Executing One Self

Andreas van Dühren/Marina Abramoviç

A.v.D.  I remember having used the verb »to perform« first when I was in England, referring to some pianist I saw on television. Concerning music, that term suggests a more or less prefigured material, that is any composition, laid out within a certain time. What is it that you would consider as »the material«, when you conceive any of your performances?
M.A.  I think that performancein general is a tool, not just any particular material included, but the performance itself. I think that the entire art is a tool. Very often you find some confusion here, as if performance were the aim or a final product, then seen as a tool to achieve certain things. You know, André Malraux once visited Picasso in his studio, at a time when he still lived in Paris; it was full of African masks, and when Malraux asked him about that, Picasso said he wanted to learn from them how to get in touch with the divine and what the divine can mean. This is the way I feel concerning art as a tool. But there still is this confusion, like in the beginning, when I started doing performances, that term wasn’t used; it was called »Body art«, and only later they changed it into »Performance«. I remember coming to New York, and so many shops with signs reading »Body work«; I thought, what is this, who is doing all this art? But that was actually an expression for repairing cars; they were repair shops. So, performance can be many things, but in my case it’s really working with the body; it’s a medium, it’s a tool.
A.v.D.  Yet I assume it’s not your body alone, the body itself, you’d sense as the material.
M.A.  Yes, I do, but as part of the entire tool. That, again, is different from what people considered as performance for a long time, using that term also for singers and in context of dance or theatre; performance, in the pure sense of the word, means using the body in a very simple and direct way, without a stage or anything that belongs to the idea of entertainment.
A.v.D.  Do you think rather in terms of composition, or of improvisation? Even if one considers composition just as some dense improvisation and vice versa.
M.A.  Performance really doesn’t leave so much space for improvisation. First of all, when you got the general idea, you see a certain direction given with this idea. But when you set up the performance in a certain time, seven or ten hours, then, through the effect of repetition, you become a living loop; and within this loop you can’t improvise. Basically, it’s the body, and the state of mind at the moment, that tells you what to do, and this, constantly, becomes some new material. If you take this door, for example, and you say that you’re going to open and to close the door, without going in or getting out, for six hours; nothing else, just a simple, isolated action. In the beginning, opening and closing the door is just evident, but slowly, when it becomes this endless tie, the door stops being the door, your action stops being just the action of opening and closing the door; it becomes so many different things, and you, along with this process, are changing. So, you don’t improvise; you are what you are. It becomes a kind of truth; you don’t play anything, as you do in a theatre when you act, which is not possible here. You get exhausted, you are thirsty, you have to... whatever. Everything that comes out does not originate from improvisation, it’s the true state of what you are at the moment.
A.v.D.  But when I imagine myself doing this, opening and closing the door for hours and hours, then of course, after half an hour, this door would become more and more strange, and even myself, I would get estranged from myself.
M.A.  Exactly. So, this is no improvisation.
A.v.D.  Still, in terms of keeping control, it would make me more and more aware of what I’m doing, and I would induce some variations; at least, for a certain time I would try. After five hours, of course, I would have become too tired, exhausted, almost humble and stupid.
M.A.  When you come to the point where the action and you and time become one, that’s the most interesting point: when really some kind of transformation takes place, with you, with the door, and the spectator. And that, for me, is the most interesting part of the performance. I always liked the idea of simplicity in any work, and most artists seem to hide themselves behind too many elements they show, because it needs an enormous certainty in order to show the absolute nakedness of the action.
A.v.D.  Of course, what I suggested, one might say that it is a feature any creative process, and that any performing act, which can also be the act of writing, implies some kind of transformation – if not necessarily transforming someone who is in control into someone who’s not, but into someone who’s in control of something different. And this, I presume, means something different than just transforming someone into someone else.
M.A.  Somehow you lose control, but you gain consciousness. Control is extremely important, in terms of any craft, but then you have to drop it. You have to generate a lot of willpower in order to achieve this sometimes insane action; the structure of your mind constantly rebels against it. Opening and closing this door, after an hour one would say: Come on, this is so stupid, why are you doing that? Mind always tends to interfere and to change, but if you have this willpower, it will lead you everywhere. There is something interesting John Cage said about transformation and where it starts – up to boredom: You are bored, the public is bored, everybody is bored, as nothing is happening; but you continue, and something else is happening.
A.v.D.  I don’t know whether I should be glad; at least I have to state that you suggested several terms I had already noted. For example, I’d like to know what you think is the relation between trust and consciousness concerning any performing act, if not duration itself.
