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“The knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović performing "Lips of Thomas" (original 1975) as part of "Seven Easy Pieces" (2005)

Marina Abramović performing "Lips of Thomas" (original 1975) as part of "Seven Easy Pieces" (2005)

I really don’t think I have ever met a more inspiring artist than Marina Abramović. She is only a few years older than me and I have followed her work like an awe-struck younger brother since I first became aware of her  work in the late 1970s. At every point in her career, from her early solo works made under the Communist regime of the then Yugoslavia, through the remarkable work that she made with her long term partner Ulay (like Rest Energy, 1980) and then during her years living in Amsterdam and more recently here in New York, she is the artist who, in my experience anyway, has made the most vivid reality of the much-discussed ambition of making art and life the same thing.

Marina Abramović and Ulay, "Rest Energy" (1980)

Marina Abramović and Ulay, "Rest Energy" (1980)

The most recent – and perhaps most remarkable – manifestation of this identification began on Saturday, March 6, makes its first full public appearance this Sunday, March 14, and endures through May 31. It is her 600-hour performance The Artist is Present, which will be a constant component of her MoMA retrospective of the same name, and which has been organized and curated by Klaus Biesenbach, Director of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, and MoMA’s Chief Curator at Large. It sees Ms Abramović cease all social interaction with the outside world, and all verbal contact, and dedicate herself instead – as she explains in this conversation – to an unbroken performing presence in the MoMA atrium.

Marina Abramovic, "The Artist is Present" 2010

Marina Abramovic, "The Artist is Present" 2010

The MoMA show is a genuine first. Whereas we have seen many museum shows focusing on performance art, this is the first in which performance itself is a vital continuous component. As well as Ms Abramović’s own new piece, visitors will be able to see a whole string of “re-performances” of her earlier pieces by a troupe of thirty-six performers recruited and trained especially for this show. Working in stints of two and a half hours at a time, these performers will mean that key works like Imponderabilia (1977), and Nude with Skeleton (2002-05) will be performed throughout the show. It is an audacious project.

Marina Abramović and Ulay, "Imponderabilia" (1977)

Marina Abramović and Ulay, "Imponderabilia" (1977)

"Imponderabilia" re-performed as part of "Marina Abramovic - The Artist is Present" at MoMA

"Imponderabilia" re-performed as part of "Marina Abramovic - The Artist is Present" at MoMA

No wonder then that when I spoke to Ms Abramović last week, just before she went silent, she was more nervous than I have never seen her. No wonder that her conversation returns repeatedly, and without my prompting, to the practical problems that she finds herself facing with her performance, and to anxieties about what might go awry with the exhibition. It is an eloquent reminder that her work is far more than concepts made physical. Rather it is the turning of a human life into the subject, material, and methods of art.

Marina, your forty-year retrospective is about to open at MoMA. How does that make you feel?

It’s driving me crazy. It could go so many ways. It’s a real experiment. We’ll only know at the end whether this model of a retrospective – with long durational pieces – will work. It could all blow up in our faces. Who knows! I have this strange sensation in my stomach and it just won’t stop. It’s pure torture right now, whether I’m asleep or awake. I dream about performance, then I wake up and I perform.

This show has tremendous importance for me – and not just personal importance. It’s important because up until now performance art has always been an alternative form of art; it’s never ever been mainstream. Even though I’ve been doing performance for forty years, I still have people inviting me to group shows and saying, “Can you do a performance for the opening?” This is because they think performance means entertainment, which is not what performance art is about. It’s not entertaining. It’s much more than that. So having this retrospective is the big chance for performance art itself, as an art form, to become mainstream art like photography or video, and that’s really historic.

Marina Abramovic, "Nude with Skeleton" (2002-05)

Marina Abramović, "Nude with Skeleton" (2002-05)

"Nude with Skeleton"

"Nude with Skeleton" re-performed as part of "Marina Abramovic - The Artist is Present" at MoMA

Do you think it’s an entirely good thing for performance art to become mainstream?

