ALL THE WORLD HER STAGE. Marina Abramović makes art with her own body and state of mind. In performance she has created situations in which onlookers become participants, even protagonists. A conceptual and intuitive artist for 55 years, in 2023 she became the first female artist ever to exhibit solo in the imposing Main Galleries of the Royal Academy in London.
Marina Abramović, how would you describe your Royal Academy show?
This is the biggest exhibition of my life as far as space is concerned. The initial idea was to be retrospective, and the show was ready just before Covid in 2020. With Andrea Tarsia the curator we had the catalogue ready with the entire list of the work, but then we decided not to make another boring retrospective. I wanted to make something different and fresh, so we stripped everything back to zero and started all over again. We decided on a thematic kind of programme, because people only know me as a performance artist, but I make objects, drawings, sculptures, video, films, I even make opera. We have young works and old works talking to each other, and recent works, and it’s all mixed up in time.
Is this show a voyage through the many different phases of your work?
Yes. You have to know the artist. Sometimes your idea appears when you’re very young and then you do certain things and then the same idea appears much later in the time of your work with a different perspective and knowledge.
At the Royal Academy some of your works are performed by younger artists, for instance the two naked people in Imponderabilia that visitors pass between?
Why should I do this when I have done it already? I’m interested to explore new things that I didn’t explore when I was young. I now direct opera and the 7 Deaths of Maria Callas is going to be performed at the English National Opera in November. I actually invented this idea of reperformance. The artists of my generation hated this idea that somebody would take the piece and reperform it, but I think this is so selfish. The work has to become independent and will have its own new life and be given to the world.
In the same way that a play is performed by different actors?
Exactly. It’s much better to reperform the work than there just to be a grey image in a book. I’m also looking for something that I can do within my own physical abilities, because you have to consider age and I can’t perform the same work that I would have done in my twenties and thirties. But you also have to know that I performed The Artist is Present when I was 65 and I could never perform this piece when I was young because I didn’t have the wisdom, the concentration and the determination.
“The most important to me in my work is to lift human spirits. That’s it.”
Marina Abramović, The Current, 2017. Video; 1 hour 35 mins. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović
Marina Abramović, is it true that once you enter into the performing state you can push your body to do things you could never normally do?
At home or in rehearsal you’ll never be able to do it, but if you have the concept and then go straight to in front of the public without any rehearsal, then you use the energy of the public which you have right there and which helps you to do the performance.
You were born in Belgrade, a Serbian whose parents are from Montenegro?
I hate all these distinctions. I was born in ex-Yugoslavia at the Tito time, and this was one country. I left Yugoslavia in Tito’s life and now it is six countries. If I come from somewhere, it’s ex-Yugoslavia.
Your father was one of Tito’s generals and a hero of the Second World War, a Partisan, as was your mother. You lived the first years of your life with your very religious grandmother who hated communism passionately and you and she spent most of the time in church. You had a religious upbringing on one side, and a communist upbringing on the other?
Yes, and there’s one more detail. The uncle of my mother was a proclaimed patriarch saint. So there is a saint in the family. That’s a big mixture.
Were you a happy child?
My childhood was terrible, with many restrictions and violence between my father and my mother. I was an unhappy child but, looking back, I would never change it for anything. It was all good because they really made me incredibly tough. I always do what I want to do and do not compromise.
What philosophy of life did you receive from your parents?
My parents were atheists. They didn’t believe in anything, ever. My grandmother was Orthodox, but I became much more interested in Buddhism – but not as a religion. I don’t like religion. I like spirituality, which is a big difference. I accept the Buddhist philosophy.
As a teenager what did you dream of becoming?
There was a very wonderful anthropologist man, very small and with big glasses, and he would go every year for one year to the most remote places in the world like Papua New Guinea to talk to cannibals. At the end of the year he would make a lecture in the cultural centre in Belgrade. I’ll never forget this. I was the first person, always in the front row with a little notebook and eating every word he said, thinking one day I’m going to leave this country and escape and go everywhere and see the planet and how things are. The dream of my life was to go everywhere.
Later on you did travel widely but you lived in your parents’ house in Belgrade until you were age 29, under a strict discipline and not allowed to be out after 10 o’clock at night?