M.A.  I had lots of problems with trust, especially in the beginning of my performances – how I could trust this willpower that it would continue; as it became almost some annoyance, when I knew that there was another side, and I didn’t reach this destination. Right away, when I started a performance, I didn’t even know that this other side existed; so you have to go to oblivion. I think, one of the greatest risks ever taken was what Columbus did: At a time when the earth was considered as a plane surface, so you could fall off, Columbus was going to find a new way to India, then discovering America instead; but first, with the blessing of the Queen and the crew totally terrified, he went to Ferro, which is the last island on the way west, the last of the Canary Islands, you know.
A.v.D.  I’ve been there once.
M.A.  I always wanted to go there. So, this was the last stay before they really went on their journey, and afterwards they had to expect falling off the earth, into the complete unknown. And this, I think, is more risky than going to the moon, having all this technology provided and still being connected to the earth; but that kind of courage – and everyone doing performances is going through that somehow: You take off to some place, and you really don’t know what it is – through the pain, all the difficulties, mental and physical ones; then you arrive where you’ve never been before. That’s why you have to generate such a strong structure; otherwise it won’t happen. Now it’s easy, now you know that it exists. Yet, what becomes more and more important, is that there is almost nothing to start with – no score nor, like in the movies, where there is always someone being the killer, anything like a story, any expectation. When you come to see anything performative, you expect a beginning, some development, coordination and an end. Here you eliminate the expectation, and that’s the most difficult part; but then the performance becomes interesting – this nothingness.
A.v.D.  But even then, there is also this kind of »whodunit«.
M.A.  Who...? I didn’t get the word.
A.v.D.  Who’s done it.
M.A.  Ah, »whodunit«, yes.
A.v.D.  If not some »McGuffin«.
M.A.  Yes, but here everything is removed; it’s just you and them, and that’s it: nothing but this nakedness of the presence.
A.v.D.  But you do need some kind of a pretext, don’t you?
M.A.  Everybody thinks of how I prepare myself, if there is anything special concerning food or if I do sport – being constantly exposed, and your body getting so tugged. Actually, I go to a restaurant before, and I’ll eat a rump steak, mashed potatoes and mousse au chocolat; and then I’ll go to the restroom. But you can be totally outlet, physically fit, and still can’t do the work; because it’s not a matter of physical fitness but of mental fitness. Of course, you may go through some training, and you should be allright. Nevertheless, if you’re not prepared mentally and that willpower is lacking, then you won’t manage.
A.v.D.  And this state of mind, is it to be considered rather as integrity or as openness?
M.A.  It’s an incredible openness; you have to be completely open. Somehow you set up a date and a time, and you go for it, knowing this will be the duration of what’s going to happen; and whatever happens within this time – presuming any interruption by the public or some earthquake – is part of the piece, and you have to accept it. This openness has to embody any event within that period you consider as the time of your performance.
A.v.D.  I tend to think – at least I like the idea, wrong or right – that the creative act makes you lose any consciousness of your sex.
M.A.  Totally right. Nobody ever asked this. That’s true, and that’s also why I hate everything connected to feminism, or the idea of a gate between male and female art. True art doesn’t make this distinction. At this state it’s not a matter of one sex or the other one, it’s about being a tool.
A.v.D.  As it goes along with losing your personality anyway.
M.A.  Exactly. One often talks about some higher self, losing the lower self; and people are telling me that they don’t recognize me then. But this has nothing to do with »high« and »low«; only that you absorb this power coming up, also the energy coming from the public and which you transform and give back. And this makes the difference – that you’re not the same. I sometimes think of those big concerts, when some rock stars have to sing in front of five hundred thousand people; that energy, it’s so enormous. And then, what happens when they quit? – as they can’t deal with this energy any more, because they never found the right tool, never learned to find the mental state, in order to tranform it into something non-destructive; they get stuck in this energy and can’t handle it. To me it’s very important, when you’re left with this energy, to find a key in order to handle it in a positive, not in a destructive way; because that energy can kill. But it remains impersonal.
A.v.D.  And this creative act is some kind of an execution...
M.A.  Exactly.
A.v.D.  ...of yourself, or one self.
M.A.  It’s venturous: the higher you go into this, the lower you get afterwards.
A.v.D.  It’s funny that you gave this example of a rock concert, because recently I had the rather rare experience of stepping onto a stage, in front of not too many people, but just a few minutes before that, getting really nervous, I had this somehow silly hallucination of someone who is going to perform for the first time officially, but right off in Woodstock. Of course, the moment the light and the microphone were switched on, I immediately relaxed.
M.A.  Yes, just at that moment. You see, in my case it’s quite a long career, more than thirty years; and each time, even before some lecture, I get this incredible sensation of my stomach going... it’s so disturbing. And each time before doing a performance I sit in the toilet, as this is a kind of a secure place. They always make fun saying: Where is Marina? And the assistant tells them: She is in the toilet, she is fine. It’s not that I had to go there, it’s just that I get a panic attack every time – every time: it never changes.
