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Merging the subject, the object, and the medium in the art of Marina Abramovic

Speaking with STIR, Serbian conceptual & performance artist Marina Abramović expounds on her artistic motivations, the thematics of performance art, and what’s NEXT for her.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Mar 24, 2023

How does one explore ideas of self in relation to their audience, while layering it with deep emotions of endurance and feminism? Marina Abramović chose performance as her art form, delving into pushing the limits of the body and possibilities of the mind. As a means to this end, she used her own body as the medium, bridging the distance between the visual artist and the viewer. Abramović was born in Serbia (in Yugoslavia, at the time) and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Belgrade. Her early childhood was spent in Yugoslavia's repressive communist dictatorship, with both her parents closely tied to the regime, rendering strict supervision and what she frequently refers to as "a difficult life." All of these experiences informed her artistic practice greatly, as is evident in the way that she often puts herself in danger, even cutting and burning herself, all perhaps a cathartic response to her early life experiences. “Art does not need to be comfortable. Art has to have a message, it has to predict the future, it has to open the minds of people and allow them to see reality in many different ways,” she says.

Acknowledged as a pioneer and key figure of cutting edge performance art, STIR speaks with Marina Abramović on her practice, the thematics of performance art, influences, and what she is looking forward to NEXT.

The Cleaner displayed at an exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi  | Marina Abramović | STIRworld
The Cleaner displayed at an exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rahul Kumar: You are celebrated as one of the most influential performance artists of our times. I am curious to know the very inception of this self-expression that employs your own body as the subject, object, and medium for your art. How has the personal history of your home country informed your expression?

Marina Abramović: For any artist, where they are born will play an important role in their life. Their heritage, culture, family history, etc. This is the main material that artists work with. The deeper they go into themselves, the more universal the work becomes. In my case, my grandmother was deeply religious and my parents were communists in the truest sense of the word. I inherited spirituality from my grandmother and will power, determination, and courage from my parents. All of these elements are reflected in my work.

7 Deaths of Maria Callas, Marina Abramović Video: Courtesy of Opéra national de Paris on YouTube

Rahul: You received a formal education in painting at Belgrade. Do you still paint? Also, how does the performative format derive from your early experiences of art making and writing?

Marina: I started painting at a very early age, and had my first exhibition when I was only 14-years-old. I continued painting through art academy and that is when my interest shifted from painting to experiments with sound and from there to the body and performance. After I found this new medium, it was so much more fulfilling than what I could do in a two dimensional form, on the canvas in my studio. The horizon opened in front of me, full of possibilities and new freedoms of expression. I can use air, fire, water, earth, and my body. I didn’t see any point in going back to painting.

The Artist is Present, 2010, | Marina Abramović | STIRworld
The Artist is Present, 2010 Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rahul: There are recurring themes of pain and endurance, often even death, in your creative practice. Do you believe that the starkness of your expression makes a section of your viewership uncomfortable? Is it disturbing to alienate parts of your audience group?

Marina: All human beings are afraid of pain, suffering, and mortality. These are also the three subjects that I am most interested in presenting in front of the public, hoping that I can liberate them from this fear. Art does not need to be comfortable. Art has to have a message, it has to predict the future, it has to open the minds of people and allow them to see reality in many different ways. The most important thing is that people come out of their comfort zone.

Marina Abramović, film still from Body of Truth | Marina Abramović | STIRworld
Marina Abramović, film still from Body of Truth Image: © Indi Film, 2019

Rahul: In a recent presentation at the Centraal Museum in Amsterdam, your contemporary work rubbed shoulders with a 17th century painting. Then again, there was a unique juxtaposition of your early video work, alongside your most recent performance titled 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. How are you expanding your idiom through the context of other artworks—your own or that of other artists?

Marina: As an artist this is not my job. I do my work and it is the job of curators to create context and dialogues with the past and future. On my side, I don't see the need to over analyse. This is truly the job of art historians who can perhaps see my work more objectively.

Marina Abramović in conversation with Ulay about the much-talked about performance at MoMA Video: Courtesy of Louisiana Channel on YouTube

Rahul: What’s NEXT for Marina Abramović?

Marina: I like to wake up in the morning and look at the world like a young child, full of curiosity. I like ideas which I have never done before, so I don’t need to repeat myself. I like ideas to bring me into new territories. I want to explore science, technology, even opera. There is no specific plan of what is NEXT. The most important thing for me is that the idea has to excite and surprise me. 

Marina Abramović, still image | Marina | STIRworld
Marina Abramović, still image Image: Courtesy of Nadja Varga on Flickr

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