“I’m not building my own mausoleum”: A Conversation with Marina Abramović

by Justin E. H. Smith

ScreenHunter_287 Aug. 25 10.48

Marina Abramović (with the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art she recieved in 2008) at the screening of Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present during the Vienna International Film Festival 2012, Gartenbaukino. [Image from Wikipedia.]


Marina Abramović is seeking to found an institute that will bear her name, in the Hudson Valley, which was formed by the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. She has been on a publicity campaign recently to promote the project, including most importantly a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Please click the link and donate, it ends soon!

On the phone last week (she at a fine hotel in Oslo, I at the Ibis in Bucharest), I asked Abramović about the possible difficulty of carrying over her well-known conception of the performer-audience relation –namely, that in performance art it is precisely this relation that constitutes the work itself, that makes the work happen– into an institution that bears her name, where she is no longer a person standing in one-to-one relations with the members of her audience, but rather, now, a name etched in stone: a person who becomes a building that becomes a monument to the idea of the mere person she once was.

“The institute is not actually related to my work,” she explains. “It's built on experience from my work, and my life.” Abramović hopes that by this distinction the institute will remain centered on experience rather than monumentality. “I like, really, ‘institute' because it's really not ‘foundation'. Most of the artists make foundations, and foundation is something that you actually leave after you die.”

It seems, here, we're getting to the heart of the matter: a foundation is a mausoleum to a person who did something at one time, but of whom the Romans would say, vixit: the perfective form of the past tense of ‘to live', conveying with understatement that by now all the living has been done. Foundations are for artists who can only figure out a way to have lived; Abramović thinks she has found a way to continue to live.

She happily acknowledges that her project is ‘utopian', and that most utopian projects fail. Hers will avoid failure, she thinks, because in giving her own name to the institute she is quickening it with the “symbol of that kind of vitality, that, you know, ego is not standing in front of it, everything is happening in it that's possible, and I'm open to that.”

“But isn't that placing a big bet on your name,” I ask her at this point, “that it will always be associated with vitality?” Abramović is unconcerned. She has a strategy, based in large part on the cultivation of a younger generation of successors. “I… have the very big respect and adoration of young people and the young public,” she explains.

In pursuit of her strategy, Abramović has selected a few young, and not-so-young, megacelebrities who, she hopes, will be able to serve as conduits for her vitality. “I just made a workshop with Lady Gaga,” Abramović tells me, “and at the same time, you know, Lady Gaga has 43 million followers on Facebook. This is a generation of kids from six years old, and these kids now are looking into performance art because Lady Gaga did it, and they are my future followers.” The idea is that after her brush with Abramovic, Gaga is no longer only doing whatever variety of popular entertainment she had being doing before, but rather, now, something more elevated: performance art. Performance art, on this understanding, is stuff famous people do, plus the approval of Marina Abramović.

I personally can think of few things more tedious than to get individually rapped at by Jay-Z, to mention another member of Abramović's retinue, while being expected to make that somber art-appreciation face the whole time. The Black Album is a masterpiece and the artist behind it deserves his place in our cultural canon, but the faces it causes us to make –even if these are the faces of dorky white guys borrowing a bit of phantasmic street cred in the privacy of our own cars and bedrooms– are different from the ones we have learned we are supposed to make at MoMA. This is a social fact, and Abramović's christening can do little to change it.

One danger in Abramović's investment strategy is of course that a grown-up, even a genre-defining performance-artist grown-up, might not be in the best position to predict long-term trends in youth culture. Lady Gaga, for example, might turn out, as I suggested to Abramović, “to be less of a transmitter of the sort of vision of art and creativity that you're hoping than it had seemed earlier on.”

“What do you mean, 'early on'?”

“Well, than it would seem in the present.”

“No, I think she's in a perfect place,” Abramović insists, “because, you know, she came to the museum in MoMA to look at my work, and because she was there all the young kids around her did the same, she left, but the kids stayed, and now they're my public… I have this huge amount of people Googling and asking what is performance art now.”

I'm still not sure I understand by what secret Verwandlung a performing artist becomes a performance artist. This is not the transfiguration of the commonplace, to invoke Arthur Danto's helpful term for ready-mades. This is the diversification of the celebrity portfolio, which only works because the celebrity was already elevated, glimmering, not at all commonplace, prior to receiving the Abramović stamp. Jay-Z is no Campbell's soup can.


Abramović's historical models for the institute mingle together in her mind with the sort of neoliberal utopian initiatives of the Internet era that seem to have no historical models at all. She cites Bauhaus and Monte Verità as inspirations, where, she explains, “really great minds come together and create a new platform.”

