I met with Marina Abramović before her keynote address for SCAD-Atlanta’s second annual deFINE ART program. To be entirely truthful, I was nervous, something you can’t seem to avoid in the presence of the “grandmother of performance art.” My primary reception of Abramović has been in the form of still photographs that show her staring at people in The Artist Is Present, shouting into the face of her long-time partner and collaborator Ulay, or cutting pentagrams and five-pointed stars into her stomach. The thought of sitting down with her was somewhat daunting. I anticipated an intense interaction, and that’s what I got, an intensely warm and receptive interaction. Marina Abramović is very friendly and a pleasure to chat with, as I hope the transcript of our talk will show.
Given that Abramović has become such an icon in recent years, I knew the opportunity to talk with her would be a rare one, and so I opted to crowd-source questions from my friends who I knew would have questions for her. What follows is drawn from our recorded conversation while lounging on one of SCAD-Atlanta’s many lovely sofas.
Paul Boshears: It is a real pleasure and honor to sit here with you. Thank you ….
Marina Abramović: And I love your hat — it is green and matches your notebook which is very nice ….
PB: … Ha! Thanks so much. One does want a bit of color, I suppose…
MA: No, no. Definitely.
PB: Would you mind if I asked you a couple of questions?
MA: No, no. Yes. Definitely do.
PB: If you don’t mind I asked some friends — I crowd-sourced my questions for you. I told them that I was going to have this opportunity to chat with you, and mentioned I would be happy to ask you some questions on their behalf ….
MA: Oh, I love it. That’s a good idea. Let’s see what they asked me.
PB: Well, from BURNAWAY, the organization I am representing, they ask, “In another interview, you described an experience in which you were painting clouds one day and some military airplanes flew overhead. You mentioned that this was one of the moments that led you to abandon traditional two-dimensional work and begin performances using your body as the primary medium. What have you gained by choosing your current path? Have you ever thought about returning to two-dimensional work? Why or why not?”
MA: You know, I have been painting since I was a child, but I think I was a pretty lousy painter to begin with. So I would probably be a bad painter now if I had continued. It was at that moment when I realized the immateriality of that image, of that plane crossing and leaving those lines in the blue sky. At first you can see the line’s formation, then the drawing near, and then the disappearing into, again, that blue sky. That entire process and the immateriality of that process was a revelation — almost a spiritual revelation or an awakening in me. I understood how free we can be: to leave the studio, to live in any way possible, to imagine making art, and just use anything we want. Water, fire, 0ur bodies, ice — whatever we want. And when it came time to start doing it, when I first placed myself before the public, I knew that this was the right material for me.
I think that every artist has to find the best tool for them. And when you do find the best tool you have to go for it. So, for me to go back to painting would be uninteresting. I don’t know what I would do with a two-dimensional work. The only thing I thought of was that, maybe, as a kind of experiment, I would go to the desert and make some watercolors with my tears and sweat because those would be the only source of water available. But I didn’t do it.
PB: That is an evocative idea! And somewhat related to that image.
I have a question from Lauri Stallings; she has a dance company [Venice Biennale this year. And then I also have the Hudson, which leaves me little time to do anything else. There’s truly nothing else I can do! I have two legacy projects! God!
Part of this work has me really interested in 3D images. I’m experimenting with scanning images of my body and seeing if I can project images of myself into thin air. I’m trying to project images without using a surface, like Star Wars. I am going to become ectoplasm! I’m interested in how far we can go with immateriality. Everything in our contemporary culture is about materiality, about goods you can touch, but there is this immaterial world that really matters.
PB: Somewhat related, my friend, Jamie Allen, asks, “What are the limits/affordances of an institutional performance art practice?”
MA: Yes, there are certainly many people who are against the institutionalization of performance art, but there are so many reasons to say “yes” to it as well. Look, photography and video weren’t shown for a long time as mainstream art forms but try and imagine the art world without them now. There is this incredible paranoia about what will happen if performance art is institutionalized, when it’s no longer in this no man’s land territory. Will it lose its spontaneity? I don’t think so. I’ve had enough of being alternative; for 40 years I’ve been alternative. I want to create a context in which performance can be mainstream. This is what I’m trying to pioneer. People are still coming to these performances and viewing them as entertainment. They come to the gallery, they drink their glasses of wine, and they chat, and nobody looks at the performance.
PB: Excellent. Do you have any questions for me?
MA: What are you doing?
PB: Well, I think I am going to get lunch after this ….
MA: No. What are you doing?
PB: I’m a researcher.
MA: What do you research? It can be many things.
PB: I’m in a low-residency graduate program based in Switzerland, and so I am writing my master’s thesis on the aesthetics of politics ….
MA: You see, the world can only change if the leaders of the world become, really become, spiritual. It’s a big subject, but maybe we can talk about it at tonight’s lecture.