Yes, but there was an incredible difference between my mother and father. My father was the pure communist from a very poor background. He even went to prison before the Second World War and he adored anything to do with Russia and Russian culture. My mother was all about French and French art. Even when I was in the kindergarten I was in the French embassy with the kids to learn French together with my Serbo-Croatian. Everything French was great for her. My education was French lessons and piano lessons, and she was absolutely true bourgeois and my father was true communist. These two characters could never live together in a situation of real peace.
Your first performance was with knives in Edinburgh in 1973. What did you do with the knives?
Stab them between fingers as fast as I could. Every time I cut myself, I changed the knife. I recorded the sound of mistake, and then I rewound the tape recorder after I cut myself ten times with ten knives. Then I listened to the sound and picked up the same knife and did the same game and tried to repeat the mistake in the same place, and only missed twice. In the second recording I just let it be a double sound. The idea for this piece was how we could put time past and time present together with mistakes.
Why did you do that? Didn’t you have enough punishments from your mother that you had to punish yourself with knives?
(laughs) In those days I was so interested in Dora Maar and Picasso. Picasso was seduced with Dora Maar because Dora Maar sat in one of these French cafes and did this knife game every night.
Amsterdam then became the centre of your life, and you met the visual artist and Polaroid photographer Ulay who you were in a relationship with for 12 years, from ‘76 to ’88. You loved each other, you worked together, and you travelled around in a Citroen bus?
We lived and travelled in this car for five years. We didn’t have any money, but it was one of the happiest times of my life. Then we went to Australia, and I spent one year in the desert with two Australian tribes. I needed to claim planet Earth as my studio.
How did you and Ulay work together?
We would think about ideas and the more important thing was that we would never say who an idea came from. Not his ego, not my ego, but melted together in one self. The work was to do with human relationships, breathing the same air, slapping each other, screaming at each other, seeing the body in architectural spaces, relation in time, relation in space, relation in movement, smashing two bodies together. This time was a huge body of work.
Did you have fun?
During all of these very radical and hard core performances our relationship was great. The moment we stopped working and were static we started having problems, and we split and the relationship went to hell.
“The public right now need to be part of life force. Life energy is a material form of art and it’s highly emotional.”
Marina Abramović, why did you put your body under such stress, sometimes even into danger?
I have inspiration from ancient cultures whose rituals always deal with dying. It’s not that you want to make pain to your body, more how to push physical limits and go to another state of consciousness and understand true reality. It’s very philosophical. When you do things you love you never can change, but if you do things that you are afraid of and push the limits of space into unknown territory where you have never been and jump somewhere else you start understanding the universe. This is why all the ancient cultures have this kind of ritual and the performance is in many ways research into that.
You were one of the very first to use the body as a work of art, or as a tool of art, or both together?
I was painting and studying clouds and one particular day I looked at the sky and there was not any cloud, it was just empty sky. And then, out of nowhere, 12 ultrasonic planes crossed the sky and made these amazing drawings. And they disappeared. This completely opened my mind. Why do I have to go to a studio and make something two dimensional when I can actually just go and ask in the military base for 12 ultrasonic planes to make the drawings? I went to the military base and asked for the sonic drawings of the planes, and they called my father and said your daughter’s absolutely crazy. Get her out of here. But I could use water, earth, the body, it is such amazing material, and it was first through sound that I got into performance. I wanted to put speakers on a bridge with the sound of the bridge collapsing, and I had to ask for permission from the city hall, and they told me that if I put them on the bridge, that because of vibration the bridge could really fall down, so I could not do it.
What did you do?
I went to the six-storey building where I was living and put speakers everywhere of the building collapsing; and everybody ran out screaming. As a result I had a huge problem with my family and I could not do it. There was a cultural centre where everybody came to sit and drink coffee waiting to go to the shows or to the cinema, and at the time people could not leave Yugoslavia, not because of a political reason but we just didn’t have the money to leave. I put speakers in the hall with my own voice saying that immediately you can go with Yugoslav airline to gate 365 (we only had three gates but with 365 it looks like big airport) and the plane is leaving immediately to Tokyo, Bangkok and Hong Kong, all the places I had never been at that time. Every 3 or 4 minutes came this voice, so that everybody in this room became an imaginary passenger for this imaginary trip that you could never make. And then, more and more, I started involving my own body.
