Marina Abramović was recovering from her MoMA retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” when we visited her at her home in upstate New York this past summer.
INTERVIEW BY JESSE PEARSON AND RICHARD KERN
PORTRAITS BY RICHARD KERN
Marina Abramović was recovering from her MoMA retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” when we visited her at her home in upstate New York this past summer.
During the museum’s hours of operation between March 14 and May 31, Marina was available for visitors to sit facing her in silent communion for as long as they wanted to, or could manage to. Some people lasted hours, some lasted minutes. Some cried, some didn’t. A couple of people tried to fuck with her and were promptly escorted away. Many people waited in a very long line with no guarantee of ending up in the chair across from Marina. And through the long, bizarre parade of fans, foes, and the curious, she sat impassively, totally quiet and generally unreadable. During the time that I spent there observing the scene, she sometimes looked benign and welcoming and other times completely blank—checked out. If you stared long enough from the sidelines, she seemed to be made of wax. It was spooky.
Endurance and a heightened awareness of time have been perhaps the two main preoccupations of Marina’s work since she began with a piece called Metronome in 1971. In other early works she cut herself with knives, lay inside a flaming pentagram, sat in front of an audience and took psychoactive drugs intended for schizophrenics and catatonics, screamed until she lost her voice (it took three hours), and danced nude and hooded until she collapsed (it took eight hours). In her infamous Rhythm 0 piece from 1974, she set up a table with 72 random objects on it in a gallery. These included a gun, a bullet, a whip, lipstick, a scalpel, a coat, shoes, and olive oil. She then stood from 8 PM until 2 AM and allowed spectators to do whatever they wished to her using the objects from the table. By the end, she was topless, crying, wearing a rosemary branch over her shoulder and rose petals over her nipples. People picked her up, carried her around, dressed and undressed her, and generally treated her like a doll.
In 1976, Marina began collaborations with her boyfriend, the artist Ulay. There has never been a deeper, more intense and trusting collaboration between two artists. They literally held each other’s safety and sanity in their hands during their performances, which featured lots of nudity, screaming, bumping into each other, arrows, mirrors being smashed, horses pulling Marina and Ulay away from each other… you get the idea. It was tumultuous, and not the kind of thing that can last forever. In 1988, they finished their final collaboration, in which they started from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and walked for 1,553 miles until they met.
Marina’s solo work from 1995 onward dealt more explicitly than ever before with her Balkan heritage. Her parents were both war heroes in Yugoslavia. In The Hero (2001), Marina displayed her father’s military medals and ephemera. In Balkan Baroque (1997), she scrubbed 1,500 cow bones in a gallery while singing the Yugoslav folk songs she’d learned as a child. In Balkan Erotic Epic (2005), hordes of performers portraying stereotypical peasants worked themselves into a sexual frenzy, the women rubbing their breasts and the men literally fucking holes in the ground.
In 2005, Marina undertook the hotly debated Seven Easy Pieces, in which she re-created classic performances by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane, and Joseph Beuys, in addition to a re-performance of her own notorious—even by her standards—1975 piece Lips of Thomas. This show seems to have been the spark that ended up creating the MoMA retrospective that included The Artist Is Present. In addition to Marina’s starefest, MoMA also presented archival video, photos, and objects along with a group of young performers re-creating many of Marina’s works (from the Ulay era and after). Marina’s cover versions and re-creations of old pieces using new performers are unprecedented in the history of performance art. Purists are wary of them, and young fans who weren’t alive when the originals were staged are grateful for them.
When we arrived at Marina’s star-shaped country home, there was a Buddhist monk on the couch checking his email on a laptop, a young man cooking Indian food in the kitchen, and a gracious and hospitable Marina-as-hostess. We talked for a while, ate, talked some more, and then went skinny-dipping in the bracingly cold creek behind her house. Marina and Richard Kern got naked in a flash, no problem. When I balked, Marina sternly said, “Come on, you’re with Abramović now.” I couldn’t really argue with that.
