You don’t get much more intense than the work of Marina Abramović. Born in Belgrade, the performance artist’s work ranges from replicating a recorded 5-finger fillet game to laying abeyant while participants chose an object to use on her (offerings included honey, scissors, and a gun) — and it’s this kind of risky, powerful work that eventually led her to her own exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, titled “The Artist is Present.” Aside from being a retrospective there was also a titular piece, one that involved Abramović sitting across from a willing participant for a certain amount of time. Yes, it’s much more restrained than her a lot of her previous works, but the piece holds an immense strength — a number of patrons were moved to tears after taking the seat and participating in the performance.
All of this, including the lead up to the show, is documented in Matthew Akers’s “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present,” which also presents a stream-lined synopsis of her past work. We had the immense pleasure of discussing the documentary with Abramović herself, and below are the highlights from said conversation including how it all started and her philosophy on art. The film is now playing in limited release and will air on HBO starting on July 2nd.
How It Started
The movie is a good, tight representation of Abramović's MOMA retrospective, but apparently the project came together very quickly — and incredibly late in the game. "I was having a dinner at a friend’s house and there was Jeff Dupre, who was the producer," she said, painting it as a very casual, chance encounter. "So we spoke about what we were all doing. He had just come from shooting 'Carrier,' which detailed soldiers being taken to Iraq…and they interviewed 4000 soldiers. And then he was doing 'Circus' for 8 months…this was a hardcore documentary guy. So then I started talking about this thing at MOMA, and it just clicked — why don’t we do the process?" But apparently Dupre and Akers weren't fervent fans of her work, as she explained that "they were both very skeptical about performance art, and I didn’t want to prove it to them, but I said follow the process and see what happens." With the amount of time they spent on it, hopefully they were convinced.
Being such a quick, serious decision, we wondered if giving up her privacy on a whim was worth it in the end. "I gave them the key to my apartment and they came in whenever they wanted, and it had to be unannounced. So they are there at 6 in the morning waiting for me to wake up, with my camera, and I wanted to kill them with my own hands," she exclaimed with a laugh. "But to have a film that shows what it takes to prepare for such a journey, and to have it be available to a large performance, this was all very important. People take performance art so lightly, they think that everything is fucking performance and there’s so much shitty stuff, and I can’t take it. But this is serious business, and I knew we could reach a large audience, so I put in the effort for the film."
Given her artistic mindset and previous ventures with cinema (she contributed to the omnibus projects "Destricted" and “Stories on Human Rights”), we wondered if she might have had some say in the entire process. "No, not at all. In fact, I was only asked to see the raw material twice to verify some facts." She also mentioned some of the cut material included her traveling to India and a three day interview with her elderly Aunt — and while she misses it, Abramović is glad to not have any input. "But I wish we had some more money to edit three more movies out of it," she stated.
A three month performance art piece would tire anyone out, but Abramović stressed the importance of this duration. "You need time to get to this state of mind, because the first month most of the attention was going on the sixth floor, which was all nudity… Barabara Walters talking about brushing up against a half erection..all the nasty things said on television, it’s all bullshit," she said referencing the infamous "Imponderabilia," a piece that requires patrons to walk through a narrow hallway with nude models on either side. "But then, in the second month you could start focusing more, and the third month, that was it."
Speaking of America's censorship, and fear of nudity, the film contains a few snippets of people being whisked away by guards — one of them being a woman who removed her dress before taking a seat (Josephine Decker, “Uncle Kent”). "Of course I remember it. When she took off her dress, to be totally frank I didn’t even see it, it was so fast. My head was down, and when it was up, she was already gone," she admitted. And while she did have the option to raise her hand to security if she felt threatened in any way, she never did, and explained that the large amount of security caused this person to be ejected. "This is a complicated country," she declared with a sigh. "There’s a kind of American perception of nudity that I’m fed up with — Janet Jackson shows her nipple on television in the middle of the Iraq War, and everybody’s talking about the former and not the latter? It wouldn’t be an issue in Europe, and if they were as strict there, many of the most important performance pieces would never have happened."
