Behind the Seen: Marina Abramović

Since her first performances in the early '70s, Marina Abramović has fearlessly explored the frontiers of human experience, testing the limits of physical, emotional, and spiritual endurance. For her latest assignment—a collaboration with the online...


Why curate an exhibition for Paddle 8, an online art site? There are so many websites where you can buy art, but they approach art like buying vegetables: The products are presented with an image and a price, but it’s a very limited way to understand art. My idea has always been that art needs to be experienced. Of course when you are doing something on the web, you remove this directness, but this is why Paddle 8 is so interesting. They understand that to get someone interested in art, you have to bring more information than just the product itself. So on Paddle 8, when you search for an artist, you can find out what books he reads, what movies he sees, what environment he is surrounded by… you can see where his inspiration comes from, so there’s some kind of key to access the work.

Tell us about your show Immaterial. There are so many works that have an incredible importance in history but are not object-related; they’re more about a concept. How can we educate a new buyer or collector to buy something which is an idea? The show I proposed was about this Immaterial concept.

Can you experience performance in a virtual space? I don’t think a virtual space will ever replace a real space. I’m very old-fashioned. Technology can’t replace the experience of art, so I think it’s more about creating a virtual space that’s close to the real space. That said, there are no boundaries…an idea can travel anywhere, anytime. I’ve always believed that music was the highest form of art because of its immateriality, because it’s so direct. I was trying to create these kinds of concepts in The Artist is Present [Abramovic’s 2010 show at the Museum of Modern Art] when in the last two months I removed the table and we had just the two chairs. The props weren’t important anymore. Energy, light and consciousness, these are the kinds of elements that we can transmit in virtual spaces as well.

What delineates someone like Kim Kardashian, whose whole life could be seen as a living performance, from a performance artist? The context is different. I always say, if you make bread as a baker, and you make the best possible bread, you’re still a baker—but if you make bread in a gallery, then you’re Joseph Beuys. If you do something very spiritual in a museum, it’s still art, but if you do something spiritual in a temple, then you’re a monk. So context is really important. With the Kardashians, it’s television and it’s part of mass culture entertainment, and that’s really what it is.

A lot of your recent work seems gentler, the same ideas expressed in a less outwardly intense way. Has the experience of creating evolved? When I started working with the body, I went to hospitals to see major operations. My first attempt to understand the body was to create and stage situations that were very painful, and to go through that in front of the public, to see how I could get rid of the fear of pain and also understand the physical limits of the body. If I could do it for myself, I’d become the mirror for the audience of what they could do in their own life. And then there was this progression, all these difficult performances. I felt like I solved this problem and I understood the pain and what the limits were. More and more I was interested in the content, and the content was the soul. I found out that my long-duration performances are far more difficult, indescribably difficult, even if they look outwardly peaceful. Try to sit three hours motionless, not to mention three months! See what happens to the body, how the muscles get tense, how the legs get swollen. How you have to deal with all your body functions so you can get into that zone, where the mind can go free. I think that to understand consciousness is such a big task and it’s a natural development. I could never have done these kinds of performances if I hadn’t done the earlier ones.

How has your artistic practice affected your personal relationships? It’s difficult to have personal relationships. I’ve started to only have friends who have the same lifestyle as me because they’re the only ones who understand. I’m constantly traveling; I’m literally living on planes. I can’t send the work, I am the work.

Photos: Yves Klein: CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY; The Artist is Present: Photo by Marco Anelli / ©Marina Abramovic, courtesy Marina Abramovic Archives and Sean Kelly Gallery, NY; Rhythm 0 and Imponderabilia: ©Marina Abramovic, courtesy Marina Abramovic Archives and Sean Kelly Gallery, NY.