Richard Kern: Where to start? Um, [to Jesse] you really want me to start?
Marina Abramović: Just start. C’mon. Do it now.
OK, OK. How did you get out of Yugoslavia?
It was not for any kind of political reason. I fell in love with a German artist who lived in Amsterdam. I had been invited to appear on a television program called Body Art there. I was the only one from Eastern Europe who was asked, and just to be there in Amsterdam on my birthday… my grandmother said, “Whatever comes on your birthday is important.” So I went there, and on my birthday, I met Ulay. It turned out to be the most important event in my life because we spent 13 years together. I decided to leave Yugoslavia—for love.
But didn’t you have to get permission to leave?
No. It’s much worse now. In that time, you could get a normal visa. It was easy to travel. It was Tito time. We had the whole freedom, but the only thing we didn’t have was money to travel. Then, in Milošević time, it was impossible to leave Yugoslavia.
Jesse Pearson: Tito was an angel compared with Milošević.
I could get in and out anytime I wanted. Not just me—everybody could.
Richard: It seems to me that performance art gained momentum and recognition as a movement in the early 70s. That’s when it really started picking up. That’s when I was in school, when, you, Chris Burden, and Vito Acconci started doing more—
Yeah, more radical things. In Yugoslavia, were you aware of those other people? Did the art scene in Yugoslavia at that time have international connections?
In the beginning, we did not have any international connections at all. When I started doing the performances it was, for me, like the first woman walking on the moon or something. Everybody was thinking I was out of my mind. My family wanted to put me in a mental hospital. My art professor told me that I had completely deserted art and that what I was doing was bullshit. I was totally left alone. I still had this feeling that it was something that I wanted to do. But I didn’t have references. References came much later. By late ’75, I actually understood that there was a whole family out there. The information we got in Yugoslavia depended on so many channels, so it was completely distorted. It was kind of like fairy-tale stories that we got, when the truth was actually so much more simple. Like Chris Burden, for example, his Trans-Fixed piece, when he crucified himself with the nails on the Volkswagen. We heard that he was driving through Los Angeles and then the police stopped him and it was this huge thing. This story was enormous. Much later, when I wanted to redo that piece myself, he didn’t give me permission, but he told me how it really was. It was just three people in the garage. They put the nails through his hands and then pushed the car out of the garage, took a photo, and pushed the car back. That was it. So there was just so much misunderstanding and, like, this wrong telephone thing. We really didn’t know what was going on.
Jesse: It’s interesting that the stories you were hearing, because of that game of telephone, were making the pieces sound even more extreme than they were in reality.
Exactly, and then you come and see, like, “Oh, this is it?” You know, in Yugoslavia, when we got books from Russia to study, these Russian books were made on this incredible kind of cheap paper and all the photographs were covered with talc powder. The smell was so strong. I remember a book on the Impressionists, and the photographs were full of colors. So when I went to see Impressionists in Paris, it was all looking gray. Something was wrong. It was a complete misunderstanding. Art was different through Russian books, which were all glossy and full of red and green and everything. It was not real. But this was the way we perceived it.
Richard: I noticed in the show at MoMA that in the knife piece—it’s Rhythm 10, I think—the documentation is just a scratched-out print. Did you realize the importance of documentation from the beginning?
There were early pieces that weren’t documented. In the beginning, when we started doing this conceptual and performance work, the idea was that we should not document at all—that the performance is the unique thing, and the only thing that stays is the memory, and nothing else. I was the one who started documenting, and many of my colleagues didn’t. My mother was an art historian and director of the Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade. She was a complete maniac. She was documenting everything. And I think I got a genetic thing from her. So every letter I got—I never threw it away. Every little piece of paper I kept and still do now. As for the scratches in that piece—I was living in a car. I was nowhere. I was just a nomad. So the thing was scratched.
