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Interview with Marina Abramovic on her reperformances at the Guggenheim: Back to the classics

The Yugoslav-born artist will re-enact famous performances from the 1970s this month

Marina Abramovic’s oeuvre was based on shock and sensation long before such attention-seeking tactics became commonplace. As a very young artist reacting to the authoritarian Communism of her native Yugoslavia, Abramovic realised that the non-quantifiable, the non-explicable, the untranslatable poetic gesture was the most radical. Using violence and aggression, often directed at herself and deploying much nudity, Abramovic caused scandal and surprise. Her work may have evolved into a more meditative if not holistic practice, but Abramovic still puts herself through punishing transformative experiences, whether walking the Great Wall of China or fasting publicly in silence at the Sean Kelly Gallery. Her art is time-based and transient, which makes her Seven easy pieces at the Guggenheim (9-15 November) all the more interesting as she reperforms famous works by other artists, as well as two of her own earlier pieces. Though the physicality of her work deliberately defies all verbal explication, Abramovic speaks eloquently about her work and what she hopes to achieve through it.

The Art Newspaper: Are you re-creating key performances at the Guggenheim?

Marina Abramovic: Yes, I have had the idea for the last 12 years but was not able to find the right circumstances in which to carry it out. Other young artists have re-staged performance art, but they do it more as a joke, with humour added. I mean for these works to be taken bloody seriously. Performance has been my life. There is a real need to make a straight history of “performance”. I am the only artist left from the 1970s who still performs. Today there are so many misunderstandings about what performance art is: from young artists who do not refer to the sources, or references from fashion photographers or on MTV. Performance is always somewhere between art and media. It is never clear what it is. I wanted to reperform pieces from the 1970s, and try to give an example as to how they should be done. I asked the artists’ permission, and payed them a fee, as if I were using pieces of music or quotes from books. I chose pieces that I have never actually seen in person but that I love, by artists I truly admire such as Valie Export, Beuys, Bruce Nauman and Gina Pane. When I was living in Yugoslavia, I was not able to see any of this work.

TAN: And Chris Burden’s Crucifixion, nailed on the back of a VW Beetle?

MA: Burden refused to allow me to do it. He was the only artist who refused permission. It would have been a great chance to be crucified! Some assistant of his sent a letter to me and the Guggenheim, saying that “Mr Burden never gives permission”. I wanted to know the reason; I was frustrated, artists should give their reasons, but I got another anonymous assistants’s telegramme saying that “Mr Burden doesn’t talk publicly these days”.

TAN: Will the pieces be exactly the same as they were originally?

MA: No, my whole idea of performance is that you can re-perform the work with certain changed conditions, as with music. I have changed the timing, some of the works were originally 15 minutes long, some one hour, but now each piece will be seven hours long. I will start the performance before the public arrives and finish it after they leave. Each performance will last from five in the afternoon until midnight. I’ve also planned telescopes round the Guggenheim so people can see the details close up, like in a painting.

TAN: You are recreating Acconci’s Seedbed when he masturbated under the floorboards of a gallery. Surely as a woman it will be hard for you to produce this “seed” itself?

MA: But seed can also be a metaphor: the seed of creativity. Anyway, without a woman the seed is not fertilised. In Chinese philosophy, the world is made out of a drop of red blood from a woman and a white drop of sperm. Together, the red and white create life. The performance is about the idea of the artist as producer: not being able to see what he is creating under the floor.

The other work with a sexual connotation is Genital panic by Valie Export, in which she walked around outdoors with an exposed crotch, carrying a machine gun. The work was originally only 15 minutes long. The images that remain of it are so fascinating, that I wanted to extend the piece to seven hours, and see what the images mean today.

Both these sexual works dealt with taboo subjects when they were first made in the 70s. This will probably still be the same in the 21st century; they will be shocking.

TAN: You have also chosen an early piece of yours from the 1970s.

