interview | Conversation with Marina Abramovic


Marina Abramovic

Photo Courtesy of David Leyes

In an event hosted by KQED and the City Arts and Lecture series, San Francisco had the rare opportunity to spend a night in conversation with performance artist Marina Abramovic. Using her body as the canvas, she is a pioneer in the transition of performance art from an alternative, to mainstream form.

There was a tangible energy walking into the auditorium. Guests scrambled to their seats and waited in silence for Abramovic to begin. As scheduled, the event started at 7:30 on the dot. Entering the stage Abramovic didn’t walk, but floated to her seat wearing a billowing black dress that mirrored her long black hair. No one took out their phones to take a picture. No one tweeted. No one said a word. Everyone was present, a very noticeable difference from other events in the age of smartphones. Led by Berkeley Museum of Art’s director Lawrence Rinder, the discussion focused on Abramovic’s work, exploring the relationship between the performer and it’s audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.

Abramovic first received attention from one of her earlier works, Rhythm 0, in which she stood for 6 hours in the middle of a room next to a table with 72 different objects. She invited the audience to use any of the objects on her body in any way they pleased. These objects ranged from those that could bring pleasure, to those that could bring pain, or even death. The objective of the performance was to see how far the public could go if the artist doesn’t intervene. After a while the crowd became violent, one individual even holding a loaded gun to her head. After the performance ended, Abramovic began to walk through the room. Unable to confront her as a person, people began to run away. To her this wan’t about death, but about energy. She wanted to see just how far you can push the human body, discovering it’s almost limitless, and not about the body, but the mind.

Over the course of the talk, Abramovic covered many topics, most importantly the various processes by which she creates her immaterial art. When asked why long durational work is such a theme in her art she replied “I need to get myself in a place I need to be to work, and that takes time.” She engages in numerous exercises to get to her desired state of consciousness. For example she mixes a pound of rice with a pound of sesame seeds, then separates them, counting each piece individually. “You will start to go crazy! It’s amazing what happens” she says.

Her presence became almost intimidating as she shared personal information about her life. Raised in a military family, Ambramovic experienced a traumatic childhood in which suffering was a major element. While she defends that in order to achieve great work an artist must suffer, she clearly distinguishes between suffering and depression. According to Abramovic, depression is a disease that needs to be treated, whereas suffering is a very natural, even productive part of her process. She follows this saying “when we don’t do things we do not like we never change, because it’s too easy”

Before opening the lecture to questions, she was asked about her current project, the Marina Abramovic Institute. She became giddy with excitement exclaiming “Oh! this is the only thing I want to talk about!” She is currently building an Institute for her legacy, it’s mission dedicated to the presentation and preservation of long durational work. Here, both the performer and audience are encouraged to step outside traditional concepts of time, and examine what this experience means to them. “It’s very simple,” says Marina, “you give me your time, and I give you experience.” The institute will not just be a place to come see work, but to change oneself through the work, creating a new platform of consciousness. Visitors will push their bodies’ limits, engaging in exercises that challenge everyday experiences of consciousness. Guests will receive a contract upon entering the building, committing 6 hours of their lives to the institute. They will then be given a lab coat and noise canceling headphones, and surrender any and all belongings to a safety deposit box. Several different chambers offer interactions with varying states of consciousness, involving sitting, standing and lying down. “To be present sounds easy, but it’s really very difficult for the body and the mind to be in the same place,” says Abramovic. “Its about benefiting from that concentration and experience.”

Funding for the institute is still in the works. She will need a total of 20 million dollars in order to complete her vision, but doesn’t seem discouraged by that at all. She recently hit her first goal of $600,000 through Kickstarter, rewarding her contributors of $1 with one hug, and those of $10,000 with nothing at all, subverting facets of the superficial philanthropy of the art world. On her birthday she bought an almost-million dollar building in Hudson, New York to house the institute, contracting Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to design it. Proceeds from her discussion series will go towards the institute, but most of the funding she leaves up to the public. ” If this kind of concept is something our society needs, they have to join me to create it.”

Abramovic ended the night saying “If we don’t go back to simplicity, we are completely lost.” Her words hung in the air while the audience digested this eerie warning. Almost immediately she stood up and walked to the edge of the stage. Holding her arms by her side, she opened her palms towards the audience. It seemed as if by doing that she made a physical connection with everyone in the room. She bowed her head, smiled once, and disappeared offstage leaving only the absence of her presence behind.

Check out her virtual tour of the institute below.


Marina Abramovic Institute Official Website

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