In 1997, she was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the Venice Biennale for her harrowing piece Balkan Baroque, in which she sat on a pile of 1,500 bloody cow bones, washing them for four days, six hours a day, in a hot and fetid-smelling basement. In 2002, Abramović presented The House with the Ocean View, where she lived on only water for twelve days in three open platform rooms in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York (recreated in the sixth season of Sex and the City— when Carrie and Aleksandr Petrovsky visit the gallery, remember?). In 2005, Abramović performed Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and in 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented The Artist is Present, the biggest performance retrospective in the museum’s history, which included a new piece where Abramović sat immobile for over 700 hours facing a chair in which audience members were invited to sit. The Artist is Present became an immediate sensation with over half a million people visiting the exhibition and 800,000 checking in on the museum’s live-feed of the performance. A crop of blogs and articles related to the audience experience of the work appeared and made Abramović’s face – and intent, piercing gaze – instantly famous.
In 2004, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Art Institute in Chicago, The University of Plymouth, UK, and Willams College, USA, and she is currently creating the Marina Abramović Institute for Preservation of Performance Art in Hudson, New York, which is set to open in 2012.
Abramović is surprisingly warm and convivial, reserving that famously fierce focus for her performances. This conversation took place in her home in downtown New York, a few days after her controversial art direction of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Gala in Los Angeles.
Your parents were partisans in World War Two and you grew up in a rather special situation. Can you tell me about your childhood?
My theory is that the more miserable childhood you get, the better artist you become. I don’t think anybody does much good work from happiness, because happiness is a state that doesn’t really push you into making work. But difficult childhood problems, families, all those things, somehow become a treasure, become some kind of source of inspiration for later on.
So, my childhood was not easy, that is what I think. Even though people think I am very lucky coming from that kind of family. First of all, before I was born, my mother was dreaming that she was giving birth to a huge, big snake.
That’s not too nice. She told you that?
She told me that. And then she was sitting at a [communist] party meeting— my mother is a national hero, my father is a national hero, she was a Major in the army, later on she was the director of the Museum of the Revolution and Art— she was a very strict, hardcore woman. She was pregnant and she was the president of the party meeting. In the middle of the party meeting, her water broke which means that she is going to start to deliver child. She was very proud to say that she absolutely did not react and first finished the party meeting and then she got brought to hospital to give the delivery.
But it was 1946, just after the war…everything was so poor, the health care and so on in ex-Yugoslavia…So, the placenta didn’t come completely out, parts stayed in her body and she got really poisoned. She was almost one year in the hospital and almost lost her life delivering me.
So, I was immediately given to my grandmother. Six years I was with my grandmother and these six years were very happy, as I can recall. Then, my mother and father were just doing their careers. They would come sometimes on the weekends. To me, it was like two strangers arriving and smiling and giving me presents, which I didn’t care about because I didn’t like presents. I never actually had dolls or teddy bears. I always liked to play with shadows or some kind of invisible beings rather than to have objects. So every time they would give me something, I would just give the present to the first child I would see. I would just get rid of all these objects. I never kept anything.
My grandmother was very religious and she was most of the time in the church. She was going every day to the church and she was always taking me with her. I was kind of bored and I remember that one day— I always see people coming into church and they have this big vase with water where people would put their fingers and cross themselves— so, I was thinking, Okay, maybe if I drink all this water I will become holy. So, I put up a little chair and I went up and drank all the water from that vase and I got terrible diarrhea—
Oh, that’s disgusting.
I think it was very dirty hands that had been in there…
My grandmother had a very harmonious way of life. It was very spiritual, and it was very important, this early influence. Very early in the morning she would wake up and put the kettle on and she would pray and the day started…everything had this order. The kitchen was the center of the world. It was very important, the kitchen. She always asked me what I had dreamed, and she always told me the significance of the dreams. Every big drama was happening in the kitchen. And always, at the end of the day, just after sunset, she would light a candle again, she would pray…It was really a kind of ritualistic way of dealing with everyday life.
When I was six years old, my mother was pregnant with my brother. I was brought to the house of my mother and father from my grandmother’s house exactly on the day when my brother was coming home with my mother from the hospital. I saw him, this big red baby, and everybody was running around her, and all the attention was on him.
