AN INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST MARINA ABRAMOVIC
Photograph by Hick Duarte
Thursday, May 14 - 2015
Marina Abramovic has walked for more than 2,000 kilometers along the only construction a man can spot from the moon, the Great Wall of China, starting at the Yellow Sea in the Pacific Ocean. She has sat entirely still, completely silent, on a chair in front of museum visitors at the Museum of Modern Art for 736 hours. The performance artist has leapt across the flames of a five-pointed communist star propelling herself into the center of it in an act of purification that left her unconsciousness and led to her to being rescued by the public. Abramovic has lived on three open platforms at Sean Kelly Gallery for 12 days - without eating or speaking, and without any privacy. She assigned herself a passive role, implicating the public as the driving force that would act on her using objects of pleasure and pain, testing the limits of the relationship between performer and audience. In her own words, it seems like all of those actions have caused her to feel more pain than love.
The difference between the words "live" and "love" is minimal. Abramovic’s body of work is commonly attached to her personal life, something she doesn’t deny. One could easily add that it has a connection to her personal love as well. The language Abramovic uses to compose her works is universal by its human scale:, life, death, and love are discussed through the pain they cause the body. There's a clear hint of seduction in the use of emotionally detectable elements: the desire to be understood becomes evident.
Art history has often articulated disagreements with the notion of existence, of a separation between art and life that is generally understood. Abramovic has done it too. She planned her funeral, with precise instructions. She roleplayed the scenario in front of an audience, in Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. Her relationship with life is more easily understood by looking at death without fear. You shouldn’t fear love, either.
Abramovic has returned to Brazil, where she once lived in 1989, The reason for this 60-day visit is her retrospective at the Terra Comunal - MAI exhibition at SESC Pompeia, in São Paulo. The artist came to Brazil looking for powerful places: waterfalls, trees, landscapes, plants, and people in tune with a greater understanding of the planet and spiritual exchanges. The following conversation with writer and curator Ulisses Carrilho took place during Abramovic’s last days in Brazil:
There were several times when you said how important it was to be here and now. How important is it to be here, in Brazil, and now, in 2015?
I always put a tension in "here and now.” Even if I put a tension in it so many times, I have the impression that "here and now" will escape us. We really have to keep remembering every possible time we remember to remember it. Brazil right now has an incredible vibrant culture, and I think Brazil has gone through so many transitions. I've seen those transitions since I first came here for the Bienal de São Paulo in 1985. From there, the country has enormously changed. What I found here now that I didn’t find back in the 80’s is that the Brazilian people right now are really ready to experience something different. I’m not sure this whole thing would work ten years ago, the entire interest was different. Right now, the Brazilian people are ready to connect with themselves. I see people getting incredibly emotional doing the [Abramovic] Method. I see people coming back to do the Method. I see them willing to know more about performance art, and I didn’t feel this kind of interest years ago.
Your research in Brazil started back in the 1980’s. How was living in Brazil at that time, and what kind of social structure caught your attention?
First of all I have to say that I didn’t realize how much I would be in touch with and attached to Brazil when I first made this choice. I was making a very practical choice, it wasn't emotional at all. I was walking on the Great Wall of China and looking for places that had minerals, so I could create the Transitory Objects. I wanted to make people have the feeling I had walking on the Wall. I didn’t want to go back to China because emotionally it was very difficult, I was separating from the man I loved. I was finishing this relational work. I wanted to have a new, neutral, and personal emotion-free space. I was looking at the world and asking myself where there would be so many minerals. Brazil came up as a natural choice. I came for the minerals, but then I found the people. From the people, I found their hearts. From their hearts I found love.
You talk about the 'shitty childhood' that you had, saying that it is a necessary part of what makes an artist create work. How did growing up in Serbia affect your production? How did you manage to make this personal history become universal?
