Marina Abramovic has been refining her particular brand of grueling performance art for nearly 40 years now, but you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone who’d heard of her until two years ago. That’s when the Museum of Modern Art hosted their headline-making Abramovic retrospective, complete with naked people and a silent “opera” in which Abramovic sat for 700 unbroken hours as visitors took turns staring (and crying) into her eyes. A Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry Tumblr sprang up, then a homemade Abramovic retrospective video game, and online at least, she was officially an artist people had heard of.
This April, the Yugoslav-born Abramovic will go one step further, with her American television debut. She joins a roster of high-profile international artists, including Ai Weiwei, whose work will be featured Art21’s “Art in the Twenty First Century,” a month long series that airs on PBS. Abramovic’s collaborative 18-minute piece -- part of the show’s second episode, “History” -- caps off a decades-long working relationship between her and director Charles Atlas.
In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Abramovic outlined how PBS slots next to her Rem Koolhaas-designed institute in the Hudson Valley in her plan to protect performance art for future generations. We’ve posted all that, plus a clip from "History" below.
This is your most recent collaboration with Charles Atlas, but you two have a long history of working together. How did you get to be such close partners?
It started in 1989. A program on Spanish television asked different directors to make the biography of artists for four minutes, which is extremely short. How you can make life in four minutes? They chose Charles to do with me, so we met and it was very interesting because Charlie was just opposite what everything I do, his aesthetic. But at the same time, we became very close friends.
I give him 3 different ideas, thinking he'll pick out one. But he says, ‘No, lets do all three of them.’ So the result was, he’s done the most minimal thing in his life and I've done the most complex thing in my life.
What was the process for the PBS piece?
[Atlas] actually proposed the concept, which is one long shot of 18 minutes, with my monologue, and I have to tell you, I haven't seen it. So I am very excited. To me, what is important is that this is done for [an] educational program. I will reach, you know, TV audiences. Performance has always been an alternative form of art, and now it has a big chance to become mainstream. This is the kind of target and reason to do it.
What do you have to take into consideration when you're filming something, versus performing it live?
In this case, the camera is the audience. It records everything, and I communicate with the audience directly through the electronic means. That's something that's, especially in television, it's very important. What I spent 40 years of my life -- to try to place it in the right context, and also for the other performance artists who come in after me to really have another platform of discussion.
Do you think mainstream culture is ready for it?
I get so angry and fed up with the situation, how performance art is treated, because you know, since 80s and 90s and now, the performance idea has been stolen: by MTV, by television, by theater, by the cinema, by advertising and fashion and in every possible form, without giving any credit to the original art, which is so unhappy, so unfair. If you take a piece of music, you have to pay the rights, but not for performance.
So in 2005, I made the statement in Guggenheim. I made “Seven Easy Pieces,” when I re-performed the art of different artists. I pay for the rights, I ask for permission, I mention the name of the artist and I do my version. I wanted to set up the standard [of] how things should be done, because my generation of art is not performing anymore, and I feel my duty is to put performance in a kind of situation where it is mainstream, and respected, and taken care of.
How would someone who's not knowledgeable about performance art know it when they see it?
People misunderstand performance art. This is why this kind of PBS movie or HBO films are really important for the large audience because then it's very clear what performance art is. Performance art is not theater, its not entertainment. Performance is serious business. In theater, blood is ketchup; in performance, everything's real
It's also the context. If you do performance and music, it's not performance as music. If you do performance in the theater, it's not performance. It's really [a] special form of art, different from other forms. It's very direct, it's live, and it's time based.
How has your performance changed as the reactions to it have changed?
Right now, it's insane. I am so busy -- I have never been busy in my life, [and] I'm literally running around. It's this kind of exposure, especially after [the] Museum of Modern Art and this movie is coming out, the exposure is enormous. I have to be very careful [with] my energy. For me, it’s about the legacy at the moment, so I'm working on my own institute on the Hudson. I signed a contract with Rem Koolhaas, the architect, who's building the building. [The institute is meant] really to educate the public and the audience more about performance, to leave as my concept what I'm going to call the Abramovic method. In theater there is [the] Stanislavski method, but now in performance, it's going to be the Abramovic method.
And what is it?
The first thing is to teach the public how to see performance art, to teach the public, what you can see and how you can behave in your own self. Where is your breathing, what is your feeling of presence or absence in your mind, and to really learn the basics of performance language. Nobody is doing such a school, and I think its necessary. My performance school is going to be only long duration work because I've found that long duration is a transformative experience for the person doing it, [and] also for the, how you call, the audience watching it. We had at the MoMA 850,000 visitors and that's definitely example that this kind of work is needed at the moment. We are living in a disconnected society. We lost our center, our spiritual center.
What do you think it is that performance art can do that no other medium can do?
It can make change. I mean, MoMA really show the enormous affection -- the audience, really something opened differently. I have to just give you an example. In the MoMA we have 65 security guards. These 65 security guards come back and wait hours and hours just to sit with me. It must be the reason -- something change, even for the security guards.
WATCH a preview of Marina Abramovic, directed by Charles Atlas in "History":