In a recorded Skype interview between Marina Abramovic and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist, Abramovic discusses her initial ideas while curating Immaterial. Taking place between New York and London, the long-time friends bring us insights on their current projects, inspirations, and views of the future. (It may take a moment for the video to load)
Marina Abramovic: That was really important, the idea of “what we do with the public”, as Marcel Duchamp said the public always completes the work. We have to really pay attention to the public because the rules of the game, of the artists, have changed. We have to change also the way that the public will perceive the work and what is the condition in which the work should be executed. Especially, now, more and more my interest is found in long durational performance – where there is nothing happening, where there is hardly any kind of change, where there is just the light across the room, how you deal with yourself, what is your pattern of breathing, what is the position of the body, where does your mind have to be focused… these are the kind of things, rules, that we have to recreate. I am developing something that I call the Abramovic Method, and now in Russia, I did a workshop for the first time, which I normally do in nature, but this time, I made a public workshop. For five days, the public can assist, seeing how I actually train the fifty Russian artists who are redoing the performances. This has never been done before, and I can see how this can work in life – as you remember – we wanted to see create something at The Serpentine, like literally a Marina Abramovic Method school, but the public can observe the whole thing. I think this is a new thing that would be interesting to develop more and more. The public and performer could become a mutual entity, not just two separate isolated things, but really together.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: What prompted you to decide to curate an exhibition online. What prompted you to actually now do something about the immaterial as an exhibition online?
M: It’s really pioneering steps, which can go in so many different directions. For me, the most inspiring thing was when I saw in the museum in Dublin, I saw this exhibition of Francis Bacon. What was inspiring was not the exhibition itself, but it was really incredible how they reconstructed his studio, in Dublin, almost like an archaeological experiment. They took every centimeter of his studio and then they reconstructed it. They had this line of television sets, that you could actually google and see every little detail in his studio. Not only the studio, but also go into his bedroom, and if you put the cursor under the bed, then came up information on what kind of books he hid under his bed, or for example, what are the books in his bathroom, next to the toilet or even to see the objects in his kitchen, so the viewer goes into the eating life of the artist. You see totally different kinds of things than what you would see in an exhibition or a catalogue, because it is always censored. And through this you understand the complexity of the artist.
For me, it was really interesting to think about how we can open up that kind of vault, the really inner vault of an artist to the viewer. It’s difficult because many artists don’t want to be vulnerable and open themselves to the public. I was very impressed that Francis Bacon was looking, reading all the Blavatsky books, the stuff about the supernatural, about magic, and all this kind of stuff that you normally would not think about – what he was reading. And this gave a new light onto his work. So if we talk about an artist, I really hope that we will use this technology, like the internet – how we can actually approach the public more to the part of the artist’s personality that you cannot do any other way, except if you are a friend and can go and see his home.
H: Can you talk a little bit about the artists involved? When you did the exhibition at the Guggenheim, you invited artists that had inspired you…it was works, which you felt was particularly powerful enough to redo and, for Manchester, you curated mostly younger, emerging artists who work with endurance now. But I was wondering what were the criteria for this online exhibition now? You mentioned how Yves Klein had influenced you a lot, in the process of making art in a more immaterial way. So I was just wondering, starting from that, how the list came about…
M: You know, it really starts with Yves Klein… of this kind of selling the immaterial art, and then burning the cheque and everything became ashes and it’s just about the idea. And then looking into some young artists, some older artists and I really went for things that interest me. It is an absolutely subjective point of view. Sometimes, it’s an artist who works with sound, sometimes it’s an artist that just works just with light, or the concept, the pure concept… It’s really the list of the artists grouped together quite unusually. If you see them, you would never seem them grouped in that way or in a gallery grouped that way. Completely, a subjective point of view.
H: Can you tell me more about some of the artists in the show?
M: My final list is still in flux. Another very young artist, whose work I really like is Nico Vascellari, he’s Italian, young artist. And he is primarly working with sound. Did you ever see his performance actually?
H: Yes, I met him in Manchester, when he was doing his stone performance. That’s when I met him for the first time.
M: Yes, so this guy works with sound, and it’s really about the outburst of energy, it’s a kind of a thing, to create a situation where through the repetition you come to a trance state of mind, and then you transmit this through the enormous amount of sound. Then at the end, what is left from this work, is just the memory. And another artist, of course, who I think becomes better and better, and he makes works – inspired by Manchester – long durational. Now, this new work that he is producing, is based only on smell. Literally smell, that’s it! And then there are young artists, like Davide Balliano who starts from performance work, who used to be my assistant then became a really interesting artist, which I really like to support. And then, after that we have other artists who are much more well known, or established. There were a few artists who I really wanted to work with who couldn’t do it, for example, Lawrence Weiner, everything that he was doing was always based on the words…and the text. The concept is that, he gives you permission to use his text, and you put that on the wall yourself, that’s the work. If you paint the building, you paint the work and nothing exists again. That kind of work is the really immaterial approach that is so interesting to me.