I liked it that way. I was in college in the 70s, and they were teaching us, immediately, to document everything. By that time, everything was to be documented.
No, not in my case, at my time. No.
Jesse: I’ve read about how your mother, when you were growing up, had a regimented, disciplinarian way with lists of words you had to learn and lists of things you had to eat. Did you carry that through into your adult life?
Fortunately, yes. I hated it so much, and I totally disagreed with everything, but the older I get… I mean, look at me—everything is organized. It’s terrible, you know. [laughs] I like emptiness and total order. I think I’ve become worse than her.
So it’s ingrained?
It’s ingrained. It’s amazing—this incredible will and control no matter what. And the whole idea is sacrifice for the cause. Never in my life have I canceled or stopped a performance. Ever. Only if I’m hospitalized or something external happened to me, but generally, never.
People end up becoming a lot like their parents even if they felt rebellious when they were kids.
Just terrible, it’s absolutely terrible. But also this kind of legend and the idea of sacrifice—since both of my parents were national heroes—was really something that was important to me. Your life is wasted otherwise. You have to have a cause. Now my big cause is my institute, which is going to happen here in Hudson. The only thing you can leave behind is a good idea—not any material shit—and he’s [gesturing to the monk in the other room] definitely one good example.
Yeah, he’s wonderful. It’s 25 years, the relationship I have with him.
Richard: With body art, the original idea is that it exists only in the moment in which it happens. You cannot buy it. But then, over the years, everyone has had to make a living, so they’ve sold their artifacts.
I’ve never sold artifacts.
Not artifacts, but photographs.
Did the idea that you’d be making and selling photos start to influence the style of the documentation—to lead you to make the photographs more beautiful?
No, no. They’re two different things. I have a very distinct policy about that. When I do performances, the images that come out of the performance are mostly documentation, except in certain cases. Let’s take, for example, Seven Easy Pieces, where I performed seven different performances—two of mine and the rest by other artists. I never made or sold photo work of a performance of a piece that’s not mine. It would be unethical. So photos of those performances only exist as documentation. But there were photographs I really wanted to make and gave very special instructions for. [flips through a book of her work] This was for the re-performance of Lips of Thomas.
Jesse: That’s a rough one. You eat honey and drink wine, and then you carve a five-pointed star into your stomach with a razor, whip yourself violently, and then lie down on a cross that’s made of ice while a heater just over your midsection keeps the star bleeding.
One photo was made exactly at the last minute of the seven hours of the performance. And this was very important to me. Everything else, the photos of the process, I consider documentation. But this exists as a photographic work. Then I have other images, which I actually stage in a studio.
I stage them because I want to actually have the photographic work. But mostly what I do is spend a long time in certain positions. I have, literally, a performance made for the photographer. I come to a certain state of mind.
So the ones that are staged for the photographer are the ones that you sell?
Jesse: But when it’s done for that purpose alone, you’re still kind of accessing the headspace and really doing the performance for them?
Richard: But much attention is given to lighting, and it’s more theatrical. I’m just curious, because this was always the dilemma for performance art. Is it only pure art when there’s no finance attached to it?
I am not just a performance artist. I’m an artist. This is very important. I’m not a feminist and I’m not a feminist artist—which I hate. I’m not a body-art artist or a performance artist. My function is to be an artist. As an artist, I am free—it’s a wonderful feeling—to take any tools.
You can do whatever you want.
The performance is a tool. The video installation is a tool. They’re all tools to say certain things, and I take the tools as I need them for certain things.
Regarding your collaborations with Ulay, how long did it take for your two artistic egos to clash?
No time, because it was good sex.
OK. [laughs] Oh, wait, I don’t mean how long did it take for you guys to hook up, but how long did it take before there was a clash?
It was immediate, because we wanted each other so much.
No, I mean a clash between your egos. Was there a lot of arguing?
No, not at all.
Jesse: Not until the sex got bad.
[laughs] Exactly. That was 12 years later.