A.v.D.  Yes, the toilet can save your life. Once or twice, when I missed the chance, it did quite some damage. It’s just the point of stepping aside, going to the restroom, when you sense there is some crucial moment, in order to have these few minutes of seclusion.
M.A.  I always had this big theory of some artist dying in the toilet, and the widow saying that he died in the studio, as it would make a better impression; but actually he just died in the toilet.
A.v.D.  Looking at these notes – obviously I saw some connection between execution and the sexual act, at least in a way of interfering with...
M.A.  Interfering? That’s quite a performance. I would talk about sex in general, because sexual energy really is the only one we’ve got in our body, and then it’s just about the way how we transform it: it can be destructive, it can be violence, tenderness, positive and negative. I don’t know if you saw Balcan Erotic Epic, one of the last films I made. There had been seven artists invited to do something about pornography or eroticism; Matthew Barney, Richard Prince, Sam Taylor-Wood, and me too. It was interesting to deal with, as I had never induced eroticism into my work, at least in the literal sense. So I went to look at all kinds of porno movies, and I found this so repetitive and so boring; I really got bored, as there was nothing fresh and different about how the body was shown. Then I went to Belgrad and did some research in the very old archives there, and I found a lot of material from the 15th. century and the 16 th. and so on – in order to see, how the people used sexuality, for healing or... for example: At the countryside, when they expected the rain to come and destroy all the fields, women of every age ran to the fields and showed their vagina, so that the gods would be scared and stop the rain. I thought this was some interesting material, so I restaged that with real people; it took me two years to do this piece. It’s a compilation, and there are parts I couldn’t do because of moral standards, as they are in my country right now; for those I used cartoons. And there is this last part I’m extremely proud of; it was the most difficult thing to do. I asked fifteen men, wearing the national costumes – the white shirts and those funny shoes –, to stand like that, posing very proudly, but having their trousers open and with an erection. There is also this documentary, like The making of..., where you can see how it was actually done; it’s hilarious. Then I had the singer, the woman singing about fate, the wars – everything very dramatic; actually we faked that, having the woman in the middle, five men on the left and five on the right. But when you see these organs erected, exposed in that way, the last thing you sense is anything erotic; you see how the mere organs, analyzed so much these days, can be trapped.
A.v.D.  At least, what you see is the real sex; in most cases what is shown are suggestions.
M.A.  It depends – yesterday I had a look at the five stations they got here; four of them were showing sex; it was so boring.
A.v.D.  It’s supposed to arouse, anything surrounding the real thing; but the pure object is rather rare.
M.A.  Yes, and then, in this piece, exposed in that way: these men, just standing and looking at you; it’s so vulnerable. So, you have to find the key in order to see things differently.
A.v.D.  Pointing out the sexual energy as the only one we’ve got in our body – you don’t consider the brain as part of the body, as another force?
M.A.  Of course, but what I think is so important is the balance between the two, and that most of the time we don’t have this, but live in the body and not in the brain, or in the brain and not in the body; there’s such a division, especially in our culture.
A.v.D.  It’s probably the greatest challenge, finding a connection as close as possible between consciousness and emotion.
M.A.  Absolutely, and it’s very rare; instead the two are fallen apart, and so many people then enviously go to a psychoanalyst. I don’t know, I never went to a psychoanalyst; maybe, if I would go, I’d stop working, because everything would have to be so clear. In America it’s a disease, though it’s considered as hygiene, like teeth brushing.
A.v.D.  It’s rather an exercise. There is not necessarily someone who’d know more than you, about life in general or about you; only that there is some professional giving you the opportunity to figure out something, offering the means and tools you might need.
M.A.  I never went. Almost every friend of mine does. But it’s not that I had no problems, only that I may hide them in a different way.
A.v.D.  Do you believe in vengeance?
M.A.  What does it mean? I don’t know the word, I don’t even know the word.
A.v.D.  Well, one synonym would be »revenge«.
M.A.  Oh, I’m totally against this – especially, coming from a background of Montenegro where they really have blood revenge; it’s amazing that it still exists. Revenge is like recycling bad energy, and what I think is so important, that’s forgiveness; only when we learn to forgive, the killing will stop. Look now what is happening in Burma; it’s incredible: They are killing the monks, and still the monks are singing their sentences, forgiving those who are torturing them. No, it’s so easy to hate...
A.v.D.  It can be quite difficult, some task – just to decide, instead of going on and on, accepting destruction or delusion: this time, almost arbitrarily, I won’t forgive, I will kill this person.
M.A.  But this would create such negative energy, it would produce something like chemicals that would make you sick. One very important thing is, not how to suppress, but how to transform that feeling; and in order to transform it, you have to understand why all this happened, whatever the other one had done – to understand his reasons. And it’s easy to forgive your friend, it’s difficult to forgive your enemy. This seems to be the highest state of mind; I’ve always tried to do it and I don’t succeed all the time. But that’s the key.