When artist Marina Abramović first started producing performance works in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in the 1970s, there was no such thing as Tumblr. Despite the fact she exudes the presence and prowess of an articulate and high-brow David Blaine, fused with a pulsating emotional core that seems ready to relinquish itself to her audience at any time, for the duration of a four-decades-long career, her provocative, controversial, and sometimes dangerous works of art have been regarded as little more than fringe theater by the public and wider artistic community. Needless to say, if Facebook had existed when she first started out, she wouldn’t have had many friends. In more recent years, however, the artist has been witness to a shift in perspective, a fresh appreciation and growing excitement surrounding her methods and movement.
Since a 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, combined with the 2012 film Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, which chronicled the making of her original work of the same name, this woman on the edge has become a little more mainstream – James Franco interviewed her for The Wall Street Journal, she made Girls’ Jemima Kirke ball like a baby, and her almost hypnotic ability to cause fragile New Yorkers to break down in tears even spawned its own Tumblr blog. At an age where many would be looking forward to that beachfront property in Florida, Abramović is grabbing the bull, using her notoriety to raise the stakes for other performance artists through her institute and foundation. If it wasn’t blindingly obvious already, this conversation with filmmaker and video artist Charles Atlas urges any lingering opponents to desist. It’s hard to argue that the fruits of Abramović’s years of labor are magic, illusion, or even alternative theater. No. This is art and the artist is present.
CHARLES ATLAS—So you just got back from Los Angeles?
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ—Yes. I was nominated for a Spirit award, for independent cinema. I was quite amazed. And I was there, waiting for the result, and the cameraman comes to our table, and they have to announce the winner and then they said, “And the award goes to…” and it was totally somebody else – [a film about] the rape of women in the American army. You can’t compete with that. Every other team was completely political.
CA—I always wonder if anything about art is ever going to win.
MA—No, never. I was most surprised to be there in the first place, because everything was a social/political thing. Then the red carpet; the red carpet is unbelievable. One of the questions I had on the red carpet: “Which are the best-looking breasts in Hollywood?” I couldn’t believe the question. So I said to the guy, “I’m really happy you asked me this question,” and he was so shocked, he said, “Why?” [I replied,] “Because I’m going to put it on the list of the worst questions I’ve ever been asked. You’re number one.”
CA—How long were you there? Did you just go out for the awards?
MA—Five days. Because Francesca von Habsburg did a lunch in my honor in Chateau Marmont, and I met Charlotte Rampling, which was really a highlight of my journey, and Christoph Waltz, who is really an incredible actor. Both of these people I wish to replace Willem Dafoe and me for The Life and Death [of Marina Abramović], the theater piece. It was really a kind of miracle that they were at the same lunch with me that day, because I would love Charlotte Rampling to play me and my mother, and Christoph Waltz instead of Willem Dafoe, playing my father, my lover, my husband, general joker…
CA—Did they say yes, are they going to do it?
MA—Christoph Waltz is really interested, because we already discussed it before, and he loves theater, so he’s going to come to Luminato Festival to see the play and see what he can do. And Charlotte Rampling, I just became friends with her, and I didn’t ask her yet.
CA—I love her.
MA—She wasn’t even invited to the lunch, she was sitting outside with a friend. So I went and said, “Charlotte, I am really a huge fan, and there’s a lunch in my honor. Can you come?” And she said, “I don’t know you. What would be a good reason to come to this lunch?” And I said, “Because I’m from Montenegro, and if you say no to me it’s just the beginning, and I will sit here until you say yes.” And she said, “OK, let’s go.” and then she came for lunch. And then I gave her The Artist is Present DVD and she sent me this beautiful email telling me that in the seclusion of her hotel room she [watched it] and she understood everything.
CA—Oh, that’s great.
MA—It’s really special because The Night Porter is really one of my favorite movies of all time. I know yours too, one of yours.
