Marina Abramovic Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui Damien Jalet Genève Grand théâtre Performance art Collaborations Boléro Scenography Retrospective Artistic journey Creativity Evolution of art Impactful art Contemporary art Artistic legacy Performance transcendence Artistic innovation Provocative art Artistic expression
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November 18, 2023
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Marina Abramovic On Boléro, Broken TVs, and Cosmic Journeys

When we got a call from the Grand Théâtre de Genève, offering us an interview with Marina Abramovic, we were a tad skeptical and perhaps a bit superstitious – hence why we kept the news to ourselves. Scheduled to be in Geneva to present the ballet "Boléro" beside choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, we nervously waited our turn post-briefing with the press team. When we finally met her, she warmly greeted us with a loud "It's nice to see such fashionable young journalists!" She inquired about our attires and even complimented Chloé's tie! Abramovic shared her love for fashion with us, even showing a humorous montage a friend had made of her cover for GQ with a big beard and the title "Man of the year". And Marina Abramovic as a Drag King, believe it or not, was giving the hots to the twink I am. Now that the ice had been broken, Chloé delved into her questions…

Chloé: We met with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui a couple of weeks ago and he qualified his relationship with you and Damien Jalet as « artistic kindred spirits ». What has been your experience working with them?

Marina Abramović: I met them a long time ago, almost 30 years ago I think. We met in Rome, they had a performance together and I thought they were unbelievably talented. I met them again later in Amsterdam, where we decided to have a party and a big couscous dinner and play Arab music. It was really great. We became close friends because they're so innovative and talented but also very different from each other. They work together, but when they work separately they take entirely different directions. They just choreographed Madonna’s concert, which I went to see in London. You have to go and see it, she’s amazing! I think our collaboration will continue forever because I always have ideas and they always have ideas.

The Bolero was our first collaboration, 10 years ago. I was terrified to come to see it last night because I was afraid it would have aged badly. 10 years after, you might look at your work and say « That’s the biggest bullshit I ever made in my life ». But it was really good. I said, “Shit, this is not bad at all!”. I did the scenography of the piece and they both worked on choreography, and altogether we worked on the global concept of the piece. It was really interesting because in most versions of Boléro, there's always one man dancing in the center and the other dancers around, and we wanted to make something that we call a cosmic orgy, where all the dancers evolve together in a weird pool of energy.

Then I thought about the scenography and how to present it. I'm crazy about the old broken television sets when the screens don't work and there’s some static snow. So I really dived into the idea of snow for Boléro. We just used a tilted mirror over the scene, and it gives a very hypnotic impression of snow in the air. Normally, Bolero is between 12 and 14 minutes long, but we made it 16, during which everybody is just in movement. With the mirror, the back looks like static electricity. By the end of the piece, the dancers get really dizzy.

Chloé: And how do you think your background as a performance artist influences your work as a scenographer?

Marina Abramović: It's just a different category! If 10 years ago, somebody told me I would one day do an opera, I wouldn't have believed them. And yet, I just made a full opera in London, “7 Deaths of Maria Callas”. I really wanted to take opera and create something new and different. Here, we were taking ballet and doing something different, but it's really not connected to performance. It's just a different category of art. 

Now, to be honest, I'm really interested in making new work in which I could mix performance and dance. I’ve never done that before. I’ve been doing performances for 55 years now, so it’s always interesting to experiment with new things, take different media, and see what we can do with them, to avoid getting bored. 

Chloé: Your retrospective is currently taking place in London at the Royal Institute of Art. How was it to imagine and conceive this dialogue with your past and current creations? 

Marina Abramović: Well, it actually took seven years altogether to create this exhibition, and I was somehow lucky that COVID happened, as it gave me extra time to perfect it. The show was looking very different in 2020. It was a very simple chronological retrospective, but with the extra time we had, we took everything out again and started from zero to create a thematic show, in which each room has its own theme. This worked really well because we were able to mix very early works with very recent ones. The show starts with something we call public participation. There are actually two rooms, one is Rythm 0, and the other is The Artist is Present. In one work, I was 23, and in the other, I was 65. There’s a 42-year difference between these two works, and it’s really interesting for the public to go through that kind of non-chronological journey.

And then we have 42 re-performances, where other artists are performing my pieces. It’s kind of amazing! I think it's really the biggest show of my life, I literally never had it that big. I almost died this past year, but then I got the biggest show of my life, the opera, my institute is working, then there’s Boléro, Woman of the Year…

Chloé: You talked about the artists that you've trusted to perform some of your works. What was the process of transmission like? How was it seeing your art, your work taking a life of its own? 