Holding It In & An Unlikely Video Game
You're not alone if you're wondering how the heck Abramović sat for hours straight without going to the loo. Because the idea of "The Artist Is Present" was to sit completely still and maintain a certain atmosphere, there was no possible way she could get up and run to the commode — it wasn't an option for her. In case she did actually have to go potty, they constructed a bin within the seat that she could urinate into, something that was likely comforting…
"But then I had the pillow!" she laughed, speaking of the cushion that covered both the wooden seat and, in turn, the hole to the basin. "After three days I decided I wouldn’t use [the bin]. The mind is an amazing thing, I had to have it but I never used it." So how did she prepare for these long stretches of time without a bathroom break? "I would drink water all night, and then at 7pm stop. I was in a state of mind where that part of the body would just not function, very simple." Abramović was, however, very amused at the amount of chatter this all stirred. "Jerry Saltz made many drawings about it in New York Magazine, he drew all of the possibilities."
And that wasn't the only artistic take-away from "The Artist Is Present." "There’s also this game, it’s genius. It’s based off of the MOMA exhibit: you go to the museum, you pay for the ticket, and wait in the line. I wanted to sit with myself, but every time I play I get kicked out because I’m out to lunch or something." The game can be found here, made by Pippin Barr, and Abramović had nothing but positive marks for it. "Using the web which is something so fast for something like this where you wait, it's all pretty incredible. I never met the guys who made it, but I’d love to meet them."
Energy & State Of Mind
Given the nature of her art, it's no surprise that Abramović dislikes theory-heavy pieces, preferring ones that channel feeling or, specifically, energy. "I really don’t like art where you need to know so much theory to understand. If the theory is removed, it doesn’t do anything. That means that this work is an illustration of theory, and I don’t believe in the power of the work itself." She elaborated on her philosophy, "You know how you feel somebody looking at you, and you turn, and somebody actually is? It’s the same at an art gallery. You’re looking at one portrait, turn around, and there is a work of art directly behind you. Because it’s all energy. Every single thing has energy."
We can feel this kind of energy, but in the state she was in during her piece at the MOMA, the performance artist claimed to have actually seen it. “In ‘The Artist Is Present’ there was a table and two chairs, and eventually I moved the table. For about two weeks after, I had an exact visualization of the table. My senses were so enlarged that I understood all of the energy in the space. Once you sit in the chair, you leave, and your energy will be there for over a week. We don’t understand this because we’re moving too much. It’s like a gray ectoplasm, everything is there,” she described. “We are actually living in a million parallel realities every single minute.” Dismissive skeptics eager to deride someone so in-tune will likely assume drugs, but Abramović insists it’s all coming from a natural state. “People take drugs to get access to this, but if you do these motionless things or don’t eat for a long time, it’s quite an amazing experience because you get to that consciousness that we’re not using. And I don’t like drugs because they have side-effects, but if you don’t eat, the next day you’re better… also if you take drugs, you have a vision and you don’t trust it. But this is a pure state of mind.”
The Film Experience
Given that her body is the medium she is using, filming it can be a distillation of her work, but it also has the opportunity to add different layers. Here she talks about the benefit of the film, while also giving some advice to young artists:
“It gives it layers, but it’s different. This film gives context. It works because you see the reactions of people, and that will touch you, and the camera is visual, movement, and sound so you’ll catch that. It’s almost an x-ray of energy. And then to give you context of what is happening and where I come from to understand better. But at the MOMA show you had this as well, because you could go downstairs and see a really minimalist piece and then go upstairs and read the biography, what really happened. People really need to understand that, because it’s so abstract! That’s why it took me forty years to get this point, to understand what this was all about. In the beginning, they wanted to put me in a mental hospital because it was like…what am I doing? What the hell is that? Back then I had this urge of doing things and I really didn’t have the experience, I didn’t know why I had to do it but I always say young artists when you have this urge — don’t question it, just do it. After, you’ll have time to look back at how incredibly logical it all is, which you can’t say right away when you’re in it. You don’t understand. All you have is intuition, it’s very important.”