My brother developed early child epilepsy. Which was really very difficult. He would get these attacks and everybody in the family would run around. Somehow, because of that, if anything went wrong, I was always beaten up, for any kind of thing. It was like I was the one to kind of push away, while he was the one to be precious.
But I was not jealous of him, I was just very sad. And I developed some kind of disease where I would start bleeding a lot— from my nose, and I would get blue spots everywhere on my body even if I just fell on the floor. And I remember that one day, one of my baby teeth fell out and it would not stop bleeding for three months.
Oh my God!
They had me sitting in a bed in a way so that I wouldn’t swallow and choke myself in my sleep. This was between six and seven years old. I went to the hospital. They told my parents that I had hemophilia and that I was going to die. I stayed in the hospital for one year. And this was the most happy time of my life, in my childhood, definitely. Because everyone was bringing presents, everyone was nice to me. And then, in the end, they discovered that it was not hemophilia, it was something which is actually that you have very long [slow] coagulation of the blood. And this disappeared after my first menstruation, it just went away.
Then I went back home and it was like this military control there. My mother and father didn’t get along very well. Even though there was big love in the beginning of their relationship, it turned into hell. So it was a very violent situation. They beat each other, basically. And they never talked to each other. There was always screaming and running. Me and my brother kind of turned inside ourselves.
My whole life at that time was books, and writing poetry and going to see classical music concerts. But I had to always be at home at ten o’clock. Even in the early performance years, when I started working as an artist, I had to be home at ten o’clock. So, I did everything before ten o’clock.
How did you move toward becoming an artist? You said that you were writing poetry and listening to music when you were younger, when did you begin to find art…?
Oh, immediately! Already when I was with grandmother, I was always making drawings. I was kind of playing with myself, inventing invisible beings, I would go under the blanket and create these shadow plays against the wall. I was never attached to objects or things, material things…I mean, look at this home now!
[Marina gestures around at the completely white living room space in the new apartment she has just moved to, where the only furniture is the orange chairs we are sitting on and the small table on which my audio recorder is balanced. Her previous apartment, a gorgeous corner unit, was also sparse.]
I am going to leave all the furniture in the other place. I am going to sell it, everything. It’s a different space, you know? You have to be minimal. And I am not attached to anything…at all! [Laughs.]
Actually, the first thing I was doing as a child was that I was making paintings from my dreams.
Did that come from your grandmother? Since you said she would ask you about your dreams and interpret them in the kitchen…
Yes, probably. See, I didn’t even think about that! [Laughs.] But actually it was probably that. My dreams, that was what I was doing, that was my first work. And I remember that when I started painting, I was using green and blue, these two colors the most. Just green and blue. I don’t know why. It was always green and blue, everything was green and blue.
After that, I moved from painting dreams to car accidents. I was so interested in depicting socialistic truck accidents. I would actually hear that there was an accident and go there to make photographs and go home and paint them.
Why do you think you had this fascination with truck accidents?
I have no idea, I still don’t understand. Something, something…to me it was like the mechanical error in the trucks was something… You know, I was always interested in bulldozers. Or the big cranes that were taking things and moving the earth, stuff like that.
And I was always thinking that those kind of things were going to kill us. At a very early age I was even thinking about performances. Like, people would be in a gallery and at one point they just hear a sound and these big trucks start arriving and surround the gallery, projecting light…
…and it’s like these machines and you have to kind of run for your life. All of that was really important.
And then I went to the children’s store and I bought a little truck. Then I went to the highway and I put the little truck on the highway to see if the big trucks would smash the little truck. And the little truck was always unhurt.
Really? It was never hit?
Never. Never. So I would take this little truck and I would make a new [painting] series of the truck accidents, where the big truck is colliding with the little baby truck and the baby truck is totally unhurt and the other truck is smashed to pieces, so that actually they gain the symbolic idea of innocence that can overcome the mechanical age.
There may not have been an audience when you were doing this, but it seems to me that it was still very much a performance.
Totally. I was painting but at the same time I was always selling these different ideas and I would propose them and they were always being refused. I remember one idea for my first show that I proposed in the gallery. It was refused, so I was forced to show my paintings. But the idea was to create sinks around the gallery and to call the exhibition: Come Wash With Us. People would come in and they would take their clothes off and there would be all these women washing, washing, washing and then cleaning, drying, then you’d get fresh clothes and then you could leave.
