artist / participant
From the early 70’s, Marina Abramović has been one of the pioneers of performance art. Her body has always been a medium and an object. While exploring her own physical and spiritual boundaries, she has put herself through tremendous hardships, pain, deprival, and danger. The result of these trials is that she transports herself to unique and extreme situations of emotional and spiritual experience.
This retrospective brings many of her most important performances to Greece for the first time. Very important work in the history of art will be shown through videos and photographs.
Marina Abramović approaches creativity through a series of live performances, starring herself, that set themselves apart for their simultaneous brutality and their deeply spiritual content. She never hesitated to use her own body to show the viewer the close relationship between spiritual strength and physical pain, she has whipped herself, cut herself with a knife, taken psychiatric medication, laid down amongst flames, taken her clothes off on ice, all in the presence of a live audience.
Through these physical processes, she is testing the boundaries of physical endurance and expands her spiritual and mental abilities. The body becomes another material that allows the artist to explore the subconscious, leading her to liberation, transferring her to higher energy levels, and deeper meditation. The audience is invited to participate, to seek liberation from social preconceptions, and to overcome mental barriers, simply by observing the feelings of uneasiness Abramović’s performances create in them.
Interview by Margarita Pournara “Kathimerini” 23/9/2007
Marina Abramović’s grandfather was the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and was poisoned along with king Peter A’ in 1938 at a dinner by the monarch’s doctor. Her partisan father was a communist, an atheist, and a hero of the WWII. Her mother joined the communist party later on, and 1960s became director of the Museum of Art and Revolution in Belgrade. She was recently buried with an army general’s ceremony. It may sound ironic but Marina Abramović’s family history summarizes Serbia’s recent history. Born in 1946, she keeps her Balcan heart alive and strong, performing for years as if there was no tomorrow. She has eaten onions till she had no tears left, she has asked audience members to slash her, and to threaten her with a gun (that she gave to them), she has taken psychotherapeutic drugs in front of the audience, passed out from lack of oxygen, and much more. She continuously brings herself to the limits, not out of masochism, but to help us realize certain truths. She has succeeded.
What will you be showing in Athens?
I will show the Greek audience some new and some old work, the exhibition is titled “Present Past Present”. It coincides with the fact that I am currently re-examining my work from a fresh perspective. I won’t be doing any performances. I approach to my work has changed. My performances last much longer now. The last one took place over many consecutive days, it had nothing to do with a opening ceremony performance. In Athens I will be showing videos, documentations, and recordings of performances.
You have said that you love Greece because it reminds you of your country, Serbia, but without pain.
It is true. Our mentalities are similar. The religion, the food, the tendency to dramatize everything. I have created works in which I talk about the pain I feel for my country. One was awarded a prize at the 1997 Venice Bienial, “Balcan Baroque”, in which I spent days washing animal bones while mourning. If you saw that piece today it would be relevant for any country that is currently at war. “Guernica” is not just Spanish, it is universal and timeless. Time judges art based on how well they faire in the future.
A constant journey
Do you enjoy not having a country and living like a nomad?
I love airplanes and hotel rooms. My place of residence is the planet. I may have a house in Amsterdam the past 30 years, but I have only spent 8 months there. I go where my work takes me. Traveling is my reality. I like not having a country, to not have the feeling of a home, but to have one of wondering. Others find this chaotic but I believe it can be extremely creative and awakening. I believe that most people have problems because they take things for granted and adhere to certain rules that require us to remain in one place over long periods of time.
How would you describe a charismatic performer? Ingenious? Daring? Politically aware?
The artist’s role in society has not changed since the time of Michael Angelo. They have to experiment, ask questions, be honest, and deliver messages that could awaken their audience and elevate their spirit. These days we mostly hear about the commercialization of art. Every era has artists that believed that success was determined my fame and fortune. I used to tell my students that if that is their goal they should leave Art School immediately. With those priorities there is no way you will ever find meaning in art. True artists don’t care about these things. They have passion that burns within. Art is like breathing to them. Do you ever think about having to breath?
Which is your most important performance?
I cannot say. I never think about the past too much, I focus on the future. I am currently re-evaluating things since my mother died. You know a person becomes an adult when he loses both his parent. Her relationship with her mother
What was you relationship with your mother like? What did she have to say about the performances where you risked your life?