Repeatedly, Abramović tells me that what she hopes to create at the institute is nothing less than a “marriage between art and science and technology and spirituality in a new context today.” Or again, she says that the institute “will embrace only long-durational works of art, and also long-durational work in science and spirituality.” She sees herself, like the institute to which she hopes to give life, as constituted out of both a 'spiritual side' and a side that she describes as 'really quite hardcore', which I take to mean 'hard-nosed', 'reality-based', 'science-friendly'. Interestingly, she sees this hybrid identity as arising not out of the general background chatter of techno-fetishist late capitalism, but out of her formative years in Yugoslavia, and more particularly out of generational conflicts within her own family, between the values of church, and those of party.

“It's incredibly important that I was grown up there and not anywhere else,” she says. “First of all, the incredible contradiction in my own family, having the grandfather who was patriarch in the Orthodox church, a completely fanatic grandmother, religious, and my two completely atheist parents, who are national heroes and being, you know, in the partisans with Tito.” Although she still complains of being persecuted by state and family in her early career in Belgrade and Novi Sad, Abramović acknowledges the Yugoslav experiment in socialism as a source of inspriation. “The entire idea of the sacrifice for the cause, that idea that private life is not important, but the ideas that you have to give your life for are important, the idea of the virtue of the heroic action… All that kind of made me what I am now,” she concludes. “One side spiritual, and one side really quite hardcore.”

One thing Eastern Bloc generalissimos excelled at, of course, was the building of monuments, often to themselves, often even monuments for the lodging of their own pickled corpses. It was the thought of this preoccupation with monumentality that had led me to ask her about her formative years in Yugoslavia. “I'm thinking of the critical work of Boris Groys,” I explain, “who in this context was writing about Stalin as a Gesamtkunstwerk, but growing up under Tito might do just as well in this case. Is there anything about the fact that you spent your formative years in Yugoslavia that impacts on the scope of your projects today?”

“Oh very much so!” she says, before proceeding to tell me the story of her family. The conversation then went where I did not at all expect. Though it didn't quite veer away from politics altogether, soon enough she was informing me that her identity was forged not only out of a mixture of science and spirituality, but indeed out of one part communism, and one part Buddhism. “For me the most interesting concept is the mixture between communism and Buddhism,” she says. “That to me was always something that was appealing.” She acknowledges that in Cambodia this combination “completely failed,” but says that with “raising consciousness” the concept could actually work. “And I'm kind of a product of these two.”

I ask her if she knows about the Kalmyk Buddhist temple in Belgrade.

“Yes,” she says.

“Those people have always fascinated me,” I add, for no good art-critical reason. “I've always wanted to go and see them. The fact that there were Central Asian Buddhists who ended up in Serbia as the westernmost point of migration…”

“Yes,” the artist interrupts, with fading interest. “Life is crazy.”


One of Abramović's strategies for enduring vitality, as we've seen, is investment in youth. “Utopian societies fail,” she says, “because they become hermetic, because at one point they are not having the new energy coming in.” Another is to allow herself to be vulnerable, and to embrace failure. In this she sets herself starkly apart from others of her generation, in her view, which is in general “very, very critical of anything that is new and different. And I'm not.” Vulnerability and openness to failure are what enable her to “break all these different taboos. And I can go to the different directions any time it's needed.”

So if Abramović is a utopian, she is a flexible one, and by being open to failure (such as, perhaps, betting on a pop star who a few years from now will seem as culturally relevant as, say, Laura Branigan), she has a failsafe plan for not coming to appear frozen in time, waxy and yellow like some embalmed tyrant. At the institute, failure will be part of the standard operating procedure, “and the failure can be exposed and discussed. So it's not, you know… especially in America everything's based on success, but with experimenting you can go somewhere new. In this state of experimenting you can fail many times.”

The Yugoslav commitment to higher social principles over private comfort; the post-Yugoslav flexibility and aversion to totalizing schemes; the investment of hope in that strange abstraction that Michael Jackson used to like to call 'the children'– all of this comes together in Abramović's vision of the institute: “If I need to give my life for it I'll do it. I mean for me it's really very serious because, you know, so many utopias fail, they fail for so many different reasons, and I've been studying the failures of different utopias, and why, and one important thing is that we have to embrace the young generation.”


But what exactly is supposed to go on at this institute, besides flexibility, failure, and cultivation of the youth?

There is already a great deal of information about the institute available, much of it unclear. As I've been able to understand it, the MAI will serve two principle and interwoven purposes: to promote new forms of artistic experience, and to devise and implement new methods of documentation of performance art, particularly performance art of long duration. These aims, the experiential and the archival, are potentially in conflict with one another, since on a certain understanding it is a violation or a compromise of the integrity of essentially immaterial and experience-based artworks to seek to document them.

