by John JervisDec 31, 2020
How did Marina Abramović find her calling in the genre? Well, all her fans have the ‘Sky’ to thank.
“I remember an important moment in my life when I was painting clouds and different types of clouds - clouds coming and going, clouds attacking humans, black shadows. One day I was lying in the field looking at the sky and that particular moment there were no clouds. It was an absolutely blue sky and out of nowhere came 12 military planes and made this drawing in the sky. I was looking at how they flew and kept dissolving and disappearing and then it became blue again. After that something happened to me...I understood why I have to go to the studio and make something two-dimensional when I can go to nature and use the air, water, sky, and my body and make art,” recalled 74-year-old Marina Abramović during her virtual conversation with the young gun of Indian art, Nikhil Chopra.
The talk, titled “Breaking the Fourth Wall: From Witnessing to Participation” was organised by Museum of Art and Photography in Bangalore as part of its ‘Art as Witness’ series. Many more interesting notes were shared with the viewers during the course of the talk, which lasted for an hour. Today, Abramović is considered the ‘grandmother of performance art’. Moving away from the traditional mediums of art, Abramović in her 50-year-long career expressed herself using her body both as the subject and a tool. The Artist is Present held in MoMA in 2010, where she sat motionless for over 700 hours, gazing silently at the viewer seated opposite her, is Abramović's iconic work. Actually, it’s just one out of many watershed pieces of her work. Sharing the images of some of those like Rhythm, The Great Wall Walk, Balkan Baroque, The House with the Ocean View, Abramović described the meaning of performance art.
Showing an image of The House With the Ocean View, she said, “Ocean for me is (the) minds of the public. I created this performance (in) three units. I lived without any food and only drinking pure water. I was interested that if I purify myself, can I purify the audience, can I prove purified atomic energy in space? For me it was really important to be in the performance now. If you are performing and your mind is in Honolulu or in Thailand, with your body in front of the audience, you actually miss the moment here now because performance is about that moment. We need to learn to live in the present moment. Past already happened, the future didn’t, and especially now when you are in this incredible time of coronavirus, all that we have is the present because the future is unknown”.
Chopra and Abramović are itinerant artists, travelling the world with their works, which in their case happens to be their bodies. With COVID-19 hitting the world, travelling has taken a backseat. When asked by Abramović about how he is spending time at home, Chopra spoke about bonding with his family, his two growing children, his beautiful natural surroundings in Goa and making drawings in his studio. “I am really happy that I can spend some time in my studio and I just dive into my world of drawings. I can totally relate to you when you say that for the first time in your life in your working career to be in one place in three months. I really feel the same way because we can’t send our work because we have to be there. Our bodies have to be present there. I am trying to be present here right now. The time that we spend in our studio is like meditation in a sense of the ritual we create as artists. I have never had that luxury actually,” expressed Chopra, who created a stir with his nine-day long performance Lands, Waters and Skies at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, last year. Theatre, painting, drawing come together in Chopra’s multi-layered explorations of identity, body and history.
Chopra also pondered on how the viewer is going to read the works of Melati (Melati Suryodarmo), Alistair McLean and their own in this world of social distancing and isolation? “The one thing I miss the most is the humour, not politically correct jokes. I think that is something to do with political correctness. If we have the same political correctness as we had in the 70s, 80s and 90s, we won’t be able to create 80 per cent of our work. There is something wrong in our approach to our humour,” expressed Abramović.
The artists then went on to discuss risk and uncertainty. It’s not risk but compromise that bothers Abramović more. She revealed that in the last three-four months, she has been often asked to do a Zoom performance but refused them all. She said she doesn’t want to present her work sans human interaction.
Chopra concurred with her, saying, “I have done a couple of lecture performances and it felt disconnected. The worst feeling was hanging up the phone, shutting the laptop and I still had my makeup and costumes. I felt let down. I felt that the cycle wasn’t complete. I feel that so much that we do is always reflected in the eyes of the viewers. You should be able to smell the sweat in the room... The most basic human experience is to come close.”
Abramović also spoke about the great French artist Henri Matisse. During the Second World War, when everybody was painting atrocities and war, Matisse was only painting flowers. “So, I think we have to develop an optimistic point of view. We have to create just the opposite of what is around,” reflected Abramović. She had performances planned till 2025, all of which stand cancelled except for one - the premiere of her opera 7 Deaths of Maria Callas in Munich on September 1. “It’s the first opera I am acting and directing. In all operas women die for love so I took all those deaths and put them all together. The opera has 2000 seats but due to social distancing, only 200 people will be allowed,” she laughed.
The conversation was followed by an equally fun question and answer session with the viewers during which Chopra revealed that Abramović’s art inspired him to take up the medium. Impressed with their conversation flowing seamlessly, Abramović even asked Chopra to do a workshop with her in the Himalayas, remembering a “crazy trip from Kashmir to Ladakh on a bus years ago”.