We always had trouble communicating. My mother was a war hero (although she never spoke about that time) and when she divorced my father, she imposed military rules at home. I did my most extreme performance until I was 29 years old, while I lived with her. I burnt and cut my body but I was back home by 10.30 at night. It may sound crazy but she taught me discipline and self-assertion. I wouldn’t have succeeded in doing anything if I didn’t have those two traits. Over time she became proud of me. I do understand he though. It had to be proven that her kid was not like the others.
What does family mean in the Balcans?
It’s much more emotional. Would you ever imagine throwing your grandmother in an old person’s home? Luckily we have old-fashioned ethics in a time of globalization. We often live in dramatization. Northern Europeans and American live in depression. As do families.
“A work of art has to be like the last day of your life…”
Why do you try to push yourself to the very edge of your limits?
It is the part of me I want to explore. Most of the times we try to do things we like. By doing them we remain the same. When we are called upon to deal with something very difficult like a death, a fatal illness, an accident, that is when we start seeing a different side of ourselves. Only then do things really change. What do you need happiness for? It has nothing to teach you. While pain, difficulty, obstacles, they transform you, they teach you who you are, they could make you stronger or even make you better. Most of all they make you realize how important ‘here and now’ are. In misery we are present in our life.
Do you mean to say that we are often absent from our lives?
Do you know what we suffer from today? We run around for our job, we watch hours television, we fall in love. Its like we are holding the remote control and are flipping through the channels. We have never sat still to give a good look at ourselves and our need. Our life is just like flipping channels and we haven’t even realized it. We are not living it, we are consuming it. Its like we are entering someone else’s skin. Often in performances, I realize I become a mirror to the audience. How often though, do we become our own mirror? It takes time and huge determination to understand who we really are. This is why I have been giving so much importance to time in my last performances. They last hours, days, weeks, when the audience is used to functioning within 30 seconds, the time of one commercial.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I don’t believe that an artist has to work in a studio. What are we? Bureaucrats? Good works of art don’t come around every day and you are lucky if you create a few in your life. We have to create space in our heads for new ideas to come. A lot of my inspiration comes when I am drinking coffee staring into space, or when I am watering the flowers. Doing nothing is rewarding.
Shock and emotion
The past few years we keep seeing exhibitions of works full of brutality or cynicism. What do you think of them?
When watching television, straight after watching real war situations on the news, we watch movies. There is so much bad news that mourning and being sad seem like luxuries. Look what’s happening in Iraq. It’s like they are living on a Hollywood studio. While watching Mtv and a famous jean commercials you will see iconography from a performance we did in 1970. Back then cutting yourself or piercing yourself was authentic. These days it’s a lifestyle, or fashion. Its not enough to be shocking you have to also stir some emotions in the viewer. You don’t want to scare the audience, you want to help them feel the spirituality, become better. You want them to feel like they are part of the work. Bruce Nauman used to say that art has to deal with life and death. It may sound melodramatic but its true. If you make a work of art with such force, strength, and responsibility, as if it were the last day of your life, then, yes, you can provoke emotions…
Who she is
Marina Abramović was corn on November 30th 1946, in Belgrade. She was a child genius, painting by the age of 12. She gradually became more interested in experimenting with sound, and later moved on to performances. Ever since, she has been considered one of the most important performance artists, a performance priestess that knows how to give every day activities ceremonial magic. Some of her most famous works are those done with her partner of many years Ulay. In 1988, they met after a three month hike around the Great Wall of China only to ‘part’ ways.
Most of her performances put her physical well being at risk, sometimes even her life. Her body had reached the edge of its limits, believing that pain liberated from fear of dieing. One of her best works is “Balcan Baroque”, which led her to be awarded the Venice Bienial’s Price.
Interview by George Karouzaki “Eleftherotypia” 22/9/2007
Do you feel like the ‘grandmother’ of performance art, as you had once said yourself?
I said that at a time when I was feeling like a pioneer and a veteran of performance art. When I was starting out, in the ‘70s, there were very few artists working on performance. Most representatives of art at the time were not interested in exploring the same things.
What has changed since then?
