The master of performance art discusses her modern practice, ‘The Artist Is Present’ and the importance of community
After a minute’s silence, the entire crowd opens their eyes and takes their hand off the stranger next to them. They are brought back to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery where master of performance art, Marina Abramović, has just instructed them to spend a minute of silence connected to someone they don't know. Her aim is to re-introduce the world to love and this exercise is just a tiny sliver of how Abramović has redirected her practice since her 2010 MoMA show, The Artist is Present, changed her work forever. For three months Abramović took over MoMA's atrium for eight hours a day where she sat opposite over 850,000 strangers connecting, reflecting and being at one with humanity. “This was a gateway to a completely new chapter”, says Abramović.
In a conversation with long-term friend and curator Hans Ulrich-Obrist, hosted by Fondation Beyeler and UBS as part of their Artist Talks collaboration, we found out more about her modern practice. “We never actually just have normal conversations, we only have interviews,” Abramovic jokes with Obrist. The talk focused on the new chapter of Abramovic's recent work and how it’s underpinned by something very urgent for Abramović – community.
Abramović shed a light on the moment everything changed, her stamina, and how the public has become her work – here’s what we learned.
HOW THE ARTIST IS PRESENT CHANGED HER WORK
“This was a gateway to a completely new chapter. As you know, I have been working in performance since the 70s. In the 70s, performance was nobody's territory. It was just an alternative form of art. And, in those days nobody even believed it was any form of art. So when I had an audience of 10, 20, 50 people this would be a large crowd and I would be so excited. But the MoMA show really changed my life – it was the moment when the performance became mainstream art.
The moment you get into a museum of this scale, everything changes. So when I got an invitation from Klaus Biesenbach to make a show in MoMA, he told me he would like to call it The Artist is Present: ‘it's very simple, we will show the work where you are present which is basically every single work’.
I could have done a very simple thing: I could have had a show, had dinner with my MoMA friends, sometimes visited the show but I actually saw an enormous opportunity to take this ‘artist is present’ to really be present in the museum for the entire three months. No-one asked me to do it but I wanted to show the larger public that performance has a transformative force.”
ABRAMOVIĆ'S EXPERIENCE OF THE ARTIST IS PRESENT
“During the first month, I sat at a table and there was a chair opposite and people could come and sit for however long they wanted. And the curator said to me, ‘nobody will sit in front of you, the chair will be mostly empty for the simple reason that in New York no one has time.’
This was happening in the atrium. The atrium is like a tornado. There are energies going everywhere: people going to see the shows, to the bookshop, the restaurant – nobody was focused. So I asked myself, how in this tornado can I create a centre? The eye of the tornado is pure stillness. In the last two months I removed the table, it was conventional – I just needed to have direct contact with the audience. And this was when things started happening on a very large scale. 850,000 people came, people were sitting in front of me for any amount of time (seven to five, six, three hours), sleeping outside the museum, crying. And all kinds of things happened that were unexplainable. Even the guards of the museum came and sat opposite me.
When I came to the end of the show, I stood up after three months (and you have to know, I sat the entire opening hours of the museum eight hours a day, Friday ten hours a day and I never moved, never drank water, never went to the bathroom, just observed humans) So when I stood up, in this moment there were 70,000 people in the museum and this is when everything changed for me. I realised I had reached alevel of audience who really represented community.”
HOW THE ARTIST IS PRESENT IS AN EXTENSION OF NIGHTSEA CROSSING
“Nightsea Crossing was a collaboration with Ulay that came out of living in the Australian desert with indigenous people for a year. There we had a table and just sat opposite each other, looking at each other creating something called tableaux-vivants. We replicated that in a museum, but when we split on the Great Wall of China, Ulay’s chair was empty so the audience took his place. Instead of him, it was everybody.”
THE NEW ART INSTITUTION AS A POWER STATION
“The new type of art institute cannot merely be an art museum as it has been until now...The new type will be more like a power station, a producer of new energy." – Alexander Dorner. This was written so long ago. This talks so much to me. The concept of museum is a 19th century concept, you come to look at things. But if you come and be a part of something, you are not just being a voyeur. Changing the role of the spectator was very important and here we have this vision already so long ago – the new institution as a power station.”
