Marina Abramović on Her Landmark Performance, ‘The Artist is Present’

As fearless and tough as she is seductive and passionate, iconic performance artist Marina Abramović has spent more than forty years challenging audiences with her work. And with Matthew Aker’s new documentary, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, we’re dropped into Abramović’s world, allowing us to bare witness to the evolution of her radical career and the myriad sides to Abramović that make her work so intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Known for pushing her mind and body to the limits of human experience, Marina has carved a name for herself in art history, provoking audiences and redefining word the “art” itself. 

The Artist is Present, which premieres on HBO next week, follows Abramović as she prepares for her most impressive work to date: a retrospective at MoMA and performance in which she sat for three months—day in and day out—at a small table in the museum’s atrium, as people came from around the world to sit across from her. Just as the film showcases the ways in which Abramović’s life blurs the lines between reality and performance, the film itself muddies it’s own lines between documentary and art film—creating a beautiful journey through the life of one of the world’s most astounding living artists.

Were you worried that the documentary would be invasive to you?
I’m not worried about this kind of stuff. For me, it was a great chance to reach the public and really be able to show the preparations to make a performance like this and how it can really show all the aspects of my life and my work. I don’t have any personal life, so it was not complicated, everything is public and all my work is available to everybody. I show all aspects of myself—fragile, strange, dramatic, kitschy, whatever. And I think being vulnerable, the public can also project their own vulnerability into my persona, which makes them closer to me and I’m closer to them.

You have an incredible of tolerance for pain and patience, how do you get yourself into a place where you can endure that?
I think duration and will power is everything. So for me, it’s not my physical body but my mental, which I’ve learned is crazy. I learned from people that actually pushed the limits and how you can actually generate that inner energy, which every human has. In every cell of your body you have energy that you never use unless your life is in danger, but you can learn how to use this energy whenever you need it. I want to teach the public how to perform themselves because, especially in America, senses are replaced by technology and people like to be entertained constantly. But in my performance, nothing is happening, there is no story to tell—there is no development, there is no crescendo, there is no beginning, there’s no end, and when you reduce everything to the bare present, then it starts being terrific.

Were you looking to lose yourself in everyone that sat down across from you and give part of yourself to them?
You have to be available to give unconditional love, to give experience to the public and to really support young artists.

When you were performing at MoMA you said there was a point that was pushing the limit even for you—what was it that changed for you?
It was just difficult, my body was giving up, it was so painful. The starting in March and April was almost impossible, but then May came and I removed the table and got even more involved with the audience. Everything changed and I knew I could do it then.

What are you hoping the audience achieves from your work? Is it sharing a part of yourself for the benefit of the viewer?
I think that people don’t really grasp how performance can be a transformative form of art, same in music. To me, it’s really important to create an institute where other artists can experiment and bring this message across. Once I’m not there, the message can stay.

You spoke about a state of mind beyond pain.
Yes, I had really out of body experiences. That really is the most changing experience I’ve had from any performance.

In terms of your work as an artist, why do you think it is that you do this? Is this your way to show your desire to be loved and to love?
It’s very simple, I’m an artist in the full sense. I have always been and it’s about creating. How do you know you’re an artist? It’s like breathing. You don’t question breathing, you just breathe. I don’t question my need to create, I just wake up in the night and have these ideas and then pick up the most difficult ones and the most impossible ones to do. I don’t believe that I should do the ones that are easy, because if we always make that choice in our life, we are never changing and we are never transforming.

So much of your work is about slowing down and looking at time as an illusion and not being distracted by technology but when technology is such a large part of the art world today, how does that effect you?
I do everything. If you live one day of my life, I have no time for anything. From morning until evening, I am working like a solider. But then I create a piece where I go in and everything stops.

How did you feel when you saw the finished documentary? Were you pleased.
Yes, this is life and this is truth. I’m just trying to choose the important things. I’m 65, so I think at least 10 or 15 years to establish something that can stay without me is important. My life is about the work. Suffering purifies you and focuses you and compliments you. Art history is full of suffering. Tell me any art made from happiness, I don’t know. And the movie has really done a good job because people are touched. In Germany we had Germans cry, that’s not easy to do! But I think it’s just honest. And I think that comes across through the film. Mike was with me for one year shooting all this material so I think it does a good job of showing to the public what performance means; it’s not just some hocus-pocus form of art  that nobody gives a shit about, it’s something else and it’s an important form of art and not always mainstream. For me it’s a contribution to performance art, so for the other young artists coming my way there can be some space.

One of the most moving parts of the documentary was from your first night of the performance when Ulay, who had been your partner for 12 years, came and sat down across from you and we see you get emotional and reach to touch his hands then everyone began clapping. Can you tell me about that moment?
I invited him to the performance because we shared 12 years of work, but I had no idea he was going to sit. So when he sat in front of me it was really so emotional, everybody could see because it was reflecting everything we went through together. In one of our performances, “The Night Sea Crossing,” we sat across from each other and he could not do it and I could. That’s why I replaced him with the public. I didn’t think he would ever sit in the chair opposite me, so when he did, I broke all the rules. I just thought that in that place at that moment there were no rules. I just needed to hold his hand and feel togetherness in that moment, which was very emotional.

How do you think you have changed as an artist as you’ve evolved over the years?
It’s so simple because I change because I’ve had so many works and each work makes me a little different. Right now I cut so much bullshit out of my life and I’m really focused on only things that matter. Every day I’m between solider and monk, and in the meantime I do lots of fashion photographs. I cannot believe I can be on the cover of a fashion magazine when I’m 65 and other people do when they’re 18. This is the other Marina who really has fun with that.

In the film, you talk about having these different people inside you—the Marina who’s vulnerable, the Marina who is strong, etc. Who do you think is most alive in your work?
Now in the theatre piece, it’s everyone—the comical Marina and the vulnerable one and the one who is so wounded. It’s a piece about my life, and there are so many things I’m ashamed of and playing my life on stage every single day. Every day I cry to be ready [so] I can to go through this one more time. It’s so important to actually stage the most painful time of my life and give that to other artists, because it’s all we have. And just like a mirror, I want to be an example and everyone can project their own life into this. And the Artist is Present film is like that too. If you have a dream or aim anything is possible.

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