And the gallery didn’t want to do that?
No, no, it was an unrealized concept.
After the truck accidents, I started looking to the sky.
How old were you at that time?
For the truck accidents, I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. And then I start looking to the sky. And next I started looking at the clouds. This was a big thing for me. I created this very complicated theory – the clouds were there, the clouds were coming, the clouds were projections, there were the shadows of the clouds, and the clouds were attacking…. I created this whole thing! [Laughs.]
And then, once, I lay on the grass and looked up and there was not one cloud in the sky, it was a blue sky. And then came twelve ultrasonic planes and made this incredible drawing. This was a revelation for me. I never went back to painting after that. I said, what the hell, I can do anything, I can just take planes and make drawings in the sky, I can use fire, water, I can use myself – why do I have to make something two dimensional and so restrictive? Art has given me an incredible freedom to do whatever I want.
At this point you were in art school. Were you met with resistance when you came with these kinds of ideas to your teachers and peers?
Completely. You know, when I start doing my performances, the teachers think I have to be put in a mental hospital. They think that I am absolutely deserted from what art means.
But one thing happened in ’68, which was very important. At that point I was a [communist] party member, there were demonstrations, everywhere there were demonstrations. We were asking President Tito for twelve different points to change. You know, cultural changes, to get better food, better grants, better scholarships for the artists, you know all the health stuff— lots and lots of things. Meanwhile, in between all that, we were also asking for a building to use as a student cultural center, which we didn’t have. And the particular building we were asking for was a building for the secret police. Just a detaining center where the husbands would come and play cards – whatever – chess, and the women came and knitted pullovers. We want the place. Tito actually took only three or four points from all of us and one was to give us this cultural center.
And once we got the cultural center, we formed a group we called “Young 70” — “Mladi 70”— was the name. There were six of us and I was the only girl. It was five guys and me. We started meeting every day. We decided that we absolutely were not going into traditional art.
The first exhibition we made in that space was called Little Things. It was a very important exhibition because we decided that we were going to show the things which inspire us, but not the work itself. It was an amazing exhibition.
Tell me about it.
At that time, it was a much bigger group – maybe we were twelve artists, and after that the other artists went back to their own regular work and we stayed, the six of us, and continued doing different explorations.
One girl brought the door of her studio, literally, because she said, “Every time I open the door I enter into my own space, that inspires me.” So she brought the door. Another guy brought his girlfriend, and he said, “Every time, first I make love to her and then I go to the studio to work.” So she sat there on the chair. Another one brought a very old blanket full of holes. He said, “I go to my studio and I lie under this blanket, and I sleep a little bit and I wake up with really good ideas.” Then another brought a radio. He said, “I always listen to the radio.” He went to the radio station and when we opened the show, we turned on his radio, and in the radio station he was opening the show.
Ha! That’s great.
I brought a peanut, just a little peanut, which I opened and put up on the wall with a needle. I called it, The Cloud and its Shadow. Just a tiny little peanut, but it would change everything because it was really a shadow of kind, of what a cloud would look like. It was a minimal piece but it was important: To think in a different dimension.
Then we all really started working in this cultural center, it became our home. It was like this explosion of ideas. I was the only one performing there, the other ones were more installation-oriented, objects, using all different types of material: film, sound, stuff like that.
So, this was the beginning.
The artistic community that you created with this group must have been very important.
Oh yes, it’s historical, it’s huge, there have been books about it. Actually now, looking back, this was actually the avant-garde. This was the beginning of conceptualizing art.
You had a strong core within your group, but how were you perceived from the outside? What was the public reaction to that first show, for instance?
See, this was very interesting. The Student Cultural Center was like an island, completely isolated, because it was not official art and everybody was against us. We had a group, the guys had their girlfriends, and the girlfriends were art critics…
So we were like, “This was our group.” It’s so funny. Then we just had a small audience. It was always the same people and we could not get anywhere, it was incredible! We didn’t…it was not present in any kind of newspaper, they would not write about us, they wouldn’t talk about us, we were ignored.
But you weren’t upset—
No! We didn’t care. We were very active for five years. After those first five years, we started to feel that we wanted to be international, that we wanted to work somewhere else.