But at the start…
It was incredible. It was this enormous sexual attraction at first. We went to sleep, and for like ten days we didn’t leave the room. And we were both born on the same day, and we met on our birthday. There were many strange things that happened. Before we met, in our own lives, each of us, for different reasons, was looking for something new. I could not do more of the performances I’d been doing because I would have killed myself. I was going through so many extremes. Ulay, when I met him, had half of his face like a woman—complete with makeup and the hair wavy—and the other with short hair and a beard. He was doing all this research into transsexual things about man, woman, transvestites. Very complicated. When he met me, the woman half of him disappeared.
Because you were that.
Yeah, I was that. And then there was the possibility that we could bind male and female together to create something with this third element, which was not my work or his work. And we were so eager to create that new work. We didn’t care about whose idea it was. It was really great, right away. I was the one who got the invitation for the performance in Venice, and we started immediately rehearsing. “How are we going to do it? What will it be? Let’s start a collaboration.” But then it was hell after we split. God. Hell comes after.
Richard: How did that go?
When we split, he literally packed all the material and took it away so I didn’t have access to any of it for 12 years. And I went crazy. For seven years we didn’t talk. Then we got a lawyer. Ulay wanted to sell his things because he was not interested in our collaboration anymore because he wanted to just have money because he had a new wife… Whatever. So, we get this contract with the lawyer, and I had to find lots of money. I found a collector who loaned me the money without interest, but I had to give work in exchange and pay over seven years. I was paying every month to get this…
Jesse: This chunk of your past back, yeah.
Right. So he wanted to have cash money, and he got cash money. But the contract was really tough for me because everything, our work together, he always gets 20 percent from every sale. And I can’t sell without a gallery. So if we have 100 percent, the gallery would get 50 percent, I’d get 50 percent. From this 50 percent, he’d get 20. I’d get 30.
But you were able to buy all the rights back from him?
For only 10 percent more, I could have control. I have control for 10 percent of that cost. And I didn’t sell one thing because I wanted time to go by. I only started selling now because the price is right. I’d been making my own work, work, work, work till just recently. And now I just sold the first work six or seven months ago, from our file. So I have all control of everything and if it’s sold, he gets 20 percent.
So we’re talking about stuff that he got, and then you got it back.
Yes, yes. I bought it 20, 15 years ago. It was a nightmare, and now it’s very clear. I have lots of problems with him because just right now, you know what he’s doing? He’s taking photographs of the work he doesn’t have rights to and putting his name on it. But in any book, you can see historically, I always mention two names because it is a historical fact. I’m so tired of this because I really think it’s not fair. This is why I’m taking care of the work. I, historically, have to be. He’s presented that this whole era is about Ulay.
[At this point, Richard leaves to get his cameras set up while Marina and Jesse continue to talk.]
Jesse: You talk about energy fields a lot.
It’s all about emotions. Now so many works of art are illustrations of theory. You need to know a lot of theory to understand what work means. But sometimes a work of art doesn’t need any theory because you’re emotionally moved. And later on you want to know more about it and you might start reading and looking into theory. But I think that this work is really to do with emotions. With The Artist Is Present, even people who didn’t know about performance, who just came to the museum on a weekend trip with their children, they all had something—there was an emotional impact. So the energy worked on an emotional level. I can’t explain the energy itself, but I can explain that it had certain emotions in different ways—you know, crying, loving, being there, thinking about themselves in a way they never did before.
So energy to you is sort of like life force.
But then you can talk about how, in doing the same activity, repetition has huge power. To repeat the same thing creates this kind of zone in this square with the four lights. So that kind of zone, when you enter, the energy is different there. That’s why people came in for five minutes and 40 minutes later didn’t believe that they’d been in there for 40 minutes. That space was charged with that kind of energy by repetition.
It’s interesting that for a lot of people, and maybe people especially in New York City, you have to set aside a separate zone to stop and experience what we’re talking about in terms of energy.
