An Interview with Marina Abramovic, the Mistress of Metaphysics

Marina Abramovic performing “The Artist is Present”, MoMA, New York 2010. Photo © Marco Anelli 

The history of art is a silent and stuffy affair filled with paintings, drawings, sculpture and the occasional stitch of facts handed down in documents. Lost to us are the emotions, the fleeting instances of psychic power that willed artworks into being. Marina Abramovic takes inspiration from precisely that insensate means, the energy of the mind and its power to communicate. She invests less in material and more in the immaterial, creating a body of performance art that over the past five decades continues to test the limits of humanness. She has made a career of turning insecurity into feats of intensity, transforming private thoughts into public meditations. Her latest work The Artist is Present, presented at MoMA last year, was a tour de force of measured endurance. This summer she turns to her latest collaborative project, a performance with Robert Wilson, who has created a rendition of her life story for the Manchester Festival. At her Soho loft, she talked with us about the power of meditation, the problem of excess bad art, and her childhood obsession with Bridgette Bardot’s nose.

Interview by Steve Pulimood

Sleek: Is silence important to you?
Marina Abramovic: When you verbalize things and talk, you expend an enormous amount of energy. But if you don’t speak, the body generates a different kind of energy that you can radiate to the audience. For me, the highest form of immaterial art is music. In music there is no object between you and the public. The second on that hierarchy is performance, because performance is a kind of energy dialogue. When you don’t talk and there is no sound except for pure presence, then you can generate a kind of energy that the public can really feel. I’ve been thinking that if there is no time in life, we should have more time in art. If life gets shorter, then art gets longer. That’s why I’ve developed these very long performances, lasting ten days, fifteen days, and now the longest one of three months, in which I completely devote myself to that state of total silence, with no communication with the outside world. The entire new work is to create a silent state of mind, to be entirely in the present.

Sleek: One thing that is very interesting, which you just referred to is the ancient concept “vita brevis, ars longa”, the idea that life is short and art is long. Even before the invention of the computer, attention deficits were a problem…
MA: I remember growing up in the former Yugoslavia where I could actually take a book by Dostoyevsky and read it from the beginning to the end. It would take me five days and I would never leave the house. The reality of the book would become more real than the life around me. I never have that kind of time anymore.

Sleek: But you meditate?
MA: I do. I have a living altar… I am very interested in Tibetan Buddhism. Everything on this altar means something to me. For example, this is an image of my grandfather who was a saint.

Sleek: You said that part of the reason you are interested in performance is to engage the public, to have them be in the present. It is one thing for an artist to make us aware of the present, but there’s also the question of the power of the mind to focus on certain things. Are you interested in the benefits of this, or is your purpose to raise awareness of our collective attention deficit?
MA: I’m interested in the benefits. I believe in a universal knowledge that we can tap into, knowledge that is already available to us. I lived with Aborigines in the central Australian desert for one year, with no money, absolutely in nature. I learned some of their language, but basically they communicate telepathically. They have an excellent sense of perception and have instincts that our rational brain can’t explain. Tibetan Buddhism uses meditation to figure out how to actually reach this point. Aborigine mythology is always set in the present. They never say, ‘it has happened’ or, ‘it is going to happen.’ They will say, ‘the snake woman is fighting with the man.’ There’s a thirty-thousand-year-old history that exists as an oral tradition and it has survived everything. It is a kind of immaterial form of art, which is stronger then any object. It’s pure energy.

Sleek: How does this relate to your creative process? You showed me your altar. Is creating work and thinking of ideas born from those moments? Or, do you have a traditional studio practice?
MA: I hate studios. An idea can come from anywhere: on the way to the metro station, or in the bathtub, or while chopping garlic. When an idea comes you have to recognize whether it is a potentially important idea, or just a nice idea. If it is an idea that makes you tremble, something that obsesses you that you can’t forget for days and days then it is an idea to consider. All the rest you need to edit out. I really believe that we have to stop art pollution.

Sleek: Art pollution?
MA: As we speak, 375,000 artists live in this city. I mean, how many good works can we make?

Sleek: Do you find yourself writing things down?
MA: First comes the idea. Then I will write or make a drawing, and think about how I can realize it. I wanted to do a work for the MoMA retrospective where I was present seven motionless hours every day. Ten hours on Fridays. I was thinking, how I am going to do this? I had never done anything like this, and I prepared my body and mind as if I were traveling to outer space. Everyone was completely shocked. They underestimated the power of pure immaterial energy. We had a record number of visitors, close to one million. There were people waiting overnight just to sit there. At the end I removed the table so that it was just two chairs. The simplicity of things is so important. When you are a younger artist you need props, you need things to hide your insecurity. But actually, the mind is the most powerful tool. I could never have done this before. I needed to work for forty years to get this point.

Josephine Pryde's Night Out