“Everybody has trauma, everybody has loneliness, everybody has fear of death, everybody has pain. I am giving part of myself and they are giving part of themselves. The only way (the audience) can understand in a profound way what performance is, is to make their own personal journey. I am removing myself completely from the public. The public is the work” – Marina Abramović
ON WHERE HER STAMINA COMES FROM
“Coming from ex-Communism, my mother and father both fought in the Second World War next to Tito. They slept with pistols next to the bed and I was completely trained in military order. When I was 12 years old, my mother would literally wake me in the middle of the night if my bed was not in perfect order while I slept. So sometimes we go to hotels and people think I am not even there (laughs).
It was all about the cause – that you need to sacrifice the private life for everything, that the private life was not important at all. That what is important is what you want to bring to community and how your existence and ideas can change the world. So there were these big ideas constantly. On the one side my mother and father and on the other, this complete spirituality from my grandmother who hated communism, who hated all bullshit, who just spent time in meditation and praying. So I am such a strange mixture of everything.”
THE MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ INSTITUTE
“After the experience of Serpentine (512 Hours) and MoMA I realised I actually have to create a certain legacy that could be mine so we now have the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI)...This institute remains as a conceptual idea based on immaterial art...The institute has become global: everywhere, institutions invite us and we go there and do the work.
The institute is set on lots of different elements, based mainly on the Abramović Method which is the idea of training public to see a long durational work of art. Because after the MoMA piece as a long durational work of art, I realised it's more transformative than anything else. Because it's one thing to do a performance for one hour, three hours, even ten days. But if you do something for one or three months, you can’t pretend, you can’t act or everything falls apart – you really become true reality and you really come to the state of presence.
What we do in our institution, we do different events all over the world in Australia, Brazil, Greece with very very large audiences of 54,000, 120,000, 250,000 people. We create a really institutional energy power station because everything is live. It can be live for two months and people performing eight hours a day. The method which we have created is to deal with large scale audience. Now we create a community that is not just art community, for me it's important that we include everybody.”
ON WORKING WITH GREECE
“In Greece (2016), I asked people from social media to come for seven minutes in front of the Benaki Museum. Three thousand people came and I just asked them to put their hand on the shoulder of another person and just be together as human beings. I rang the bell to start and then I give a very simple modest speech: "...We always forget to talk about love – we talk about politics, we talk about art, we talk about so many different things. But love is the most important thing a human being should feel for another human being. And we forget about this…Unconditional love for the human being itself. And to me, this is my big desire, especially here in Greece. To be together, only seven minutes in silence. Just put your hand on the shoulder of another person just to feel this connection, even if you don’t know who he is…just to feel together like a community… community is important. Community can change the world. Community can do so many things if we are all together as one. So this is why I am calling you here.’
It was so incredibly emotional. It was in Greece with the economic crisis, the refugee crisis in a moment where that kind of connection was so important.”
WHY THE CITY NEEDS ART
“I don’t think we need art in nature. Nature is so perfect already without us. We need art in the cities. We need art in the cities where human beings don't have any time, in cities that are polluted, in cities that have too much noise. We have to take experience from nature and transmit it into the cities.”
ON THE PURPOSE OF ART
“I always believe that the function of art is the function of bridge. To bridge different people from different social backgrounds, different religious beliefs, different races. But it’s also about communication between physical world and spiritual world. Or just simply, between two human beings.”
WHY THE PUBLIC IS THE WORK
“I have to give tools to the public to experience their own self. I have to just blend in. I have to be like a conductor. Because I am always performing in front of the public, engaging with the public. The public is my mirror. And I am the mirror of the public too. Everybody has trauma, everybody has loneliness, everybody has fear of death, everybody has pain. I am giving part of myself and they are giving part of themselves. The only way they can understand in a profound way what performance is, is to make their own personal journey. I am removing myself completely from the public. The public is the work.”