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Marina Abramović: The Gifts of the Present

This week, on the heels of a major prize at the Berlin Film Festival, the documentary Marina Abramović The Artist is Present had its Canadian premiere at the Reel Artists Film Festival in Toronto. Produced by the Canadian Art Foundation, RAFF is North America’s only film festival dedicated to documentaries on visual art and artists.

Now, with the festival on in full gear, and The Artist is Present—which goes behind the scenes on her 2010 New York survey of the same title—slated to screen again to close the fest on February 26, Abramović talks about the film, her fundamental beliefs, and her thoughts on the future.

Leah Sandals: One point made over and over in this new documentary is that your work is very much about the importance of being in the present moment. So to start, I wanted to ask, How are you feeling right now? What’s on your mind at the moment?

Marina Abramović: Yesterday, I finally got the master plan from Rem Koolhaas for the Abramović Institute in Hudson, New York. That’s on my mind. And this is really the future: I’m trying to create something called the Abramović Method, where we are going to teach students how to condition themselves for long-duration performances.

The institute and the method will also educate audiences on how to look at long-duration performance—including giving them special chairs to sleep in inside the piece, so they can have that timeless sense of never leaving the space. You wake up, and the piece is still going on. This has never been done before.

LS: I understand that a major cause for you right now—one related to you founding the Abramović Institute—is the preservation of performance art. How do you reconcile your desire to preserve this art form with your contention that performance art must be based in an experience in the present moment?

MA: Well, we still always have to be aware of the past. Historically, you have to know where performance has come from. So we will create the library, a very big archive where the public and students can go and study.

We’re also going to commission long-duration performance work. My dream is to commission David Lynch to make something 360 hours long, and do the same with other artists who may not have considered the form.

I’m doing all this because performance is a serious business, and everyone is taking it very lightly. Especially when you are in America, you can say performance is so many different things: performance of a car, performance of a football game, or stand-up comedy, or entertainment. Basically, it’s always connected to entertainment. I’m fed up with receiving emails like, “Oh, a gallery is opening, can you do a little performance for the opening?” This kind of attitude has to be changed, and this is why this institute is being created.

LS: In the film and elsewhere, you make that point repeatedly—that performance art is disregarded or misunderstood by art institutions. How can this still actually be the case when the fact is that museums have collected and exhibited your work for many years, as well as the work of other performance artists?

MA: But I’m not saying exactly this. I’m not saying this is not changed now; I’m saying it took 40 years to change it! It’s only recently that I made work in the Guggenheim and other museums. Since I started in the 1970s, I really wanted to place performance as a mainstream art, and I can say right now that it is mainstream art. Definitely the MoMA show contributed to this.

But it’s not just that I’m changing [the way performance is seen]. It’s very funny how performance comes and goes, and how every time there is economic crisis in the world, performance just pops up, because it’s so cheap. And performance is something that has enormous transformative power. This is what I’m fighting for.

LS: How has performance transformed you?

MA: Enormously. I think every piece I’ve been doing until now really was changing me more and more. Definitely the last performance piece [The Artist is Present] made a big difference because when you’re performing for three months, it’s kind of like you’re not doing performance anymore—you’re doing life.

My hero is Tehching Hsieh—the Taiwanese artist who made only five performances in his life, with each performance lasting one year. So often, artists make new work because they haven’t said everything they wanted to say in a previous work. Well, he made the five pieces, and then he stopped doing it. And when I’ve asked him, “What are you doing now?” he says, “I’m doing life.”

This is a true example of how you can really be transformed through performance. And you know, I’m not there yet. But I have changed through the years.

LS: One shift that’s happened in your work is from doing very physically risky performances—like inviting the audience to point a loaded gun at you, or cutting yourself with knives, in the 1970s—to less overtly risky actions, like sitting in The Artist is Present. How would you explain that particular change?

