lived to the age of 103, and every time the fashion would change, she would change the clothes [for her funeral].
So the presence of death in my daily life was always there, which I think is a very important eastern approach. You never know when the day will come. It is so different from the western culture. When I am here in America, the whole idea of death is removed, you never actually see that. And also there is somehow this idea of “forever young” which is completely unrealistic. The only way to really appreciate life, is to accept death as the final stage. This is the reason, getting 65 this year, I have to include death in my biography.
RH: I find your language as an artist to be very honest in its aim and blunt in its depiction. There were always traces of your upbringing and background. But, lately it seems you refer more often to your heritage as a Balkan child.
MA: That’s totally true. In the beginning of my life, when I started working in Yugoslavia, there were so many obstacles and all I wanted was to leave and get as far as I can go. The older I grow and the more I get distance with now almost 40 years of not living there, the less I want to do that. I have now sort of a big picture where I come from and what its all about. It’s an interesting thing going backwards, looking to the past and revisiting my memory and start understanding connections, which I couldn’t do when I was young. In fact, at the moment I am working with the government to of Montenegro to start a performing arts center which shows the connection of where I am from, and what I have done since.
RH: Though your work is very conceptual, there is also a very strong spiritual aspect…
MA: You know I’ve become Buddhist almost 30 years ago. To me spirituality is really the core of my existence. I am not religious, I don’t like religion per se, because religion for me is institutionalized and mostly corrupted. It’s so much more interesting to learn, to actually think about spirituality and what it means. And every good work of art has a spiritual element to it. It is not always the main one, but it is always there, underlining it, and to me its absolutely important to my work.
RH: The art world is very male-dominated, as a woman was that a challenge for you? Is it still?
MA: No. I never felt the differences between men and women; i am not a feminist because of the same reason. I feel that women, by feeling vulnerable and not equal, create this kind of energy and they are perceived that way. For me art doesn’t have any gender… in America, everybody is obsessed with percentage: ‘how many percentage male, female, gay..’ I don’t give a shit about this. It’s good or bad art and who is making it is really not important. I never felt restricted because I always took my position, so I don’t have this kind of feeling. Actually everything that I ever wanted to do takes years, but I did it. i don’t have reason to complain.
RH: So you don’t think it is important to have a sexual identity in your work ?
MA: I don’t care. You know, I am not busy with this. If this comes because its natural and because I am a woman, ok. But I really don’t see this as anything important. It is so funny thinking about this… many other people deal with this much more than I am.
RH: You left your very specific background and moved from Belgrade to Amsterdam in 1974, this must have felt like a very liberating moment…
MA: Yeah, it was a huge jump for me to go to Amsterdam. It was free and everyone was completely liberated, all which I strived for. One interesting thing back in Yugoslavia at that time, socialist time, was that there were clear restrictions on what you can do and you can’t do. You could go for years to prison for something. So you know you take this risk. There I had a lot of reasons to be an artist, I was rebelling against the system. Coming to Amsterdam, i lost reason because nobody cared if I am naked on the street or whatever. So I had to create an entire set of my own restrictions in order to be able to deal with that. It was quite interesting to rearrange my own life.
RH: If you compare today to the 70s that were all about liberation, we live now in a world after the triumph of capitalism where every other ideology has kind of capitulated…
MA: Yeah, that’s absolutely something else. It’s all together different. […]
And now especially in America, I think that the democracy is so perverse – here, it looks like things are free but actually they’re not. It’s a freedom that is in many ways fake. So it’s a completely other set of restrictions.
RH: Broad recognition of your work has come comparably late. It seems you became part of the pop culture, almost mainstream…
MA: [laughs] Yeah, that’s quite interesting. It took me so long to create this situation where performance became mainstream. That was my aim from the beginning, and it really finally starts happening.
It’s quite interesting how people take the stuff and recycle it. […] God, its just very very different. I’m wondering if I lost control, because I set up these rules for people to re-perform my pieces. But now it became like open, everybody just re-performs without asking permission nor pay royalties. So it’s a completely crazy situation.
AN ARTIST SHOULD NOT MAKE HIMSELF INTO AN IDOL. Marina Abramović and Freja Beha Erichsen. Photography by Ren'e Habermacher
RH: What is the challenge of the re-performance for you?
MA: You know its really a different story, as performance, first of all its like a child, you have to let it go. There are so many people of my generation who would never give permission to somebody to perform their work because they feel ‘its mine and nobody else’s’. I think that this is a very egoistic point of view because you don’t let your child grow! It think performance is a time based live form of art. If you make a performance once when you are 30 and then you never perform it again, it will just be a dusty image in a book or a bad video and you never have the chance that this work lives. You have to get away from your ego and say ok, even if this is changed, even if this is not the exact same as my work because it is the charisma of the other performer, even if the performer brings his new ideas and things are different, it is still better than it never being re-performed at all. That is my point of view.
RH: Performance is considered an alternative art form because you don’t produce an object that has a price tag on it. So in the “business” of art, your work doesn’t really have a position. Unlike some of your peers, you never made objects or installations for the market.
MA: No, no. It’s really special my position. If you look at my generation of artists and the enormous amount of money they are making and how little I generate – take Damien Hirst, who is like half age of me, not half but much younger, you are talking millions. My maximum price for photographs is much less and the galleries take 50%. So my image and my price are completely disproportionate. It’s always been like this and now I stop worrying about it. I am not attached to money – for me money is something to get somewhere and make new work.
But I really want to find funding for my foundation. I have to see how I can sell my work in a different way, or create some kind of market that can be able to give this kind of donation to my foundation.
RH: What are the specific directions and the goals of this institute?
MA: There are two things that I will be working to establish for the next 10 years.
One is in Hudson, where i want to do the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art.
It’s really for long-durational performance work. I want to make a unique place just for that, that doesn’t yet exist. Its about the idea that only long-durational work can transform the performer and the viewer in a way that no other form of art can do. After 40 years of performance, I have come to this conclusion.
And the other is this huge fridge factory in Cetinje, Montenegro where 8000 people used to produce fridges for eastern europe. It will be like a production tank, where I want the work to be produced.
The government of Montenegro has supported me by asking me o create the concept for it to become a production place for pieces of opera, dance, theatre and film. Not mainstream and not bullshit, but really with content.
I have to go to the office now and then taking a car and going to the countryside…
Ok Baby, kiss – i am running!
June 13-15, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, Theater Basel, Basel
June 22-24, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, Carre Theater, Amsterdam
June 28-30, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, DeSingel, Antwerp
Rene Habermacher – Photographer
Isabelle Kontoure – Fashion Editor/Stylist
Hair Stylist: Peter Gray , Makeup Artist: Romy Soleimani, Manicurist: Tracylee , Casting: Angus Munro, Photography Assistance : Cesar Rebollar, Fashion Assistance : Jodie Latham, Stephanie Waknine, Rebecca Sammon & Michaela Dosamantes, Digital Technician: Dilek Isildak, Digital Remastering: The Stimuleye, Set Design: Anne Koch, Production: John Engstrom, Studio: Eagles Nest Daylight Studios NYC
Hair Stylist: Chi Wong, Makeup Artist: Yannis Siskos, Photography Assistance: Jonathan Flanders & Hannan Jones, Digital Remasterin: The Stimuley, Production: Lynsey Peisinger for The Stimuleye, Snake Wrangler: David Steward for Creature Feature