In ’71 there was a very important visit— actually it may have been earlier than ’71— of Richard Demarco. He was the guy who was doing the Edinburgh Festival. He went to all the Eastern European countries to look for interesting artists for his festival. He went to Bulgaria, to Romania, to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and he came to Yugoslavia. When he came, he was an official guest, so they took him to all the official studios.
And not to yours.
Definitely the official never even mentioned that there was such a thing as the Student Cultural Center. He [Demarco] was there for three days and he looked at everything. He was bored and he wasn’t interested in any of this stuff, you know, social realist stuff. So, he was leaving and that afternoon someone told him, “Oh, but you know, there is this interesting group of artists in the Student Cultural Center.” And he said he wanted to meet us. It was already like ten or eleven in the evening and he was leaving the next morning. I remember at like midnight, we arrived with our little photographs to his hotel room to show to him what we were doing. And he said, “Oh God, this is what I want.”
After he went back to Edinburgh, he sent an official letter saying that these are the artists that he has chosen. And the government said, “Sorry, but we are not sponsoring any of this. We don’t consider this art.” And they refused. Then he wrote us personally and he said, “The government won’t sponsor you, you have to find money for tickets. If you come we will take care of you so you can do the work.”
We just worked like hell and found the money and went there.
It was our first visit abroad. At that time, he [Demarco] also invited Joseph Beuys, it was the first time Joseph Beuys came out of Germany. Then all the Viennese “Aktionists” – Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus – I mean it was an amazing collection of people. It was the first time that we saw that we are not alone, there is a family out there that is also doing crazy stuff. It was an incredible experience.
We worked all kinds of jobs— in kitchens, washing dishes, whatever, to survive. And we stayed one year in England. Then we came back because it was just so rough…all the work.
Tell me about the jobs you had in England.
Oh, everything. The main thing was washing dishes in the kitchen of restaurants. But then I got a very interesting job as a post woman. I had this ugly English uniform. And I had to deliver letters. And I speak very bad English, so I would end at three in the morning still delivering letters in the streets. It took so long to read and find the streets and everything. Then, after about four weeks of this job, I made a very important decision. I said, “Okay, every letter that is written with a typewriter machine means something official and is bad news— I will throw it away. Only the ones written by hand mean love and emotion and something very romantic— I am going to deliver those.” So, my job became much less complicated.
[Laughs.] Were there any repercussions?
After about two weeks, something was going very wrong and they asked me to leave. They could not prove anything, but they just asked me to resign.
That was a kind of performance too though, wasn’t it in a way?
Then Richard Demarco said to me, “Do you have any architectural design skills?” You know, for every job they asked us about we just said, “Yes. We can do it.” So, I said, “Yes.” And he said, “I have a very nice job for you, and it’s well-paid, in a design office.” So, I went to the design office. And they said, “Okay, we are designing the interior of a dining room in a luxury boat. Give us some proposals.” And they would pay at the end of the week. I had no idea, I had never done such a thing. So, I take the piece of paper and I start drawing lines, you know?
Like a grid.
Yes, a grid! And all week I do this. At the end of the week, I was really well paid! And they said, “Can we see what you’ve been doing?” I showed them this paper. And they looked at me [laughs] and said, “But we have printed this paper, there are hundreds of sheets just right there in the office, you don’t need to do that!” But they were so amazed that they paid me anyway.
So, the next week, I had the paper and I had to leave the job because I could not do the job.
But you got one week out of it!
[Laughs.] Yes, I got one week. I got away with it for one week.
Then I was working in a factory packing toys. You know these kinds of toys… [She gestures.] How do you call them? You put together these elements…
You mean like Meccano? Putting buildings together?
No, not buildings. Like a puzzle.
Oh, like a wooden jigsaw puzzle.
So, we had to pack them. And you were paid by the piece, as many packages as you did. I remember that all the people there were stoned from morning to evening, so they were like moving in slow motion. I never use drugs, and I really had this communist attitude, so I was doing it so fast and so much that I made so much money on this, because I was the only one sober! [Laughs.] I was just packing, packing, packing!
And then the owner of the factory got interested in how good a worker I was, so he invited me for dinner. And then he said he wanted to marry me…
So I had to run away from that job, too! [Laughs.]
