Conversation: Marina Abramovic

BY Jeffrey Brown  April 8, 2011 at 2:06 PM EDT

Marina Abramovic is a pioneer of performance art. Born in 1946 in Belgrade, she began her prolific career in the 1970s, capped off most recently by her retrospective last year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Artist Is Present, which drew widespread acclaim.

I spoke with her in our newsroom this week when she visited Washington to give a lecture at the Hirshhorn Museum as part of their Demetrion series:



Editor’s Note: The Hirshhorn conducted a Twitter forum with Abramovic late last month. You can find that Q&A here. Read the transcript after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat, I’m Jeffrey Brown. Joining me today is Marina Abramovic. She is, of course, a leading figure in the art world today, a pioneer of performance art, which was capped most recently by her retrospective last year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that drew widespread critical and public acclaim. Welcome to you. Can I ask you the most basic question first, which is, what do you mean by performance art? What must it have for you?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: You know this question if really important to answer precisely. When I say performance art, I don’t mean theater, I don’t mean dance, I don’t mean, you know, standup comedy. I mean kind of performance where everything is real, you know. Theater is like a black box and people sit in the dark—

JEFFREY BROWN: Theater is not real?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: No, knife is not the knife and blood is not the blood, but in performance everything is real and that reality actually makes performance performance and different than any other kind of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there is the “performance”; where’s the “art”?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: You see, it’s important, the context. If you make the bread in a bakery, you are the baker. But if you make the bread in the gallery, you ‘re the artist. The difference is about the context.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s it, right?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: Yeah, definitely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I read that you said that this respective at MoMA was important to you because it gave performance art a kind of place in the mainstream world. Was it not before? Was it misunderstood?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: We are miserable, we are struggling from the ’70s. The performance was nobodyland, it has never been mainstream art. And it took for so many years for me to fight for that position and so many of my colleagues and artists — they are already dead or they are not, you know, they are not well. But I’m the only one from the generation — almost only one — who still performs. So all my really life was to make performance mainstream art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think it was not accepted or not understood?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: It’s never been because of the nature of the art. It’s so immaterial. You see, in the museum, you need the nail to put the painting, and you come every day and you look at the painting. Performance is there, and if you are not there in that moment it happened, it just stays in the memory. It’s so immaterial and something this immaterial is very difficult to collect. Its difficult to buy, its how we can buy immaterial art. And you know, with the performance, why it was like that all the time. The people make you the invitation and say come for the opening and make little performance. Everybody stands there with a glass of wine and nobody looks at you and you are entertaining, you know, the crowd. This is not the performance I mean. I mean performance in the real context of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now the impermanence of it is important right? The fact that it just happens at this one moment? In your case it is the endurance, the sort of putting yourself on the line — as you said earlier, the knives are real, the blood is real. Why— you can imagine why people would watch what you are doing to yourself, and putting your body in danger, and asking why?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: You see look at the old cultures. You have to have a real large picture. If you look at the old cultures — if you look at Africa, if you look at the Indonesia, the Aborigines, the Chinese, the Indians — I mean, in old rituals, people will do terrible things to themselves in order to actually understand what— to get rid of themselves of pain, to understand how the brain works, to understand—

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait a minute, put yourself in pain to get rid of pain?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: To actually liberate yourself of pain, because everything we can control with our mind and we forget this. We have completely invalids because of our stupid technology development. Because of technology, we don’t develop telepathy. We don’t use telepathy, but use you know the mobile phones. Why?

JEFFREY BROWN: And so you see yourself as putting yourself in touch with your body in ways that the rest of us never experience

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: Exactly in the front. You see what is my purpose of performance artist is to stage certain difficulties and stage the fear the primordial fear of pain, of dying, all of which we have in our lives, and then stage them in front of audience and go through them and tell the audience, I’m your mirror; if I can do this in my life, you can do it in yours.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I was wondering, you know ,where does this come from in you, and I was reading some profiles, and I gather it sounds like you grew up torn between doctrinaire, Christian Orthodoxy and doctrinaire communism. In Belgrade right?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: Totally. Absolutely. I have the most contradiction of childhood ever had. I had a highly religious grandmother, spent most of the time in the church. And both of my parents being national heroes in the time ofTito in the Second World War. So I was like of this utter discipline and this spirituality; that’s an unbeatable mix, believe me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And somehow that made you want to— what?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: You know, my whole life was about believing in ideals. Having big picture of the world, sacrifice, you know, for the cause. And then, the very important thing was really, how I could with my work elevate the human, you know, spirit? That’s the main thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you know, we’ve now been talking before we started this for the 10 or 15 minutes, and you are a very funny person. You were telling me that in real life you are about as normal as could be, you are not this person that we see doing these incredibly dramatic things, and then you are making joke after joke.

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: You know, but it’s different, because, you see, when you are in the front of audience, you use the energy of audience, you create energy dialog and you can push your body and your mind so much farther than if you do in real life. In real life, you just work for the ordinary self, but in the front of audience you become the superself. That’s a completely different thing. This is this kind of strange change, you know, that happens, and then you give your best, but you can’t do this all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you about the MoMA, the performance, the piece that got so much attention, “The Artist Is Present.” You sat for hours, days—

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: 736,030 minutes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know exactly how many minutes.


JEFFREY BROWN: And yet it was a sensation. I mean somehow it connected with people in a way that I don’t know— did you expect what was going to happen? Do you know why that was a success?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: You know this was the most simple performance. It was two chairs, a table. Later on I even removed the table, it was just two chairs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, as simple as can be. Just, you’re sitting there.

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: And it was no story, there was no crescendo, there was no developing…. It was just simple sitting. And the public had the whole freedom to stay as long as they want. The curator told me of the show that maybe there would just be there most of the time an empty chair in the front of me. Happened that we had the museum had the record amount of visitors, of 850,000 for the living artists, happened that 1,750 sit in the front of me. Endless. Even one person sit for seven hours. They stay all night and wait for sitting, just because there’s something really happened, in a way that is almost rationally unexplainable. People—

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t get it, huh?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: I know what happened. People lost their centers and I’m just their mirror. They come there and they actually started living in the present moment, because we always live in the past which happened, the future, which didn’t. And we forgot present. And present is the only thing we can relate to. Present is the only thing which is actually real, exists, because this moment of you sitting here and talking, the ceiling can fall down and we are all dead. So present is the only thing—

JEFFREY BROWN: But it takes something to break that down, right? And somehow, it broke down?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: And I have to come to that state of mind myself, and then I can take everybody else to that state of mind. And that is what good art is about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you finally—

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: I have a joke, I have to finish with a joke.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok, but, one question and then a joke. How long do you keep doing this? I mean you are getting older, right?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: I’m 65 in November.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok, these things that you do to yourself, and the endurance, and the things that you do to your body, that it has to inevitably effect that, right?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: But you know it’s interesting about age. Before, I could never do this long durational performances, because I could not train my mind that way, and now physically I’m weaker, but mentally I’m stronger, so it’s a contradiction. You know, I don’t know. But I’m very interested in new technology and very interested in 3D images and projections that I can project myself visually in a time space. So I’m working on that kind of, you know, virtual presence when I die, whatever.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok, what’s the joke?

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: Oh, the joke is very simple, because you are talking about durational work and long time. So, the only joke I know is, how many performance artists you need to change a lamp in the ceiling? And the answer is, I don’t know I was there only six hours. So that’s the joke.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Marina Abramovic, nice to talk to you.

MARINA ABRAMOVIC: Nice to talk to you, too.