You are on page 1of 17

Deeper and Deeper: Interview with Marina Abramovic

Author(s): Janet A. Kaplan


Source: Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Summer, 1999), pp. 7-21
Published by: College Art Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/777944
Accessed: 28/04/2010 04:40

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at
http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless
you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you
may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at
http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=caa.

Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed
page of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

College Art Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Art Journal.

http://www.jstor.org
As this issue was in productionwe ExpiringBody,an exhibition of work by Marina Abramovic, was held at the
learnedthe tragicnews that Penny Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, from December 4, 1998,
McCalland her husband,David, through February 6, 1999. Performing Body,a lecture/performance, was presented
were killedin a car accidentwhile on December 4, 1998, at the Philadelphia Convention Center in conjunction
engagedin reliefwork in Albania. with the exhibition. The following interview took place December 3, 1998,
McCallwas a vigoroussupporterof before the conflict in Kosovo began.
manyprojectsin the arts, including
the work of MarinaAbramovic.In
saluteto her generosityand vision Abramovic:You absolutelyneed fresher lipstick.Yoursis too dark.You need
we dedicate this interviewto her somethingto liftyou up.
memory.
Kaplan: I was going to begin by asking you how you prepare to perform.
Instead, you took out fifty-five beauty products with which to make me up so
that I would look better on the video record of this interview. Is this how you
begin?
Abramovic:A longtime ago I made a piece calledArtMustBe Beautiful,Artist
MustBe Beautiful.At that time, I thoughtthat art should be disturbingrather
than beautiful.Butat my age now, I have startedthinking
that beautyis not so bad. Mylifeis fullof such contradic-
Janet A. Kaplan
tions. Manycome from my childhood.I was born in
Yugoslavia.Myfather and mother are divorced.As an
Deeper and Deeper: adult,I recentlywanted to go backto help them because
of the war.With the embargo,there is nothingin the
Interview with stores. They don't have basics.So I calledmy fatherto ask
Marina Abramovic himwhat he needs, and he dictatesa long list-antibiotics,
bandages,penicillin,toilet paper,coffee, sugar,powdered
milk,allthese basicthingsfor survival.Then I callmy
mother and askwhat she needs. She says, "Ineed Chanellipstick,Absolute
Red, Number 345, and hairspray."I am between these two. Ittook me a long
time to come to terms with this because I'vealwaystried to put a face in front
of the publicthat is very tough, very male, a going-forward-no-matter-what
performanceattitude.Butafter I had so manyproblemswith Ulaycompleting
our apotheosis on the GreatWall of China,where we splitup, I decided that
now I need glamour.I need somethingto love. I need to see allthese other
parts of me which I had absolutelynever allowed to exist. I had been ashamed
of this part of me and let them go. Then I created TheBiography, in which I
staged my lifeand playedboth sides, the tough one and the contradictoryone,
and when I exposed my shame, this was the biggestliberationI had in my life.

Kaplan: Pleasedescribethe exhibition and lecture at the FabricWorkshop


(fig.0).
Abramovic:This exhibitionhas three parts. It startswith a lecturecalled
Performing Body,for which I made a selection from twenty-fiveyears of my
I. The Biography,
December 4, 1998.
experience with the body in a performancesituation,includingdifferentartists
Performance. Photo from differentbackgrounds-film, dance, performance,theater-to explore
courtesyThe Fabric how they use their own bodies to perform.I structurethe lectureas a real
Workshop and Museum, humanbody,with works that focus on chest, hands,feet, stomach, and so on. It
Philadelphia. Photo
Aaron Igler. starts with the head. I have a collection of manydifferentpeople usingjust their

7 art journal
~~~-,~,,,

a
~??;;I? -i-,?_
~~ ~~

~~-;;;;;;~;:;~-

IIPg~

..-.,

~~m- ~sc-~

~ ~;;;;;-.;;-;~ ~~ ,,,,;.,~~

??I-:??;~~
~~sa?~~

""":;":"
heads to say something.And then I move to the other partsof the body. I don't
actuallyshow muchof my own work, but I do show the work of others who
have inspiredme. Inthe exhibitionI show some of my own work of the last ten
years. Manypeople think,She's doing performanceagain;why are there objects
or photographs?I use all kindsof materialsas I need them, but the subjectis
alwaysthe same. It'salwaysabout the body and
about performing.So the photographis about the
moment of the performance.Then I have video
installationsand the objects. There are objects for
humanuse, which the publiccan use, and objects not
for humanuse, for spirituse. And there are objects I
call power objects, which containa certainenergy.
Mynew installationhas cross-culturalelements.
I went to Indiaand Sri Lankafor two months and
met people with specialpsychicpowers who push
the limitsof their body muchfartherthan we in
Western culturecan do. So I made ExpiringBody
Image,which consists of three parts:head, torso, and
feet. Forthe head, I use an example from Western
culture,and I alwaysuse someone close to me. Here,
it is my brother,who is a doctor of philosophy.He
is talkingabout time, space, energy,alphastates of
mind,and death. Touchinghis head is the torso of an
Africanman in a vodun ritualwho reallyworked with
the spirits.And then we have the feet. InSri LankaI
filmeda ceremony in which people in a certainstate
of mindcould walk on fire and not burnthemselves.