I am not really marriage material.
And how were you living while you were in England? Were you living together with the group of five other artists that you’d traveled with?
In that time, when we came to London after Edinburgh to stay for one year, we rented an apartment. Only two of us were working, one guy and me. And all the rest of them pretended they could not find jobs, so we actually were feeding them…
Actually, when I think about this, it was really ridiculous! They were doing nothing and two of us were working for them.
Paying for everything?
Yes, paying for everything.
And you were all living together in one apartment?
Yes, all living together because there was no money. To me it was very difficult. I was working all day, so I could not really concentrate on my own work. And it was becoming more and more miserable.
And I remember my mother, who was so unhappy that I was doing this out of her control and everything, she applied— without even asking me— for me to be an assistant at the [Arts] Academy in Belgrade. Then she told me that I was on the shortlist and that I should come for an interview. I have to say that I was quite happy to do that. So I went for an interview and I got the job!
And what kind of job was that?
As the assistant to the professors of painting. I was at that job for two years and my main thing was to tell them [the students] that their painting was stupid and idiotic, you should do something else. And the main thing [I said] they should do was to leave the Academy and travel and see the world.
I was also doing my performances. They put one of my performance images on the cover of a very important Italian magazine. And the Academy somehow saw it— it was a naked image— so they were planning to throw me out. And on the day when they had this meeting at the Academy and I knew it was going to happen— somebody had told me— I asked for the word and I said, “I would like to resign.” So they didn’t have the pleasure of kicking me out.
When you moved back to Belgrade and got that job at the Academy, how old were you?
I was twenty-five.
Did you move back in with your mom, or did you get an apartment of your own?
No, no. I was always with my mom. There was no way. You know, the way housing was built in the system, no one had their own place. You lived not only with your mother, but with all generations. Like, a grandmother, a grandfather…you know. It was terrible.
But I was so privileged. Because of my family, because my father had been a General in the war, we had a very, very big space. So I had my own room and another room that I made into my studio. Two rooms, which was unthinkable for anybody else.
So, everyone was always saying, “Oh, but you are so lucky, you have these parents who can do everything…” But it was very painful. Especially when I was passing the exam in the Academy. Because the exam in the Academy is very strict and you have to be talented to pass. And everyone said, “Oh, but you don’t need to worry about it. Your mother can just make a phone call.” Because she was the Director of the art museum. It was terrible.
I remember when I finally left, I wanted to go as far as I could, where nobody knew who my father and my mother was, where I could really make it on my own and they can’t tell me it was because of them. And finally, I did it.
When I left, I was twenty-nine.
How did your mother feel about you pursuing art, and this particular kind of performance art?
Terrible! I mean, there was a war constantly. She was screaming…
What did she not like about it?
How do you mean, what did she not like about it? Cutting myself with razors? Lying naked in a fire? I mean, just name it. She was criticized at communist meetings. You know, what kind of education did she give her daughter? I was like a black sheep, a rebel.
This kind of energy— that I needed to rebel, not just towards the family but also toward society— it was very important. After that, I could survive anywhere. I could survive anywhere. That was the hardest part.
When you did leave, at twenty-nine, what was it finally that made you leave?
At that point, there was an event… Finally, the museum of modern art gave me the space to show all my written performances, which were photographic at that time. I went to the opening, and I knew that I had to be home at ten o’clock. Everybody was going for dinner, but I went home anyway. I didn’t know that somebody had called my mother and told her on the phone, “Your daughter is hanging naked in the museum. There is a photo.”
So, I arrived home at five to ten. I opened the door, and the house was dark. And I thought, she’s sleeping. I opened the dining room door and she is sitting in the dark, completely dressed in her double breasted-suit, really white in the face. And there is this huge crystal ashtray from the marriage that never worked, that someone had given my father and my mother, and she picked up this ashtray and she threw it at my head. Really, with the words from Taras Bulba, “I make you and I am taking your life from you.”
She threw this ashtray and it is flying at my head and I remember thinking, “Okay, I am not going to move my head. She is going to smash my brain, and then she’s going to be put in prison, and she is going to pay for it!” But then I moved, and the ashtray went through the glass door and just fell. Something broke in me in that moment.