You never escape from your DNA, from where you come from. Even if you go to the end of the world, you always have this blueprint of your parents, of your childhood, and of where you grew up. Wherever I go, I have that. At the same time, I stopped thinking that I belonged to a particular place, I didn’t want to be connected with any nation. I was born in ex-Yugoslavia, I don’t feel Yugoslavian. I have a Dutch passport, which I’m traveling with, I don't feel Dutch. I live in the United States right now, I have a Green Card, I don't feel American. I’ve taught in Germany, I don’t feel German. I’ve been working in Japan, I’m not Japanese. I come from nowhere. I have all those memories in my work, which have a lot to do with my childhood but at the same time I reached out to understand that the planet is my studio. I've always wanted to see the big picture, even when I started to work with my own self, with my own background. Even working with my childhood, I wanted to become universal. Whatever I say has to be universal. Let me say something: your own personal story will be always kind of boring, shitty. Who cares about my shit? But if you find ways of how other people can project and find themselves in your story, then you can share your story with millions of people. That's the reason why I always like to deal with universal problems: mortality, pain, suffering, falling in love, losing love. For me there's a special work, Balkan Baroque, in which I was washing bones, [for] which got a Golden Lion in Venice, that piece was especially related to ex-Yugoslavia, to the Balkans. I was so ashamed of all that war, of all that killing. I wanted to create that image of washing the bones because no matter what, you never manage to wash away the blood. Whatever you do, blood is non-washable. It always stays, there will always be stains on your soul. How can I create an image that can serve any war, anywhere in the world, anytime? That’s why it works, because it becomes transcendental. Now the war in the Balkans has passed and people sort of lose the memories from it, but there are new wars. And that image can be always used.
You've said that an artist doesn’t want to be an artist. Either they are or they aren’t. What moves you, an artist, to create images?
I've always been interested in how art comes [to the artist]. To me, art comes as a vision. It comes as a tridimensional appearance out of nowhere. I had a very interesting discussion once with a scientist asking how scientists discover new things. It’s a similar system. You can work in a laboratory for hours, days, years and not find that specific formula that makes a difference to change the world or that gets a Nobel Prize. Then you're so tired and you close the lab and say that’s enough for today, or take the train like Einstein did, and then the Relativity Theory quickly comes [to them], out of nowhere. It’s very similar to how an artist works. So many times, I've talked to painters and they talk about painting a picture, for example. They paint a lot and it gets worse and worse. Sometimes they spend months working. Finally they throw it away, it’s trash. They take a fresh new canvas and finally it’s just there. That means that it's not a waste, the time you spend on research. It doesn’t mean, though, that the results will come out from that time when you're putting all your efforts. The result, or the solution, comes as a surprise. It can be anywhere. It can be on your way to the bathroom, or while cooking dinner, in your sleep, or when waking up. That’s the beauty about really inventive things: they come as a surprise. But you have to be ready to receive, ready to recognize them. But they’re also a result of lots of thinking. Sometimes you do a lot, and you know you can’t do any more. It’s just a matter of letting it go. Then you go relax and then [snaps her fingers] something comes out of nowhere. That's the beauty of inspiration and invention, that’s how the best art happens. There's a characteristic of any great art: it can be dance, painting, sculpture, performance, whatever. It should look effortless. You shouldn't be able to see the enormous work behind it. That’s the key to simplicity. And then people will say ‘Oh! but I can do that.’ Yes, but you didn’t [laughs].
Okwui Enwezor was asked about being the first African curator of 56th Venice Biennale (2015) and answered that his “participation in the Venice Biennale was beyond making history.” Has becoming a historical figure changed your artistic production?
Thinking about this, I always think that the road to get here was so long, but the possibilities are also enormous. You have to really edit yourself. You have to take everything that you think wasn't right, all the mistakes you made, you have to see them very clearly and leave for history what really makes sense. When I look at my own work and edit it, it’s just a few things in fact that are left, it isn’t that much. If you look at art history, if you look at someone like Leonardo [da Vinci], you have the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa, but he made so many more works that are hard for people to remember. In fact, history only holds onto a few things, or just one. It’s very severe. Before history edits you, you should edit your own history. That’s a good quote, i’m gonna use it more: 'Before history edits you, you should edit yourself'. I say in my manifesto that artists shouldn't make art pollution. I do believe that, before we die, we have to throw things away. We have to clean up this mess.
Listening to your lectures, I noticed that you frequently quote Brancusi, John Cage, Leonardo da Vinci, as you just did. What were the most emotional experiences you had? I’m interested in talking not just about art, but about blurring the lines between art and life.