Why did you decide to put your body naked in public?
Being naked in public was terrifying for me, so this is why I did it. In Amsterdam I made an exchange with a prostitute who was a professional aged 30 years, and I was a professional artist aged 30 years. I sat in her window in Amsterdam and she came to my gallery. We exchanged roles.
What did your mother think about that?
It was a disaster. She told me that I would die of hunger because I had no talent for this at all. The worst in my mother’ eyes is to be a prostitute. This was something unthinkable.
After living for 29 years under the communist regime did you feel great when you went to Amsterdam and were in a democratic country?
No, this was not good, because it was free and not free. In Belgrade restrictions were very clear. If you made a political joke you got four years prison. If you made a joke including Tito you got six years. We had very strict clear rules as to how far you could go and you had to follow the rules – but I was breaking them constantly.
Did you go to prison?
No, but my father was criticized at party meetings and my professor thought that I should be put in a mental hospital. I was always in trouble and had to make every performance before ten in the evening because at ten I had to be home. Nakedness would have been a total scandal, an outrage, but when I came to Amsterdam, where everything is free, that was the problem, because I didn’t have restrictions to break. East European artists in general are very strong in their own countries, fighting against everything, but when they go outside there’s nothing to fight for. Being naked in Amsterdam was not a big deal. I had to create new boundary restrictions to break.
In 1997 your performance Balkan Baroque won the Venice Golden Lion. Did the Italian art historian Germano Celant take you to Venice?
No. I was invited by the Montenegro minister of culture to present to the Montenegro and Yugoslav pavilion of the time. When I proposed my piece, the same minister of culture said that this was not art and that they would never give me the pavilion and completely abandoned me. Germano heard about this and said we still have one left space in the cellar in the main section, and I said the cellar is perfection. So I made this piece there. It was very smelly.
This piece is in the Royal Academy show, as is House with an Ocean View, a work of 2002 where you stayed for 12 days?
Yes, with no food, only drinking water. We have three performance artists performing at the Royal Academy: the first 12 days was Elke Luyten the Belgium artist, and then we have Kira O’Reilly the British, and Amanda Coogan the Irish. They are each performing 12 days. It’s difficult, because you stay there all the time.
How on earth did you do it?
This is why communism works, because you become tough and have concentration and willpower and determination and everything it takes, and courage. All of this together is a good mixture.
A long fast like this is reminiscent of Gandhi. Is it an Indian thing?
Yes, but Tibetans fast 21 days. The longest fast I ever did was in Australia, called Nightsea Crossing. It was 16 days.
Another very strong performance of yours is The Artist Is Present which you did in 2010 at MoMA sitting in silence for 8 hours a day for 3 months?
It’s hell. It is creative stillness in the tornado of a museum where everybody runs around to see different galleries, to the library, go to the coffee shop. Nobody has time. In this piece there are two chairs and a table, and Klaus Biesenbach, the curator, told me that nobody was going to sit there because nobody has time in America. Not only were people sitting there, but hundreds of people slept in the front of the museum, thousands waited in line for time with a living artist, attendance of the show broke a complete record. I understood then that the function of the museum had to change, because it’s very old fashioned that the public comes to look at something. The public right now need to be part of life force. Life energy is a material form of art and it’s highly emotional.
Gallery view of the Marina Abramović exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 23 September 2023 – 1 January 2024, showing The Hero, 2001. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives, and Luciana Brito Galeria. © Marina Abramović. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry
Gallery view of the Marina Abramović exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 23 September 2023 – 1 January 2024, showing Imponderabilia, 1977/2023. Live performance by Emma Fisher and Duarte Melo, 60 minutes. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry
Marina Abramović / Ulay, The Lovers, Great Wall Walk, 1988. Performance; 90 Days, the Great Wall of China. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović / Ulay
Marina Abramović, The House with the Ocean View, 2002. Performance; 12 days. Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives © Marina Abramović. Photo: Attilio Maranzano
Alain Elkann and Marina Abramović after a video Interview at Claridge’s, London, on 29th September 2023 © Alain Elkann Interviews 2023
Marina Abramović, Nude with Skeleton, 2005. Performance for Video; 15 minutes 46 seconds. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović
“I do life, and ideas come from life.”
