by Brainard Carey and Delia Bajo (From the Brooklyn Rail print archive)
Marina Abramović may be best known for her historically pivotal performances of the 1970s. In 1974, for example, she created the now famous “Rhythm O,” where she stood in a gallery space for six hours, leaving instructions to those who entered to use one of 72 objects placed on the table on her person in any way they wished. Among the items were a rose, a chain, an axe and scissors, and a loaded pistol. Her clothes were removed; she was cut and threatened. The performance was stopped when audience members became too aggressive and the loaded gun was placed near her head.
Marina is one of the few artists from the first generation of performance artists who is still practicing the medium thirty years later. At Sean Kelly Gallery in Chelsea from November 15th through the 26th, Abramović fasted for twelve days in the gallery in an installation she titled “The House with the Ocean View.” She drank only water and didn’t read, write or speak, though she occasionally sang and invited the audience (through written instructions) to have an “energy dialogue” with her. The audience was also instructed not to talk.
We attended the show every day and became familiar with its architecture. Three open rooms were built about six feet off the ground. One was a bathroom with shower, another was a sitting room with a table and a chair, and the third had a wooden bed in it. Each room had a ladder leading to it from the ground whose steps were made of upturned knives.
In another room of the gallery, visitors were invited to participate in her “Dream Bed,” which involved laying down in a coffin-like box for an hour in a suit that had many magnets sewn into its fabric. In the front room there was a video projection of a seascape with Abramović’s head in the foreground.
Upon entering the space, seeing the rooms and Abramović and the silent audience, time seemed to slow down. As she stared at the audience her eyes would meet with the eyes of a single person and she would initiate a stare that was often returned. To watch this was odd in many ways. In a city where everyone is rushing, here they stayed calm, still and with extraordinary patience stared at the performer as long as possible. The mutual staring often went on for five minutes or longer, making all participants very active in their involvement.
After the fast finished and we were preparing to contact her and arrange a date to meet through her gallery, we noticed while shopping at a grocery store in SoHo that she was in front of us. Without an introduction she gave us each a hug because she recognized us from the performance. We explained that we were trying to arrange a date to interview her and amidst laughter we settled on a time.
Entering her loft we were invited to drink apple and ginger juice, which she freshly presses.
Delia Bajo (Rail): How did your recent project at Sean Kelly begin, where did this project come from?
Marina Abramović: There are two other cultures, which influence my way of thinking very much. One culture is Aborigines in central Australia, I spent one year living there with them in the ’80s. The other culture is Tibet. I learned from those two cultures ways of controlling my physical/mental body. In the ’70s the performances had a physical approach, about endurance, how far you can go, like Chris Burden being crucified on the Volkswagen, Gina Pane on the bed of candles, Acconci, Oppenheim, and a few other artists where everything was about the physical body. Then after the ’70s there was this huge turning point with all the galleries and dealers having nothing to sell, with a performance you only have the dream and the memories to sell. Many performers began making paintings, installations, and sculpture. And as we know all these people stopped performing. Still Joan Jonas is performing, but the rest don’t and I felt it was such a pity because to me the issues of performance were just beginning.
After the physical exploration in there was the whole mental area to explore in performance and nobody was really interested in that. Performance was something so demanding because you have to be there in front of the public all the time and you can’t be in the seclusion of your studio having a little coffee and listening to music while making art. It was much tougher, much tougher. A lot of people didn’t want this anymore, they had had enough, and they were not young anymore. And I am thinking why can I not use my body and see what it is all about, I wanted to perform with any mental or physical challenges such as Alzeimers or a wheelchair, Sclerosis (hopefully not) to see how far I can go with controlling my body with my mind. Performance is always somewhat standard, there is a person doing something in front of an audience who is watching what the performer is doing. There is a passive situation where the public in most performances doesn’t take active participation and is a voyeur of the situation. In my experience you can read a great book that you think will change your life, but the only thing that can change you life is your own experiences. So it is the same for the public. I was thinking how can I remove the situation of the public being always passive and a voyeur. Then I decided to make two blocks of ideas in my life; one I call Artists Body where I am performing and the public is watching. And the other is the Public Body where I build transitory objects. I call them transitory objects because I don’t want to call them sculpture because they are only transitory there, once the experience with the public is done the object is removed.
Rail: Like the objects at Sean Kelly, the Dream Bed?
Abramović: Yes. But then there are separate issues, one is the artist, one is the public. The whole idea now with this new piece, The House with Ocean View, is that I wanted to experiment; I am not doing anything, the only thing that I am really doing is watching the public and the public is watching me and what comes from that kind of chemistry between the public and myself. To be open and have the public trust you— you must put yourself in a vulnerable and open situation where you are there one hundred percent. In the entire situation I created there were only two moments when I had privacy. This was the moment after the shower when I put my head in my towel for about a minute or so and my face was hidden and another moment when I was sitting on the toilet and I would lean over with my face against my knees and just breathe.
I also wanted to see if I could purify my energy and how that purified energy could hang in the space and affect the audience in the space. This kind of idea really isn’t my idea, it comes from my connection with Tibetans. I have been in contact with very accomplished Lamas who have spent ten years in a cave without seeing anybody, just completely in a state of meditation. Once a day a meal is left for them and the Lama never sees the person, the food is just left in front of the cave. There are other Lamas as well, and the point is that when you are very close to them and you don’t speak the language or understand their words, but just being near them really changes your complete attitude. Something else is happening. They are really working on a very high frequency energy, because when you purify yourself, your energy pattern changes into a high frequency pattern then everything around you also alters. The more you are in that kind of state the more people you can affect. I had thought I would like to bring one of the Tibetan Lamas to New York, and that would be my work— to bring them. But this kind of replacement from one culture to another wouldn’t work, besides, why would they want to do it when they are happy in the middle of the Himalayas? So I thought what I could do is experiment and try to do it myself, if I can. And that was the idea for this show.
Brainard Carey (Rail): To create a high frequency environment?
Abramović: Yes, to build this kind of energy.
Rail: What does the title refer to, The House with an Ocean View?
Abramović: The ocean is all the minds of the public and that is the view I had.
Rail: Did you accomplish what you wanted?
Abramović: Yes, When I finished this whole thing I was so high, I was somewhere else, so open, I became incredibly sensitive, and though this may sound strange to say, I have this enormous amount of love for the people. Some people came very often and their energy touched me on a deeper level. Like you two— I feel that I know you but of course we are getting to know each other now, yet I feel I know you in another way, it really happened. I feel something must have happened to other people as well because there were people who kept coming back. So that high frequency energy was working. It was not something personal, it was de-personalized. It was like pouring everything out. And then comes these very emotional states of crying because some people made me unbelievably sad. I would just look at them and there was some kind of sadness in them that would reflect on me and I would just burst into tears. There were so many of these kind of people. A strange loneliness and a feeling of being lost, of being hurt. So is this art, is this performance, is this healing? I have no idea, I just know what happened.
Rail: So the sadness you felt came from others?
Abramović: Some people have so many desires in their lives and their circumstances may change and they never realized their dreams and somehow I would get a glimpse of their memory of themselves and it would come out in such a strong way. There was this old man with a briefcase that came in that I’m sure had never been in the gallery, maybe a friend brought him in. That man really broke my heart when I saw him. He was so uncomfortable, he didn’t know what to do with his hands, then he started to look at me and all of a sudden he started crying. It was amazing. It is like the cork coming off the champagne bottle and all this comes out— and all through the eyes. The eyes are such a big door. People don’t really look in each other’s eyes on a deeper level.
Rail: Would you say the emotions you were having then were a portrayal of the audience or you also had emotions of your own?
Abramović: I had emotions of my own because this purification was on many levels, I cried, I laughed, I was tired, exhausted, high, I felt the range of emotions. There was one time when I was laughing like crazy, I was completely hysterical. I was having a difficult day, it was at the beginning and I was still feeling hungry. Then there was this huge rain and the gallery was getting flooded and it was approaching the storage area and Sean Kelly was freaking out. I wasn’t supposed to take a shower, but I didn’t know that. So Sean came out and held up a sign that read “No Shower” and at this kind of moment I just began laughing uncontrollably. It was wonderful to laugh.
Rail: We talked to several people as they were leaving and one man remarked that you seemed very sad and though he tried to send you something like the opposite of sadness he felt he couldn’t succeed.
Abramović: I really feel I was a mirror to the public, so however the public felt, it was projected on me. In the ’70s I made the piece Rhythm Zero in Italy, where I put objects on the table and people could do anything to me. It was incredible because what they did to me fell into three categories, three points of view: The Madonna, The Mother, and The Prostitute. These were classic projections, images, so I really think they are all projections I am working with.
Rail: You were singing occasionally. What was the song?
Abramović: It was a song my grandmother used to sing to me and I only sang that one song over and over. And if I had a really strong feeling about someone I would sing. I sang to Thomas McEvilley who came often and after singing a few lines I would begin to cry easily. The words of the song are simply to translate; “Hey my little golden girl, come to pick up the celery with me.” And the little girl answers, “I can’t my Lord, I can’t my Lord there is not enough light to see.” It is a song that if you repeat enough you can put your emotions into it and it becomes a mantra.
Rail: So you have fasted before?
Abramović: Only once in my life and it was twenty-two years ago for twelve days with Ulay.
Rail: Why the number twelve?
Abramović: I am very much connected to the idea of three and in twelve, one and two make three. Three creates a triangle and there is tension in a triangle.
Rail: And the color change in your clothes?
Abramović: Inspired by Rodchenko who created this idea of the artists working clothes. So I bought seven outfits and colored them myself. The colors related to the energy of the day. For example Monday is the moon and it is blue and Tuesday is Mars and it is red, Wednesday is Mercury and is green, Thursday is Jupiter and is yellow, Friday is Venus which is white, Saturday is Saturn and Violet, and Sunday is the Sun and is yellow.
Because everytime you have on another color you feel very different energy-wise. With green you have to communicate, red makes you aggressive and strong. I used to wear one color clothes for a month at a time. Like with only yellow you are so neurotic, yellow is the color of ultimate death. If you feel weak, always wear red.
Rail: And the shoes you wore?
Abramović: The shoes were very important. Those were the shoes I wore for the walk on the Great Wall of China with Ulay. I haven’t worn those shoes since then. The Chinese walk was a physical journey and this was a mental journey so I wanted to have something from a physical journey to keep me in reality. I felt so good in those shoes.
Rail: What artists do you admire?
Abramović: Tehching Hsieh. I think he is a master. When I think of my twelve-day pieces and his five, one-year performances— it is only something someone can do with Eastern fanaticism. It is incredible. He definitly deserves a better position in history.
Rail: Let’s talk about the architectural idea of how you built the rooms you were living in. Why were they raised off the ground?
Abramović: During the piece I felt the architectural idea of the piece was a mistake because I wanted it to be raised so it would emphasize that it would be difficult for me to go down. But when interacting with people I felt uncomfortable being high up, it created the idea of a fake altar and I didn’t want that. I’ll show you the drawing I made. (Abramović takes out her note pad with diagrams of the walls) I would have had the platform, but the person would walk up on the platform so that there is this feeling of equality, which is very important. That way the piece really doesn’t exist without the public. Because everything going on was real, the emotions were real the situation was real, it was not as though I were playing something. So the equality between myself and the public is very important and this equality was not so clear because of the raised levels.
Rail: What does the term “Energy Dialogue” mean to you? You used that term when inviting the audience to participate.
Abramović: It is a state of consciousness. Right now I am talking to you two, but we can be thinking of other things at the same time, like what you have to do later, does your baby need food and so on. So we each have these other trains of thought and we are not really fully communicating. If everything stops and you really look into the eyes of the person, time kind of stops and there is a true communication. I would then see you in a different way that I don’t see in normal life with all these thoughts passing by. Even with myself— when you look in the mirror you don’t see who you really are, you see what you want to see. There is a beautiful exercise called a “stop exercise” developed by a Russian philosopher. The way it works is that you sit in his home and you have a conversation and you read or whatever, but the rule is when he suddenly says stop you freeze even if you are in the middle of a conversation. Then he brings a mirror over to you so you can see what your face and expression looks like! You may see envy or horror on your face. So with the energy exchange that is what I am trying to do. It’s a hard job because we don’t want to see all the shit that we are. The idea is that we are so full of contradictions and to accept all your contradictions is the most important thing to do in life. We all have one face we like to show, but the other faces are denied and they are all there screaming to get out.
Rail: Was there a particularly memorable moment?
Abramović: There was this girl who came every morning and sat in the gallery painting, her name is Nina. I think from coming so often she became so open in some way and I felt so open and as we looked at each other I could feel my heart beating so hard. It was incredible really. I will meet her soon. It was as though I knew her, there was a great recognition.
Rail: Were you able to keep all your rules?
Abramović: Yes, It was very complicated though because the gallery wanted to have a doctor and a beeper, and I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to make a modern cave.
Rail: How did it feel to never leave the space?
Abramović: It felt very good. It enabled me to keep a strong concentration by always remaining there. If I left it would have been more difficult. In the evening I had a battery lamp and the gallery was alarmed so if I stepped into the gallery the alarms would go off.
Rail: Fasting is often seen by the public as a form of protest, not purification.
Abramović: I think that people might have been thinking that in the beginning. After people sat down for awhile, something else happened. I think it is a pity also that people don’t research these traditions more. In Christianity, Judaism, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian cultures, they all use fasting as a means of purification.
Rail: Did you have any unusual images or visions?
Abramović: I had very strong feelings toward everybody and I could see their auras very easily. Anyone can see an aura after a little while but I was seeing them right away, like lights. When you do nothing then everything happens. Another world appears in front of you. But of course if you talk too much about this you become “spooky” or “new age.” Spirituality in art is sometimes seen badly. If you put yourself in this state you will see it is a very normal thing.
I think the base of real art is spirituality. We can deny it, but it is true. At least there is a part of it there. I think evolution involves regression. I am very nostalgic about the idea of writing a letter and bringing it to the post office and then waiting weeks for a reply. Now with email everything is immediate, and we feel there is no time for anything. We spend years learning about computers but we are not learning about telepathy, we are not giving intuition enough attention as well as other possibilities of what we can develop as a human being. That is why I am interested in going to the East to learn about these things and apply them to the West. I feel I would like to be a bridge between the two cultures.
With my students I do an exercise called “Cleaning the house” which is about cleaning the inside house. It is five days long. No talking, no eating, heavy physical exercise. One of the exercises is to go into the forest blindfolded and find your way home blindfolded because an artist has to see with the body, not just the eyes. And that’s what happened in this kind of piece. You become so sensitive that you really see with your body. You can smell everything and you have such a strong intuition about everybody that normally you don’t because normally you have too much food, too much information, too much TV, too much news, too much everything. That is why when you cut everything off, everything happens. As I said, When you do nothing, everything happens. It is a simple truth, but that is what is unbelievable.
Rail: Do you have ideas about your next projects?
Abramović: Oh Yes, I am now preparing a piece. It has been a wish of mine for a long time and I finally have the opportunity to do it. In the ’70s there were so many artists doing great things. And it seems now at least in Europe, that history is denied to some extent by the younger generation. They don’t know who the originators are or really what happened and the honor never goes to the pioneers. It is copied on MTV and in advertising all over the place, but no one knows where it started, they just keep copying.
I wanted to take five performance pieces from the past that are the most important to me and redo them while giving the honor to the original artist and of course asking permission and paying the artist. The same way you would pay a composer to play their music. I will call it “five easy pieces” and I will recreate Chris Burdens piece of being crucified on a Volkswagen, Acconcis’ Seed Bed, and other works by Oppenheim, Gina Pane and myself.