Inthe other part of the installation,which I call
Diary,I shot repetitivemoments in prayerceremonies.
I show a sixty-year-oldTibetanwoman who prayed
by prostratingherself,repeatingthis moment over
and over throughthe day.This is ten or fifteen hours
of work. If you asked anybodyeven in the best physi-
cal conditionto do such a thing,it would be impos-
sible. Butif you cross a thresholdinto a certainstate of mind,you can push
your body over this limit.Mywhole researchin this piece is to findthe limit.
2. Shoes for Departure, How can a Western body have this experience, and how can an Easternbody
1990.Citrine.9 x 21 x 13
(22.9 x 53.3 x 33); 9 x
push muchfartherinto an area unknownfor us?I am interested in this because
20 x II (22.9 x 51 x 28). for me performanceis a means of researchto find mentaland physicalanswers.
Photo courtesy The At one point in my life, I didn'tstop performing,but I started producing
Fabric Workshop and
Museum, Philadelphia. objects. Manytimes as I perform I see that the publicis in a voyeuristicsituation.
Photo Aaron Igler.
They sit in the darklookingat somethinghappeningon stage, and they don't
reallyparticipate.For me, the most importantthingis experience. Transforma-
tion only matters if you reallygo throughsomethingyourself.As a performer,
I'mgoingthroughthis thing.Butit's not reallythe public'sexperience. So I
decided to buildthese transitoryobjects. I don't callthem sculptures.They're
objects that the publiccan perform,likeprops.When they triggertheir own
experience, the object can be removed. It is not somethingthat should be per-

8 SUMMER 1999
manent.People ask me, Can we reallywalk on a ladderwith knives?Of course
we can. It depends on our state of consciousness. If you put this ladderwith
knivesin front of a shamanin Brazil,he willwalk on it. It'sour problemthat
we can't. Ina way, it's to remindyou that you can pushyour limits.Then I have
crystalshoes (fig.2). I have instructionsfor the publicto take off your shoes
and, with nakedfeet, put on the two crystalshoes, close your eyes, don't move,
and makeyour departure.I'mtalkingabout a mental,not physical,departure.
So the publiccan enter certainstates of mindhelped by the materialitself.
Materialis very importantfor me. I use crystals,humanhair,copper, iron.The
materialsalreadyhave a certainenergy.
GodPunishing (fig.3) is a largepiece that consists of five largecrystalsand
whips made with copper and Koreanvirginhair.The story goes backto my
I
childhood,when read about KingSolomon. He had shipsanchoredat sea. A
storm destroyed allthe shipsand the people died. He was so angryat the gods
of the sea that he ordered his soldiersto stand on the shore andwhip the sea
385 times. As a child,this imageof men whippingthe sea was so absurdand
3. MarinaAbramovic: fantastic.Who are we to punishthe gods?To translatethat story into an object,
Works:1990-1998.
Installation view. Photo I arrangedsome crystals,which for me are frozen sea, and made whipsfrom
courtesyThe Fabric Koreanvirginhair.The publicis invitedto take these whips and whip the crys-
Workshop and Museum, tals. It'simportantthat the whips are made from the hairbecause we are the
Philadelphia. Photo Will
Brown. gods, and we can only punishthe sea with our own body.

~ ~ -

4 - - ~-
-~- -, -~ -

-;

- -

#~ ~ -'~~K
Kaplan: Why Koreanvirgin hair?
Abramovic: Insome Koreanvillages,before a virginwoman marries,she cuts off
her hairas a sacrifice.This kindof untouchedinnocence is importantfor me. So
that is the kindof hairI used to fit the myth.And then I had other things,likea
crystalbrushand a table and chairsfor spirituse. They are objects that can't be
used by humansbecause they are too smallor too high.At P.S. I I exhibitedChair
forManand His Spirit.The chairfor the spiritis fifteenmeters high,andthe chair
for the humanis reallysmall.I liketo makeobjects for the invisibleworld so it
becomes visiblein anotherway.The invisibleworld is a para-realityto us. It is
very importantto be aware of that.
Kaplan: Is it your expectationthat people will reallyparticipatein the work, that
they will put on the shoes, take the hair whips, and beat the crystals?
Abramovic: It'sa questionof culture.Ifyou do such a piece in Holland,people
do it rightaway.Inother cultures,say Sweden, people are very reserved.There is
the directivethat you're not supposed to touch art. You'renot supposed to get
close. The whole idea of the temporalityof the object is very importantto me, so
they have to be used and, by use, destroyed.This is totallyagainstthe idea of the
art object that has to lastforever.I'mvery interestedin temporality.Not just of
objects, but of our bodies, too. That'swhy I callthis new piece ExpiringBody.
