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An Interview with Marina Abramovic

DE: The most recent of all your works, which you produced since the Laos project, the photos Happy Xmas,Portrait with Potatoes and Portrait with Onion [all 2008], are self-portraits. Especially in contrast with the Laos works, these seem totally personal and intimate.

MA: The series is called “Back to Basics.” I shot the photos in upstate New York. In a way, the series is about poverty, inflation and money. I really felt the need to go back to basics. The potato image is very much an homage to van Gogh, especially his Potato Eaters. There’s something very basic about peeling potatoes. I always sit at the kitchen table alone peeling them. Portrait with Onion is a meditation on onions. In the photo, you can see that, underneath the onions, there’s an article about Sarah Palin on the front page of the New York Times. The photo relates to a performance work I did in 1995, when I ate onions and cried, complaining about my life [The Onion]. It goes with a text I wrote. I’ll read some of it to you: “I am tired of changing planes so often, waiting in the waiting rooms and tired of waiting for endless passport controls. I am tired of more career decisions. I’m tired of lonely hotel rooms, room service, long distance phone calls, bad TV movies, tired of always falling in love with the wrong man. I’m tired of being ashamed of the wars in Yugoslavia . . . I want to get old, really old, so that none of this matters any more. I want to understand and see clearly what is behind all of this. I want not to want anymore.” And I’m eating this onion and constantly crying. I thought it was time to make another version.

Happy Xmas is also an image of me crying. Artists work better with pain than with happiness. Pain transforms you. When you are happy, there’s not much to do. Pain, emotional pain, can sometimes enable you to make deep changes in your life. In my present situation of being abandoned again, I was crying and crying. Happy Xmas is a kind of Butoh image; it shows a state of mind. Lately, I’ve been reading passages from my biography written by James Westcott, a young author who spent two years researching the book. He’s now selecting the illustrations, working with my assistant, Davide Balliano. The book’s being published by MIT Press and will come out early next year, in time for the MoMA show. It’s called When Marina Abramović Dies. What do you think of the title?  

DE: I think it’s good. It’s mysterious. There’s a certain suspense about it that makes you want to find out if and when you did die. Maybe it suggests that you might never die, or that you die again and again.

MA: James interviewed most everyone who knows me in Belgrade, Amsterdam and New York. The contradictions that people say are amazing, but so are the connections. It begins and ends with the death of my mother, Danica. Everything she did was official. She was the director of the Museum of Revolution and Art in Belgrade, and was a friend of Tito. She died just last year.

DE: Was she supportive of your work, and your career?

MA: After she died, I went to her apartment and found that in all of the catalogues, books and clippings about my work that I had given her, she had gone through and made black bands across the body in pictures of me naked, or she cut them out altogether. When reading James’s book, I really cried a lot when I read the passages about my split with Ulay. A friend once asked him, “How could you break up with Marina?” And Ulay replied, “Because I thought I deserved less.” I always think I’m too much for everybody. Just too much, you know.

DE: And you’ve gone through that again recently.

MA: Yes, Paolo [Italian artist Paolo Canevari] and I were together for 12 years also. I just can’t seem to get to 13 years with anyone.

DE: Well, if it makes you feel any better, you know 13 is an unlucky number.

MA: This time it’s worse because we’re older. For example, Paolo drove us everywhere. Now I have to work on getting my driver’s license. I’ve been practicing with a driving instructor at my place upstate. If I pass the driver’s test next week, I’ll be the first female in my family ever to have a license.

DE: You’ve also been working upstate on your foundation in Hudson. You recently bought a large disused theater there for the purpose. Are there new developments?

MA: Yes. It’s going to be called the Marina Abramović Institute. I think it’s a better name than “foundation.”

DE: It suggests more possibilities, a broader range of activities.

MA: That’s true. It can be a study center, a performance space, many things. Its nonprofit status finally came through. At first I had an architect’s plans to make complex renovations, but I brought some friends to see the theater, and they gave some good ideas for a much simpler plan that’s a lot less expensive. It will be doable. Its main focus will be duration-based art. The Institute will sponsor performances and films that are a minimum of six hours long. We will have comfortable chairs, like chaise longues or beds, provide blankets and have food available so the audience can really spend time there. If a piece is 10 hours long, you can go to sleep and wake up and still be in the art space. It’s very important for artists to think of duration works to perform. The most important thing artists can do now is to stretch the present moment. Life is becoming faster and faster, and so we have to absolutely make art slower and slower.

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