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Miles Greenberg, LEPIDOPTEROPHOBIA (2020)
Courtesy of the artist and Sky Arts

Miles Greenberg, mentee of Marina Abramović, on televising his nightmare

LEPIDOPTEROPHOBIA invites viewers to witness the performance artist being locked in a perspex box with live moths

If you tuned into Marina Abramović Takes Over TV last week, you may have witnessed performance artist Miles Greenberg facing his worst fear. Lowering himself into a perspex cube filled with butterflies and moths, he was filmed as he sat stoically among the insects – a phobia of his – for five long hours. 

As a student of the Abramović Method, this is just one of the many ambitious performances already enacted at various illustrious art galleries and institutions by the 23-year-old installation artist and performance art director. OYSTERKNIFE (2020), which was devised and executed during lockdown, involved him walking on a treadmill for a non-stop 24-hours. HAEMOTHERAPY (I) (2020) invited visitors to New York’s Reena Spaulings Gallery to witness Greenberg positioned ornately on a rock amid a lush arrangement of raw meat, fruit, spices, and flowers, poised for seven hours like a living statue, naked but for a gold codpiece, and bearing aloft a lit candle, all the while balancing a large glass vase on his head as occasional water droplets ran down his bare torso.

Whether you’re experiencing one of his performances in the flesh, or whether you’re watching on the television, Greenberg’s durational artworks are visceral and immediate. As much as they’re about the passage of time, they’re also about fully occupying the present and, for the Canadian-born artist, it’s nothing short of an absolute vocation. “It’s like really an infinite gesture of what I can only describe as commitment,” he tells Dazed. “I really feel 190 per cent dedicated to being in whatever gesture I’m creating as I’m doing it.”

In the wake of his intrepid new work, LEPIDOPTEROPHOBIA, being broadcast on Sky Arts, we talk to Miles Greenberg about his transformational teenage encounter with Marina Abramović, making work during the pandemic, and living in ‘a permanent state of readiness for the marvellous.’

Could share with me a little bit about your motivation to create this work? 

Miles Greenberg: In a lot of my work I really enjoy appealing to the senses. In my usual order of thought processes, it has to do with smell and light first. And then there’s this whole order of operations that I think of in terms of how an audience member is going to consume each and every layer of the performance. For me – in my dream space – it should be something that feels self-contained; that feels like a total departure from reality when you enter; where time and space get twisted. But I didn’t really have the ability to do that during COVID, I had to operate through a screen, which created this boundary between me and the audience. 

I usually cover my eyes with a blindfold or contact lenses, so it creates a space in which the audience can perceive my body and when they’re there in real life, they can regard me more as an object and not have to deal with the mutual gaze, and the performance can become something really sculptural. I think that when you’re operating through a lens or through a screen you already have that, so it didn’t feel necessary. I didn’t feel right putting on more masks and putting any more distance between the audience and myself, if that makes sense. 

This new performance was for the Abramović Institute, actually. So it was inspired, largely, by performance art of the 70s where, as Marina puts it, ‘everybody was just wearing dirty white, dirty black, or dirty grey.’ And so it was quite stripped back, you see a lot more of the fear; there was something less theatrical about it; less social about it; a little bit more raw. I wanted to pay homage to that and it felt important being here. 

I was also really fascinated with the performance artist, Zhang Huan, a Chinese artist who did this piece called ‘12 Square Meters’ in 1994. So I actually I started with that, and then I wanted to tie it into this phobia I had which I honestly don’t know where it comes from. It’s like it predates me. It also tied into Joel-Peter Witkinurreal’s sanitarium images, which is a big inspiration for me. You know, that photo from 1939 that inspired ‘Voss’, the 2001 Alexander McQueen show where the panels came down and there was this woman in the middle covered in butterflies. 

I like to think of myself as somebody who holds the fantastical and the real in my life in equal measure, and hold them to equal importance. Suzanne Césaire described surrealism as ‘a permanent state of readiness for the marvellous’ and as I always operate in a space like that.

“I like to think of myself as somebody who holds the fantastical and the real in my life in equal measure, and hold them to equal importance” – Miles Greenberg

That’s interesting about the idea of feeling that, as an audience, we need these performances to be mediated in some way, be it by covering your eyes or being separated by a screen. Like you have to create some distance in order to allow people to actually engage more directly.