Kaplan: When you perform, how do you prepare?What kinds of things do you
need to get yourself ready for performancesthat demand greatrigor?
Abramovic: I don't do anything.It'shardto explain.I enter into the mentaland
physicalconstructionin the moment the publicis there. Beforethat moment, I
am extremely nervous. I have stomach pain,dizziness,and can'ttalkto anybody.
Three days before a performance,this very uncomfortablestate of mindsets in.
I can't calm myself.Itjust takes possession of me. Butthe moment the publicis
there, somethinghappens.I move from the lower self to a higherstate, and the
fear and nervousnessstop. Once you enter into the performancestate, you can
pushyour body to do thingsyou absolutelycould never normallydo.
Kaplan: So in your privatelife, separatefrom preparingfor a performance,you
don't engage in ritualpractice?
Abramovic:Again,it's a huge contradiction,because there are moments in my life
when I need to completelywithdrawand do ritualpractice.I go to a monastery
and spend three months in total retreat.I do not see anybody,and I do very radi-
cal things.Butwhen I finishthis monasterytrip,Igo to New Yorkand do allthe
bad things for my body-eating half a kilo of chocolate, watching bad movies. But
both of these are reality.Then I can go on to other things.Ifindeven if Iwish to
equalizespiritualityin my work and my life,it's difficultto do. I used to be ashamed
of that. Now I like to analyze this openly to show others that we all have this
problem. The thing is to learn from your own art because it is much farther along
than you are.

Kaplan: Your work has such rigor that it sets a very high moral standard. But
you're inviting the possibility that it's the performative experience itself that
allows you to do that.

10 SUMMER 1999
Abramovic: Yes. The performancecan also affectyour own life backwards.So
I'mlearningfrom my own work.

Kaplan: But how much do you expect your audience to be able to follow you
when, for example, you're sitting in a gallery on a bicycle seat for three
hours?

Abramovic: I don't expect anythingfrom the public.I only know what I expect
from myself,and for me it's importantthat when I'mdoing a performancethat I
am there with my body and mind 100 percent.You know you can performwith
your body in the space, but your mindis in Honolulu.To be in the here and
now is very important.Ittakes enormous energy and concentration.When
that happens,the publicgets trapped into this here and now, and they are there
with you. I know if I slip even one second, somebody may leave, but if I keep
this energy,nobody does. It'sa very specialstate, and it reallyworks. If I'm
100 percent there, I know I can affectthe publicvery strongly.
4. Spirit House: Dozing
Consciousness, 1997. Kaplan: What is your expectation of audience engagement in work that is
Single-channel video
projection, 30 mins. only documentation of things that happened when nobody was present?
Courtesy Sean Kelly
Gallery, NewYork.
Abramovic: Documentationcan be extremely boring,likethe long process
Performance: Lying on performancesin the 1970sthat were seventeen hours or three days long.You
the ground, my face is
buried in quartz crystals. can't do this with documentationin the '90s, not when we are facinga culturein
Performed for video. which the concentrationrequiredfor television advertisementsis thirtyseconds
maximum.We can't look at things
anymore.So one way is to have the
attitudeabout documentationthat it
doesn't representthe truth. I have to
be honest with myself.One way to
deal with documentationis to edit it
in a way in whichyou see the begin-
ning,the climax,and the end of the
piece in a shortened view. The other
way is to create the performance
only for the video, so that the camera
is the viewer.Then when you show
it, the energy of the performancecan
be translatedto the public.That is
why I'vedone installationslikeSpirit
House (fig.4) and BalkanBaroque
(fig.5), where I startwith a large
installationin which I perform.Then
I remove myself and the energy of
the performance,and the video can create a kindof space in whichthe public
can understandwhat happened.Fromthe earlydays when Iwas workingin
Yugoslaviaand didn'thave video, only photography,I found that the most
interestingway to present my work was not to look at sequences of how the
performancedeveloped, but ratherto decide which photographhad the energy
by itself as a photographand then show just that one. The photographthen
has power itself.

II art journal
Kaplan: But certainly the power is
diminished. For people to get the
full energy, they need to be with
you.
Abramovic: Definitely.

Kaplan: You've gone to a lot of


places-Aboriginal sites in Australia,
........ other parts of the world-that are
... ..... very remote from the context of the
gallery and museum structure in the
.. ways in which we see art. Do you
see part of your goal as translating
that ritual idea from one context to
the other? They seem about as oppo-
site as they can be in the realm of
experience. In one, the people all
participate, and in the other there is
5. Balkan Baroque, 1997 the performerand then the viewers who, even if engaged, are certainlynot
(published 1998).
Cibachrome photograph engaged at the level of people involved with the same ritual.
mounted on aluminum,
ed. 18.49 x 85 (124.5 x Abramovic: In 1979,when Iwas workingwith Ulay,we felt we had exhausted
216). Courtesy Sean Kelly allthe possibilitiesof the performancestructurebecause of the tough, physical
Gallery, NewYork.
