Living the Art
New York-based Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović is not about ‘easy’ art. Her recent show involved her and 39 people living in a barn with no food and no talking for three days. Here she explains how she works.
“I really hate the studio, because I think artists have a habit of dividing the private life from the artistic life. I believe that artists can’t produce so many great works in the studio. You are creating something which I’m very afraid of doing: art pollution. You understand the kind of work that will have success with your audience and you start making it again and again, and you lose yourself. The worst part is that you don’t surprise yourself with your work, you don’t get new ideas or take risks, because of the possibility of failure. But failure is an incredibly important part of the work. Life itself is what’s important, not studio space.
In the beginning, between 1975 and 1980, I was very nomadic. I lived in the car for five years, because it was impossible to sell performance [art], it was impossible to live from performance, and I didn’t want to live any other way. Later on, I started teaching and selling work and I had a house in Amsterdam [from 1989 to 2004]. The studio in my house was an empty space with a table and a white sheet of paper, ready for when I had an idea. The moment the idea is finished, I would clean everything out and put a new white piece of paper and just wait because I believe ideas can happen any time, in any situation—going to the bathroom, chopping garlic in the kitchen, swimming in the river. ideas have to come as a surprise. If you have an idea and you like it and it’s nice and cute you [should] just drop it: it’s not interesting. But if an idea obsesses you and you have a sensation in your stomach that is like fear or panic, that idea is something I take seriously.
At the moment I have three properties. One is a SoHo [New York City] loft and I don’t have anything to do with work there. Then I have a large theatre in Hudson [a town in upstate new York] built in the 1930s. I wanted to create an institute of performing arts in that place; it’s like my legacy. I have to raise the money for the restoration but I hope it will open in 2012. It’s going to be called the Marina Abramović institute for Performance art. I like to give it my name because I really think that I am like a label. You say Coca-Cola, you know what it is. You say Marina Abramović and you know it is about performance, it’s not about paintings. The institute is going to be for only long-duration works of art. Nothing can be less than six hours long.
The third space, this house [in Malden Bridge, upstate New York] in the shape of a six-point star, conditions me. There are deer passing by and eagles in the sky. It’s very ascetic in many ways. My favourite spaces in life are the prison, monastery and sanatorium, because they’re dealing with regularity. I see my body like a tool, like a machine. The body has to have this regularity, like a Swiss watch, so that the mind can go free.
Different pieces need different preparation. The Artist is Present [a recent three-month exhibition at MoMa in New York, during which Abramović performed a piece lasting 736.5 hours, for which she sat motionless, while spectators were invited to sit across from her for as long as they pleased] was like preparing for the NASA space programme. I had a nutritionist programme my diet to the minimum amount I could eat. I had to regulate my body so that I would never take lunch, because the performance was seven hours, 10 on Fridays. Performance became life itself. I really believe the long, durational work of art is the main tool to make physical and mental transformations, not just of the performer but of the audience. I still can’t believe that we had 700,000 visitors.
I auditioned around 100 people [to take part in the artist is Present], chose 39 and brought them here. I locked the house and we all slept in the barn, like sardines. We stayed there for three days with absolutely no food, and without talking. We washed in the ice-cold river. It was really intense training. We did exercises in order to concentrate on willpower, perception, how you behave under stress. For one of the exercises, I would mix grains of salt and sesame seeds. You’d get a huge amount and you’d have to divide the sesame seeds from the salt and count them. And you would have to go into the forest blindfolded and find your way home. When they started performing, the first two or three days into my piece they would start fainting. I would say, “Do you want to stop?” and they would say, “No, no, no. We have to work through it.” I was so proud of them.
One of Damien Hirst’s last shows was called End of an Era. And I think that’s true. It’s the end of art as a commodity, the end of this insanity. Money is nothing to do with art. Artists can get rich and society thinks there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not the purpose, to become famous and rich. Then art doesn’t function—it’s wrong all the way.”