They would never do it themselves.
It was like a venue that was given to experience these kinds of things.
And it’s amazing how it worked. I didn’t have any idea that it would work like it did. I had no idea people would wait in line.
The line often ran around the block, like at a rock concert.
It’s just amazing. It’s like first of all you enter the zone, and you have a very strong awareness that you’re being observed by the square of people waiting, you’re being observed by me, and then you’re in this light. I’m just like a trigger for themselves. I’m like a mirror to them. After a while they don’t look at me anymore, their eyes look inward into their selves. That gives them that incredibly precious time that they never had because they’re running around with their BlackBerrys. This was kind of a luxury that they indulged in once that would change everything. The whole piece is about being in the present. Being in the moment, not reflecting on the past.
And that’s something you’ve thought a lot about in your work, right? The present.
That’s why I removed the table that was there in the beginning of this piece. The table wasn’t necessary. At the end of one day early on, a man came in a wheelchair. I didn’t even know if this man had legs or not because the table was obstructing the view. I said, “What kind of formality do I need?” Because The Artist Is Present was an extension of an older piece, Nightsea Crossing, which had a table, I thought I needed a table again. But then I thought, “I don’t need a table. I don’t need anything.”
I’m thinking of a very early piece of yours—the metronomes spread throughout four or five rooms. That’s a piece that was very much about being aware of time. Where do you think your interest in the passing of time and the present come from?
I can’t remember. There was always this idea of how life is fleeting. I think it had very much to do with meeting the Buddhist way of thinking. I started reading and reflecting on the temporality of everything and how material things aren’t of any kind of importance. The glass, just throw it on the floor and destroy it. We touch things that aren’t important, but then the only thing we really grasp is the present. It’s the only thing that’s real. The future hasn’t happened and the past already happened. So to extend that present, how to extend it and also to involve people, to me it’s become very important. And I’ve always believed that art in the 21st century would be art without objects. When I removed the table it was, like, so clear.
What you said a minute ago, about people who don’t know much art theory coming upon your work at MoMA—that’s great. Any chance to welcome people from outside the art-world circle jerk into the actual experience of looking at art should be taken.
It’s also really important now to know how to leave a legacy and how to teach. One thing we always forgot to teach to the public was how to perceive this type of art. Until now, the idea of the museum has been very 19th century. Don’t touch, just look.
It’s like a zoo for art.
And I see the enormous need the public has to experience things and to change that. And that’s why the people started waiting. They wanted to be there on that chair, to experience something the museum doesn’t give them. Another very important thing is that the public is always perceived as a group, never as an individual. And by taking that individual and putting him in front of me in the chair, it becomes a one-to-one experience.
It’s interesting to hear that coming from a former communist. Groupthink was very important to the communist ethos, at least as practiced in Eastern Europe before the various collapses.
Totally. [laughs] But I was always the black sheep in the group. I want to make some work next, but I have to wait until some fairs because I want to use a black sheep. I need a black sheep.
A literal black sheep.
Yeah, yeah. I want a little black sheep.
This zoo analogy, where the art is trapped like a sad animal—
Especially at art fairs.
Especially at art fairs. And you mentioned theory too. Do you find an exclusivity to the art world? The academic nature of the way people inside it talk to each other, along with the insane amounts of money that travel back and forth in it, lead to not a lot of entry points for the average citizen.
Art is so complex now, what’s happening. First of all, the museums become like modern temples. People don’t go to church, people go to the museum because there is art that can elevate your spirit in certain ways, without necessarily being religious. So that’s one thing. Then art becomes a commodity. So art becomes a way of investment. People buy art without caring about what the art represents. It’s just a way of making money. So then art loses its purpose in many ways. This exhibition by Damien Hirst, “End of an Era,” was very important for me. It opened just before my show did. I was always thinking that yes, this is the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. The whole thing with his diamond-skull piece, it’s such a metaphor and such an incredibly ironic piece to really reflect what society has become.