Performance: In the mid- performingelements we used. Thatwas also the time when manyof the first
dle of the space, I wash performanceartistshad become tired of performing.It'san extremelyvulner-
1,500 fresh beef bones, able situation.They went backto the seclusionof their studios and started
continuously singing folk-
songs from my childhood. producingthings.Also, there was a huge demandfrom the marketto have
Duration: 4 days, 6 hours;
somethingto sell, because in performance,there was nothing.You only sell the
June 1997;XLVII
Biennale,Venice. memory.Ifound this a kindof regression.I had been a painterbefore, and I
thoughtthat performancehad stillnot been fullyexplored.The physicalpart
was explored, but there was a huge mentalarea that had not been touched. But
we didn'tknow how to proceed with the work. The only thingwe knew was
that the best answerwe could look for was in nature.So we went backto the
desert and startedtraveling.The desert was a great placefor us, because there
was a minimumof information,an extremelyviolentenvironment,heat, and
so on. Youwere confrontedwith yourselfand your own life.Then we decided
to go to the Aboriginesto findanswers in nature.We chose the Aborigines
because the culturewas absolutelynomadic,as we were. At that time, we lived
in the car andjusttraveledaround.We didn'thave any home. Also, Aborigines
don't just makeceremonies three times a year.Ceremony is their life.They
have this amazingnarrativeculture,the dreamtimestories. When they make
a ceremony,they spend a longtime makingthe most beautifulobjects. The
moment the ceremony is finished,the objects are left there, destroyed.And
then they start allover again.So there was no materialculture.Itwas very close
to how we thoughtabout our lifeand performanceas a way of living.Another
interestingthingabout Aboriginesis that they never hadyes or no in their lan-
guage.They don't exist because they don't doubt. They are completelycon-
nected with nature,and there is no doubt in their minds.Suicidedoesn't exist in

12 SUMMER 1999
the Aboriginalworld because it's not needed. Itwas very interestinghow much
we learned,how muchwe were inspiredby this culture.We didn'tproduce any
work there; in nature,you can't makeart. Nature is so perfect as it is that art
becomes an obstacle. Art can only be done in destructivesocieties that have to
be rebuilt.I see the artistas a bridgebetween natureand the city.We went to
natureto get, and we went to our society to give. Goingto naturewas a way
to recharge.Interestingly, when we came back,everybodywas painting,making
sculptures, and so on. Our answerwas performance.We found new energy
for performance,but now less physicaland muchmore mental.We came from
the Aborigineswith this idea for the NightseaCrossingpiece, in whichwe just sat
for long periods of time opposite each other at a table in the museum.Nobody
would see us start or end the performance.When the publicarrivedin the
museum,we were alreadythere. When they left, we were stillthere. So they
would see this imagewith no beginning,no end. The differencebetween us and
the object in the museumis that the objects have anotherkindof energy,a static
energy,but we have a live energy.And that was reallythe answerto the '80s.
Workingwith the body, but with the mentalarea, opened in a differentway.
Kaplan: You said somewhere that you felt that the artists performing in the
90os don't have the same kind of rigor. There is a toughness missing that you
felt the '7os had. But tough is certainly a word I would associate with your
work. Do you feel that has changed for you during this decade?

Abramovic: No. I'mstilllookingfor these things.When I'mafraidor don't


know something,or when I enter into a completely unknownarea, I always
thinkthat's the moment that I want to go through,and it's even more painful
because the painis such a good door to cross into another state of conscious-
ness. So for me I stillthinkthese elements are very importantto perform.
There'sa huge returnto body consciousness in the '90s. Lots of young
artistsworkingwith differentmediaare usingelements from the '70s, but now
they're doing it electronically.They willtake one moment of the performance,
reedit it, and make a loop that bringsthis feelingof endless experience to the
viewer, but actuallythe artisthimselfdidn'tgo throughthat experience. That'sa
big difference.You'regettingthis illusionof somethingthat didn'treallyhappen.
Now, fashionand the mediatake more elements from performance.If you look
at MTV,it's fullof imagesfrom '70s performance.It'samazing.It'srecycledand
put in a differentcontext. One month after I made BalkanBaroque,Facemaga-
zine had four pages of girlsin CalvinKleinT-shirtsand the longwhite dresses
stainedwith blood, carryingbones. And it's not only me. There is a young artist
in Londonwho slept in the gallery,and the mediacoverage was enormous.
Everybodywas talkingabout how vulnerableand incredibleit was. Itwas a
tremendous piece. In the '70s, at least ten artists slept in the gallery. One of
the best performances was Chris Burden's. But there was no reference to that
performance in the articles.
I'm very interested in what a new body in the twenty-first century will look
like. What is interesting now is all these new things, the club culture, piercing,
cutting, looking like an accident victim. Piercing and cutting in the '70s were
done for a different reason. In the '90s it's part of fashion. So the structure and
the meaning are different.

