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A Heart To Heart With Marina Abramović

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Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Arguably the world’s most famous performance artist, 69-year-old Marina Abramović has been called a lot of things over the years; a masochist, an attention-seeker and, most recently, a Satanist. If you ask me, people call her these names because they are afraid of her. She is what I conceive to be a truly powerful woman: unerringly strong and unafraid of her own pain, while totally ready to show weakness and compassion to others.

Abramović’s art seeks to tell us the truths we find it hard to face – whether that be our own mortality, our capacity to inflict pain on others, or the importance of basic human interaction. She uses her body to do this, playing games of Russian Roulette, or testing her own endurance. You might remember her most famous performance piece to date, The Artist Is Present, at MoMA back in 2010, where she sat in a chair in the gallery for 736 hours and 30 minutes, inviting random members of the public to sit across from her. Lou Reed went, Lady Gaga went, James Franco went. Many visitors broke into tears.

The extremity of Abramović’s work has surrounded her with controversy but in a new memoir, Walk Through Walls, she offers her critics an honest account of her life. To find out more about it, I gave Marina a call. At the end of our interview, after I had stopped recording, she asked me to turn on my webcam so that we could have a personal conversation, and when she called me “sweet baby” I cried. Then we had a good laugh about the idea of her being a Satanist.

Walk Through Walls is a very uncensored account of your life. Thank you for being so honest. When I was reading it, I wondered: What was the hardest thing to write about?

Everything was hard to write about. But the hardest thing was that I had more than 700 hours with my ghost writer, James Kaplan, who was very patient to listen to all this. So the hardest part was editing. To take my life and put it in 370 pages – that was the hardest part.

I really enjoyed the chapter about your upbringing in Communist Yugoslavia. Without giving anything away for those who haven’t read the book, are you grateful for it?

The beginning of my life was very difficult. My mother was very strict. I wanted to rebel and I didn’t like all of these restrictions, but in the long run I see how good this was for me. It gave me a Communist stoicism and discipline which I don’t see many people have in the West.
Photo: Will/ullstein bild/Getty Images
'Wartesaal' at Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, March 1993
You talk about having three personalities: the warrior, the spiritualist, and the insecure little girl. Are they all on an equal footing or do they come out at different times?

You know, they’re always there. And it depends on the circumstances which one I go into or develop more. When it comes to the work there is not space for the bullshit Marina at all. It’s about strength and being a warrior. And when it comes to the research, when I’m trying to uncover different cultures – especially ancient cultures, which interest me very much – then it is the spiritual Marina. And then, when I’ve done all the work and I have time in between, then comes the bullshit Marina.

Tell me about her.

She comes out when I relax. I indulge myself in things I know are bullshit. But I need it. Everybody needs it. And I think it’s important to open this part to the public. Most people only show the best part of themselves and I want to show every part – no secrets, no pretending, this is what I am and you can take it or leave it. It’s very important to me that my relationship with the public is built on trust and honesty, so they can see that I am like them, no better at all.

How often do you cry?

Oh my god. I cry a lot. I don’t believe in antidepressants and pills. I never use any of these things. If I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep. If I need to cry, I cry. I can cry from sheer beauty. From the first flower I see coming out in Spring. I always think that if I don’t cry in a movie, the movie’s not good.
What was the last movie that made you cry?

Lars von Trier, Melancholia. Oh my god that made me cry! It was so amazing. So profound. Since then I always look when it’s a full moon and feel like it’s getting bigger and bigger and getting closer to Earth. It makes me think about how small and insignificant we are. You know, we are such a dot in the planet. We’re not even in the centre of the Milky Way, we’re in the suburbs. We’re the New Jersey of the Milky Way. It’s very important to have a big picture. Especially when I have my problems and things are happening in my private life... I always need to look out to space and the problem will disappear.

What would be your advice for easing heartbreak?

I’m an expert in that by now. You ask the right person. The most important thing is don’t try to feel good. Go all the way into the hell. This is the only way to go. Cry your eyes out. Talk about your heartbreak with everybody until you’re sick and tired of talking about it and your friends are sick and tired of listening to it. Only when you can go to the bottom can you go to the top. Suffer. And stay long periods of time under the shower. The water gives you different energy. Listen to Dr. Abramović. Don’t try to feel OK... Every heartbreak, every emotional difficulty, everything in life we have to learn from.

In 1974 you did a show in Naples where you set out objects, from a feather through to a whip, to a gun, and invited people to use them on your body. Did you expect people to be so violent?

That performance came from a background of violent performance art in the 1970s that was heavily criticised in art. It was the alternative form of art. People thought we were masochists and exhibitionists and that we belonged in mental hospitals. Against this background I wanted to make a performance where I wasn’t doing anything at all. Where I was just standing in the space and the people had to take responsibility. I wanted to put destiny on the table and see how far the public can go. And the public can kill you. I could never kill myself because I know my limits. But with the public, it’s very dangerous.

How did this performance change your view of humanity?

I learnt a lesson then that if you give the tools to the public they will do the very worst. If you give them a different kind of tool they can do the best. Which is why in The Artist Is Present I gave the public the opportunity to just be themselves and I got the best out of them. It took 35 years in between to learn this. Right now we are at the peak of technology and we still have wars and people still kill people. I think some things about humans never change. It’s just the circumstances that change.
Would you say your work is about engineering those circumstances?

In my work I stage different ideas in front of the public and use the energy of the public. And I learn from this that pain is one of the biggest obstacles for us. We are afraid of suffering. All kinds of pain – emotional pain, physical pain. I say: If I can free myself from the chains of suffering, let’s see if you can too. My body is a tool. Performance is a tool. This is what art history is about – people confronting their fears, whether it’s through painting, literature or cinema. I use the body.

Do you feel like we’re living in an age where shock tactics have been pushed to the extreme? Or can things still be shocking?

People might say my work is shocking at first, but if they really think, they will understand the depth of it. I really think that sometimes the most shocking things are the simplest things, like purity of ideas. This is shocking. People get shocked when they don’t expect other people to be honest. My performance in The Artist Is Present was shocking to everybody because it was really about nothing. It’s about two people sitting in chairs looking at each other. It’s as simple as you can go.

Why was now the right time to write Walk Through Walls?

You need time to live your life and time to look back. Especially look back without anger. That was the moment I’d been waiting for. I wanted to register the last period of my life. When you reach 70 this is a serious age! And also to be inspirational; if I can get through all the stuff that’s happened in my life, I want other people to know they can get through theirs, too.

Turning 70, is there anything you’re afraid of?

I have to say that, at 70, having done everything I’ve done, I would never want to go back to my 20s. It was too much suffering. I’ve never felt better in my life than right now. I’m lucky that I’m healthy and that I feel good. I feel good about coming to the understanding that I have to go through this door of 70. I know I have to concentrate on only the things that are important. My legacy is important to me, my institute is important to me, and I think it’s important to do a few more performances, to work with young artists, and to give some statements that really matter to the world.

I must also prepare for dying. We ignore that we are going to die, we don’t want to deal with this. In the book I wrote how on my birthday I had the realisation I was going to die. And this feeling never left me. And so I always try to concentrate on the things that matter. And it matters to me to have fun. I have so much humour that only my friends know. You know, the Holiness the Dalai Lama said that if you use humour for the worst truths you reach a much deeper place. Humour is something that opens hearts and we have to learn much more humour in our lives. If we do that, we will look at the world around us and really see it for what it is.
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