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Elevating Suffering towards Success: Marina Abramović at Times Talks


In 1973, Marina Abramović aimed knife jabs at the spaces between her fingers, often missing and cutting herself. In 1974, she lay down naked on the floor next to a table with seventy-two objects such as a gun with a single bullet, condoms, and rose thorns, and let the viewers do whatever they chose to her. In 1975, she cut a five-pointed star into her stomach and lay on ice as the blood dripped. In 2010, she sat, immobile, for over 700 hours in MoMA’s atrium, and stared silently for a minute at each viewer who sat across from her.

In 2013, she walked into a room at the Times Center in New York City, dressed all in black, made up, with her hair drawn back precisely. She sits, calm and composed, legs crossed, posture perfect. There is nothing to suggest that Abramović had at times self-mutilated her body, allowed others to mutilate her, and tested many boundaries of what society considers to be art.

Next to her sits Patricia Cohen, culture reporter for The New York Times. They engage in conversation for over an hour on a Friday evening in March, discussing everything from Abramović’s past work to her future plans. Abramović answers Cohen’s questions calmly, in a heavy Serbian accent, hinting at her Belgrade roots. But her diction is precise. Each syllable is accented. Her points are clearly stated, even if the meaning behind them is hard to elicit. And, like the title of her recent performance at MoMA, The Artist is Present, the artist, Marina, is very much present in this dialogue. She is here, engaging with her audience in a way that only a performance artist can.

Performance art is a time-based art piece that often involves the artist’s own actions or use of his or her own body as medium. Unlike other forms of visual art, it is fleeting and difficult to document. It is not to be confused with the performing arts like live works of theater, which are fictional. Performance art is about you, as real as you get, as exposed as you get, as you as you get.

Abramović does both performance art and theater. She stars in a forthcoming documentary, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović directed by Bob Wilson. “With Bob, everything is artificial,” quips Abramović. She craves the reality of live audience and the energy they provide.

Abramović has also appeared in another work of theater: Cut the World, Antony Hegarty’s music video about empowering women. Abramović says that Hegarty “really deals with the emotion texture of [her] life.”  In the film’s trailer, Hegarty and the rest of the cast, standing in the midst of rising blue fog, softly, slowly coo, “creativity.” Hegarty, for Marina, typifies an “elevation of the suffering” which is the essence of her art.

She thrives on suffering. “Happiness is not creative,” Abramović emphasizes to the audience. When pressed by Cohen as to whether happiness could perhaps function as fuel for some artists, Abramović replies, “What can you do with happiness? You’re happy!” She continues, “You work from suffering and frustrations and unbalance!” And regarding those artists who do work from happiness, Abramović states, “They make happy art, but maybe it doesn’t change the world.”

But beyond that, Abramović does believe in an elevation of the suffering, or a relief from it. Addressing a question from the audience about what to do as an artist when one’s self-esteem is down, Abramović replies that the artist should not do anything to get out of this “black hole.” Rather, Abramović encourages the artist to go deeper into the black hole, to understand the black hole. Eventually, “for some kind of gravitational rule, you have to go up. You come to light.”

It took a lot of suffering to get to where she is today. For many years, America doubted her art and didn’t find it convincing. Success did not come easily for her. Her career began in the 1970s with her Rhythm pieces, after which she began collaborating with her partner Ulay. In Imponderabilia, they both stood naked in the doorway of a gallery. They parted ways in 1988 by walking the Great Wall of China and meeting in the middle. In 2005, Abramović re-performed the performances of other artists, in Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim. 2010 marked her major retrospective at MoMa. “You have to be [a] soldier,” Abramović explained. “You have to be self-employed. And plus have time to create, and plus be better than everyone else.” In a city of an estimated 375,000 artists, that can often be a challenge.

Now, she’s established as the “grandmother of performance art,” and arguably the most famous performance artist in the world. Yet Abramović leaves behind no children. “I never regret, I never want [children],” says Abramović. “So many women are great mothers, I’m not one of them. I really wanted to be an artist.” Instead, to pass on her legacy, Abramović is creating an institute for performing art, a place for young performing artists to visit for six hours and learn the “Marina Abramović method” which she details in her Gold Mask performance.

In a way, then, Abramović has institutionalized herself, shaping herself into a mass media pubic icon. Ulay has said that she’s part of the “culture industry.” Even Cohen asks her if she is losing the element of the subversive in her work, now that she has had a large retrospective at MoMA. Abramović can’t really answer these questions. She can’t really explain why, as a disabled audience member asked, all of her re-performers at MoMA had perfect bodies. She could explain that she wanted endurance and thus wanted dancers, but she couldn’t really explain that element of almost idolatrous perfection that makes up her aesthetic.

She did caution against success and fame at a young age, and against falling into a trap of repeating what the public wants to see. She could defend herself by saying that she only has three assistants, while Jeff Koons has around 80. But like it or not, she is an icon. She is part of the mainstream. She is part of a distinct group of artists, Hegarty included, who have achieved success despite their alternative nature. After the talk, Hegarty filed out behind Abramović, along with other renowned members of the audience. Someone said something about going for dinner. These artists stick together, simultaneously famous and alternative. It’s a strange role they play.

The public has defined these artists as “good.” But why? Good art, according to Abramović, is multilayered. It is multilayered enough that even if this century despises it, next century will find meaning in its contortions. The best pieces, Abramović believes, have enough layers of meaning that different societies for all of time can draw on them and interpret them. That’s why Abramović doesn’t care how the viewer interprets her work; every interpretation is valid.

But the most important factor for success, asserts Abramović, is the will and drive of an artist to give everything for his or her art: “You have to give everything you have, [your] entire being, to do things. And then it’s not up to you anymore. You have to let it go. So what happened, happened. But you know that you’ve done one hundred percent.”