A lot. First of all society. Performance came as a continuation of Minimalism. Fluxus actions and happenings were very different, they followed rules and the audience could interfere and change the artistic outcome. Performance allowed artists to use their own bodies as a tool, an object, a topic of exploration. But, at the end of the ‘70s people started losing interest in performance art. Specially after the market crashed, dealers and galleries started to complain that they had nothing to sell. You see, performances are temporary and video recordings were not very good quality at the time. Artists were struggling to survive, they gave in to the pressures. I also went through a difficult time, but it was impossible for me to go back to painting and sculpture. By the end of the ‘80s, performance art was regaining popularity, especially in nightclubs and among the gay community. In the ‘90s, the strong fear of death that was brought on by the appearance of AIDS turned many artists’ attention onto ‘awareness’ of the body. Today different kinds of performances can be found in video installations, theater, dance, Mtv aesthetics, and the internet. The audience is constantly involved in similar explorations. Performance art is alive, constantly transforming and re-inventing itself as a form of expression.
Which do you consider to be the strongest performances of your career?
This is the question the exhibition in Athens is trying to answer. All of an artist’s works are not equally important, every so often one has to re-evaluate though. The performances that keep coming to my mind are the ones I did with my ex-partner Ulay. Especially out three month hike at the Great Wall of China before we officially separated, ‘Balcan Baroque’, a piece where I negotiate the history of war as a result of the tragedy my country is going through, and the most recent ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ , reincarnating older works for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I am planning on bringing two of my own performances back to life, as well as older ones that have been pivotal in performance art’s history: ‘Body Pressure’ by Bruce Nauman, ‘Seedbed’ by Vito Acconci, and ‘How to explain pictures to a dead Hare’ by Joseph Beuys. I believe that bringing performances back is the only way to keep them alive, memory and video recordings do not suffice.
You mentioned to ‘Balkan Baroque’, a ground breaking anti-war piece. Many can still remember you covered in blood, sitting amongst the piles of animal bones, trying to get rid of the blood…
Every artists feels lucky the moment he can meet and interact with the audience. The power of this piece is not in its obvious political perspective. I don’t consider myself to be a political, feminist, or any other category of artist. “Balcan Baroque’s” started with the Yugoslavian war in mind but has developed into being about every tragedy happening on the planet. A comment by Suzan Sontang is coming to mind. When criticizing the way American’s reacted to the attack on September 11th, she said “Why are American lives more important that those of people from other countries? Everywhere else, every minute, there is a September 11th happening”. In the beginning, I also had a very personal motive and ended up creating a universal piece. The deeper you go into yourself, the more honest and true you are, the more people you touch. This is the power of art, to evoke emotions, and to elevate the spirit.
From what spiritual or artistic sources do you get your inspiration?
I was never inspired by other artists. I never cared about second hand art. I traveled to far away places of this planet, New Guinea and more. I have been inspired by life and various tribal ceremonies, Aboriginals and Tibetans. I have drawn inspiration from civilizations that have been violently prosecuted because others were not willing to understand them.
Can art affect people’s lives?
The modern art followers are tired from the abundance of artistic events. Art is being approached as a consumerist product. This year for instance, the art world will be very busy running from the Venice Biennial to Documenta in Kassel, then Minster, then the Istanbul Biennial, Athens, Lyon… I believe that it is impossible for artists to create important works for all these events in such a short time. On top of which they are constantly bombarded with images from the television, the Internet, and all around. We are incapable of reacting to death and tragedy any more. In this flood of images there should be some works of art that shake us up deep inside, touching emotions the way art ought to do. The artist has to be alert, as should the audience in order for there to be the ‘chemistry’ necessary for the work of art to take off.
You grew up in a strict, military family environment. How much did that affect your art?
I went through a period where I was strongly reacting to that, I wanted to liberate myself from the influence of my family. Today I am grateful for my parents and the way they raised me. The kind of art I make requires a lot of mental strength and discipline. Especially when you are asked to stay immobile for seven hours without moving an eyelash or in a situation where you don’t feel the pain.
How would you describe your spiritual and mental state during a difficult performance?
You are a transmitter and a receiver at the same time. You almost feel every person that is in the room. You understand what they are feeling, you recycle their feelings inside you, and you return them. The process fuels you with much more energy than you have in your everyday life, the process multiplies it. You have the capacity to captivate the audience and transport them to a place where it seems that time has stood still. You are simultaneously a full and an empty vessel.
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