ABOVE: MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ
Marina Abramović is among a handful of the most celebrated living female artists in the world—and certainly the most successful performance artist, both financially and in terms of critical reception. Born in Serbia, Abramović is a New York-based Montenegrin who began her art career in the early 1970s. Her pioneering work explores the relationship between performer and audience, body and mind. She's notorious for extreme exploits, like stabbing her hand repeatedly with a knife, carving a star into her stomach with a razor blade, lying for hours on a block of ice, and other feats of strength, daring, and concentration—most famously, the 2010 MoMA show, "The Artist is Present." Although much of her work is devoted to focus, Abramović is nonetheless an energetic multi-tasker who always has multiple projects occurring simultaneously. She recently collaborated with the choreographers of a Paris Opera production of the ballet Boléro and is currently trying to raise $15 million to establish the Marina Abramović Institute or MAI in Hudson, New York, which will open in 2014. Next month, she'll also star alongside Willem Dafoe in The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, an experimental stage show based on her life with music written and performed by Antony, which will make its North American debut at Toronto's Luminato Festival following a sold-out run in Europe.
Abramović, whose father was a commander and mother a major in the army, is known for her insistence on precision and punctuality. When we entered the office suite where we interviewed her several weeks ago, the artist was present, waiting by a desk among her office staff. We sat at the table in her glass conference room, which is decorated with a row of clocks displaying the hours of cities around the world. Although the 67-year-old Abramović reputedly calls herself the "grandmother of performance art," due to her stature and vitality, she seems more like the mother of performance art. An interview with her is an intense and intimate experience; Abramović sits close, speaking softly and enthusiastically in her accented English.
GERRY VISCO: Now that you live in New York City, do you miss living in Europe?
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ: Once you live in New York, you can't live anywhere else. Living in Paris is like going in slow motion. It's so bourgeois. I get so bored.
VISCO: Europe does seem rather depressing these days.
ABRAMOVIĆ: I come from Yugoslavia. The last time I was in Serbia was for one day and a half and I had a major migraine already. By the way, what are we going to talk about?
VISCO: We're going to talk about your new Institute and also your installation for the Luminato Festival. Or anything you'd like to talk about would be of interest.
ABRAMOVIĆ : Can I show you my Powerpoint presentation? I've never done anything like this before, but I was working on the ballet Boléro with the choreographers of the Paris Opera Ballet. I just came back from Paris.
VISCO: What was it like?
ABRAMOVIĆ: There is a mirror above the stage; everything is reflected. It looks like an orgy of bodies. Pina Bausch founded the company originally. She was very tough. They really bring to dance esoteric ideas: trance, Sufi dancing in a spiral, a state of mind. It's not just about dance itself, but it's about insight—ecstasy, basically. They bring music from Asia and work with the monks from China. It's very interesting, so different.
VISCO: How did this opportunity come about?
ABRAMOVIĆ: First of all, I love their work, and we were always looking for something to do together. But they got an assignment to make a new Boléro in the Opera. There had been only two assignments. One was one in 1929, this is the other. They asked the director of the Opera, Bridget Lefèvre, if it was okay that I worked with them. She said, "I don't know what she has to do with the ballet." At that moment, I had a big show at the Garage in Moscow and she took a plane to see it, and then she said, "Okay, I understand." And I got the contract. I thought it over. Is Boléro about love? Jealousy? Obsession? It's about so many different things, but to me it's like electricity. I took snow from the TV set and we projected it onto the floor, and then we hung the mirror. So when you look all the bodies in the Boléro—you no longer see man, man, woman, woman: they're all mixed in a kind of celestial orgy.
VISCO: And do you find it inspiring to collaborate?
ABRAMOVIĆ: It's wonderful. You have to put your ego away and open yourself. But you know, when we got to the director of the orchestra—he has been the director there for 25 years—I said to him, "Could you imagine Boléro not starting with music, but starting with you conducting, the orchestra dark? There's only light on you and you are conducting." And he looked at me, very arrogant, and said,"Never been done." And I said "precisely.'" [laughs] And he said no. Two and a half weeks of hell, and we did it.
VISCO: Yet you seem to have enjoyed working on the ballet so much, because it was collaborative.
ABRAMOVIĆ: Yes, this was a really good combination of the work of people who loved each other. We made an amazing piece. Riccardo Tisci made the costumes. When I was young, I couldn't think about ballet because I had to focus on my own field. But once you secure your own performance area, you can indulge yourself in different territories. Fashion is one. And ballet is absolutely a fantasy, because it deals with the bodies in a different way. The first thing I understood was the huge difference between "performer" bodies and "dancer" bodies. When I was auditioning people for MoMA, I understood that "performer" bodies, like myself, don't train every day. We work on willpower. This willpower works in a short term, not durational.
VISCO: During your MoMA performance, you were training every day?
ABRAMOVIĆ: If you have to do durational work, you have to train! No bullshit. You can't do it for three months. You can do it for five hours, 10 hours, and then you have three months rest. If this is your job, you have to be flexible.