Yes and no. Because the nature of performance was that it was a kind of guerilla attack on so many things, and it was meant to be in precise opposition to the mainstream.  But it’s been like that for too long, and what I hate is that there’s no respect for performance. Everybody has taken advantage of performance without giving any respect to the originals. Theatre has appropriated performance’s attitudes in so many ways, everybody from Jan Fabre to Pina Bausch, without giving any credit to performance. So I really think that that situation should be solved and certain historical things have to become mainstream. So that any young artist after me has a place in the museums, and can cross the threshold from alternative to mainstream. But at the same time there will always be parts of performance that are not. There will always be the new young performance artists who will be against the older work. This is how the dynamic works. It’s a kind of evolution.

You believe that there’s a clear distinction between performance art and theatre?

This is what I think: to be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.

For the MoMA show you’ve recruited thirty-six “re-performers” to present versions of your earlier pieces, and you mentioned to me that most of them are dancers rather than performance artists. Why is that?

Yes, most of them are dancers and not performance artists, and there are two reasons for that: First of all the performance artists are not used to re-performing other people’s works. (And if they’re doing it, they’re doing it without giving credit to the original material – they’re doing it as their own work!) Second they don’t have the same sort of stamina in their bodies as dancers. It’s easy to make a very strong performance piece once in a while and then have three months to do nothing, because you derive the energy from willpower and not from exercising your body. The dancers are used to re-performing other people’s works and they have the discipline, the routine, and the physical endurance and stamina to do long durational work. There’s a clear difference between the performance artist’s body and the dancer’s body. There’s no comparison. The performance artist’s body is a bloody disaster! They’re not trained, while the dancers are fantastic.

Does that give you cause for concern?

Something that I become more and more aware of is that a certain point you have to give up and believe, and you have to trust other people’s motivations and abilities that they are going to do it fine. I am going to be performing at the same time so I won’t even know how they are doing. I have to give up control, which is so contradictory to my nature: I like to control everything – I would control my own funeral if I could – but I have to give up complete control in order that the re-performances can happen at the same time as my performance.

"The Artist is Present" (2010) with documentary film crew, March 6, 2009

"The Artist is Present" (2010) with documentary film crew, March 6, 2009

Let’s talk about your performance, The Artist is Present. You’ll be performing every moment the museum is open between now and May 31?

Yes. Every day the museum is open seven hours, and on Friday it’s open ten hours.

And you’re in place before people arrive?

Exactly, and I only finish when the audience leaves when the museum closes. I have a hole in my chair so I can pee, because I can’t go that length of time without peeing. I’ve done performances for seven hours without peeing, but I’ve never done ten, and I don’t want to be bothered by that during the piece. It was a big issue for the museum. They said, ”What’re we going to do with the pee?” and I said “I’ll bring my own pee to the toilet”!

And what happens when you leave the museum?

Then I have a car that takes me home, and I stay home in silence. I will be absolutely shut down from the outside world for the three-month period. I’ve given my mobile phone away, and my computer to my assistant. I have a vegetarian food delivery. (I’ve been completely vegetarian for two months now.) It’s a kind of grain mixed with vegetables that I can eat, digest, and shit, and then not eat again for seven hours. I have a nutritionist who is on standby in case something goes wrong with my food. It’s like another space program! I have to look after my body: I have to become like a Swiss watch. I am training with a physical trainer right now and he’s going to give me a program that I can do by myself.

If something goes wrong I will write to Davide, my assistant, and Klaus Biesenbach, my curator. I have to communicate with them by writing. I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to verbalize anything – that would have to be a real emergency, but I can’t imagine any scenario where it would be necessary.

So you begin for the press preview on March 6 …

… And I finish 31 May at 5.30. And I want to get back to work June 1.

Can you say something about the work’s content?

It’s really the idea of creating a moment of presence. New York is so functional. There’s no concentration on anything. People lose their center. Europe is different. There’s something else. There’s such an incredible feeling of nature. Here it’s very different. So it’s necessary to establish this kind of pace here, because everything is too much, everything is the market, everything is consumption, everything is overwhelming. Just to strip back to the nakedness, that’s why I really wanted to do this.

