Paris, June 1990
Bernard Goy: To introduce your current work, may I say that after you had been questioning the body in the mid-seventies, you are now more involved in listening to its answer, to its word?
Marina Abramovic: Actually, my area of interest is no longer in testing the body, like I and everybody else did during the body art movement of the seventies, which had a lot to do with pain and injuriousness in order to push the body to its border, even to the border between life and death. Later on there was a very interesting moment, when, at the beginning of the eighties, many artists stopped performing. That was a crucial point for me because, although they went back to painting, the symbols and gestures of performance were present in their new work. This is especially true for the Italians, like Clemente or Chia.
I asked some of them why they stopped performing, and the main answer was that it implied too much energy, that they could not deal with it. They needed more privacy, the security of the studio . . . and that was exactly the point where I did not want to stop [smiling]. But as Ulay and I had exhausted our possibilities in art, physically, and as we would not repeat our performances because we had never repeated anything, the only answer we could look for was in nature. We would expose ourselves to the most difficult circumstances. From our point of view we could find those circumstances in the high temperatures. We explored four deserts which may have influenced our work a lot, the Gobi desert, the Taar desert, the Sahara, and the Central Australian desert.
So my new work is based on the idea that what is important is less what you do than the state of mind you do it in. Then you must make enormous efforts to come to that state of mind. According to this, my new work deals with emptying my body: “Boat emptying, stream entering.” This means that you have to empty the body/boat to the point where you can really be connected with the fields of energy around you. I think that men and women in our Western culture are completely disconnected from that energy, and in my new work I want to make this connection possible.
Goy: As people are supposed to participate physically in your shows, can colors and materials express an immediate meaning, beyond cultural limits?
Abramovic: Well, that’s possible. But the basic idea in that participation comes from the fact that the public has always been passive in its relationships to works of art. Galleries and museums are some holy places where you can look at works that you’re not supposed to touch. I’m very interested in a sentence by Duchamp, saying that the artist is not the only one who should be creative: the public should be creative too. Art has changed a lot, but the public didn’t change that much, and the artists are preparing, by the way they live and transform themselves, an art which could be completely mentally developed. I believe that the art of the future will be an art without objects, because in the communication of pure energy, the object appears as an obstacle.
The only way for me to transmit my experience from the Chinese Wall was to build those “transient objects,” which are not sculptures but tools that help to make a work. During my walk I realized that my state of mind was different according to the metals in the ground. This relates to legends which describe the Chinese Wall as a dragon of energy. We all know that quartz is used to convey energy: this is not culturally limited.
Goy: That’s important because one could also look at the work as minimal art.
Abramovic: [smiling] The interpretation of Donald Judd . . . You know, when you entered the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition [at the Pompidou Center in 1989], you could see a wall with seven persons on it, and the quartz pillows appeared only after they had left. It’s about emptiness again, going up on that wall and emptying yourself. The Tibetans have a nice word for emptiness: when they speak of “full emptiness.” There is a void but it’s a positive void.
In our culture you get information all the time, reading papers, watching television. There is always something coming in. All my work is about emptying the mind, to come to a state of nonthinking. But to answer your question about cultural limits, I don’t have any feeling of nationality. I travelled so much that I really took the whole planet as a studio. And in a way I even think it’s too small [smiling].
Goy: There is a photo of your Night Sea Crossing performance that reminded me, in its form, of a Buddhist mandala. Do you think it can hold such a meaning for somebody who doesn’t know about that traditional image?
Abramovic: It’s a problem with art itself: there are different levels of communication in anything you see. I always answer people who ask: “What is this? Is this art?” with “It’s very simple: when you want to read a book on mathematics, you learn the language of mathematics. Art has its own language, just like spirituality. I went to the Louvre recently to work on a project, and as I entered the Mona Lisa room — you know, the painting is so removed from reality that any postcard seems more real — I saw another painting by Leonardo, three steps away, in which the positions of the hands of the characters express a deep mystical meaning. When you see the painting on one level, you just enjoy the colors, and then the composition, and then the beauty of the forms. But there is also that deeper level which the hands of the Madonna and Jesus reveal. Three hundred people would see it in three hundred different ways.