I 3 art journal
Kaplan: What is the motive in your plan to recreate performances from the
70s, given that it is now a displaced activity of someone else that you're
going to reexperience for yourself?
Abramovic: One day many years ago, I was invited by five girl artists in
Amsterdamto attend a performancethey calledMarinaPositions,in whichthey
remade my performanceArtMustBe Beautiful,ArtistMustBe Beautiful.This is
the piece I had done fifteenyears before, in which I combed my hairwith a
brushand reallyhurt myself,showinga very disturbingimagethat is the oppo-
site of beauty.The five girlssat in a row and simultaneouslyrepeated my
actions. Inthe beginning,I was angry.Why are they doing my piece?Butduring
the performance,I became completelyexcited and thought,this is fantastic.A
hundredyears after Mozart'sdeath, you can have your own interpretationof
Mozart,but you stillsay it's by Mozart.Inthat way, I thinka performanceshould
be open likemusic.There'sthe structureof the performancethat you can see,
and then you can makeyour own interpretationand have your own experience.
You absolutelyhave to respect the originalityof the piece and ask the living
artistfor the permission.You can do whateveryou want afterthat. There are
some performancepieces that I only saw in photo or video reproduction,or
sometimes Ijust heardpeople talkabout them. I may never have experienced
them, but my idea of the piece had tremendouseffects on my life.Why can't I
experience these pieces?I willshow the originalmaterial,and then Iwilldo my
interpretation,and then we can see. Ithinkat the end of the centuryit's very
importantto do this.
Kaplan: Do you see it in the context of a symposium, or are you thinking of
actually restaging performances?
Abramovic: I alwaysgo straightto the experience, so I'mthinkingabout staging
performances.Iwas alwaysvery impressedby ChrisBurden'scrucifixionpiece,
Trans-fixed.What I heardin Yugoslavia,althoughI didn'teven have a pictureof
it, was that Burdencrucifiedhimselfon a Volkswagen,that somebody drove the
VolkswagenthroughLosAngeles, and that he was arrested.Thatwas my image.
When Italkedto Burdenand to the only three witnesses, I learnedthat only
four people saw this piece. The story was that he was in a garagewith a doctor,
who pulledthe nailsthroughand crucifiedhimon the Volkswagen.Then the
garagedoor was opened. The three friendspushedthe car out of the garage,
took the photograph,then put the car backinto the garage.There'ssuch a huge
difference.Iwould ask for his permissionto do the piece, but then Iwould do
it completelydifferently.
The idea of female sacrificeis quite interestingto me. Iwould liketo be
crucified, but not on a Volkswagen, because I don't like the car. I would choose
another car. And then I would like to drive through the city, because this was
my first image of the piece. And the only person who can drive this car, from
my point of view, would be Madonna. I know it's completely insane. Another
interesting piece that I'd like to work on is Vito Acconci's Seed Bed, in which the
artist is under the elevated floor of the gallery masturbating. What is interesting
about masturbation is that you are producing something. There is a product.
But what does a woman produce in masturbating?Also Dennis Oppenheim's

14 SUMMER 1999
Tarantula and GinaPane'sCandlebed.I also would liketo do one of my own
pieces, Rhythm0, in which I have manyobjects on a table, includinga pistol, and
I invitethe publicto use any of them on me. Anyone can do anythingto me. It's
an extremely riskypiece, but that could be interestingfor me to repeat now in
the '90s. And then afterthese performances,I would open it allto discussion.

Kaplan: And would you want those artists to be included in the conversation
with the audience?

Abramovic:Yes. I would makefive pieces, one afteranother.After each


piece, the leftover installationwould remain.Forexample,afterthe Burden,
there would be the car;afterthe Acconci, the floor; afterthe Oppenheim,
the tarantulain the tube used in the performance;objects on the table in my
case; the candlebedin the case of Pane.The leftover pieces are likethe after-
performanceexhibitionand then the symposium.It'svery interestingthat from
the artistsI'vebeen impressedwith, except Pane,I have chosen allAmericans.

Kaplan: And all men.


Abramovic:That'strue. Thatwas the kindof performancethat intriguedme.
I'vealwaysbeen asked about the man and woman thing,but I don't care if it's
a man or a woman. The most importantthingis if the piece is good. Who is
doing it is secondary.When I'mdoing performances,I don't emphasizegender.
Kaplan: What is your relationship to the feminist performance work of the
70s and '8os-body art that was very specificallyfeminist-driven?
Abramovic: I don't have much relationto it because when feminismbecame an
issue, I was in Yugoslavia.It never touched me because I come from a familyin
which my mother was a majorin the armyand the directorof the Museumof
Art and Revolution.InYugoslaviawomen were partisans,absolutelyin power,
in control, from the governmentlevel to any other level. I alwaysfelt that I had
allthis energy.When I began my career in Italy,after I leftYugoslavia,there was
not a singlewoman artiston the scene, but I had everythingI needed. I never
felt that I didn'thave thingsbecause I was a woman.