That’s why I wanted to work with the MoMA atrium, which is enormous. I don’t want to compete with the architecture. I want to do the opposite. I want to minimize my presence in the middle of the atrium. The atrium is like a tornado: MoMA has between 11,000 and 15,000 visitors a day and they’re all moving around, and there are so many activities going on, so there’s this tornado of energy. But I want to create a stillness in the middle of the tornado, with just a tiny little table and two little chairs. And the chair opposite me is always empty, and any member of the audience is welcome to come and engage in the gaze with me. There will not be talking, there will not be anything, just the motionless gaze.

The eyes are the windows of the soul. You can see so much. And it will create an energy, a luminosity around it. The more time goes past with this piece, the more the piece will go where it should go – into that timeless state. It’s about the here and now. It’s not about future or past. It’s just about the present moment. I want to construct many present moments during the 600 hours, and be available and vulnerable for anybody in the audience. This which will create a trust so that the other person looking at me can also be available and vulnerable, and we can create a contact which is very direct and very human.

So anyone can sit opposite you?

Yes, without any limit of time.

It doesn’t concern you that you’re going to get people who will want to sit there all day.

That’s fine. That could very easily happen. I don’t want to restrict it. Other people will have to organize themselves, not me. That’s how it has to be managed. If somebody’s sitting there all day, he’s responsible for his conduct, which is depriving other people of the experience. But he has to have his own social consciousness about it, and in the end it’s his decision. I just want to be there like a rock, so when you come in I’m always there.

It’s ironic that a performance that is clearly going to be grueling to make is going to be so simple in its form.

It started as such a complicated idea! Really, it was insane! But the nearer we got to the show happening, the more simple it became. It’s something to do with age. Now I’m 63 now, and I’m struck by the awareness that we can’t take anything with us. When we die the only thing we can leave is a good idea.  Material goods are such an obsession of American culture especially. But it’s just illusion.

Tehching Hsieh, "One Year Performance, 1978-79".

Tehching Hsieh, "One Year Performance, 1978-79".

You’ve often talked to me about Tehching Hsieh. What is his importance to you?

I think that he’s the biggest master of all of us, because he is the one who really understood the transformative force of performance before anyone else. After five years of performances he’s now “doing life”. That’s what it means, being changed by performance. And I have to say that in my case it’s not life that’s changing me, it’s my performance that’s changing me, because I always set myself such difficult tasks and it’s always such hell to do them that when I go through them I really come out different on the other side. I never have the same dedication or energy or willpower to do things in my life, I am always trying to find the easy way, and so life never changes me. But then I put all this stuff into performances and then I really change. And this is what Tehching did. You know which was his most beautiful piece? When he was sitting in his studio in this cage. You remember? Think about it: A whole fucking year! He doesn’t talk, he doesn’t write, he doesn’t read, he doesn’t do anything! He’s just there. It’s mind-blowing! And he told me, “When I sat on the left edge of the bed, I imagined that I was in the bedroom. When I sat in the middle of the bed, I was in the living room. And when I sat on the far right corner of the bed, then I was in the garden.” This blows my mind!

It’s the power of imaginative energy.

Yes, this is what prisons, monasteries, and hospitals have in common. They’re places where the body is seated on a regular basis, but the mind can be free.

So, are you hoping that this performance will change your life?

Yes! Especially after the last year and a half. My husband left me. I got divorced. So this has been such a hard time. I’m really just looking to do this piece and then to come out the other side of my own life, leaving behind my fears and my loneliness and everything else. But it’s funny, somehow you always seem to need these sort of disasters in order to purify yourself. Life is like that. Optimism is not productive!

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1 comment to “The knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Marina Abramović

  • C Carey

    I’ve been looking forward to this piece since we met at the Guggenheim lecture. You’ve gotten many insights into “The Artist Is Present,” in this interview, no one else has published. In the firestorm of media that is approaching spectacle, that’s a true accomplishment.