Marina Abramovic has dedicated most of her life to redefining what performance art is. She creates performances that push the limits of her body and mind, and shock and emotionally move audiences. The New-York based Serbian artiste is best known for her work “The Artist Is Present”, which was documented in a film under the same name. Abramovic, who turns 66 today, says she wants to leave a legacy for the world of performance art before she dies.
Abramovic was in Abu Dhabi a few weeks ago, on what was her first trip to the Gulf region. Weekend Review sat down with the artiste ahead of her lecture at Abu Dhabi Art to find out more about her visit, her performances and what she is working on at the moment. Excerpts:
This is your first time in Abu Dhabi. How has your stay been so far?
The Middle East was an absolute mystery because you see the women in black veil and you don’t know what’s behind that. It’s really interesting for me to confront and see things. I had a few encounters over the past two days with women from different backgrounds and I was so surprised how educated, how strong, how opinionated and how curious about the things that I’m doing they were, and my view is changing every single day. I’d really like to understand how this culture works. I would like to come back and know more and maybe create one work specifically for the Middle East, because as a performance artiste you need to do research. To do a performance I need to understand the culture and I don’t want to have my own ideas and kind of drop them on your head. I don’t work that way. There’s something about this place that’s fascinating me. Outside, there’s so much misunderstanding and misconceptions about the Middle East.
How did your trip to Abu Dhabi come about?
I work with the Lisson Gallery and this is their second time here (at Abu Dhabi Art). After their first visit, they said to me, “you absolutely have to come here because it’ll be fascinating for you to meet the women especially”, and this is how my visit came about.
I was really very surprised how many women saw my films here and have participated in some of my talks outside the Middle East. The questions that I’ve been asked are really important, those which go to the core of performing art. I had thought I’m such a hardcore radical performer that they’re going to be shocked here and that they’ll never talk to me, but it’s just the opposite. I’m very very happy about that.
How has your background affected your performance?
My mother and father were both partisans, both national heroes, politically active, and when I was born they left me with my grandmother. My grandmother was very religious, hated communism — complete opposite to them. I grew up with this contradiction, between something very religious and spiritual and something completely different, communism. My work embodies all of these characteristics, the spiritual part, but also the hardcore determination and willpower. That kind of determination gave me a lot of strength when I left Yugoslavia to create my work. My background played an important role in giving me a huge amount of discipline. My mother would wake me up in the middle of the night if I didn’t sleep straight on my bed because everything had to be in order, which is completely insane. And now when I sleep in the hotel people think I’m not in the room — because I sleep so straight they don’t need to make my bed. It’s such a simple example of the kind of discipline I apply to my work.
When did you realise you had the ability to perform?
I started very young as an artist. Then I was a painter and I was also very shy. I remember the first time I performed in public, I was terrified, but the moment I started performing, this insecurity left me in a second and this incredible energy that I was not even aware I had came out, and after that, I knew that was my language and tool. For an artiste, it’s important to know which tool to use to express their work. I was very lucky to find out very early that my tool is performance.
Do you worry that performance art can only be captured in the present moment and is not a piece of work that lives on?
You see, what is so fascinating about performance is that it is not a material form of art. This is so difficult to grasp because you have to be in the place where it happens. You have to understand that we underestimate memory. If you look at, for instance, the indigenous cultures such as the aborigines, there’s no written word but their culture has lived a thousand years just by memory and by the transmission of knowledge and the experience. So in a way, performance will live in the memory of people who have seen it; they talk about it with other people and that’s how it stays. It’s a very difficult art form and this is why for so long it’s been alternative and not mainstream. I’ve spent all my life, now 40 years, to create this situation where it becomes mainstream, where it becomes as important as any other form of art.
We cannot sit and talk and not mention “The Artist is Present”. How difficult was it to do this project? Were you moved when people sitting in front of you were?
I was moved and I cried with them. It was the most difficult performances I’ve ever done, but it looked so simple. It’s the most difficult thing to do — something close to nothing. In the beginning, I had a very simple setting, two chairs and a table, and later we also removed the table. This is the essence of performance — the submission of energy and nothing else. That was the best piece I’ve ever done. I always think the last piece is the best piece. It was the purest because nothing existed except the gaze between the two persons.
The idea was that there’s no time limit. You could sit with me for as long as you want. One person sat for seven hours. Seven hours was amazing. He came in the morning and left in the evening. Seven hours straight. You know, in New York where no one has time, it’s a phenomenon. The function was to give unconditional love to complete strangers. That’s what I wanted to do. The person who sits in front of me is observed by me, observed by the public around, waiting and watching, and is filmed and photographed. There’s nowhere to escape except into oneself, and that clicked right away because everything with America is trying to not focus on yourself. When this happened, incredible pain and emotions came out. I was there to be with them and that was a very strong experience. It was 1,650 people who I watched.
What is coming up for you?
You see, when I stood up from that chair I was not the same person any more. I really changed. I understood the incredible value of time, how much time I had left in my life and how I should focus on the real important issues. I really want to start my institute for performing arts, the immaterial forms of art, such as dance, music, opera, film and performance, and it’s going to be in Hudson (New York). This centre is going to be unique because it will only address long-duration work. Everything has to be six hours or more. So when you go in there as part of the normal public, you have to sign a contract that you will spend at least six hours. If you don’t, you can’t get in, because you have to give me your time so I can give you an experience. I’m raising the funds next year because I need about $50 million [Dh184 million] for that. We we will be partially open by the end of 2014. I’m not going to be the director. The centre is only going to have my name. This is what I want to leave as a legacy.
What is your secret to looking this young at this age?
(Laughs) My grandmother was 103 when she died. We come from Montenegro; we’re mountain people. My brother is six years younger than me and he’s like a baby. It’s crazy. For me, I love what I do, but at the same time I sacrifice everything. No children — my husband left me because I’m never home. I just work. It’s a very lonely life in so many ways but at the same time I have a strong purpose. I feel I was sent to this Earth for a very special purpose: to teach people how to face pain — confront it, understand it and be freed from it.
Why is it so important for you to perform?
It’s like breathing. I have to perform to stay alive.
Marina Abramovicć was born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. She attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade and started her career in performance art in the early Seventies. Today she is globally known and considered one of the pioneers of this art form.
In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a performance by Abramovic. Titled “The Artist Is Present”, the performance was a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium, while the audience were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. Many members of the audience, and Abramovic, were moved to tears. She considers it her best performance to date.
Abramovic is a winner of several international awards and has many honorary doctorates of art. She has plans to open an institute for long-duration performances. She lives and works in New York.