Marina Abramović on the Art of Encountering the Body
Looking at the Artist as a Conductor
Marina Abramović is an internationally renowned and widely celebrated Yugoslavia-born performance artist. In this conversation from April 2017, she discusses the encounter with the body, the community of affective relations, the art of democratization, the genealogy of her work from paintings to the performative, on to the illusion of freedom and the power of the imagination.
Adrian Parr: I have always been intrigued by the ways in which your body occupies space and time and how it encounters other bodies. In a world where space and time are increasingly being filled to the brink with political exaggeration, alternative facts, and endless consumption, your minimalist gesture of silently occupying a space and slowing down routine time invokes another reality, almost a forgotten one. Would you like to comment on that?
Marina Abramović: My relationship to the audience has slowly been changing over the course of my career. I think this is an important turning point. The performance community was very live in the 1970s and gradually it completely disappeared from the 1980s onward when art became more and more a commodity.
Today, people are tired of just looking at something; they want to be part of something; and they want to have their own personal experience. So what I am trying to do now is to create large community events where I give people the tools to forge their own experience. I am a conductor, staying more in the background of the activity. Most recently, I did a very large community event called The Cleaner, at Eric Ericsonhallen church at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The total attendance reached 8,000 for the event, which lasted eight hours a day for seven days.
I try to understand the need of the different communities in the places I conduct these events. There is a population of refugees in Sweden right now. Socially, it is a complicated situation. The Swedish people are often very closed off and don’t open their emotions. But one phenomenon is that everyone sings there. There are many choirs of all kinds. Together with my collaborator, Lynsey Peisinger, we held auditions for over 120 choirs including an all-female Iraqi choir, which is the only one in Europe, a choir of Syrian refugees, a Slavic choir, and various different religious choirs. Before entering the church, the public was required to leave behind all technological devices like laptops, cell phones, and watches. We kept the choirs singing continuously, so the music never stopped. I gave the choirs complete freedom to choose their own repertoire. We had people waiting outside in freezing temperatures to participate. People across different ages, races, and religions have a shared human need to be connected by sound, and to come together in one special space.
This is what I am doing now, community events. I don’t call them “performances” anymore. I realized over a long period of time I became an obstacle for experience, because the moment I am physically there in a space and people engage with me, I become an obstacle to my own work. So now I do everything from behind the scenes. I am more like a conductor, where, using simple tools, I facilitate the public’s experience.
AP: So it sounds like you are describing an art of democratization, which for me is not the same as the democratization of art, where art is understood as a practice anyone can engage in; rather, it seems to me that in this instance art is creating a democratic phenomenon where all kinds of differences come together and through the sharing of those differences a moment is created, one through which art is realized. Is this how you understand it?
MA: Very much so. The important thing is that there is no conversation; apart from the music there is silence. If you stand next to a total stranger, and touch them on the shoulder with your hand instead of talking, the feeling is so much stronger. This is something amazing because people are not having normal conversations anymore. People connect through the silence and human touch. It is the simple event of human being to human being.
In 2016, the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) in collaboration with NEON at the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece, created As One. Fifty-two thousand people went through this process. Now MAI has been invited to do something at PinchukArtCentre in Ukraine. This kind of work is very subtle. It is not a huge, loud event. The reason for this is that people are like antennae, and in a minimal environment, a depth of collective experience and feeling arises. You create a situation based on frequencies and people exist in the space through this shared vibration. They exist in space as a community.
AP: That is fascinating, because you have often talked about the importance of the body in your work and that the art is made through the body, and I was looking back at many different performances of yours and it seems to me that rhythm is just as important as the body in your work. Obviously, you have the Rhythm series you did back in the ’70s, and even if you consider the pieces you did with Ulay. I remember those pieces with Ulay from when I was a child. For a child to sit through a durational performance could be unbearable at times, but the rhythm was hypnotic for me and that is what I remember most about those performances. And then I was thinking about the piece you did at MoMa. Rhythm emerges once more, because you sit still at the table, but a rhythm arises with each person who joins you at the table and their emotional state is shared with you.
And now you are talking about these collective works that are about sound, not necessarily speaking, but a voice, and the ways in which voices come together as one is the result of a variety of rhythms and vibrations. So I wanted to ask you about how you see the role of rhythm in your work?