But when I ask Abramović about this potential conflict, she responds by downplaying the archival aim at the expense of the experiential: “First of all, I never insist on documentation, that's not true. I think I'm always talking about the very simple fact that the performance is timeless art, and performance is an immaterial form of art, you have to be there to experience it, it's very important that, actually, you are present, because the public and performer complete the work, without this nothing's happening.”

So then all of this information in the promotional materials about plans for documenting long-durational works of performance art is misleading? Well, no, it's just that the documents are only 'by-products', not the works themselves, and besides, Abramović is quick to add, these by-products “will be just hard drives,” not DVDs or CDs or anything uncomfortably objectual like that. What she is describing sounds to me very much like a traditional multimedia library (which, by definition, is a library of objects, be they books, DVDs, or files on a hard drive), specializing in the history of long-duration artistic performances, where “if you want to see, let's say, long-durational performance work exists long before I invented… I didn't invent any of this. Richard Wagner made an opera 18 hours long, Stockhausen a 29-hour piece. John Cage has a piece for organ, I don't know if you're aware of this, that'll be performed in Germany, it's going to finish in 2630…”

“Provided we're still around,” I interrupt, but my pessimism finds no echo. I could also have added that such a library would be a valuable research center indeed, even if it is also not at all clear how anyone could have a file in a hard drive containing a performance of a work that by definition will not be finished for another 600 years.

In any case Abramović seems generally uneasy about pitching the institute as a research center or library. “You have the recordings,” she says again, “but the real thing is the real experience.” Yet when we move away from that part of the description that is grounded in the sort of traditional functions of an institution that fail to excite Abramović, from the archival to the experiential, what exactly it is that will be going on becomes much less clear. The visionary does her best to help me envision along with her: “And also we go to the extent that we, you know, you come for six hours and we have long-durational chairs, almost like wheelchairs, that you can fall asleep in, and you can be part of the piece as sleepers, and then you wake up and continue to move the work.” There you have it, then.. I suppose if I were to pay a visit, I would very much enjoy curling up in a long-durational chair, watching Der Ring des Nibelungen on a little screen in my lap, dozing off from time to time. I gather, still, that there's supposed to be more to it than that (after all, so far it's still pretty close to what I can do, and what I in fact do, at home). I gather that it's supposed to be all this, plus the approval of Marina Abramović.


The artist tells me she's getting tired and challenges me to ask one more question, something no one's ever asked before. (Who, I wonder, ever asked her about the Kalmyk temple before?). I decide to plunge to the ontological depths: “What is the work of art, on your view?”

I tell her I've been writing and thinking about one of the younger performance artists, Tino Sehgal (a name which elicits no response). Sehgal, I say, seems to be, to put it crudely, pulling one over on the art establishment; or, to put it more charitably, he is exploring the conditions under which it becomes possible to buy and sell immaterial works of art. This, I add, is an interesting undertaking.

Abramović returns to her formula: “Performance is a dialogue between audience and performer; the audience completes the work. But what is happening there is really energetic, on an energetic level, and it's immaterial, it can't be described, it can only be felt.”

“Can it be sold?” I ask.

“No, no, it can be felt.”

“Yes, but can it be sold?”

“Of course it can be sold, anything can be sold. The most important work of art sold, it was Yves Klein, in 1956, he sold The Artist's Sensibility. Do you remember this piece?”


“Do you know that he sold in 1956 The Artist's Sensibility on the bridge of the Seine to the collector, and the collector wrote a check, and he gave him the check, and he burned the check and put it in the river. And that was the pure transaction of that kind of energy.”

So Abramović's work is not about exploring the limits of what can be sold, investigating the nature of value, etc. She is glad Yves Klein did that a half century ago, and seemingly uninterested in the fact that Sehgal is doing it now. Abramović, rather, is selling something she takes to be of clear and uncontroversial value, something she calls ‘energy': “I think that, for me, energy is the most interesting of all, and that's something which you can't touch, you can't form it, you have to feel it. And that's how it is. It's something very difficult to explain to the materialistic society that we live in.”

Energy is a commodity that, when it is not being bought and sold in measurable quanta in the form of oil, coal, or wind, one also finds in much less certain doses in the offerings of wellness spas, lifestyle magazines, and in Chinese remedies made from bear bile. It surely pulses through the crowd at a Jay-Z concert. And it just as surely is what one may be said to feel when one goes in for a session of reciprocal staring with the great performance artist. Abramović's recent work, The Artist Is Present, was, for many who saw it, an undeniably energizing experience. Part of what gave it its charge was the awareness that it could not go on forever.


A glaciologist I know has proposed that it is not the footprint, but rather the death mask, that provides us the best analogy for the imprint left by retreating glaciers. Something great tore the Hudson Valley right into the earth, long ago. You can still look it in the face.

–Berlin, 23 August, 2013

For an extensive archive of Justin E. H. Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.