Marina Abramović, you had a big shock there because you had broken up with Ulay about 20 years before, when you walked from either end to meet each other in the middle of the Great Wall of China. Then in MoMA suddenly Ulay appeared and sat in front of you?
Yes. I didn’t know that he would come to sit with me and this was really a shock, the only time I broke the rules. I just held his hand and we never talked, but we cried. Life was so intense, so incredibly strong between us. Love and hate and everything together. When you love, you hate too. It’s not easy. Everything was together in this moment. This reached millions of viewers, because you react to emotions when you know they are real and not fake.
Ulay obviously was a big personal emotion for you but what do you think about when all these other people sit in front of you?
You have to be there in the moment, in the present with every single person. If you sit there and daydream you never see any reality. The idea is to stop thinking, to go to this place of emptiness which really catches the energy of that person.
How can you endure doing this daily for 3 months?
Every day could be the last day. I trained for one year, like an astronaut, to learn to eat and drink water by night, and sleep enough at night so that during the day I will never have to leave the chair or go to the bathroom. I will be just there. It’s very hard.
Do you have a very strong relationship with your body?
Four months ago I had a lung embolism, and basically everybody dies from this. The doctors say that I am a miracle to be alive, and I think one of the reasons is that I learned so much about body and breathing and how to control pain that I survived. I was six weeks in hospital and I stopped taking the opioids they gave me because I wanted to feel the pain, to know what my body was really doing. I like the truth. I never drank alcohol in my life and I never took drugs.
Originally you and Ulay meeting on the Chinese Great Wall was to have been like a marriage, you started from the Yellow Sea and he started from the desert and you both walked 2500 kilometres towards each other over three months. Were you by yourself?
I was with eight soldiers of the Red Army. At the time China was not open for foreigners and it took eight years to get permission to walk the Great Wall of China. By then we were not together anymore, but we never give up on anything so when the Chinese said yes we decided let’s walk from opposite ends and then let’s say goodbye. A friend of mine said to me, why don’t you just make a phone call? He missed the whole point of the drama of separation.
How was walking for so many kilometres?
In the beginning I always wanted to walk at the front because all the soldiers followed me and I had a translator. I was killing myself because so many times the wall didn’t still exist; it was just climbing very difficult rocks. The walls are only rebuilt around the cities, the rest is hell. The translator was always walking last and after the first month I asked him why he never wanted to walk at the front. He looked at me and said “In China they say, “Weak birds fly first”” and so then I tried to walk at the back. The nature was incredible and we slept in the villages because the soldiers wanted to eat food in the villages, where I ate too: grasshoppers and other strange stuff. I had to go two hours down from the wall and then two hours up in the morning to get to the wall when I just wanted to sleep in a tent on the wall.
Were you exhausted?
The houses were very poor, and the men sleep in separate rooms from the women and the kitchen is in the middle. All the women slept together and I slept between them, and in between all our heads were pissing pots and they were peeing in the night and kept them next to their heads. It was not easy to endure that.
Your life has been one of travelling, extreme experiences, performing, researching, mastering your temper, your character, your body. Did you find a meaning in all this?
Of course. When I got to 70 I made my memoir called Walk Through Walls because when I see a wall I break it, go through and there’s another wall to break and so on. I dedicate this book to the friends and enemies, my friends who become enemies and the enemies who become friends. Looking back I have had an incredible life. Honestly, if I think about what I went through, what I experienced, what I still experience, and even now how I came to this country on a boat because of the embolism and it took me seven days to get here.
What did you do aboard the boat?
I looked into the sea and contemplated that earth is 70% water and it’s just incredible to stretch time, that we can fly in a few hours from Europe and be in London and then you take one week to do the same.
Did you read books?
Yes, I like to read the history of people, anthropology, and I like books on nature. Recently I was reading Colette, the French novelist. I also like Japanese writers, and Russian writers who are almost like a communist/surrealist mix. I can read Dostoyevsky over and over again.
In which language do you read Dostoyevsky?
English. I was reading Serbian when I was young, and then Serbo-Croatian, and then English. I like to read a few different books at the same time, so I go from one to another. I really need books physically. It is very difficult for me to read electronic books.