Very shortly after that, I escaped home and just left. I went to Amsterdam. She went to the police and she said that I had disappeared. She said how I was dressed and bla bla bla. And they said, “But what is her age?” And she said, “Twenty-nine.” And the police said, “We have more important things to do. Just go home please.” [Laughs.] It’s about time, you know?
She could not believe that I had left. She couldn’t believe that I could actually be on my own. And, you know, I went to live with Ulay at that time. We didn’t have anything.
You were living in Holland?
No. We just got the car from this French police. You saw the show at MoMA?
So you saw the car, it was in the show. It was not a luxury car with a bathroom or something. It just looked like a sardine can.
We had a dog. And we just traveled. We didn’t have to pay for electricity, for a telephone, for anything. We went to different places. We went to Sardinia. We milked the sheep at six in morning and then we would get food from the shepherds. I know how to make Pecorino really well, actually. Really well.
Then we would see where we could do performances. The performances were mostly not paid. If we think in today’s terms, it would be maybe twenty dollars for a performance like that.
It was really a very pure life. No compromises in any way.
Back then, you didn’t have an audience, you really had to find one. But today, when you work, you know there will be an audience. Does that change the way you conceptualize your work?
No. Audience is so necessary. I always needed an audience, I could not work without an audience. Audience completes the work. For me, that audience was small and now it is big. But it was as important. Now the audience is much bigger. And the more audience, the more energy I can draw from it to do my work, so now it is actually ideal.
I just made this huge gala at MOCA where we had something like eight-hundred and fifty people. I made them dress in white coats, all Hollywood guys, which was unbelievable.
I read about that, how some of the stars just didn’t know what to do…
It was one of the most insane things…And Yvonne Rainer protested. And it was very interesting, the letter form Yvonne Rainer. Thirty-six years ago I made a performance in Berlin and she sent me almost the same type of letter.
Yes. Thirty-six years ago. Saying that I am abusing the female body, that I am anti-feminist. I think she never really understood what my work is about. She is always looking from her agenda, not through mine.
And you don’t share her agenda.
No! I really don’t. I come from a completely different background, in which the woman was extremely strong. Which is why I never really needed to be a feminist. I’ve always done everything I wanted to do, I’ve never felt fragile or mistreated. So, I don’t know, all her agenda is not mine. She is constantly projecting onto me. I feel so sorry for her, I really respect her work, but this was a strange thing…She didn’t even see it, she presumed.
I read the letter. It was very strongly worded.
Now there is another letter circulating among the people who participated [in the MOCA show] saying that they never felt so much abused as from her letter. Just thinking they are a bunch of idiots to be manipulated when really they are young artists who know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.
You know, I was so shocked that she doesn’t have anything better to do.
But at the same time, to have work that elicits such a strong response, whether it is positive or negative, compared to when you were living in a car looking for an audience, is pretty powerful.
It is so true. But at the same time, it is very important that people understand the right meaning. Because, you know, you can criticize rich people but before there was a Pope, and aristocrats and kings who sponsored art. Now, industry, business does it. This is fact, this is reality. Otherwise this art would not exist. So doing something for them [the business community] is totally fine with me.
The thing is that the artificiality of these galas can be changed by changing the atmosphere into something else. Which I tried to do. It is easy to criticize, but then give me a solution. You have to try things. I am for somebody trying. If I fail, I fail, but at least I try. That is my position.
Now you have all this maturity and experience, but if you were to look back at your younger years, perhaps when you were just beginning to perform and were living with your mother, how do you look back at that time?
I don’t look back. I don’t have time! [Laughs.] I don’t have time to look back. You know, things that are done are done. Everything has its time. I am so busy now with how much time I have left and what I have to do to really accomplish my mission on this planet. I am much more busy with that.
Because I think that one of the real problems, especially with my generation of people, is that they are looking back too much. And they are nostalgic— how it was then, how it is now, and how it is not like it was… Who cares? We have to take reality as it is. Now is now. What was then was then. I have no time for nostalgia.
But at the same time you described your grandmother and her spiritualism and your parents and their militarism, and you can see the way in which both those aspects influenced you and you realize how the past is a kind of core that still resonates.