The extreme price is actually an important part of the piece.
I think that we need somebody like Jeff Koons or like Damien Hirst. Every society needs that to reflect our own vanity and what art has become. So the thing with the economic crisis right now, it’s very good for art. It’s actually excellent. The worse the economic crisis, the better it is. Every time when performers have disappeared and then reappeared again, it’s always when an economic crisis has happened. [laughs] It’s really phenomenal, but at the same time, performance art has the biggest possibility for transformation because it’s dealing with the public and the public experience. The public needs to be educated on how to perceive this new form of art. I started to do this thing called public drill, like a military drill, last summer.
Drill like in boot camp?
Yeah, I made this big piece in Manchester called “Abramović’s Choice,” which is 14 international young artists who performed for 17 days.
Right. It’s also been referred to as “Marina Abramović Presents...”
Each day, only 250 people can come to the museum. The museum had been emptied—for the first time in history we asked the museum to be empty of collections. It took six months to empty it just for the performance. Then the public come in, and they have to give their word of honor that they would not leave the space for four hours. They had to dress in white coats. Once they have white coats on, they can go into the space. Then I spend one hour with them. For 17 days, each day, 250 new people. And in this one hour I tried to slow them down. I tried to get them to forget about time. I tried to give them exercises in breathing, lying on the floor, everything. And then after that they’re allowed to see the other three hours of 14 other performances that were happening parallel to this, all simultaneously. Then they take their white coats off, get a certificate of accomplishment, and they go out. I think that what I wanted to create was a school for the public to perceive a new form of art—to learn how to do something when nothing’s happening.
Do you think that kind of stuff needs to happen outside of institutions like MoMA? Sort of in more populist places?
I made this historical jump to finally becoming mainstream art at the MoMA in this exhibition. It was never mainstream art, just as video and photography weren’t mainstream art and then became it. But I propose that institutions do these kinds of workshops, and my institution would deal with that—to educate the public how to perceive when nothing happened.
Is this the thing that you’re doing in Hudson, New York?
Yes, you have to pass through Hudson to see the building. It’s on the way back to the city. It’s this huge building with columns.
I think I know the building you’re talking about. When does it start and what will happen there?
2012. By 2012 I have to raise enough money to restore it and make it very simple. I want to start with video, music, theater, dance, performance, and cinema, but only commissioned works of art by young artists and known artists who’ve never done performance pieces but would consider doing it, with a minimum of six hours. Everything has to be a long duration. This is an institution for long-durational work. I actually wanted to create these chairs with reversible beds, so you can last ten hours. If you want to you can sleep, there’s a blanket. In this arm there’s a cold drink, and in this one a hot meal. So you never leave.
Like a prefabricated life.
You’re in the piece all the time, even if you sleep. That’s what I wanted to do. This is a very important area because there is Bard College, MASS MoCA, and the Dia Beacon. And also Columbia would like to collaborate. We have so much interest already, so this is the right moment to develop this.
This part of the Hudson Valley is sort of an epicenter of art life outside the city. So, I was really excited when I was reading the catalog from the MoMA show and I saw that you’d selected a text by Alexandra David-Néel. I love her. I think she was amazing.
Me too, her and Madame Blavatsky are my favorites. I like Blavatksy going to the candles looking for the truth.
So good. And the photos of Alexandra David-Néel in her Tibetan-explorer gear. How did you discover her?
I was very interested in the beginning, before Tibetan Buddhism, in philosophy. So I was reading a lot about Madame Blavatsky’s automatic writings. She was Russian, living in London, and she was a friend of David-Néel’s.
Did you identify with her? Did you take inspiration from her?
Yeah, I did. I really did. I’m not taking inspiration from other artists because other artists take inspiration from something else, so it’s like taking secondhand. I’m not interested in secondhand.
