Transitory Objects: A Conversation with Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic was born in Belgrade and studied at the Academies of Fine Arts in Belgrade and Zagreb. In 1975 she moved to Amsterdam, where she lives and works today. Her first solo works involved tests of endurance, and her work in performance and video further developed into a well-known collaboration with her partner Ulay. The pair’s extended exploration of the nature of human relationships ended with their famous break-up: they walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, to meet for the last time at a middle point. She is currently a professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Braunschweig, Germany. She has participated in numerous international exhibitions, including Documenta 7 and the Venice Biennale (in 1976, 1993, and 1997, when she won the Golden Lion award for her installation Balkan Baroque), as well as the Biennial exhibitions of Sydney (1979 and 1983), Obidos (1993), Lyon (1995), and Istanbul (1995).

Soul Operation Rooms, 2000. View of participatory installation in Athens, Greece.

Many of her recent works invite viewers to participate, as in Soul Operation Rooms, recently installed in the Kapatos Gallery in Greece. The home-like space was, as the artist stated, “equipped with the necessary apparatuses for the cleaning, curing, developing, and vanishing of the different abilities of the soul.” These apparatuses (standing in for the home’s furniture) included a “soul operation table,” a “time energizer,” a “nature spirit telephone (regenerator of the astral balance),” a “reprogramming levitation module,” an “auto-telepathy device,” and “blending-in coats.” For the soul operation table, viewers were instructed to remove their clothes, climb a ladder, and lay on their backs on the table, “facing one of the color fields” for an hour, in order to receive the energy of that particular color. For the “reprogramming levitation module,” the viewer was invited to lie naked in a copper bathtub filled with dried chamomile flowers, with a quartz crystal mounted at the head. The participatory installation was concerned with the symbolic properties of objects and materials such as flags, metronomes, crystals, whistles, and casseroles.

Abramovic’s new work, The Hero, will be shown in the “Directions” series at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, from November 15, 2001 through February 18, 2002. The video installation is concerned with memorialization and is dedicated to the artist’s late father, a Yugoslav national hero.

Soul Operation Rooms, 2000. View of participatory installation in Athens, Greece.

Zoe Kosmidou: In your performance/installation Soul Operation Rooms, you touch on most of the issues that you were concerned with in your previous performances. Is there a continuity between your performance work and your installations, in terms of what you intend to convey to the audience?

Marina Abramovic: First of all, I would like to explain that as a general approach, I divide my work into two categories: one is the artist body and the other is the public body, when I expect the public to do the performance. In this performance, I have shared with the public many different tasks, but no aggression, disturbance, or violent act was involved. I liked the Kapatos Gallery space because it is like an apartment with a door that can be closed after you enter it, and there is no normal furniture inside it. The transition of the public at the entrance is important, because they have to put on a white coat and get into another state, the state of the performer.

Boat Emptying/Stream Entering-Snake Eyes-Snake Mouth, 1996. 3 TVs, 3 Japanese umbrellas, and 3 laser disc players with discs, dimensions variable.

ZK: How does it feel to observe others performing in your place and in the setting of your space?

MA: It feels like being out of place, I feel out of function. But the way that I set the whole environment, the atmosphere, and the instructions that I leave for the audience are meant to be the next step of my work, which is not to be present at this kind of event. The public has to take a more radical responsibility.

ZK: What does being the spectator of your own work involve? Do you see it as an installation?

MA: In this work, since the artist is removed, the transitory objects, as I call them, have to function in my place in order to trigger the experience of others. I set up everything in such a way that my presence is not needed. There is also the question of mortality. What happens when the artist is dead? We have to depend on our own resources and not the resources of the artist anymore. I feel that I have to prepare this transitional stage for the public to take over and still have the experience, as I used to, in this kind of installation.

The Sink, 1995. Copper and water, 39 x 18.5 x 18.9 in.

ZK: So this is actually a stage of transition. You remove the artist body and replace it with a sculptural installation that will take its place?

MA: Yes, but at the same time, I am still performing, dealing with the future restrictions of my own body when I am absent, or in a wheel chair, or I can’t walk. I have to be ready for this situation, and the public should be ready to take over.

ZK: Why did you choose to present this show in Greece? Did the space inspire Soul Operation, or did you remember something else from your previous visit here?

MA: Actually, it was a combination of things. I have shown this kind of work twice in museums in Europe, but I wanted to show this particular one in Greece for the first time, because people here know me mostly through my live performances. This is one reason. The second reason is that this work fits into the space very well. I hardly ever work in galleries; I always prefer to be in museums and cultural institutions, because I do not like the idea of showing just objects. What attracted me here was the idea of the space of this gallery, where the installation would fit as a whole. I wanted also to use familiar objects with traditions and rituals that will not look foreign to the Greek public. You have the incredible Mount Athos next door and such a rich tradition. I use chamomile and have sage cooking in the pot, because when I visited Hydra in ’92, I was inspired by the sage leaves that were spread on the floor of a church. When I asked why they did that, I was told that the leaves were used to purify the space. For the Venice Biennale, I had used a bad smell, so I thought, let’s change that odor into something positive. I created the environment and waited to see what would happen. And then the public had a fantastic reaction, it really became part of their experience. This is very, very important to me. So, I feel that I owe something to the public here and I want to come back.

Black Dragon: Chrysocolla Pillows, 1989-90. View of participatory installation.

ZK: You are using minerals and crystals. How do their attributes contribute to your work?