Totally, yes, yes. As you see, this is an insane contradiction. And I am absolutely a product of it. Of the total iron discipline that I got from my parents, and the spirituality that I got from my grandmother. If I didn’t have that kind of education, I don’t think I could do what I am doing. Because you need an enormous amount of focus.
Listening to you, there seem to have been a lot of obstacles to overcome. You certainly didn’t have a smooth path, despite your parents’ prominent positions and all that. You had a tough ride. Was there ever a moment where you felt that it was almost insurmountable, where you wanted to give it all up?
The two things in my life that never crossed my mind: To doubt what I am. And, the second: To give up. [Laughs.] That is something that is totally unknown to me.
All my life I was an artist, it is the only thing I wanted to do. And that was everything. I didn’t want to have children, I didn’t want to have a normal life.
Since you knew it from when you were very young, did you always have an idea of what it meant to be an artist?
No, it wasn’t about what it meant to be an artist. I was always more interested in the idea of: What is my purpose? What am I here for? Everybody has a certain purpose. My purpose was to communicate through art certain ideas to the public. And that is always what I wanted to do.
I always have millions of ideas and I have to kind of find out which one is the right one for the right moment. It is important when you do something that it is the right idea for the right moment in the right place with the right public. If you get all this together, then you are done!
And then, also, not to miss your chances. You don’t have that many chances in your life. You have to know exactly what to do next. You know, I’ve been in Europe for so long, and I moved here [New York] for a reason. Now I’ve been eleven years in America. In these eleven years, I’ve made three pieces. But they’ve really made a difference: The House with the Ocean View, Seven Easy Pieces, and The Artist is Present. Three in eleven years. You know, it’s not much, but it is an enormous amount… The impact was important.
And now you are creating an institute. Can you call it a school?
It will be an institute, which will be partly a school, too.
And, in that sense, you will be working with and serving as a mentor for young artists. So, I wonder, if you could offer some piece of advice to someone who is young and has ideas that people are not necessarily welcoming, what would you say?
[Laughs.] You know, most interesting ideas people don’t welcome in the beginning. That is why you have to have determination.
My advice is always the same. My advice is to first look deep inside yourself and see who you are and why you want to be an artist. Because, you know, so many people want to be artists for the wrong reasons— because they want to be famous and rich— this is the wrong reason! This is just a side effect. I will be sixty-five at the end of this month and I only had some money in the last ten years. I never had money before. So, it was not about the money. It is about this enormous urge.
When you understand that the necessity of creating is the same as breathing—because you don’t question breathing, you have to breathe or else you can’t live— then you know you are an artist. But that doesn’t mean you are a good artist. You still have to go all the way to see how much sacrifice, how much determination… You have to be on fire. To be a good artist you have to be completely obsessed and on fire all the time. That’s the thing. When you are there, in that situation, you have to do it no matter what.
I can only say that a good work of art has many lives, and will always be noticed and discovered, no matter when and where. That’s the thing.
When you look at young artists now, what is it that draws you? Is it that passion, that determination?
Oh, sure. I can tell right away. I don’t need more than ten minutes to talk and see. You know, even in that moment when the work is not yet complete, or articulated, or can be developed better, but you can still see that there is something, there is a kind of charisma that you can’t actually learn. And it has nothing to do with practice. It is just genetic. You have it or you don’t have it. That’s it. And that’s a big selection, not too many people have it.
Your mother and father were so against what you were doing. Did their perspective on what you were doing change as you began to be successful?
So they didn’t get to see it?
No, they saw it. My father was not at all interested. He married a twenty-five years younger woman and had his career and we didn’t have much contact.
I remember only one event: When I walked the Chinese wall, the journalists asked my mother what she thinks about my work and she said, “I didn’t understand then, but I understand now.” But I don’t think so, really. Because I sent her my books and I looked at these books [when she died], I took them back, and it is amazing! Every photo where I’m naked she would take out. So, a book went from 500 pages to 200! They are torn out, for the neighbors. Because she liked to show the neighbors, but she only liked to show me dressed. So, she couldn’t get this naked part into her life. It was too much, until the end.
[Marina, who has been very still during our conversation, is suddenly in a flurry of motion.]
Baby, we have to go.
Yes, I know.
Do you know how much we’ve talked?!
A lot. But it was wonderful.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
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