A Conversation With… Marina Abramovic

Portrait by Mark Hartman

Portrait by Mark Hartman

Marina Abramovic is a Yugoslavian-born artist known as a pioneer in performance art. Her work often involves pushing herself to mental and physical limits—and there’s often no end in sight. In a 2016 interview with The New York Times, she described herself as three Marinas: “one who’s really spiritual and dedicated to the work, and another who’s a warrior and about breaking borders and going to unmarked territories, and the third is lots of sweets and lots of bad movies.” In 2006, she bought a home outside Chatham, NY. Currently, she is involved in the creation of the Marina Abramovic Institute, a 33,000-square-foot building in the center of Hudson, New York, that is being re-designed by The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Once renovated, it will provide a space for works of performance art, multidisciplinary collaboration and educational programs. Currently, MAI presents live events at partner venues, presenting collaborative projects and durational works. 

Michael Mundy: I just want to start by saying that I’m an enormous fan of your work. It’s something that has affected me on a visceral level, for such a long time, that I have difficulty expressing it, but I certainly know how it makes me feel and I thank you for that. 

Marina Abramovic: I trust you (laughs). Do you live upstate? 

MM: I do now. I’m originally from the city, but I moved here a few years ago. 

MA: Which part?

MM: It’s Sullivan County, sort of near the Pennsylvania border. 

MA: So the other side of the river from Hudson.  

MM: Yes, I’m on the Delaware River, actually. 

MA: So we are kind of far neighbors (laughs). 

MM: Do you spend a good deal of time up here? 

MA: Not enough… Let’s concentrate on the idea of why people should leave cities—more and more people feel that cities are like traps of negative energy and that we should go out and spend time in nature and outdoors. There’s really a kind of movement among artists around here. 

MM: Especially your area seems to attract a lot of artists. They seem to be gathering up there. 

MA: It’s funny. There are so many artists around but we hardly see or visit each other because when we get up[state], everyone is so happy to be in solitude and not see anybody.

MM: That’s true. I’m always curious about people, particularly artists, who are conscious of the moment. The moment for me is always my constant goal—to be as completely aware as possible. For your work, it is extremely about that. You take it to a level that most of us just try to imagine. What is it like to be alone with yourself? 

MA: (laughs) There are different ways to be alone. Because you are there with yourself, even if you’re surrounded by hundreds of people. So, you can be alone with millions of people around you. It’s such a difficult thing, “alone.” I mean there are so many levels that you can be alone. For me, it’s very hard, the city, because there are hundreds of people just thinking. Thinking is a process that is almost a physical energy. Even if you’re not involved with somebody else’s brain, you’re affected by the waves going through you. So, it’s really important to go to a place where there are no humans. The desert for me is one of the best places to be. 

MM: I love deserts. 

MA: What’s interesting is that deserts amplify your mind so much because you never can escape your head wherever you go. 

MM: It’s true. The ocean can be that way too. I sail and when I’m in the middle of the ocean, it’s a place to be completely alone with your thoughts. 

MA: But then it depends on which state of mind you are in. You can be in a polluted state of mind and then being alone becomes an absolute hell. Or you can be in a peaceful state of mind, then being alone is a true blessing. So, it’s not easy—where and when you are alone. To me, the most tragic loneliness is when you are surrounded by hundreds and thousands of people and you feel lonely. And this is almost a symbol of our society today—that people are lonely. They are with people who are lonely. I think technology has contributed to this. This technology and gadgets that we are keeping with us. We like to text message more than to hear the voice of somebody talking. So, you isolate yourself and technology becomes your friend, which never can replace the human touch. 

MM: Touch is so important. As humans, when you grow up without it, I think you spend so much time seeking it later on. It’s an often underappreciated human interaction. 

MA: But we’re afraid of that. Afraid of intimacy. Afraid of emotions. My work is all about strong emotions. Strong emotion is like strong love, strong hate, strong suffering, strong pleasure. Everything is strong. It takes a high price to pay for that… and, you know, I can’t do less. And people prefer not to have that, just to live a kind of life similar to numbness. I think that people are so medicated. They take medication for something—to not feel pain, not to feel emotions, to go to sleep, to this kind of oblivion state. I don’t even like aspirin. I don’t like anything. If I feel pain, it’s pain. If I feel like crying, I cry. To feel your emotions is very important. 

MM: Why are you doing this at this point in your life? Is this an of extension of your work or do you feel as though this is your responsibility to leave something behind for others, to carry on the kind of path you've created? 