CA—Mine too. What have been all the repercussions of [The Artist is Present] being shown everywhere? How has that affected things for you?
MA—A huge difference, because [before] I never had access to the larger public – the people who don’t know the difference between performance and theater. People call performance art stand-up comedy and all kinds of things. So this movie really makes people who never had access to this sort of art understand, and has made an incredible difference. I [just spent] two months in Brazil and I would go to the most remote places, the little villages, and there would be somebody who saw the movie somewhere and got so excited to see me and talk to me in all kinds of odd situations: in the toilets, on the streets, in a restaurant. An enormous amount of people saw the movie – I would never have had this kind of public to see the performance live, but the film had this ability, because it’s been shown now in over 40 countries and also on television for a large amount of people. So it’s crossing different borders and really making a lot of difference.
CA—You’ve become a celebrity. That’s been going on for a couple of years. How do you deal with that in the context of your art life?
MA—I say it doesn’t affect me much, because I work from morning till evening. I’ve always been working and I still continue working. So it’s a side effect that doesn’t really change anything with me. Plus, this kind of recognition came so slowly. I’ve been working now for 40 years, and for at least 30 years nobody even gave a shit about it, and for at least 20 years people were laughing about it. So I always had the completely opposite reaction, and [my work was] not considered as any art form. So it kind of came slowly and I kind of adapted, until finally I’ve made a platform about performance art for young artists who come after me, so that they actually can be taken seriously, which I really think is important to me. It’s not just about me, but it’s about the form of art which I’m presenting. And this is why now I’m really not thinking about celebrity. The only thing I’m thinking is how to fundraise to open this Institute for the preservation of Performance Art in Hudson which I want to have as a playground for all artists who have good ideas to do things which don’t fit anywhere else. I’ve always been a misfit and I want to have a misfit institute. There’s so much need for this kind of stuff. This entire system of the western world is made to make projects that have success. But what about making projects for failure? What about experimenting? What about not always having the perfect result, but the process [from] which you open some new doors?
CA—Or just taking chances. People want you to do what you did before, and every time I do something I haven’t done before, I get very nervous and I’m sure they do too.
MA—And me too. But that’s wonderful, because that’s what gives the platform for something new to open. And the market is made the way that when one product works they just want you to make the same product till you die, and that’s what I don’t like. I hate that, because I really think it’s important to just look for new forms of expression. And when I wrote this statement about the Marina Abramović Institute and its mission, I said that I would like to embrace all different forms of art, the ones that don’t even have a name yet, but that are going to be developed in the future. That kind of form is of the most interest.
CA—Where are you in terms of the development of this?
MA—Right now this master plan [costs] $15 million to be developed, so we’re now developing a new version, which is going to be $7 [million], which I can start working in by the end of next year. And I will really do the minimum and leave lots of spaces rough, because I don’t think it needs to be completely ready, because it can work and be built at the same time. For me, right now, the focus is to apply for lots of different grants, but also on the work I’m going to show. So I’m really looking everywhere for extremely young artists, and some older ones. I wanted to actually commission the works. Just today, I had to rent another office, because it’s non-profit, it has to be completely divorced from my own entity.
CA—Where is your office now? Is it in the same building that it used to be?
MA—No, it’s in SoHo. It’s huge. And now I have two offices, from today. Today is really a divorce of my private life and the institute.
CA—So do you have different people working there?
MA—People from my office. Half of them go there to work and half stay here. And I’m going to lend part of the money to the institute, that I want to eventually get back, because there is no other money to run it. It’s crazy, but this is all I want to have. It’s my baby, I want to give it life.
CA—I’m sure you’re doing lots of other projects. What are your other projects that you’re working on that are coming up?
MA—The one thing that I’m doing in May is for the first time in my life, I’m going to design the sets for a ballet.
CA—That’s what I thought. What are you doing?
MA—You know Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui? He’s a Moroccan-Belgian choreographer and Damien Jalet – we are working on the new version of Boléro for the French Opera.
CA—And so you’re working with the Paris Opera Ballet?
MA—Really! And we have three stars of the ballet, with eleven [dancers], so it’s really classic. [Maurice] Béjart made the best Boléro ever and we have to make a new version of Béjart. Riccardo Tisci from Givenchy is making costumes, and I’m doing the scenography. This is the first time I’ve ever done this; I’m completely excited.
CA—That’s hilarious! I don’t mean hilarious, but…
MA—It is, because the French ballet is a completely different world.
CA—Are they doing it en pointe or are they doing it barefoot?
MA—We want bare feet but I don’t know; it’s complicated. The costumes are just incredible; there are capes, and lace on the naked body, because Riccardo is really going over the top with this. We rehearse all April and second of May is the premiere. And then, I would really like to bring it [to New York], somehow. At the end of this year in November and December, we are playing The Life and Death of Marina Abramović by Bob Wilson in the [Park Avenue] Armory, and it’s probably going to be the last performance because we can’t put this crew together so many times. It’s going to be with Antony [Hegarty] and Willem Dafoe.
CA—So it will be the original cast?
MA—The original. And then I would love this piece to continue with replacements. But the only thing I don’t know is who could replace Antony. But he said to me, “This is the last time.” I said, “I know Antony, just do New York, I won’t bother you anymore.”
CA—I read somewhere that you’re making a film about James Franco, is this true?
MA—Yes, it’s true.
CA—How did this happen?
MA—Because, first of all, for me he’s an exact example of what we’re talking about. He’s a Hollywood actor who could have a perfectly quiet and nice career, but what the hell in him makes him do all these other things? I mean everything you could imagine. The list of what he hasn’t done is much shorter than the list he has. And not always with great success. But he likes to experiment and try to see what it’s all about. I have lots of material he’s given me from whatever he’s been doing. And I’m not actually making anything with him, I’m just editing already existing material in a certain way, and that’s all I wanted to do. I’m asking questions; I’m not giving answers.
CA—How much live performance are you actually doing these days?
MA—I was in Brazil for two months and I went to all the different shaman, and healers, and I made more than 100 hours of [footage] with the film crew, so I’m editing this, and I really learned a lot of things. For me it takes a few years to make a new performance, and now I’m cooking something else, but I can’t talk about it, and that’s going to be my own work. Apart from this, I’m really busy more with creating a subject called The Abramović Method, where I teach the public to come to different states of consciousness.
CA—You have all these shows everywhere, where you make objects…
MA—The shows come from different sources. First of all, there is lots of material I have from the past, but mostly, I’m making a new body of photographic work, and objects that are actually used by the public. Right now I’m working on some new material, working with alabaster, and it’s quite interesting. I’m interested in materials that can preserve a certain energy of the spirit of the person, and I would like to do certain objects, [into] which I actually transfer my own self, like a hair or nails, and almost create some kind of voodoo presence; transplanting your own soul into the object itself. Because you know one day we’re going to die so I have to figure out how to exist after death – the spirit is a good solution.
CA—So I understand you moved into a house and then you moved out?
MA—Yes, because it flooded. When I came back the house was destroyed.
CA—So where are you living now?
MA—Tribeca. I’m renting. In my place all the walls are destroyed.
CA—Did you have all your stuff there?
MA—Yes. Everything was fucked up. I came back from Brazil at five in the morning and everything was gone; the place was gone. It was like a strange omen that I should never go back there.
CA—And what about all your work and all your archives, where are they?
MA—All the archives and everything else is in the office and my house in the countryside.
CA—What kind of organization do you have now? How is your business organized?
MA—I created my company, Abramović LLC. And I actually have three people working [for me], but basically I’m organizing my entire archive, digitalizing, and then [working on] all of these events. Next year I have something like eight shows to tour around, which is a huge amount of work to organize: insurance, packaging, the things for the catalog, the press… When I did the MoMA show, I just had one assistant, and now I have two offices. It’s impossible to do with one person. I get anything between 80 and 120 emails per day. That’s huge pressure, and I always answer my emails, even if a student from the middle of nowhere asks me something I will answer her. I think it’s my duty.