Marina Abramović: It was very emotional really, especially for The house with the ocean view, which is a 12 days-long work with no food, no talking, living on a structure in the middle of a museum. When I went there and saw the work, I cried. I can hardly go there to see it. But it's just so amazing to see all of that, because this normally only happens to artists when they’re dead, and I’m lucky enough to see it happen while I’m still alive. I wanted to see and feel that feeling, see the work of my own life.

And to give my work for someone else to perform feels like giving away a child.

The charisma, and the ideas of this person, will influence the way they interpret the work. My generation hates me, telling me I’m crazy, and that I should never give the work away. 

But by giving the work to someone else to perform, it allows a newer generation to see and experience the performances, and not only rely on books or photos. Also back in the day, technology was not great, so it's really interesting to see that great works of art are so shitty at presenting, with low-quality video, and that today you can have shitty works of art with the highest, most glamorous technology. You can actually be deceived by technology.

Chloé: As for the London exhibition, there is a reenactment of one of your very famous performances, Imponderabilia, from 1977. This time, the visitors have the possibility to bypass it and take another door. What do you think this says about our current perception of the body? How do you think it has evolved in the last 50 years? Are we more prude?

Marina Abramović: Yes, it's bullshit. The entire thing about political correctness completely breaks the freedom of an artist. You know, for the 42 re-performances, people need to have a nutritionist, a therapist, a health consultant, and unions. I didn't have any of this, that didn’t even really exist. We have to create incredibly complex structures for everything. Everything that was done in the seventies will probably never be possible again because we have these stupid restrictions. I have to work with what I call healthy compromises, because this piece could be done this way, or not to be done at all. That’s why we had to create this other door.

What’s really funny though, is that every single newspaper wrote about the nudity in this piece – especially the Brits, they’re very uneasy with that. But the second we opened the museum, people were waiting in lines. Nobody actually uses the other door, everybody wants to cross, and they will come back and cross again. They want the experience, but they are ashamed to admit it.

Chloé: Do you think that the precarious aspect of performance art makes it more impactful compared to other more tangible art forms that are more subjected to the art market? 

I think performance art is like a phoenix, it will always come out of its own ashes.

Marina Abramović: Every time the world is socially and economically healthy, art becomes a commodity, and it’s all about expensive art. And then, when society gets poorer, performers come up because it’s so immaterial. Because no performance is a living form of art, it will never die.
Every society will need this kind of art at some point. Performance can be a life-changing experience because it's such an immaterial direct connection that other forms of art don't have. It’s also deeply emotional, and you have to be there to see it.
It's crucial that you actually witness a performance. When we have an exhibition of paintings, the work is always there and you can see it at any time. A performance is time-based, so you really have to make a personal effort to see it.

Chloé: You think that because of the economic and the political situation now, we are going to see a resurgence of performance art?

Marina Abramović: You know, young people never give up performance. And it's also really important to see the new things that people are working with, such as electronics, sound, and music. They do incredibly interesting work. My interest is always in the younger generation, and my chosen family is super young. They really give me access to witness the time we live in, and I can give them my experience as a kind of good exchange.

Some generations are just closed to new experiences. I never talk to people from my generation for example. They all have Alzheimer's, or they are dying, or they're angry. They are totally dismissive and just not curious anymore. It's really important to be curious about what's happening around you, and I think there's so much good stuff right now. We are living in a very difficult and dangerous time, talking about wars, and the possibility of territorial wars. If any of these lunatics start a nuclear war, we’ll really have a problem.

Chloé: You were talking about the spirit of the time and the new generation. In my generation [rn: Chloé is 22], the art of drag, has been getting very popular. What do you think of that? 

Marina Abramović: I go very often to different clubs in London and New York, and it's incredible! Once, I went there and they all knew my work, I could not believe it. There is this one queen called Mother Teresa who announced I was in the audience once, like “Marina is here!” and it was so fun, I really love this.

With Drag, you start actually understanding the freedom that you can get.

All the makeup and mask helps to become another person and gain this freedom. You should really just do it and see for yourself how that feels.

Chloé: You stated in recent interviews that after what happened regarding your health, you didn't want to focus on death, but rather on life and happiness, but you also stated that it was hard to create art that is good while remaining happy…

I didn't do it yet! I'm just finishing the show in London, I’ve been there for months. I’ll be flying back to New York on the 31st, on New Year’s Eve. This will be a new start in life, and I will start working on this idea of happiness. It's going to be hilarious because I really like having fun! I need to prove to other artists that having fun and being happy is still possible, but this is not going to be easy. It's a big task. It's easy to work without happiness, but it's so different to work from happiness.

Marina Abramović's retrospective show will be on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until January 1st 2024.

Interview by Chloé Bruère-Dawson, Tessa Roy and Dany Nierderhauser

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