VISCO: Would you ever dance yourself?
ABRAMOVIĆ: No, it's not possible. These people start at age six in the classical ballet. The choreographers took two dancers from their own crew to teach dancers from ballet the different movements from her choreography they're not used to. You should see their feet. They don't have nails. You see beauty, but it's unbelievable pain—with a 40-year pension! That's it, and then life is really finished. The movements are so unnatural. With Pina Bausch and others, it was completely different, because the body had intelligence, and they were not injuring themselves with organic movement. With classical ballet you are literally injuring yourself.
VISCO: Do you want to do more dance projects here in New York?
ABRAMOVIĆ: I definitely do. I'm addicted, and I'm hoping this ballet can travel! We hope to take this piece here to New York, because it's amazing. We had 10 minutes of standing ovation! Pretty cool. And I got a medal from the Ministry of Arts. I was very proud. You know, my mother never thought I would do anything good in my life, and I was standing in this opera with four gold medals! If she were alive, maybe she'd think I was doing well!
VISCO: How do you motivate yourself?
ABRAMOVIĆ: Do you know what's most interesting? Working with the very strong restrictions of the institution. In the Renaissance, the aristocrats would order paintings from the artist. They would order the Crucifixion of Jesus. The restrictions were amazing. Jesus had to be in the middle, three apostles on the left, four apostles on the right—and still you had masterpieces. It's really interesting to work within restriction, and see what you can do with restriction.
VISCO: Are you really going to die in The Life and Death of Marina Abramović?
ABRAMOVIĆ: This is the beginning of my funeral. It's opening on the 14th of June at the Luminati festival in Toronto. There are three Marinas: Belgrade, Amsterdam, New York. I want to die consciously, without fear, and without anger. Three things. I see my friends dying with fear and anger and it's terrible. My grandmother kept her clothes ready for 40 years for her funeral. She lived to 103! But she kept the clothes in a cupboard. As the styles changed, she changed the clothes! I think if I start now with my funeral, it's good.
VISCO: It's good to be ready for death.
ABRAMOVIĆ: It is good to be ready. I always do big birthday things. In three years, I'm 70. I'm going to do something outrageous. In America, everyone's always hiding their age.
VISCO: I'm 58.
ABRAMOVIĆ: See, you're the first American to tell me.
VISCO: I'm enjoying life more than I ever have. When I was 30, I was a mess. Back to collaboration—you'll be performing with Willem Dafoe and Antony.
ABRAMOVIĆ: Willem Dafoe is so humble. He's a real star, and he's totally without ego. And I love Antony! I want to adopt Antony. He asked me, "Why do you want to adopt a 40-year-old baby?" I asked his mother, and she said no. But I still want to adopt him. When I hear him singing, it really works on my emotions on such a deep level. It's like hearing an angel.
VISCO: Your institute is focused on time-based and immaterial art and will serve as a platform for performances of six hours or more. Why focus on work of this length?
ABRAMOVIĆ: I have found that long durational art is really the key to changing consciousness. On such a deep level. Not just the performer, but the one looking at it.
VISCO: And the work presented will be body-based?
ABRAMOVIĆ: All different categories—dance, theater, film, video, opera, music, and other works we don't even know how to name yet, but they're going to be developed in the future! At the institute, we will pursue a productive union between arts, science, technology, spirituality, and education. Hudson is only two hours from the city, and Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu are designing the institute. If you have famous architects, then the tourism comes... The artist Terence Koh has already bought property in the area.
VISCO: You consider the institute your legacy?
ABRAMOVIĆ: Most artists create foundations where they put their own work. Here I'm not putting my own work. I'm just creating the chambers.
VISCO: Can you talk about those?
ABRAMOVIĆ: First you go through a slow-motion walk. We have to reprogram you. After that, you go to a water-drinking chamber. You drink water with different minerals. Without water you can't live, but we don't really drink water consciously. Then you go to the crystal chamber. It's completely covered with crystals. Then you go to the luminosity chamber.
VISCO: When is the institute going to open?
ABRAMOVIĆ: It's going to open partially next year. To have to be a normal guest, you have to sign a contract. You have to give us six hours, or you can't get in. When you go in you have a safety box where you put your wallet, computers, everything. You get a lab coat and you get headphones.
VISCO: It's like going to a spa.
ABRAMOVIĆ: It's like going to a cultural spa.
VISCO: Sounds great.
ABRAMOVIĆ: I'm interested in utopian communities of the past. Many of them didn't survive and I'm examining closely the reasons they failed. I'm inspired by Buckminster Fuller. I want to support the opportunity to create things, a sort of laboratory. You know, Andy Warhol was a genius...
VISCO: The Factory.
ABRAMOVIĆ: Yes, The Factory. We really have to create something like this in the 21st century. Because now people are so alone.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ RUNS JUNE 14 THROUGH 17 AT THE LUMINATO FESTIVAL IN TORONTO. THE MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ INSTITUTE IS EXPECTED TO OPEN NEXT YEAR.