MA: Lawyers raised objections to me using a loaded gun as I had done in my original piece. It was not possible to have a real loaded gun in the Guggenheim because of security, and I did not want to do the piece with a fake gun. Instead I decided to perform my most complicated piece in which I eat honey, drink wine, cut a five-point star on my stomach, and lie on a star of ice. It really pushes me to the absolute physical limits.

In the 1970s, my reasons for doing the work were very different. I wanted to see what it would be like to do it now: to take the piece and extend it in time. It was one hour long then, and, again, will last for seven hours now.

TAN: That requires enormous endurance, are you stronger now than then?

MA: No I’m not stronger physically but I’m much stronger mentally. It is also a question of age; I’m 59 now, and I have willpower I never had before. You can prepare yourself physically, but you need to have mental strength to go through with a work like that. There is an important quote by Nauman: “art questions life and death.” It may sound melodramatic but it’s true.

The public is like a dog, they feel insecurity and doubt. You have to know how to perform, not everyone can do it, that it is easy, but it takes enormous dedication and willpower. It is like playing Bach, you have to know how to play his music or you cannot do it. It is also dangerous. I have done so many crazy things in my life but so far have never ended up in hospital.

TAN: Can performance really be recorded or does it gain part of its power from its very transience?

MA: This is a huge question. In the early 1970s I was very radical. I insisted that there should be absolutely no recording of my performances, and nothing left, only the narrative knowledge of the public: witnesses telling other people what they did or did not see, like the Aboriginal narrative culture which stretches back 30,000 years. But if you don’t record the performance, you lose it. The problem is when you record a performance you have to make enormous adjustments: the light’s not perfect, there are lots of restrictions.

Live performance has to be seen in optimal conditions by the public. At the Guggenheim we will have one static camera, but also the camerawoman Babette Mangold recording what she wants using a camera hidden in a hole in a wall. Nowadays, young artists think the same way: that recordings should never be made and that performance should exist only by word of mouth.

TAN: The performance photograph can become an elegant art object itself.

MA: There have been so many terribly, absolutely boring performances, and then one really great photograph of them which is always used. Even major art historians lecturing round the world never use video material, they always use photographs. To re-stage Beuys’s work Talking to a dead hare, I worked with his widow Eva who said the only thing people know about the performance is one famous photograph. People refer to it like a 20th-century Pietà. She told me this was a total misunderstanding. So I was able to look at unauthorised video material shot at the time, which has never been shown.

TAN: Unlike a photo or painting, performance is really all about duration.

MA: Yes, duration is absolutely the key, if a work has taken hours or days or even weeks, you cannot see that in a carefully chosen slide. I have seen the most beautiful slides for performances that, in reality, were absolute shit.

TAN: Your performances are very much about the energy of the audience.

MA: I believe in the hierarchy of art, that art is absolutely not democratic but hierarchic. Because performance is time-based, you have to make the physical effort to be there. You must step into another dimension, through 100% involvement. The experience starts with an emotion and then goes deeper. For me the public is the holy ground. I feel the presence of the audience the whole time, if someone goes out to have a pee, I feel it.

Biography

Born 1946, Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Now lives in Amsterdam.

Education: 1965-70, Academy of Fine Arts, Belgrade; 1970-72, post diploma studies, Academy of Fine Arts, Zagreb.

Currently showing: “Marina Abramovic: seven easy pieces” at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 9-15 November.

Selected solo shows: 2004 “Performing body: video works by Marina Abramovic”, The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, US; “Loop performance”, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York 2003: “The star”, Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, Japan; The Netherlands Media Art Institute, Montevideo/Time Based Arts, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; “Student body”, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, Spain; La Fábrica, Madrid, Spain 2002: “The house with the ocean view”, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Galleria Lia Rumma, Milan, Italy; Galerie Cent 8, Paris, France 2001: “Marina Abramovic: the hero”, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; “Marking the territory”, The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland.