MARINA ABRAMOVIC - interviewed by Alicia Chillida and Steve Cannon


interviewed by Alicia Chillida and Steve Cannon

Steve Cannon, Poet and Tribes Director

Alicia Chillida, Art Historian and Free-lance Curator. NYC

Nov-Dec 2002- Madrid, Spain, April 30th 2003


Steve Cannon asked me to make an interview with Marina Abramovic for Tribes magazine. I proposed to him to do it together. I was in NYC at this time and we overlapped our presence at the performance and at the public dialogue afterwards. During January and February we were exchanging questions via email. I met Marina in Madrid, Spain, last April 2003 and we made this interview.

DAY 1st: Momento O, 11 a.m.:


For 12 days and nights the artist will not be having any food, no talking, no reading, no writing, limited pure water and showers three times per day. The scenario of the performance is theatrical: three white designed boxes elevated from the floor and protected by three ladders with knives as steps. (It) includes three domestic spaces: interconected: bedroom, living room and bathroom. The silence invades the stage, only the sound of the metronome in the air. Marina Abramovic is dressed in a white cotton suit (three different suits folded on a shelf: white, green,and orange. There are seven outfits in all, one for each day of the week). She wears the same boots with which she crossed the Chinese Wall some years ago. There is a telescope which allows you to observe her closer. Marina looks as (if she were) a wax statue, her gaze is loosed, like she was looking outside, faraway.



She pisses in the toilet and goes to the next room where she takes off her boots and leaves them with the socks, with perfect ritual movements. She sings old songs in Yugoslavian; they seem to be from her childhood. She looks herself as a child. She sits down on the border of the stage, her legs suspended, looking to the emptiness, sometimes to the viewers' faces. The public comes and sits down on the floor. It is a charged ambiance, created by the intimacy between the artist and the audience. In the next room there is a bed, the Dream Bed: the visitor is welcome to sleep for exactly an hour. This open-performance is stated in a document on the wall, a contract between the artist and the participant.



She is dressed in orange, the table and the chair are turned out from their position. She looks fragile, her gesture is sad. A man from the public is showing a piece of paper to her. She cries, she smiles with tenderness. She stands up, she drinks and she blows her nose. She walks calmly from one room to the other. The act of undressing is always made with the movements of a ceremony. She changes her suit by a white bathrobe. She does not inspire any pity. She stares at the crowd that stands up. Marina smiles and she detaches her arms from the hips like a bird that would start flying, a similar gesture of the Madonnas in the paintings of the Italian Quatroccentro. She turns up her head and looks at the public filling up the space, and with a gesture gives thank you for the energy she has been receiving from the people during these days. Her gaze is tender and sweet, her hands static like they were holding a mantle (virginal) Marina Madonna in a mystic almond. There is a big ladder waiting for her, from which she goes down and, on a small podium, she starts a speech devoted to New York City and its people."I never made an speech after a performance but this work is as much you as it is me," she says to the audience, who answers her with a big clapping.



The performance is over. Only three visitors in the gallery, including myself. The stage is intact as it was when Marina left yesterday, an empty glass on the fallen table. But the sound of the metronome stays mute, substituted by the sound of the sea that fills up the space. The film was on during the performance but today takes its protagonism. Placed at the entrance of the hall, it shows Marina's head laid with her eyes wide shut, on the water's edge. The sound of the waves gives calm to the spirit after the tension of the latest days and the energy is distended.

Abramovic produces this new work that continues with themes of her thirty-year career, her aim is as she stated:" cross the boundary of the pain, looking to run out for a different reserve of energy, the energy on the other side of the pain that transforms the way that you see. Pain as an obstacle, pain as a bridge, as a way of growing." Marina Abramovic Boat Emptying, Stream Entering

Q: Alicia Chillida: Which is the link between the performance and the title, between the action and the image of the video which was projected at the gallery? Is the image as in Nightsea Crossing the detonant, the starting point of the performance? How was it for you, the connection with the action next door, in which you invite the public to lay on a bed and they receive an agreement for it?

A: It is a kind of combination. The video is called Stromboli. I went during summer there to a very specific part of the island where the lava is coming down to the beach. I just wanted to lay and have the waves on my head as they come and nothing else is happening. It is a black and white video tape, really focused on the action and not so much on the beauty of life or so on. What it is important is that very shortly, two months later after the video was made, the entire place actually stops existing because the volcano exploded, and from the three craters they were unified in just one crater, and one part of the island falls down and creates this huge wave that destroyed houses and was a big disaster. It is like choosing a certain space of energy that just disappears. I felt that I wanted to show this video in relation with this piece quietly in the back side of the space. But at The House of the Ocean View, the title came directly (and) deals with the performance. The ocean refers to the people's smiles, to the public, so from the spot I could see all of them. To me it was an ocean's mind, it was a metaphor, a poetical title. Before, working with Ulay, it was another title related to the sea Nightsea Crossing, it was crossing the obscurity of the unconscious. In a way this piece has relation with the actual piece. Ulay and me were watching each other creating an energy field without witnesses. He was removed and I am the focus today, the public is him, so it is pushing the Nightsea Crossing performance into a much further point.

The piece next door is part of a piece I made in Japan called Dream Hotel, where the public can go there and dream. If I made this experiment, it is because I want the public to have a more direct experience as a performer. I always divide my work in two parts, the artist's body and the public's body, so I was thinking it was appropriate after watching The House with the Ocean View, they could go to the space and in silence concentrate on themselves and experience the Dream Bed. I have this space at the gallery and I wanted to create this triangle of energy which was these three works which relate with each other.

Q: AC: You are using the theater as a way of presenting an event as a" tableau vivant" in which the public lives in the center of the painted action. You mentioned at the forum after your performance that you felt energized by your audience and it was a new total dependency on this energy. Could you explain this? A: This performance it is right now one of the best performances I made because it is the latest, but also it is one of the most important I have done in my life because I've said before that the art of the XXI century will be the art where it will be no object between artist and public, it will be just artist and public, looking each other, and it will be transformation of energy that's it. Then, now I really try to make that, I take the whole performance as a real experiment. It was for me to see if my vision of the new century art could work if I really removed the object, and just a gaze between me and the audience and nothing else. What was new about this performance was to create a total dependency. Actually if there is no public there is no piece. During the performance I discovered that I made a huge mistake, that I really did not notice when I had the idea, so it will be part of the next piece I will make. For me when I decided to create this three elements high, I created them because it was the idea that the public could see the entire units and also they can use the telescope to have a macroscope view of me. But at the moment when the public starts looking at me, I start realizing that I actually create a kind of alter situation where I am higher and the public lower and that was very disturbing to me because, you know, if you come from the art context you make things as a tableau vivant. If you come from a religious context, you inmediately think of something else that became a kind of martyr or sacrifice, that absolutely has not a meaning in my work. Because I want this idea of big equality between the public and I, I have created a hierarchy and that was really not the meaning. So I understood this after three days, it was a flash to me. So now what I am thinking is to have the same units on the wall same height but to have on the other side of the room a platform which the public will have to take the steps up to the same level with me. The ones who really want to experiment, they have to come on the platform. This is one level, the other idea is how far I can go with the public. I want to create a situation (where) they have the same fasting period like me, so really everyone will be a possible equal and will see what is happening. This is how far I can go. I have created a lot of situations where the public has to take an active role. I never ask the public to make them in danger but now these kind of conditions, it is to go further in this--not talking or network preparations, this is what I am thinking for the public, that it will be interesting. So, the understanding of the performance will be much deeper.

Q: Steve Cannon: The gaze, the glance: to you, what did it mean and what did it communicate to you and your audience?

A: I had during this period of time of the performance the most profound relation with the public I had in my life. When you cut the communication, the eyes, the gaze, become the opening of something else. Because I was so sensitive with being purified, I could feel the energy of every person of the public in such a strong way. I cry with this piece so many times. I could feel the energy of the people, it is strange to say, and they did too. It was amazing--people were coming before start(ing) at their office at nine o'clock just to spend time with me before going to work. This need of intimacy, it was incredible, you never can establish in other situations because we have so many obstacles. I put myself in a completely vulnerable situation which actually gained the trust of the public. This was very important. My situation was absolutely the most vulnerable I could have. And this hundred per cent of being opened that really made this possible.

Q: SC: How did you feel when there was no one else in the gallery but yourself?.

A: You start feeling everything: the body, the tiredness, the hunger--everything comes down, the false putting down, but the moment the public are there I always try to be in the present moment. Chris Burden slept in the gallery but he never confronted the public; also other artists who slept in the gallery, it was no confrontation. I never slept when the public was there, I did not consider this idea. I was working when the public was there and slept when nobody was there. I wanted to come on the edge as much as they could. My favorite position was actually on the edge, where the ladder was, because even (when) I was busy, I can count on the ladder that keeps me awake,-keeps you here and now. And this here and now was essential for me, so the moment somebody left, this here and now was not there. I immediately start thinking it was really difficult, so this is why this piece depends on the public so much. I was very grateful that there were not too many moments without public. But of course at six o'clock the gallery was closed, on Friday (it) was at midnight, so basically (it was) nine hours everyday and one day was fifteen--this was the most difficult day I had. The guards switch the light off and the alarm system everywhere except on the wall.. I had a battery lamp and it was amazing, I just literally fall exhausted on my wooden bed and my magnet clothes ( Ms. Abramovic's clothing was equipped with twelve pockets in which magnets were inserted) and I just closed my eyes.

Q: SC: Did you have any dreams during this period?

A: Yes, I have many dreams, a lot of them were dealing with the pain of the family, problems and so on, like madness. But towards the end I started having more and more some beautiful metaphorical dreams that I really liked. But one my favorite: I was in the beach in the front of the ocean, of course, but I was a little bit higher, so I look down and it was this beautiful water, turquoise-blue, absolutely fantastic, and came from nowhere this enormous snake looking like an anaconda and an enormous turtle and they were making love. It was so unusual because I never imagined this turtle and snake, they were going around kissing each other, moving, it was beautiful and a very erotic story between these two impossible animals. And then, in one point I was into this kind of pleasure looking at all this unexpected scene, I wake up and I start thinking about the meaning of the dream. Of course the snake is the ancient Chinese symbol of universe and the turtle it is time, so the universe eat time, so it is no time, so I was happy with the interpretation and I think the piece it is about time stopped.

Q: AC: You state that the main task of art it is to serve society, artist as instructor.

SC: When the performance was done with, what did you feel had been accomplished? In terms of transformation, what had changed?

A: I feel that I have really done something because the idea of the performance was this experiment: if I can change my energy I can change the energy (of) the audience. When I finished the piece, especially this moment that I gave a talk at the end, the reaction of the people. I came back home with these enormous boxes full of things given to me by people, I cannot explain, Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie, people that I have never met, normal people that never go to a gallery, I moved something in the emotional and usually this is not happening in a gallery. The piece it was so much designed to be in NY, because in Europe the artists seem very much concerned with the quality of the market, so you make something which is a long process performance and something that you cannot sell and that sacrifices the point. It is impossible for them to understand what is happening and then to be so vulnerable and create this emotional reaction of the public, which was so strong, and I get so much feed back that I really felt that I succeeded to make an island of no time in the space, and I really succeeded in giving the moment of awareness and reflection to the people, something that normally they do not have. Probably after September 11, (they) are more vulnerable than it would be in other situations. I dedicated the piece to NYC. I never in my life give an speech, ever, after a performance. People never see an ending (to) my piece, I always like the piece starts and the piece stops away from the audience, so they only have this continous image in their minds. But I had to talk to the people, for me it was important. I really feel that I accomplish something. There was a kind of emotional impact you cannot talk (about) in an intellectual or rational level. People stop me in the street. It is incredible how much we need to be intimate, close, and this piece opens that.

Q: AC: You have been referring to political facts in previous performances such as Balkan Baroque and The Hero.

SC: With the US threats of next invading Syria and maybe Iran in the aftermath of the massacres in Iraq, how do you feel now and what purpose do you feel you have served or you will serve in future projects?

A: After this piece, the New York Times asked me several questions. What I said about it basically is that we always look to the small picture. The Americans look (at it as though) they have been attacked by terrorists, but they do not see the big picture. They do not see why is this happening to them, what provoked that kind of situation. They do not see how agressive politics they have. Susan Sontag said a beautiful thing on TV. She said:"Why (are) American people's lives are more important that any other lives?" That is the question. They are killing and murdering all the time. If you are here to attack another nation, you just provoke more aggression, and only if we learn to forgive we will stop killing. This is a very important sentence. This is the only way it can happen. I am competely disgusted, this is my deep feeling, because it is so much to do with the benefits, and the oil, the money, the corruption. Who is actually rebuilding Afghanistan after being destroyed? Are the hospitals to be rebuilt? Are the schools working? What is happening? What right do you have to come and destroy one country and then go on to the next one? In Iraq, they are talking on TV, are proud: oil fields already working but nobody talked about 35 hospitals in Bagdad that are not working. Is the oil field important and the rest is not? Those are the questions and what can we do? What can I do as an artist? I can only make a work that can kind of put these situations to reflect and beware of certain things, but I cannot change the world. We can at least ask the right questions.

Q: SC: After you hit on the idea of doing a performance piece here in NYC as a form of meditation for those who lost their loved ones in the tragedy of 9/11, psychologically, how have you prepared yourself to perform? Did your familiarization with Eastern forms of meditation, religion, or philosophy help?

A: It is very strange my situation. I come from a family in which my mother is the major of the army, my father is a national hero, in general, my grandmother was completely fanatical religiously. I am the mixture of all these structures. So people ask me how long I have to prepare my body for the performance. Before the performance, I have a dinner with a chocolate mousse! I learned a lot of techniques in doing the retreats and going to the Eastern countries, that is true. But one thing it is very important for me, it's your own statement, will power. For me it is the sacred ground of the performance,so the previous moment I do not have any kind of discipline or any kind of rules of behavior and then I enter into the performance and then I respect the truth fanatically. I do not have any kind of long preparations. Being vegetarian and drinking a lot of water, I come from one extreme to another extreme. My entire work in life is about extremes and breaking habits all the times.

Q: AC:. Since Dragon Heads, your stroll along the Great Wall of China, you use minerals ( Shoes for Departure) to balance and empower the energy. Did they have any influence on your body since you were using your mineral pillow in the stage? A: I really believed in this, I believe in materials I am using (such) as copper,clay, quartz, amethyst, iron--they have certain properties. In the past our human body was much more sensitive to these kinds of properties than now, because we are completely isolated with the carpets, concrete floors. We do not feel this anymore. For me, they really help, there are certain energies and especially if you are in a fasting period you are so sensitive, to the light, to the sound and to these minerals that give you strength.

Q: AC: The time that you spent in Brazil Waiting for an Idea, in which you lay in front of a quartz wall....

A: I was always waiting (for) the material (to) tell me what to do and not me telling the material. I really felt that it was a very important period in my life and then making these minerals objects ( Transitory Objects) to open to the public the possibility to perform and enter to this performative space by using these objects to trigger the experience. I used to sleep with rocks and crystals: one day tourmaline, next day amethyst. I really experiment with myself and each time I do the objects, I first experiment with my own body. When I am sure that really works, then I can propose to the public. I will never would ask to the public if I did not go through.

Q: SC: What sort of thoughts and images went through your head during those twelve days? In the silence of the gallery, did you hear any voices? If so, what did they say? A: Each time I was looking (at) certain persons, the entire concentration was hundred per cent on that person, so I was really in relation to the people, I was seeing things, the images, events of their lives. I understand completely what it means to have clairvoyant abilities, because if you put yourself in a very vulnerable and sensitive situation like that, every person can see. I saw the auras of every single person, so it was so much to do. Actually, I didn't think on my own except in the night, I was always busy with this.

Q: SC: Have you heard any music?

A: No, the metronome, just the metronome. Some people had the cell phones and talking. I was not focused on that. Many people said to me if I was disturbed with child screams, voices. I was not. I really felt that I try to make myself in a certain way like a hole, everything comes in and goes out, just taking and taking away, coming in and going away, that is actually the processing,. I did not hold anything.

Q: AC: Like light's circulation?

A: Yes, that was very important. You could hold other people's pain, you can become angry, frustrated or restless. But you take the moment as it is, whatever could happen in that moment, let it happen. If people come up or shut me, or whatever, I am open to the best thing and to the last moral consequence, but you do not even take it, you are not irritating, you do not create angry or negative feelings, just comes and goes. It was very interesting moments when I was concentrated with a person and you are looking at entire space fields of energies, and at the same moment you have to piss. Which is a very banal kind of activity. At the beginning I have a huge problem, I was really suffering because I did not how to deal with it. But then, I come more and more with this attitude of let it go. So I go from that very intense moment to a very intense moment of pissing, and I ritualize this pissing as the most important moment, then I go to the shower. So when I take every activity, any was more important than other, and this was a big teaching. I only learned this in performance.

Q: SC: Since we all find ourselves to be voyeurs at one time or another and reality TV has become so pervasive, it has invaded film, movies, some may criticize your work as narcissistic and banal--how do you respond to this?

A: Before that, I think this is a great question. Now I do not have these questions. This is really refreshing. Why, what you are doing is art? (Laughing) It is banal, narcissistic, but also you can say masochistic, self injuring, all these kinds of things I have. But if people can say that, somehow after seeing (the) video material, installations, photographic works, etc. But very rarely people have this opinion after really seeing a performance, that is the difference. One thing I make sure that whatever I do, I do so hundred per cent, there is nothing left, I just put everything in. If you do that, of course I have some works there are not good too, there is another thing. Another question it is to do bullshit completely, go for it and whatever happens happens, but you have to do it, so then I understand. But otherwise, if (you) really do the maximum you can, then I never had this kind of critics, because the performance works in so many emotional levels that if you really understand that it is not just that I like to present myself naked in the space, it is much more than that. Superficially (it) can't be really seen if you are not having life confrontation, if you are really there and take the time to see the piece, that changes, I think.

Q: AC: You state that in the art of the future, it will be immaterial without objects. Your performance coincides in NYC with David Hammon's Concerto Blue and Black. The art review in The New York Times made a parallel between the two shows:"Where Seeing is Not Only Believing, But Also Creating." Is it for you a connection between both presentations?

A: It was very interesting, I did not have the idea he had the opening the day before my show. We met in Canal Street, in a hardware store. I was buying a lamp and he was buying the batteries. I said, "David, where are you going?" He said,"In twenty minutes I have my show, I have to buy some batteries." First of all, I like very much David Hammons' work. After my show I went to see his show. We met years before in the Dokumenta by Jan Hoet, 1992. I was installing my crystal cinema piece, it was three days before the opening. Some people were still working in the space. It was eleven o'clock at night, it was no labels. I went around to see other artists' works. I was seeing things and I came to one room and I saw this piece with the black hair and my skin become like chicken skin, and a strange feeling in the stomach. I always believe that a piece of art you feel it in the stomach, there is some kind of an unbelieveble impact you receive before the energy enters. The day of the opening I asked about this artist and this is how I met him. He has an almost aboriginal power of a shaman in his work. The piece was very beautiful here, especially the space, this enormous kunsthalle space with almost nothing in it with this black emptiness.

Q: AC: This refers to your idea of the immaterial? A: Everything is so fast that we do not have time for the objects, to make, to transform, become such a heavy obstacle. I really think everything is electronic, electronic image. To me the 21st century really starts with this strange computer sect in America, who committed suicide in order to join the spaceship behind the comet. This idea that the body is too heavy to join the space, to this computer sect is extreme, of course, but light can travel so fast, and the body can't, that is the lighting. There is someone who knew about this before anybody, at the beginning of the 20th century, the great scientist Nicolai Tesla. So the future is more the non-body level to be developed.


Thank you to Sean Kelly Gallery, Sean Kelly, Cecile Panzieri and especially to Amy Gotler, Associate Director, for their generous collaboration.

Thank you to Marina Abramovic for her time and energy.

Thank you to Mireia Sentis"parlez vous" to be again part of the story.

Photographs courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York