Traveling and nature for me are huge inspirations. Anything to do with, as I call them, spaces of power: waterfalls, earthquakes, or volcanoes, some kind of incredible, tremendous energy. Arizona, with the cactus, it’s just a mystic place.
There’s a lot of power there.
Incredible. You have to be at that power place and you just start being and you have your own experience. I love this thing that, like, in rocks, there is a certain memory in rocks. So you go to the landscape and you have the same vision. And another person goes to the landscape and has the same vision because the actual idea is in it.
It’s embedded in the rock.
I lived for one year with the Aborigines in the Australian desert. And there I saw lots of things, I mean I experienced the most amazing things. They have an extra sense of perception. They can walk on ectoplasm without touching the ground. I’ve been with the tribes. One entire year is a long time. That changed my life. That changed my life completely. The Aborigine is the person who is born with this ability already. We practice the technique to get there, but the Aborigine doesn’t need it. They don’t need to do anything.
And what about us?
Oh, we are totally desperate. We are invalids because technology cut us off from that kind of perception.
We made technology into a crutch.
They say of us, “Oh poor white man, doesn’t have his own dream.” Because they have their own dream, they are connected to nature. Everything is connected to everything. By the urban way of life, by covering the floors with concrete and parquet, we don’t know where the genetic lines are anymore. We can’t tap the energy from the planet.
It seems like through your work you can tap into some of it, though.
My work changes me because it has such high aims, almost unreachable, and I go through them, and then that changes me. But if I’m just in my own life I always use the easy way, like everybody else. You never get anywhere with that.
Is the danger and pain in your work a means to amplify the present?
No, it’s more to understand the physical limits of the body. I was very interested to see what the physical limits were. In the early stages of these performances, I went to see operations in hospitals. The brain, the hip— I’d be in there for three or four hours. They use saws, they use wires, they use everything, testing the physical limits. And later on in life through these performances I got very interested in mental limits, which I think is so much more difficult. Everyone’s like, “Oh, she’s not doing such difficult pieces.” But it’s not true. The other ones were short, I could do a piece in whatever—one hour, two hours—and then have six months to rest.
Yeah, and physical pain is sort of tangible. Psychic pain is kind of abstract and harder to confront, right?
Yeah, totally. Because it’s like you’re dealing with a kind of material you don’t really know, you know?
You’ve said that around 1989, you felt the need for change, for laughter, pleasure, and glamour.
Yes, yes. Did you see my new Riccardo Tisci?
Oh, is this the celebration? The closing reception for the MoMA show? Yeah. You looked very glamorous.
God. He made haute couture for me. I looked the best ever.
How do you feel in stuff like that?
I love it. You know, most artists want to present themselves in one certain way to the public. It is like they are shy. After this Great Wall piece that I did with Ulay—
Just for those who don’t know, this was your final piece with Ulay. You each started at one end of the Great Wall and then walked until you met each other.
Right. I understood that I was always presented, probably, as very skeptical and tough. I was just so fed up with this because I had the other side too. I love bad jokes. I’ll tell you the dirtiest jokes ever. I love eating, endlessly, chocolates. I love glamour.
You do come off as very much an ascetic in your work.
It’s all rolled together. And I think that people can relate to me much more because of this human thing. Because everybody has this contradiction in themselves. But they are ashamed to show it.
I’ve often thought that artists who like to be seen as working class just feel defensive about having art as a career. Let’s talk a little about The Artist Is Present. How did you feel at the moment it ended?
Did you see the ending?
It was insane.
The ovation lasted for like 15 minutes.
Sixteen, they told me. And they only stopped because they were laughing. Then my ex-husband appeared there and he kissed me. And I was like [gasp]. He left me two years ago, and now I’m still in love with him. It was so emotional for me, this ending.
When somebody would start to cry while sitting with you, what would be going on inside your head?