Kaplan: A lot of women focused on their bodies not because of issues of


inequalitybut because of the specificsof being a woman in a female body.
Is that of interestto you?
Abramovic: No. But, it's very interesting,this feelingof beingfeminine.I only
started after I became fifty.Not before. Inmost of my performances,I use the
body naked,but for a totallydifferentreason, because it's the most natural,
simple, architectural. All my early performances deal with the body and archi-
tecture, especially the pieces that Ulay and I made, because we were always in
relation to space and time. But not because it was male or female. I'm more
female in my private life. I don't think so much in my work, but in my private life
very much. I'm in love with glamour, fashion, and so on, but in the '70s, it didn't
exist for me.

Kaplan: In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist you talked about there
being a cultural emergency that you felt you were working toward in terms

I 5 art journal
of consciousness. You also spoke about the destruction of the planet. Are you
addressing that cultural emergency in your work?
Abramovic: Iwas talkingmore about the role of the artist.If art comes just
from art, it loses its power and becomes decorative.I never create art to be
decorative. I don't likethis idea of aesthetic beauty-a beautifulframe,nice
colors that go well with the carpet.To me art has to be disturbing.It has to ask
questionsand have some kindof predictionof the futurewithinit. It has to
have differentlayersof meaning.Eachgenerationhas to take what is needed
at that time. Butit should not be somethingthat just reflectsdailylife, likea
newspaper.You readthe newspapertoday;tomorrow it's old. Art has to have
a spiritualvalue and somethingthat opens certainstates of consciousness,
because we are losingourselves so much.The mainthingfor me is this total
separation.We are facinga separationof body and mindin the futurethat has
alreadybegun.Heaven'sGate, the computersect in Americathat committed
suicidein order to jointhe spaceshiphidingbehindthe comet, was very inter-
estingto me. Now we are enteringthe twenty-firstcenturyand, as PaulVirilio
has said,we are sittingat home with the body in one space, but we are every-
where with the mind-by the Internet,by computers,zippingthroughthe
world. The body is becomingsomethingvery heavy,an obstacle. This separa-
tion will become so disastrousthat body and mindeventuallymust come back
together.And art has to have the answers.
Kaplan: So you're trying to set a moral standard?
Abramovic: I went to see two majorshows in New York,MarkRothkoand
JacksonPollock.I reallylove Pollock.His energy seems to me, lookingnow,
nervous and confused, even though he was very close to performance,with
his bodilyinvolvementin paintings.ButI had never seen manyof Rothko's
paintingsallin one place, and Iwas surprisedat my reaction.Ifound himto be a
complete artist.Fromthe beginninghe explored differentstates of conscious-
ness. Itwas so luminous.Itwas such a spiritualexperience to see the progres-
sion of this work untilits culminationin blacknesses.Itwas a kindof fulfillment.
You see how the end of lifecomes and allthat he went through.As an artist,
you have to know how to live, how to die, and when to stop working.
Kaplan: What other artists do you look at?
Abramovic:Yves Kleinis very important.Inreferenceto his statementthat
paintingsare justthe ashes of his art, that the process is what is the most
important,I liketo tell this story of how I started painting.I had my firstexhibi-
tion when I was twelve. When Iwas fourteen, my fatherasked me what I want-
ed for my birthday. I asked for oil paints. So he went to a friend of his who had
been a soldier in the army and then went to Paris to become an informelartist.
He was on vacation and came with my father to buy the colors because he
knew what we needed. We got all these boxes of different materials. He made
a studio in my room and gave me my first painting lesson. He took the canvas,
cut it irregularly,and put it on the floor. He opened one can and threw some
liquid glue on it. Then he opened another with some sand and little pieces of
rock and then took some bitumen, yellow, red, and a little bit of white, and then

16 SUMMER I999
he threw turpentineand gasolineonto the canvas,put a lit matchin the middle,
and everythingexploded. Then he looked at me and said, "Thisis a sunset,"and
left. If you'refourteen and this is your firstpaintinglesson, it's very impressive.
Ittook weeks for the whole thingto dry.VerycarefullyI put it on the wall, and
I went with my parentson vacation.I came back,and since the sun had been
fallingdirectlyon this sunset, everythinghad melted, and it was just a pile of
dirt on the floor.There was nothingleft on the canvas.Muchlater I understood
why it had had such an impacton me. Klein'sstatement that paintingsare just
the ashes of art made sense to me. What is reallyimportantfor me in the per-
formance is the process. When the performanceis finished,the memory is
somethingelse, but the process is what is essential.
Kaplan: What do you find are the differences between solo and collaborative
work?