It’s so interesting to think of the experience of listening to great music or looking for great art or reading a book, I do think it is, of course. But I like your question, because it’s so interesting to think about life. Once I had this profound experience in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was my first time there. I went to a friend’s house and woke up really early. I remember it was May. They had hundreds and hundreds of sheep. I had arrived at night so I woke up to really see the country, it was all meadows. Then I saw something that I'd never seen in my life: hundreds and hundreds of sheep giving birth at the same time. It was like a planetary birth. Some sheep lying down on the ground, some eating another sheep’s placenta. Some of them just had got out of a sheep’s vagina. Others were standing and shivering. Others were licking the fur of newly born sheep. All different stages of birth while the sun was rising. It was overwhelming. For me it was one of those moments that are so beautiful it hurts. When you cannot breath because it’s so beautiful. Everytime I want to go to a good part of myself, I go to that image. It was biblical. Another image would be living in Central Australia for a year, in the desert. I just had a canvas on the ground and I used to sleep on that canvas. It was a full moon night and, in my dreams, someone was tapping the ground. Tapping, tapping, tapping. Then I woke up and saw around me hundreds of wallabies and they were just tapping the ground in a sort of secret language. It was a private experience. This planetary birth, the private language of animals or an exploding volcano, which is extremely beautiful because it shows us that we're all living in the fire. Incredible sensations that later on I created work about. What I really like is something that is so beautiful it hurts.
In your manifesto, you said 'the artist must be erotic.’ We're talking about beauty, about creating what you call 'beautiful images' and about the passing of time. I’m interested in hearing from you about your relationship with seduction. You're known for aging beautifully, how is your relation with the erotic?
Thinking about beauty, I think that it really comes from the inside. Not from the outside. You can have a beautiful symmetrical face, but beauty comes from the inside. Harmony with yourself radiates. In my life I've seen very severe wise old shaman women who had completely wrinkled faces with gray hair and they had such a light on them. They looked like goddesses. We have just one energy in our bodies: sexual energy; and we really have to understand how sexual energy works. Sometimes it can destroy us. Sometimes it can bring us to kill someone, to war, to aggression. It can also elevate your spirit to an incredible creativity. Sexual energy turns into the erotic. The erotic turns into the sensual. Sensuality creates the beauty. And through beauty to creation. These are all the steps I go through. To create beautiful images I like to think of symmetry, I like to think of the use of color, of black and white. The color of the clothes or the position of the body. If I’m looking to the side, if I’m looking straight into the eyes, it creates another image, another element, another symbol. Even if sometimes you don’t know exactly what an image is saying, you have to go for it. Our brain has a very archaic memory in which we can plug and project meaning just for ourselves. To me, that creation is present even when I’m dressing myself. I’m interested in how a person is perceived, even energetically. Clothes, to me, have to be part of the skin. We're sculptural elements of energy. We have to make that energy communicate. Being erotic, being sensual, being symmetrical, for me it all helps to lift the spirit.
What is more important, having strong beliefs or deconstructing them?
In that sense, I prefer to deconstruct beliefs. It’s incredible how many fake beliefs we have. It’s important to constantly investigate yourself. It’s important to cut the delusional all the way to its roots. It’s a very painful process because it's so much easier to live in an illusional state. It hurts, but I’d say it’s definitely better to live the other way. The truth is hard.
Once you did a Q&A session on Reddit when launching the Kickstarter for MAI. I asked a question that wasn’t answered. Six months later, I’m doing this interview for your own institute and now I think you have to answer me [laughs]. It’s something that I think could relate to your artwork: Marina, does loving hurt?
Absolutely. Oh my God! Yes, it hurts so much. I love this question. You really left the best for the end. But it hurts good. Good hurting is like when you get massage. You know it hurts, but you have muscle pain and massage will make you feel better. Love hurts, always. The main reason why love hurts is because of attachment. Because you get attached to the person you love. Whatever happens: the person leaves or not, calls or not, whatever happens, it hurts. But I’m going to tell you one of the things that took me the most time to understand: the most beautiful thing is unconditional love. Unconditional love hurts, too. Like the beauty I just told you [about], it also hurts. But it hurts in a good way. With unconditional love, your heart is so open that it seems like physically you can’t take any more. Conditional love is painful. You know it’s not good pain. It’s connected to jealousy, to controlling. Relationships are very hard, very complicated. Unconditional love is a good pain. Yes, I think it's a good pain. And for you, do you think it hurts? [laughs]
Terra Comunal - MAI is free and open to the public until May 10, 2015 @SESC Pompeia, São Paulo - Brazil.