MA: I spent 50 years of my work doing performance and seeing performance as the most immaterial form of art, so it’s really important that this kind of art form will survive and exist. I didn't want this thing that I’ve been doing all my life to be wasted. I want to see it changing and progressing and taking different forms. Right now, for me, the performance is really about community. It’s about how to change communities, not anymore about the performance itself. The people become the work. When I’m working, I’m working with very large groups of people. Right now, we just finished one event—a community event—in Stockholm, Sweden, for 8,200 people. That’s a really serious number. These kinds of numbers don’t come when you’re having a performance one day in a gallery or museum. It’s different. It’s really about the community getting together and the community reaching the point of being human again and having contact on a much deeper level. That’s something to me that is so important and this came out of all of my experience of my work. And now I understand that it’s not about me doing the performance. It’s about the community becoming the work itself. Then you can really do something to change the consciousness of people. I think the only way to change how reality looks like is to change the consciousness of yourself first and then to show the way to others. That’s what I’m attracted to. And then, also, to create a legacy and preserve this kind of heritage of performance. I’m one of the few people my age who still performs. I don’t know anybody my age who is performing. 

MM: No, it seems like you are the last one. I feel like your work has been so hard to watch sometimes. It’s so hard to see you suffer. But also in another way, so energizing that someone is going this far to communicate. Much further than an ordinary painter…You’re someone who insists that you have to focus on the here and now. It must be so hard for you to go into that and then go out of that mindset. How do you make that transition? 

MA: It’s really simple in a way. You set up the time and space. Then you create a strong decision and the concept when you’re going to make the performance. You step from your ordinary self into this different self which is much stronger—the one with no limits. And you deliver the work and then after that, you give everything that you have until there’s nothing left. Then, when you finish, the only thing you want is just ice cream. 

MM: Ice cream? 

MA: Yes, something simple (laughs). It’s a great feeling. And you know, what you were talking about—the suffering. I just stage difficult situations in front of an audience that I’m going to go through, and then use all that energy to actually go through them. I liberate myself from the fears I have and I create a situation that mirrors the public so that they see that what I’m doing, they can do themselves, in their own lives and push their own obstacles. And that’s all that it’s about. But the real power is really important—discipline. Somehow, we always like to do things that are easy, and we like them, but then we never really change. I always stage things that I’m afraid of and are difficult. This is only when true change comes. Otherwise, change doesn’t come. People change in real life only when some terrible disaster happens, somebody dies that you love or something happens like a terminal disease that really shocks your system. But why do you have to wait for that, when you can actually create and stage things that you can rationalize through and get rid of those fears and come to the other side? And then, ice cream is so good. 

MM: (laughs) Do you find that women are better suited to deal with that sort of intensity than men? 

MA: I don’t know. First of all, I am a woman but I am an artist and artists have no gender. I don’t care. There are only two ways to look at art: bad art and good art. And there’s nothing in between (laughs). There are lots of heroes on the male side. Why are women not as prominent in art as men? For the simple reason that they don’t like to suffer as much as men. Because women don’t like to suffer from love, or children and family. But once a woman decides to suffer, then she can do incredible stuff—there are no obstacles. The fact that they can give birth to a child—a very painful act—and give life, creates strength in them. In my country, in Montenegro, there is an incredible story in the First World War about the woman who had ten children and a husband who died in the war. The woman would start wearing the husband’s clothes, carrying his weapons, stopped her menstruation, started growing a beard and turned into the man. If women have this ability to completely change the gender because of strife, in order to survive, it’s pretty strong stuff, I would say. 

MM: You seem to, in the artistic sense, have outlived your male counterparts—everything from other artists, to the people who have partnered with you. You seem to still be going, putting yourself out there and using your body and exposing yourself. This says a lot about you but, maybe, as a woman, it has given you some sort of added strength. 

MA: And also sacrifice. I didn’t have children. I am not marriage material. Nobody can stand me (laughs). I am really so free. It’s really difficult. It’s not always a great life. It’s also lonely. The freedom is really wonderful. You can do whatever the fuck you want. You can go anywhere you want—any place in the world. Like now. 

MM: Well, now you must be in an incredible position. You clearly have so much life and you’re still very beautiful and you have this incredible legacy. You can do whatever you want. 

MA: (laughs) It’s overwhelming, my god. It’s also a responsibility, you know. But at the same time, I said, when I turn 70, I want to be hilarious. I want to be very funny. My work is really serious, so in real life, I try to see with humor. 

MM: That’s beautiful. What does the future look like for you? You’re 70, so it’s not going to last forever. How do you see yourself carrying forward? 

MA: I’m busy with the day every day because you never know what’s going to come. I don’t spend time on bullshit to really concentrate on things that are important—to try without fear, without anger and consciously. I’ve always believed that life is a dream, when you’re dead you wake up. I hope to wake up really well. 

MM: I have to ask one more question: What should one think about when in nature? 

MA: You should constantly be breathing, that’s it. Try to breathe in nature. Breathing is everything by the way—but that’s another story. Just breathe. We forget to breathe…consciously. 

To find out more about Marina Abramovic’s company, Marina Abramovic Institute, visit www.mai.art. This interview was originally published in DVEIGHT Magazine Spring 2017.

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