Abramovic: Earlier,when I worked alone, I reacheda wall. I was so radicaland


tough that I was almostfacinga kindof edge. Death was the next step, because
I could not see how it could progressfarther.Itwas almost a miraclefor me
to meet Ulay.We met on our birthday.He was born on the same day as I, and
that same day I met himand fell in love. So there was this huge erotic, emotional
relationship,and from there came the work. To me it was muchhigherto work
with somebody else thanto work by myself because the mainproblemin this
relationshipwas what to do with the two artists'egos. I hadto findout how to
put my ego down, as did he, to create somethinglikea hermaphroditicstate of
beingthat we calledthe death self. The work came out of this. It melded this
male and female energy into somethingelse. The most difficultthingwas when
we faced emotional problemsthat did not have to do with the work. We could
not continuewith the work; it was finished.The most difficultchallengewas
how to returnto my own work because I had thoughtit is so muchhigherto
have two people makingone work together. Ittook me a long time. The only
way Igot over my problemwas by stagingmy life in a theater playcalled The
Biography, in which I playmyself and create a distancein which I can let go.

Kaplan: If I am sitting in a performance of TheBiography,


what do I see?

Abramovic:You see my whole life.The performanceis condensed, as though


they are video clips,from beginningto end. I playthese in the context of opera,
because opera is the most artificialplace. Inthe '70s we hated theater because
of its artificiality.
Performancewas different.Inopera you know everythingis
plastic,fake, and played.Butin my performancesyou see real blood, plus ele-
ments of antireality.I redidall my performancesin a concentratedway, so that
I had to makea climaxin less than three or four minutes.Ifound theatrical
means to redo the ones I originally did with Ulay. Sometimes just by showing
the slides, sometimes just showing an empty chair.

Kaplan: Is TheBiography
itself documented somewhere?

Abramovic: It exists as video documentation of the theater pieces, and it's a


work in progress. I started it about eight years ago. I play it every year, twice
maximum. I'm always adding the new events of my life, so even when I am in a
wheelchair, I will still be able to do it.

I 7 art journal
Kaplan: You mentioned that you like to teach. Is that something you continue
to do in your practice as an artist?

Abramovic: Manypeople teach as a way to survive.Inmy case, I have a need


to teach. At the point in your lifewhen you've gainedso muchexperience, it's
importantto be generous to the younggeneration.You have to open yourself
up. I have taughtfor a longtime in academiesaroundthe world. Now I am
teachingpermanentlyin Braunschweig,Germany.Myclass is calledCleaningthe
House. (Pleasesee the descriptionthat follows this interview.)The house refers
to the body. Beforeyou start learningfrom me, you have to cleanyour house.
To be an artistis a necessity,likebreathing.You have to feel the need to create,
and that stilldoesn't makea good artist.Itjust makesyou an artist.

Kaplan: Are students able to hang in there for the entire process of cleaning
the house?

Abramovic:Oh, yes. They have to. I teach them what it is to be an artist,and


that it's very importantthat you reallyknow that you have to take responsibility.
I absolutelydisagreewith artistswho say that they are only doingwork for
themselves. I'msittingin the studio and I don't care. This is total bullshit.The
moment you create the work, it's not yours anymore.It'snot your property.
The artistis a servantto society.You have to have a clear-cutfunction,and you
have to have responsibilities.

Kaplan: Getting your work out in the public space. Is that what you mean by
responsibility?
Abramovic: You need to spend as much energy in that regard as you spent in
makingthe piece, in puttingthe piece in the rightplace, in the rightconditions,
to be sure that the meaningis clear.A longtime ago, when ChristianBoltanski
was a young artist,he was showinga smallpiece in a gallery.I didn'tknow him
at that time, but I was passingthroughParis,and I went to look. He was doinga
televisioninterview,and the interviewerswere very suspiciousof his work. He
was showinga table with a napkin,littleshoes from when he was a six-week-old
baby,a doodle, and childhoodphotographs.The interviewerasked, "Whatdo
you want to do with this work?"Boltanskiwas extremelyserious. He looked at
the cameraand said, "Iwant to changethe world, of course."

Kaplan: What do you like to read? What sort of things feed you?
Abramovic: I read a huge mixture of different things. For me it is very impor-
tant to read source books. I love all kindsof dictionaries,to see the meanings
and the roots of words. Then I like illuminated texts very much, because they
were written in a special state of mind. I like those great diaries of Saint Teresa.
She complains about her levitation. She says, "Iwas cooking, and then this
strange force took me off the ground, and I was above levitating. But I wanted
to finish my dinner." She is complaining that levitation was too much sometimes.
I also read a lot of anthropological texts. And then, in an airplane, I read Vanity
Fair,for contrast.

Kaplan: Do you see yourself continuing to travel to faraway places? You have
said that you feel you have to go to the East and bring it back to the West.

18 SUMMER 1999
Abramovic: It'strue. Geographicalbelongingis very important.I come from
the Balkans.The Balkansis literallya bridgebetween Eastand West. It'sright
there, a bridgebetween two differentworlds, a most contradictoryplace.You
have the Easternnotion of time, but you also have the Western notion, and it's
alwaysin contradiction.To me, the Eastis a source of spiritualityand also of
forgotten knowledgewe no longerhave. That,together with nature,is very
inspiringfor me. That is where I can reach art. Then I came to the West, where
I can make my own mixtureof things.