Sometimes I cry with them because you develop this unconditional love, which is a really incredible feeling to have for a total stranger—with people you never saw before. I saw this huge man. He was like, this biker or something. He sits on the chair, very angry. Ten minutes later, he was weeping. But we’re not talking crying, it was like, tears running down his face. He was so incredible. I had to cry. I mean, just right away there was this reaction. I cry a lot, by the way, because there’s so much pain and loneliness in New York. It’s just unbelievable.
There’s a lot of inner turmoil going on in New York, yeah.
And people are not used to looking in each other’s eyes. It’s amazing how simple this concept was.
Looking strangers directly in the eyes is usually seen as some kind of a challenge. It’s like the animal kingdom, like dogs locking eyes with each other.
When I was traveling in the Muslim countries, in Arab countries, I taught myself to avoid men’s eyes. Because if he looks at you nice, he owns you. The moment you catch his eyes there’s the idea of ownership, which is unbelievable.
There’s also this idea of a staring contest.
It’s only the beginning that’s like a staring contest. After a while, you’re sitting there and thought processes start, and soon, you don’t even look into my eyes anymore. You’re actually… you can look inside yourself. It’s just another thing. I create the stage and certain rules. And then everything else that happens is up to you. It triggers all these emotions, and emotions are overwhelming. You know, during the last week of the show, people would wait for hours. The museum closed at 5:30, and the ones who stayed all day but didn’t get in would just go down to the corner and wait from 5:30 till the next day, which is insane.
Actually, waiting is a part of the process too.
Right, that’s what I got the day that I was there. A woman was sitting with you. She was dressed in these clothes that were just like yours, but they were black instead of white. She had her hair done like yours too. I thought it was kind of goofy. And then she stayed there for hours. I thought, “I’d be angry if I were waiting behind her.” But then I realized that, of course, that’s part of it.
And at some point you give up. Just totally give up. And then something else takes place, so it doesn’t matter if you’re there or not. I changed on so many levels because of this show. I really am different. So many things don’t bother me anymore. Nothing can raise my anger. It’s amazing.
Do you think that will fade?
I hope not.
Do you remember the woman I was just talking about?
Oh yeah. She had the same robe as me but in black, and I was in white. So it created a strange image, like the Bergman movie The Seventh Seal.
Max von Sydow playing chess with Death, yeah.
Yeah, he’s playing chess with his death. And I had this impression. And then I was reflecting on Mozart. Close to the end of his life, he was very sick with fever and he had no money at all. And this strange man appeared, all dressed in black and gave him this envelope with lots of money in it and said, “My master sent me with an order for you to write a requiem.” So he’s writing this requiem, and he’s wondering why this master never appeared or asked about the progress of the work, and he still has a fever the whole time. And at the end, you know, he didn’t finish the requiem. But he started hallucinating that this requiem was actually for his own death, and that the person who ordered it was Death himself. So I started thinking about that while I was sitting there. Maybe my own death has come to visit me. But I think very often about that. In American culture, you’re so scared of dying. And everything about dying is removed. You have to be ever young, and you can’t age, and all the rest. But to me, death has to be part of everyday life because only when you understand that it can happen any minute can you enjoy life.
That’s something I was going to ask you about. I wondered if issues of mortality had anything to do with you thinking about time so much in your work.
Oh, so much work is about that. I was always thinking how every artist, in his own work, you could see the way that he’s going to die. It’s so strange.
How do you mean?
So many artists die on the toilet. But they dress them up and say they died in the studio. It’s amazing. I even studied it—how many artists died on the toilet.
Give me some names.
Oh, there are tons of names. I have it written down somewhere. But we’ll just leave it that way. Let’s not diminish the importance of the artist.
People will need to do their own research.
If I think about my own death, the most important thing to me is to die consciously. Consciously happy and without regret and without anger. It’s incredibly important. The Sufis say that “life is a dream and death is waking up,” so I really want to wake up nicely. But you know, one of my grandmothers lived to 103. Her mother lived to 116.
You’ve got a ways to go.
I’m 64 in November! That is a serious age. But I don’t feel it at all.