CA—I can’t cope. I had a meltdown the other day. For two days, I said I can’t deal with anything; I’m not answering. And then when I got back to answering there were 200 [emails].
MA—This is why you need help. That’s why I’m paying people to do it.
CA—I think it would be interesting for people to hear something about how you prepared when you were doing the show at MoMA.
MA—Basically, it took me one year to change… It was lots of readjustments of the body functions, and then the concentration and purification of the body of all toxins. So I went to India, for almost three months to do that. It was really work. I took this as seriously as possible, to deliver the task. Even then, I had lots of side effects after like back pain, swelling on my feet, muscle pains; it was really incredibly strained. My body was not used to this kind of effort, but I was very happy I could do it.
CA—Do you foresee doing any more long endurance things like that?
MA—Absolutely. That’s why I’m creating the institute with only long-durational [artwork] because I believe it is the only one worth doing because it really changes your perception of life. It also changes your metabolism, changes your consciousness, and affects the public in a way that nothing else does. Because the one thing we don’t have in our life is time, so by creating the time and involving people to take the time for themselves makes such a big difference. And it’s so funny that there was such a buzz about this piece, and literally I didn’t do anything but sit on the chair. People forget to do the most simple things, and you have to remind them, and art is the one who has to do that. I think there’s huge power in non-activity and long-durational work, so I also want to commission long-durational work in every category: in opera, in theater, dance, film, music, because I see potential in them.
CA—You’re friends with David Blaine, aren’t you?
CA—His things are mostly faked, aren’t they?
MA—No, they are not.
MA—No. He’s such an interesting character. We have an illusion about magicians and we think that everything must be faked. But David Blaine is such an exception, because he does illusion, but at the same time there is a lot of physical effort that is absolutely not possible to be done another way. Him standing, I don’t know how many… three days, did you see that? When he was doing this experiment?
CA—No, I didn’t.
MA—It was there – real. It was the most incredible thing. And he puts such a physical effort into his stunts, that really it’s touching performance [art], but because the context is magic, people take everything, even these real things, as magic, which they’re not. And he’s very interesting for me to work with, and to be friends with. I really like him.
CA—But it’s the context that puts him in a different category.
MA—The context, but also the context somehow shadows the other parts that are really not magic at all. And that’s how it is. Really to me, David Blaine, James Franco, are interesting, borderline people who are in so many ways misunderstood. But in both cases, there is enormous effort of doing things. It’s interesting. Can I just wrap with one statement?
MA—I will tell you that for me, working with you was incredibly important; because again you cross the borders, you push the limits, and I surrendered, and then I got completely confused, remember with Delusional how everything went? But at the same time it was a very valuable experience, and you’re a friend for life. I just wanted to tell you.
CA—I feel the same way about that piece. I wish people could see that piece.
MA—Because there’s something there that nobody else can do.
CA—It was really something that no one had seen before, and you really gave yourself over to doing something very vulnerable and brave.
MA—And then you showed me, Leigh [Bowery]. And this was a huge present for me that Leigh made the queen costume for this piece, and I still have it here in a box. And just his presence, his generosity, and what he stands for, it was very special. Again, Leigh’s another kind of person that it’s very difficult to make another one of. You are one of these pioneers. And I have two categories of people: originals and the ones who are just copying, and you’re in this category of originals. And they’re the most difficult ones because they’re frontline, and frontline can also be executed easily, but they’re the ones through history who live the most. That’s the end, how do you like this? OK, I have to run.
CA—I hope I’ll see you one of these days.
MA—I am back in New York in May. Let’s have lunch.
CA—Let’s definitely get together then. OK, good luck with everything.
MA—Thank you. Bye-bye!