Kaplan: Your work is for the West. Your audienceis in the West.
Abramovic:Absolutely.The Eastdoesn't need allthis.

Kaplan: You said somewhere that you feel that every artist basically has one
good idea that he or she just keeps working with. What's your good idea?
Abramovic: I have this old professorwho told me two truths,both of which
are very importantfor me. One truthhe told this way. If you alwaysdrawwith
the righthand,and you get better and better,so virtuosothat you can close
your eyes and make perfect drawings,you must immediatelychangeto the left.
It'svery important,because habitis the worst thingfor the artist.When you are
producingone thingand become recognizableand everybody knows you, you
have to change.You have to surpriseyourself,because the worst is if you just
respond to the needs of the market.Then developmentstops. The second
thinghe said is that in every artist'slife,you maythinkyou have a new idea or
manynew ideas every day. Infact, you may have one good idea, or, if you are
a genius,two. Butbe very carefulwith this. All the rest is interpretationof the
same idea, andfor me, the only idea I have alwayshad is the humanbody.
That'sthe only thingI have alwaysbeen interestedin. It'sa largearea to be
explored, and I alwaysfeel that I'mjust at the beginning.
Kaplan: So you never worry about not knowing what to do?
Abramovic: I'venever been bored in my life. I don't even know what that
means.And I never have doubts about beingan artist.It'sthe only thingI've
ever wanted to be.

Kaplan: Well, unless there are other things you'd like to talk about, I thank
you.
Abramovic:Wait. A littlejoke. I alwayslikejokes. Sometimesthere is so little
art that has real humor,and humoris very important,because with laughing,the
truth,even the worst, is easy to take. I recentlyhearda performancejoke that
I likevery much. Q: How manyperformanceartistsdoes it take to screw in a
lightbulb?A: I don't know. I was there for only four hours.

I am very grateful to MarinaAbramovic for her enthusiastic participation in this interview and to those
who facilitated it, includingMaryJane Jacob, Susan Maruska,and Steven Beyer of the FabricWorkshop and
Museum in Philadelphia;Lilli-MariAndresen, Cecile Panzieri,and Sean Kellyof Sean KellyGallery in New
York;and Alexander Godschalk in Amsterdam.

I 9 art journal
Refecton mnta an Brancusi said: Description and conditions of
n6t6 the workshop
"It's not important what you do,
of h
physial cnditining what is really important is the Duration: 8 days
artist 6 0 6
state of mind from which you are
Conditions for participation:
doing it."
Those interested should be informed
That state of mind is essential for
of the following conditions before
me in the moment of performing.
they decide to participate
That fragile passage between per-
eer6 Ti w 06
oni
toa.q
former and public, when you take i.
Participants should be in go d
tin her 0odesan6tei 6mnd 0t
30
a
step to enter your mental and health, not suffering from any
0nlepon o o0enrt0n
physical construction. mental or
physical disorders,
Asarsuto ta3ariuarsae anorexia, or bulimia; they should
This workshop is designed for stu-
6
30epot w0l ae i0ne not be pregnant and should not be
dents of Art to go though different
of oery;th phloophrne using any prescription medications.
stages of experiences and investigate
thoghs;th bile6 nw o0
their: Endurance, Concentration, 2. During the duration of the
0tutos teats0 e ok
Perception, Self-control, Wil Power, workshop, no intoxicants (alcohol,
In te
Rnaisane, 0e 6uldrea Confrontation with the Limits cigarettes, drugs, sex) may be
and consumed.
Hnte ok
lleio
ein o (Mental Physical)
t0rpretear
0 3t.opin h
30.0
After the no
eating and no
talking 3. Four days without food, except
f hecurh
period (which varies from thre to for large quantities of water and
Hesadt 0e 3nhsbeoe tr0 n five days), students wil be asked herbal teas, and four days without
0
wor, .heari 6hul sopeain to make work from this newly talking.
mett 0 3nh .bfoestr0 n achieved "state of mind."

wor, hearis 0sou6 to03 inin

win, nemo0hbeor sarin


0
wokth ati ho 6dreran 0o

3exu0lesire0

Theeweksbeor
sarin63rk
r
holdpu
03.atit 3s.0gt.
int te efrehestrt
0ase 0 6ay
rek
towokheshul6 hepls6r
n ihhsfe ad
0aeabuh

SIramvi0 A
Program examples: Completion of the workshop:

Waking at 7 a.m. and doing heavy During the fi th and sixth days, the
outdoor physical exercises: a combi participants are asked to make one

nation of Aborigine step dancing, artwork using materials found in the


Stif training, Hopi Indian dancing, surroundings, or
working only with
to the Yves Klein jump. their own
body.
After this, washing and drinking fin Ti
yorwybc.oe
tea and doing different types of
exercises that wil continue al day
for the entire four days.
I wil inform the students of the
nature of each exercise only just
before it is executed.

Related Interests