MA: That is very interesting because I just had a retrospective at Moderna Museet in Stockholm and it is going to Louisiana Museum in Humlebæk, Denmark, in June. The show starts with my early paintings. When I stopped painting, I started with sound, and sound brought me to use the body, and the use of the body brought me to performance. So, there is a really strong connection here with rhythm because I did a lot of sound works, which I call sound environments, that people don’t know much about, that I am now trying to reconstruct. There was a sound piece called The Airport, another called The Tree, and these sound pieces were really thinking about rhythm and repetition. Repetition is very important in my work because it is also relevant in many cultures since ancient times. You find rituals and practices based on repetition in the histories of the Australian Aborigines, the Tibetan Buddhists, and Brazilian Shamans. There is always the same exercise or ritual being performed over and over again over hundreds and thousands of years. Repetition like this creates a particular kind of quality and energy. It also creates rhythm.
AP: Speaking of repetition and cultural memory, it is interesting that you are now working with collectives of people. There is a politics to engaging collective memory here. I am thinking of the Balkan Baroque, for which you won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1997. In this work, you sat for over four days cleaning the flesh and blood off a pile of bones. Here, performance art seems to become strategic. It is like a politics of encountering the collective memory and trauma of the Yugoslavian war and it is also a way of occupying space whereby art emerges in association with bodies that are both whole and broken, and in relationship to different times that harken back to the past, such as a collective trauma, and the present.
For example, the duration or endurance of the performance itself. I wanted to ask you about the strategic placement and occupation of bodies and times and whether you see this as a politics of performance at all.
MA: I think this was probably the most political piece I have ever made. It was in response to the war at that time, and I was so ashamed by this war. I wanted to create an image that would be relevant not only for that particular moment, but which could also become an image that invokes any war at any moment anywhere. At the same time, I was doing an act that I could never finish, washing or cleaning blood off bones is an impossible action because you never fully clean away the memory of the killing. Human beings have always been killing each other throughout history. We have done this since the beginning of time through to today. Even now, in the twenty-first century, we are still killing. This image is a really important reminder to us of that.
This piece was also related in a way to my own situation, and in the same piece I interview my mother and father, and a professional rat catcher. I tell a story of how to catch a wolf rat in the Balkans. The wolf rat became a synonym for war. Rats don’t usually kill members of their own family, but if you put them in certain circumstances they do; they turn into a wolf rat where they just don’t care anymore who they kill. This story seemed a lot like the war to me, where you had neighbors who once lived next to each other peacefully for 35 years, neighbors who shared everything and then from one day to the next day they are killing each other.“We are just part of this strange scenario, like we are in a macabre opera and we don’t actually change anything.”
The wolf rat story seems to be the human story of war. In this way, it became a political piece. Although there is no longer a war in Yugoslavia, there are wars everywhere, in Syria, in Iraq. So you can take this image of me scrubbing away flesh and blood from a pile of bones, and it invokes other forms of violence. It becomes a universal image.
That said, I am not so interested in making political art. Political art is like an old newspaper, today’s news is tomorrow’s old news, it is not relevant anymore. So I am really more interested in art that has different layers, layers of meaning, one layer can be political but another layer might be the layer of futurity, to me that is very important. How do artists predict the future? They can if they are really connected to intuition. Some artists are more in touch with intuition than others. I think intuition in art is really important. I made a piece in 1971 called Freeing the Horizon where I took photographs of Belgrade and with paint, blocked out the buildings in the landscape to expose the horizon. It is amazing my dream of freeing the horizon came into being quite literally, as many years later, some of the buildings I painted out of the photograph were actually bombed by NATO during the war in 1999.
AP: The way I understand the political is different from institutionalized politics. It concerns how politics works. Politics as inherently emancipatory and transformational. And I think that a lot of the work you do taps into those principles of the political. In this regard, to what extent can art be political if what we understand by politics is a process of remaking the world?
MA: That is a complex question. Eighty percent of what you read, you have to read behind the lines and see things in context. How politics is represented to us is one thing, but in reality, things are very different.
We are just part of this strange scenario, like we are in a macabre opera and we don’t actually change anything. The idea that we have political freedom and democracy is a farce.
In my country, where I came from, ex-Yugoslavia, it was so much more honest because the restrictions were clear and visible. If you told political jokes, you went to prison for four years and if the joke was really bad you went for six years. But also, you knew what the restrictions were and what the consequences were when you crossed them. But here in America, everything is sugar-coated.
Someone once asked me if you could suggest a book for politicians to read, and I immediately suggested the biography of Gandhi. He was such a unique politician. He succeeded without a drop of blood.
In order to change anything, you have to change yourself, then you can change thousands and that is exactly what Gandhi did.
What we see happening is not the way it really is. In order to see clearly, you have to stop the world. You literally have to imagine the world coming to a halt and then you get to work to rearrange reality. My contribution as an artist is to propose a different perspective.
From Conversations on Violence: An Anthology, edited by Brad Evans and Adrian Parr and published by Pluto Press.