Miles Greenberg: Yeah, well, it’s like a safety net, you know. And I think that, for me, it was always the fact of being a young Black artist who wanted to engage beyond direct or literal narratives of oppression. I can talk about racial injustice and social justice, but I don’t think it should be my imperative. And I think that when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, I think we really need to be talking about the fact that that means more than Black death. I think that that there’s something very prescribed of what the Black body has to mean in certain spaces, in artistic spaces, and in public spaces. And I guess that I’ve always just wanted to live beyond that prescription. Although I’m very happy to be engaged, I would never call myself an activist but that’s something other people sort of throw on me a lot. I think that I have my own narratives, and I’m having my own conversation. I would really rather somebody not impose their hangups on their viewership of my body. 

So the idea of wearing opaque contact lenses is really to, in a way, I guess, soften the experience; where I’m not giving the audience an excuse to call what they’re experiencing a confrontation. It has to be at one point within themselves, you know, because I can’t see them. Or so they think...

So you’re giving them permission to look at you in a much more unselfconscious way, right? Because you’re not reciprocating their gaze?

Miles Greenberg: Absolutely. Because the immediate thing – especially if they’re seeing Black bodies and durational performance where there is inevitably pain – their first reflex is, ‘I’m not racist!’ And I’m like, ‘I wasn’t talking about that.’ Like, nobody asked, you know?

I think people have a tendency to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable when they’re confronted by performance and theatre. I read a quote by a sociologist who claimed most people’s lives are guided by the desire to avoid embarrassment. And I’ve always felt that there’s something about performance artists whereby they do the exact opposite. They actually rush headlong into that feeling that most people spend their lives trying to avoid, and they kind of hold themselves quite heroically in that space. Does that idea resonate with you at all?

Miles Greenberg: Yes, vulnerability as a ritual feels really right. Something about the process of performing to me feels a lot like an exorcism. And people do performance because they can’t do anything else. I’m not a good painter, I’m not a good sculptor. But the way in which my brain works is that I really think in terms of space. I’ll consider a flower, a rock, a pillar, and a human body with the sort of similar architectural values, like the way that that object is held in space. But I think my added ingredient to what is, ultimately, a very sculptural practice, is the fact that time is involved, and that different materials will react very differently to time. So you’ll see after seven hours the body will very much changed shape, after seven days the flower will start to disintegrate, and after 700 years you might see your rock start to also alter or crumble, you know what I mean? I really think of it on that kind of scale. And it’s like really an infinite gesture of what I can only describe as commitment. I really feel 190 per cent dedicated to being in whatever gesture I’m creating as I’m doing it.

People ask me all the time about pain and about how hard it is. For me, it’s like getting over the wall of agreeing with myself about whenever I’m doing, whether I’m holding a magnolia branch over my head for eight hours, or if I’m walking for 24 hours, I need to make a bargain with myself. It’s a weird thing to put into words, but I have to decide that I’ve been happy with my life up until now, and if it ends right here, if I have to do this for the rest of my life and into my death, then that is what it is. I’m agreeing that I don’t know if I can do this, I’ve never rehearsed this before, and I don’t know if this is gonna kill me. With a phobia, you actually genuinely feel that what you’re dealing with is gonna kill you. I know empirically that moths don’t bite. In fact, one of the most horrifying facts about them is that they don’t even have mouths! But, that being said, the trigger is so incredibly real, so I was like, ‘This is gonna kill me’. And I think that ties into to the conversation on Black lives, and precarity, and various other things. But, you know, as long as I’m in control of that.

“I really hope that if I can do this on TV, and sit down with my biggest phobia for five hours then, I don’t know, maybe we can just add that to our collective human data and know that we’re full of possibilities and potential and poetry“ – Miles Greenberg

Because you appear, outwardly, incredibly calm as you’re climbing into that box and, you know, releasing the horrifying mouthless moths into the box.

Miles Greenberg: They cut out all the moments where I said ‘fuck’.

You seem so serene, it’s very impressive. You talked in your interview with Marina on Sky Arts about surrendering. And I found that concept really interesting because we usually think of surrendering as being passive, whereas you’re talking about it in terms of it being a very active choice. 