MA: For me, the choice of materials is very important. I chose functional materials in relation to the body. Copper has magnetic energy, and minerals such as amethyst, hematite, clear quartz, blue quartz, and green quartz have important qualities in relation to the body and the mind. Lately, I am interested in magnets, because the energy of the magnet has been known for a long time. I wanted to create something about energy flow. I started with a project that I just finished in Japan called The Dream Hotel, in a 17th-century house owned by the Japanese government. At the entrance the public has to wash with hot herbed water and then dress in clothes with magnetic parts attached. Then they enter into four bedrooms with different colored lights-red, green, blue-and are closed into coffin-like boxes where they sleep and dream. The magnets create a kind of balance of the energy in the body, in relation to the axis of the planet. We also have the “dream book” where we write our dreams, and we plan after 10 years to create an international “dream library.” We have forgotten how to dream, and I believe that it is very interesting to ritualize our daily lives. The only ritual we still have is drinking coffee. Everything else is lost. For me, the energy of the magnet makes you relax and makes the ritualization of daily life more possible.

Balkan Baroque, 1997. Performance and video installation at the Venice Biennale.

ZK: The artist is the central figure in your work; how does your use of animals work in that context?

MA: The center of my work is the body. I take my own body as the subject, object, metaphor, the main material, and the instrument. I step out from my personal self to a higher self and always try to transform the personal matter into the universal. The message is that everyone in the room can see reflected in me a mirror of their own selves. In this way I become the center of the artwork.

I use animals in order to say specific things. For instance, if I use snakes, it is because they are the oldest symbol. The snake was a positive symbol for the creation of the universe; then it became a negative symbol, which I believe is very unjust. I would like to give back the early meaning of the snake by using it again, by taking away the evil mythology, negativity, and fear. I also use horses and dogs-whatever I choose, I give back its true meaning. I use a very different range of objects and materials such as my own blood, human hair, and the hair of Korean virgins. The important thing is the mix, which gives the special meaning to the work. I can’t really consider myself as a performing artist, or a sculptor, a video or installation artist. Everything is done about the body in order to bring ideas around it.

Soul Operation Rooms, 2000. View of participatory installation in Athens, Greece.

ZK: That means that you care mostly about the symbolism of the materials or “transitory objects” that you use. Do political or gender concerns enter your work? What about the notion of transition?

MA: Yes. With relation to the body, I care about the symbolism in order to make things clearer. I am also interested in ritual. I study rituals in all different countries. Rituals do a mental job in another state of reality, and I learn from them. For me, it is always the idea of bridging the West and the East in order to get the experiences and ideas that I translate into my own language and give back to the people. In the West we are disconnected from the sense of time, the sense of ourselves, the sense of energy. It is like the head is not connected with the rest of the body.

I have hardly done anything political. I stay away from politics because I believe that an artist is an artist, a politician is a politician, and each one has to do his own work.

Soul Operation Rooms, 2000. View of participatory installation in Athens, Greece.

The installation Communist body, Fascist body was more like a metaphor of something else. I met Ulay, this man with whom I fell very much in love, on my birthday, and he was born on the same day. We lived together, and one day we looked at our birth certificates. They almost looked the same, except that mine had a government stamp with a star and his, a stamp with a swastika. We staged a performance by setting two different tables into parallel positions: my table was covered with pages from a Russian newspaper, toilet paper for napkins, and dishes, cups, and knives made of cheap aluminum. On the table there was Russian champagne and caviar.

Ulay’s table was covered with a white damask tablecloth, damask napkins, porcelain dishes, crystal champagne glasses, silver cutlery, German champagne, and caviar. On a third table our birth certificates were displayed, and 10 meters behind the two tables, a mattress with a white linen sheet and a red blanket was placed. Eleven guests were invited to come before midnight. We slept on the mattress covered by the white linen sheet and red blanket. It was like two opposites coming together in a symbiosis. Our fathers were enemies, and I was in love with the enemy. This was a situation of questioning the absoluteness of life.

The Hero, 2001. Color video on DVD with sound. 17 minutes.

Many people thought that the Balkan Baroque performance (Venice Biennale, 1997) had a political meaning, but it was completely referring to my family story. I thought that it was a transcending condition (just as every work is). Killing is a shame, and by washing the bones it was an exodus from this condition. Once you have killed, it’s done, you can’t wash. I am against violence in general.

Gender is an interesting point. I used to work on my own before I met Ulay. Then we performed together in a symbiosis and we became hermaphroditic. After he left, I wanted to work with the female energy, but at the same time not as a feminist. I don’t like the idea of women exhibiting separately from men. For me, art does not have a gender. Art is art, despite the gender of the artist.

Black Dragon: Chrysocolla Pillows, 1989-90. View of participatory installation.

Transition for me is traveling. By traveling I mean that I am open to all situations, because habits kill art. I don’t have a family, a child, or a husband to wait for me, and I can be ready in three minutes to go anywhere. I hate to work in a studio because it is like a cage; you go there everyday and you try to do some work. But good ideas don’t come everyday on a regular basis. You have to be open to adventure and at the same time, prepare for life, take care of yourself.

ZK: You are from one culture, which you carry with you to other parts of the world. What is the outcome of meeting with other world cultures? Do you believe that through art, people can break national bounds and borders?

MA: Meeting with other cultures is very essential to me. They open my eyes to different things. I don’t believe in national borders. I don’t feel like a Yugoslav artist, I don’t feel like a Dutch artist when I live in Holland, I am not a European artist, I am not anyone. I think that the planet is my studio.

Zoe Kosmidou is a contributing editor for Sculpture, based in Athens.