How do relate to today’s very technological world?
I love it and I hate it at the same time. Technology is invented so human beings have more time, but we are so addicted and technology made us inverts. People are not interested anymore in intuition or telepathy. It is so much more important to listen to the wisdom of your own body. This is why performance is so important to me. I learn this stuff to use in performance and teach in my Institute.
What do you teach at Marina Abramović Institute (MAI)?
When you come on a course at MAI the first thing we do is take your telephone, computer, watch, and we don’t give them back for ten days. Then you are not talking and not eating for five days. You do simple exercises: opening and closing the door. That’s it. Very slowly opening but not exiting and then closing and not entering. You do this for 3 hours in very slow motion and after one hour the door stops being the door and becomes the universe, becomes answers to the consciousness, becomes something else. These exercises are really transformative.
Are you a good teacher?
I’m an excellent professor because I have created entire groups of young artists which have nothing to do with my own work. That’s very important. I don’t want to create little Abramovićs. I want people to find themselves.
Do you teach them to understand the meaning of being an artist?
Yes. First of all, if you or anybody comes and says I want to be an artist I dismiss them. You can’t want to be an artist. You are or you’re not. Art is like breathing or waking up. You don’t question breathing and waking up, and if you have to create you don’t question creating. But then you have just OK artists, good artists, very good artists. That is not enough. Then you have another category. Wow! When you get to the Wow! that’s high.
Which artists do you really like?
Rothko, van Gogh, Yves Klein. I like artists who invent new language, who change the way society thinks. The people who really change society are the ones who are interesting, and then we have millions who follow and we don’t care about them.
How do you deal with success?
Success is not a good reason to be an artist. Success comes and goes. I deal with it very carefully, because your ego is a huge obstacle and can damage you.
Is your ego very strong?
Very humble. I don’t think that I am the greatest in the world. Otherwise my work will not be creative, it will just be bullshit. No ego is really important if you get famous. You also have the possibility to be heard, and when you are a voice to be heard what you say is very important. The most important to me in my work is to lift human spirits. That’s it.
You also like to break rules?
No, but art is not just about a beautiful painting to match the carpet. Art needs to be disturbing. Art has to ask questions, to be dynamic, to predict the future. You have to be many layers of meaning so that every society can take what it needs. Only that kind of art has a long life. Otherwise it is only political and is immediately dismissed like old newspapers.
Did you need to express yourself about what’s going on now between Ukraine and Russia?
I created a huge monument in Ukraine just two months before the bombing. It is for the Babin Yar. In the Nazi time they killed 33,000 Jewish people in three days and put them in a mass grave. When Zelensky became president he invited me to build this Crystal Wall of Crying, a 40 metre wall made of coal with crystals sticking out of it. The president of Germany, the president of Israel and Zelensky came to inaugurate this wall, and then two months later the invasion of Ukraine happened and the first thing they bombed was a tower only a few hundred metres from the wall. The wall was untouched. It’s completely there, preserved, which I can’t believe. It’s still there. If this wall survives I would be the first artist to have a monument for two terrible moments of human history: the Second World War and Russia. I was literally the first artist to give a statement against the war, 6 hours after the invasion. I’m very conscious about this and Zelensky has asked me to be an ambassador for the children and the hospitals, which I’m doing to raise money.
Ukrainians have been part of Russia in the past but really don’t want to be under their dictatorship again?
This story about Ukraine is incredible, complicated and complex, because Ukraine was pronounced to be neutral between Russia and West, and if they kept that status nothing would have happened. We have to also see how guilty we are, that Europe and America pulled Russia and Ukraine from that neutral situation. And then you’re dealing with Putin, a complete lunatic, a medieval president not a modern politician. Putin is extremely dangerous. He could start using nuclear weapons at any minute, and this is a danger that we don’t understand. Russian history is one of the bloodiest of humankind – always has been, and this is now really happening, so we should all take responsibility.
Is your life your work of art?
Yes, I cannot separate it, it is all together. I do life, and ideas come from life. I go into a studio to realise that, but everything comes from life. I’m a true artist. The context makes the story and I put my life into the art context. I’m doing my work. It is art.
Marina Abramović, thank you very much.