Miles Greenberg: Like I said, I think that performance artists become performance artists because they can’t do anything else. And I don’t feel like I could do anything else because I don’t have the patience. It’s not in me to chip away at something until it’s complete. There’s a certain immediacy that I really thrive on and that I need, in order to understand what it is that I’m even doing. And I think the act of surrender is an artistic process like any other. I would almost visualise it as an active melt that is quite graphic; that is sculptural; that is physical; that is illogical. It exists in our human vocabulary, it’s like in sex; it’s like when you cry; it’s like when you distil those human gestures that we don’t really have the vocabulary for, and put them into a context that becomes, ultimately, a kind of backbone. That’s sort of like my job description. So I think that the act of surrender is sort of one of my favourite, I guess, you might call it ‘a technique’. It’s something that I explore but, at 23, I don’t necessarily have all the vocabulary to be able to describe it, because it’s a big-ass human experience, really. But it’s something that I think is a beautiful thing to observe and a beautiful thing to extract.

I also think it’s very hard to capture or to document and that’s where the magic of a process-based approach comes in, because I would never know how to encapsulate it unless we literally just went through something for six hours. Like it’s something that doesn’t really exist until it does. So, here to do an interview about it is counter-intuitive, having to describe and analyse it.

I read somewhere that you saw Marina Abramović perform “The Artist is Present” when you were 13, and that it had a profound kind of effect on you as a teenager. I don’t know if that’s true or if it’s kind of apocryphal, but could you tell us more about this experience?

Miles Greenberg: No, it’s true. I did go when I was 13. Me and my mum went down to New York from Montreal to see the Abramović retrospective. And, you know, you see Marina right at the start and then again at the end. I walked through the whole show and I think I got some sense of what I was seeing. I remember getting to the end and there were these transitory objects – crystals and furniture formulated to put your body in direct interaction with crystal or energy. I remember lying down on a crystal slab and closing my eyes and opening them again thinking 30 seconds had passed, but actually I’d been there 25 minutes. Wow. And immediately after that, you had the door to go back out at the end of the exhibition and Marina’s there again. And her presence and her dedication to the human now, and solving problems, resolving your humanity with sheer will and spirit. There was a certain religiosity to it; there was a certain, almost, priesthood to a calling of being with your physical body and exploring every relevant aspect of it, which I felt was noble at the time. But then, after experiencing that, I didn’t know what it was, but I decided that it was in some form or fashion what I wanted to dedicate myself to. 

Could you share with us a bit about your actual experience of being in the cage with the moths? Was it cathartic? Do you think it cured you? What was your lowest point? 

Miles Greenberg: I think there was a lot of stillness that I didn’t really anticipate. We had butterflies and moths, so it was like two different species that have very different behavioural patterns. And I think the unpredictability of them is sort of part of what gives me anxiety, because it goes really fast to really slow, and these unpredictable gestures that are actually pretty prehistoric feeling. That’s why I talk about the ancestral – because it feels so Jurassic Park with these creatures. 

I think five hours was a good amount of time to really kind of get in tune to that unpredictability and also sort of choreographing it because, obviously, I had no choice but to touch them. And so I started really picking them up stimulating them and going, ‘Okay, how do you react if I do this?’ It was five hours of experimentation and learning to get with them. At the very end, you know, Marina bangs the gong and the performance ends and, in that moment, it was almost like, ‘Okay, and what is the result? What is the resolution?’ And I wouldn’t dare say that I’m unafraid of them, but you heard the gong and you knew what you’ve just done. It was like one breath in, one breath out. I lowered my hand and picked up the giant Atlas moth and it was like fluttering like crazy on my hand and it was a moment of, well, Marina calls it ‘walking through walls’. And I that that was how that felt. 

I’m so excited that this is the first time an artist is taking over a television show this way for all evening. I think it’s a really exciting proposition and this has become something really democratic. I know that this was purposeful and meaningful for me on a personal level. But I think, instead of sizing it in this way and making it, you know, accessible in this way and allowing people in, it has to serve a purpose that is larger; that speaks to the current moment that speaks to where we’re at, in the pandemic: the fear, the isolation, and everything that people are experiencing. I really hope that if I can do this on TV, and sit down with my biggest phobia for five hours then, I don’t know, maybe we can just add that to our collective human data and know that we’re full of possibilities and potential and poetry.

Marina Abramovic Takes Over TV is available to watch now on Sky On Demand and NOW TV