The prolific New York-based Serbian performance artist tells Pascal Odille why art should be accessible to everyone, how she’s creating an institute for immaterial forms of art, and what young artists can do to find their way
Pascal Odille: For more than 10 years, you had an important relationship with Ulay. Which period of time do you feel is most representative of your work?
Marina Abramović: For me new work is always the most interesting. I never look back. I have 40 years of career and all of it is important. Ulay’s performances are important for the ’70s. Each performance brings a new state of mind, which I am creating. In each performance I learn a lesson, and then I move on. I look to the future. For me the future is what is interesting, not the past.
PO: Did you have the feeling you were changing the way contemporary art is looked at with this new work?
MA: Performance is such a very difficult form of art, a very mercurial form of art. There are so many artists who started doing performances in the ’70s and gave up and became painters, or do mixed media work, or work in different ways. To continue working in performance art is very difficult and it is interesting how things have changed in the relationship between audience and artist. In the ’70s performances, the public was always seated. And soon I realised that I had to remove the seats. If they are not seated, the public can take as much of the material as they want. They can only be seated for a certain amount of time.
Then I introduced longer duration performances, so now my work looks like I’m introducing a different system of performing. I’m just facilitating the experience, because I understood that after 40 years of performing, the only way to understand performance is if you have you own personal experience. So now the public is the one who has to have this experience. I’m changing constantly the rules of the game.
PO: How was your performance art accepted by the public? Was there anything that shocked or pleased you when you did this for the first time?
MA: My first performance was shocking for me, especially because I didn’t understand at the time that performance was my media. I was painting. I was working in other ways. But when I stood in front of the public for the first time, I understood that this media would really take me. My heart was beating so fast and I understood that I could communicate to the public the best ideas, that that was what performance can do. I remember that after finishing I understood I would never go to any other media of working. It would never be stronger than performance. Of course there are the side elements of performance, photography and film, but it starts with the performance. I could never go back to anything normal after that, and I knew the public understood.
In a way, to be a performance artist you have to have some kind of special kind of quality. So many artists are great painters, but they could not stand in front of the public. In the studio, they are shy and self-conscious. I was also self-conscious and very shy, but in the performance I was no longer me. I was in a state of mind that I did not know I had. And that was a really important moment that changed everything.
PO: Your retrospective at MOMA was a wonderful and intense experience for you and your audience. Six years on, what are your feelings about doing this huge retrospective and seeing the works you’ve done in one place?
MA: Retrospectives are a terrible thing for artists, because you see everything and think, ‘Oh my God I’m going to die! Now is everything is finished!’ I never like to see a retrospective. Even at MOMA, it was only one part of my work there. So many elements were not present. I feel like the real retrospective will only be when I die, not before that.
I’ve just finished a very big event in New York fashion week for Givenchy. They asked me to be the creative director of this show, and this is one of the biggest events in fashion ever. Four thousand people were there and the date of it was very special — September 11, which is one of the most difficult dates in American history. So it wasn’t easy for me to do this, and it was a completely new media. Fashion is something different than art.
It’s so interesting, because I’m not just interested in fashion. Art, I’m here to change the rules, to go into different categories and break them. I’m working in impression in December, and classical music and how to create a system use classical music.
I don’t think art should have borders. Art has been a commodity for such a long time, just for the fortunate people who understand art and are rich, and I hate that. Art has to cross these borders and become part of everyday life. So I’m working for the general public, not just the art public. And what is particularly important to me is the young public, everyone from 15 years old and up. The work I’m doing is life. It’s not dead work.
PO: In 2005, you decide to recreate some of the more important performances by Bruce Neuman and Joseph Beuys, and a reconditioning of Gina Pane. What was your feeling recreating these works?
MA: First of all, I did this as a lesson to the artists who are taking other people’s work without giving any credit. Performance art has become such a target for the tinker people, who take elements of a performance and don’t give credit to anybody. It is such an unfair situation. Seven Easy Pieces is about this situation. If you want to perform someone else’s work, you have to understand the work and pay respect to the artist, mention the original work, and then you can make your own version.
So that was one reason why I wanted to do this. Another was to explore the re-performance. You can re-perform works from the ’70s as if it were a ballet piece, or a music piece, because if don’t do this it is just material in books, or bad riddles, because we did not use technology in the ’70s to made good documentation. We have to employ certain rules if we want to address historical material.
PO: You are working on another big project. What can you tell us about the Marina Abramović Institute?
MA: The Marina Abramović Institute is my legacy, because, for me, most of the artists making foundations put in their own works. I think it’s much more interesting to put in something different — to create an institute for immaterial forms of art. There are so many different forms of art, which include the theater, the opera, dance, film, music and performance, and there has never been this type of space to analyse them all together and explore how modern science and technology look today. It creates a kind of unity to see what the future of art should be, because I think we are so much in the virtual world. The material things are going to fall off. Immateriality is going to take place.
I would also like to dedicate this institute to longer duration works of art… Long durational is something we need. Our lives are so hard. We need to slow down, and use art to slow down. I would like my institute to have the basic methods of how to slow down, and then it will be dedicated to all the new ideas and young artists making new work.
PO: One last question. Artists in Lebanon are really focused on the notion of identity. This is something you used to work on a lot, and is still one of your most important subjects. Do you have any suggestions for younger artists who want to work on the notion of identity?
MA: My suggestion to young artist is to find out: are they an artist — to find out who they are. So many people say to me, ‘I want to be an artist.’ I don’t think you’re an artist just because you want to be an artist. You have to be born an artist. To be an artist is like breathing. You don’t have to tell yourself to breathe. You just breathe. You just create. Then to create is not enough. You have to find out which medium is best for you.
You don’t just get out of bed and know where religion comes from. It’s more inside, one of your inner needs. Yes, I have a need to create. What are the best tools for me to create? It’s not going to be painting or performance for everybody. Find the best way to express yourself. Then go deep inside.
It’s one thing to look at the fashion of art. This is not enough. You have to find your own expression and how to release it. That’s difficult for young artists. They always surround themselves with too much information and then lose their way. My suggestion to young artists is to follow your instincts, do what you really love, and be yourself.