MA: You know, it’s logical. Because in the beginning when you start working with the body, you want to know what the body is. And the first thing that comes out is the pain; you have to figure that out. In cutting the body, it’s like blood is your colour [palette], and razors are your pencils.

I have to say that all those so-called dangerous performances are so much more easy than what I am doing now. So much more easy, because they were one hour, or half an hour, or three hours maximum. But doing something with a long duration, you have to deal with your consciousness, with your mind, with your self-control, with your willpower. The difference between how difficult these things are is like day and night.

In most of our lives, we only use 10 percent of brains. We don’t know what is happening in ourselves; it’s such a huge universe to discover, and it’s really hard [to explore]. Long-duration work is key to [exploring] this. It’s the necessary condition not just for the performer to change himself, but also for the public. When a performer brings themselves to this, we can find ourselves in a territory where time stops existing.

At the same time, I could never have strength or knowledge to do the pieces I’m doing now if I didn’t do the ones before. So there’s a logical sort of development.

LS: How much do you feel your recent works owe to ancient meditation techniques developed in Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions?

MA: Very much. When I left Yugoslavia, I was 29 and I lived in the car with [my former partner] Ulay and just travelled. Then later on, I really started seeing different cultures and learning from them.

To me, the biggest discovery was the [Australian] Aborigines—I spent one year with them living in the desert. And then, Tibetan culture, which for last 30 years I’ve been visiting all the time. I’ve also just returned from spending one month with shamans in Brazil.

This is the kind of culture that you really don’t learn in cities like New York—I mean, big cities have a kind of disturbed society. But these people really have a connection to the body and the soul. They use various techniques, and I’ve learned from them. I often see art as a bridge coming from the Eastern cultures to other societies.

LS: So if you see your work as a bridge of this kind, how do you acknowledge those pre-existing influences?

MA: I see it as a bridge, but at the same time, I make my own personal mixture. Through these techniques I’ve trained to sit for 736 hours—you could be trained for the Olympics and still not be able to do that! I’ve also become more aware of just being in the present in everyday life, doing simple things like drinking water. Because we always escape a sense of presence—we always think about what is going to happen next or what has happened in the past. The only reality is you and me talking now, that’s it.

LS: I’m still interested in having you think about the past, though. What or who do you remember most about your Artist is Present experience?

MA: I remember so many things! But to me the most wonderful feeling was of emptying myself, of clarity, luminosity, of everything in a kind of equilibrium. The very strong sharp lines of every single person, their eyes’ brightness, the colour of their skin, their smells. And the feeling of being in an enormous amount of happiness.

The most incredible thing, I think, almost to the point of being a painful sensation, was of absolute unconditional love. And that’s something almost religious to talk about, but I really felt unconditional love with every single person sitting in front of me. And seeing lots of pain, seeing enormous amount of pain in these people, and feeling that pain and being with them with that pain and trying to give them that love. It was amazingly fulfilling.

You know, when life is busy, then I really love art to be longer and longer. Over those three months, I dealt with an enormous amount of physical pain, but the general feeling was that I would like never to stop. Because the moment you stop, reality rushes in: what you have to do, who you have to email, and so on. But that time is when I actually succeeded at creating a space almost like a monastery in the middle of New York. It was like everything stopped, time stopped, I didn’t make phone calls or watch television, I didn’t look at emails. I only talked to the staff there, I never had any conversation with anybody. It was this totally amazingly great space, actually. And then everything goes to hell again! The moment you stop! Ha!

LS: So if you weren’t an artist, what would you be—a monk, or something?

MA: If I wasn’t an artist, I would like to be a sequoia tree—not to move anywhere, like a tree! Actually, you know, I never had this talent, but I would love to sing. There is something I’d really like to do. I’ve always believed in music as the highest form of art because it’s so immaterial, it can go straight into your soul. That’s what I would like to be. Not a monk.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more information about the Reel Artists Film Festival, including the February 26 encore screening of Marina Abramović The Artist is Present, visit

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