What I think is that a good work of art must hold prediction, definitely, and that it must have that energy which cannot be rationally understood.
Goy: As an icon which is supposed to lead the mind visually to a higher level?
Abramovic: There are many primordial images of us that can be rationally known, but act as archetypes in a way that we can intuitively recognize, even without knowing their meaning. When you see a Rothko painting, you may not even know what colors it’s made of, but as you stand in front of it, it acts in a way that you cannot define rationally. A good work of art should make you turn around when you’re not looking at it, the same way as you can feel somebody looking at you when you’re sitting in a restaurant. You’re not sure, but you turn around and there is really somebody there. That energy is really beyond cultures . . . I found a very interesting example concerning this at the Magiciens exhibition. The night before the opening, all of the non-Western artists made ritual sacrifices in order to put life into their works. The next day, an American journalist asked a Voodoo priest what he was thinking of the Oldenburg sculpture. His answer was: “No good. No sacrifice, no good.”
Goy: While watching your video piece Terminal Garden, I first tried to relate all the visual information to a single meaning. Then I felt like I had to fit into the slow rhythm of the film, forgetting my need for a clear understanding of the symbolic content.
Abramovic: I must talk a little bit about those videos. Until 1983, videos were just documents about our performances. In 1983 we were asked to go to Thailand by the Belgian television to make a video piece on any subject we wanted. For the first time we became directors, not only actors, as in the performances. Then we made that important video called City of Angels. It’s important for us because it was the first time we worked with people who had never been in front of a camera. We were using the same techniques as in our performances. Nothing cut, nothing repeated, real time. In this film we used Thai language as the language of the film and you follow the motion of the picture without any rational meaning to deal with. Then we decided to do a series that would be called Continental Series. Then came Terra degli dei madre which took place in Sicily where we filmed only very old men and women. There I made the sound for the piece by inventing a language, made up of Italian, Yugoslavian, and Russian.
In Terminal Garden we used a computer voice, but it’s so abstract that you cannot understand a word. As the words are so important in American culture, I collected many sentences from television commercials, without the names of the products. It’s all about how to do things, all manipulation. And in the middle of the tape we switched to Sanskrit, to a very old text which tells about “inside,” just as the commercials, the words of American culture. tell about “outside.” But City of Angels is the most important one as it introduces the idea of a nonlogical language.
Goy: A kind of meta-language, poetically founded?
Abramovic: Yes, a non-language. The first time I experimented with this was in 1980. Some artists were invited to spend four days together in Micronesia, a very small island near New Guinea. Among them were John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Brice Marden, and Daniel Buren. We were asked to talk for twelve minutes on any subject in front of the tribes who were there. I immediately decided to make up my language and after I had talked, people from the tribes had understood four words [laughter], because using that kind of meta-language or non-language, you actually communicate on another level.
Goy: It seems that you teach something that has no name.
Abramovic: I teach what I learn. Being in those deserts and being confronted with Aboriginal and Tibetan cultures, I realized what enormous power the body has, and my work should show ways to that power. If you had seen my opening performance at the Pompidou Center, which consisted of lying on the bed against the wall, it could confront you with this idea that we always forget: there and now. You could not see me moving, starting or stopping. The idea was that I’m lying there with my mind and with my body, and that is what we almost never do. Whatever you did or thought, you had this image of me, being there.
Goy: Do you think that it is possible today to reach up to a new spirituality without looking to the Eastern cultures?
Abramovic: I think it’s not possible. You must experience the difference between spending time in New York or Paris and being on a plateau in Tibet, four thousand meters high. That last place gives you as much energy as the first one takes from you. Your way of thinking is completely different over there. This is more scientific than spiritual [smiling]. As an artist I want to be a bridge.