At the same time, you can also see that this is a commercial exhibition. How can you sell something that doesn’t exist? That’s an important lesson to collectors. For me, this exhibition is more like education for collectors than anything else. For the works in the Guggenheim I chose works that were historical works that I did not witness and that inspired me at the time, but his exhibition is a more general view, of the work that is produced right now, but doesn’t have the heaviness. They all have a lightness about them.
H: You also invited Cool and Balducci, who were part of Marina Abramovic Presents, and they wouldn’t accept their performances to be filmed… and so that brings up a whole other question entirely about the economy also… If one thinks about the music industry, the internet has really changed the whole economy of the music industry. At the same time, the internet has also changed the economy of the gaming industry. We had a conversation last week at the Wired conference. Cory Arcangel had a conversation with Kristian Sergerstrale, which I moderated. Cory works a lot with the internet at the fringes and edges of computer games, and he abstracts this by taking the activity away. Sergerstrale is a game inventor and pioneer within the gaming industry. This conversation really brought to light the way the economy of the gaming industry has completely changed, because 10-20 years ago, you had to buy the game, but now you download the game and access the game freely or play it on Facebook. However, then they developed a whole economy through extras, through ads, additions, apps, that, for example, make the game more complex. Each time they add things, people must pay for this. Again, the Internet has really changed the whole economy of gaming and music.
Now, one of the big questions, is that if you curate an exhibition called IMMATERIAL, on the internet, do you think that the internet is changing the economy of art?
M: Yes, totally. I think, actually, collectors can be completely addicted through the internet through all this virtual reality. If you can have sex, virtual sex, why can’t you have the virtually consumed art in the same way without paying for it? But the question is, how much of this experience is real? That is always my question. What happens if you see the performance through the internet and if you see it in real time, in the space, and directly presented by the artist? How much do we want to settle for the real thing and the virtual thing? If you see, Japanese kids who never leave the room anymore and the virtual world becomes their reality. They don’t want reality, do we have now the public who doesn’t want reality, or do we still have it? And is it enough to actually see things on the Internet – I know so many artists who actually don’t go to galleries anymore. They just see what’s going on in the galleries through the internet, and they never went to go to see the real thing. They become just informed. But informed doesn’t mean, being there, and how much are we protecting ourselves from the real experience? That is the real
question because now the internet makes you informed, everyone is informed, but what do they really experience? Internet gives you a taste of something and then you must go and see the real thing. But if it replaces the real thing, that’s a monstrous future for us.
H: This exhibition is about transcending perception and one of the things that came to mind is you once told me that you lived with aborigines for quite some time. That must have also been an influence. Is there a link between the aborigines and this exhibition called IMMATERIAL?
M: I always remember this fantastic story, when they [the aborigines] said to me with pidgin English “You put your quartz in your watch, and we put the quartz in our heads. We know what time it is and you know what time it is, just in two different ways.” They will just insert pieces of quartz straight into their skull, and that’s another way of doing it. The aborigines’ entire way of ceremonies and everything is all built upon some sort of repetition, and being in that kind of state. Now, by doing this brain experiment in Moscow, I understood that the brain produced this enormous amount of information, constantly shooting ions into space. Now we can visualize this, to understand that it exists, and we can see all of these immaterial realities that are there. If you are sensitive, if you don’t eat for a long period of time, if you concentrate, if you don’t move and you have this long durational experience… You actually become hypersensitive. Your body becomes like an antenna you can start feeling that parallel world which is based on vibrations. Everything is about vibrations, the entirety of immateriality is vibrations and that’s what I learned there, and that’s why I think the power of immateriality is so strong. Objects can be burned, objects can stop existing, there can be earthquakes, things can disappear but the brain waves are always there. That’s why we don’t need objects, virtual reality becomes so interesting. We don’t need objects, we don’t need heaviness. You know plug in electricity and it becomes light. We should finish this talk about light, and everything is light and is immaterial. It is part of the future that is waiting for us, that we have to experience but don’t know yet.
H: That’s a great conclusion. I had one or two urgent last questions. Your focus is very often on the emotive response provoking quality of art, not representation. Very often this does happen through presence, physical presence. Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book that talks about the empathic civilization. Basically, today we are facing these incredible challenges in energy and sustainability and how can the planet survive… And somehow Rifkin says it is only through human empathy, that we can survive. The very core of the human story is the relation between empathy and entropy, as he says. I was wondering the global idea of empathy, if the empathic aspect of your work is so important, can this happen digitally?
M: You made the connection with Ken Robinson, the science fiction writer… I was reading, just this whole idea, that actually I am a part of science fiction idea of making performances on Mercury or on an asteroid, to me this is really something to think about. Performance or this kind of immateriality is weightless, that you can bring it anywhere any time and can travel into time and space and can be galactic! That’s a big concept! I am completely excited about this idea – how science fiction writers pick up somebody who doesn’t have an object, no suitcase! We have to travel light! This is no suitcase anymore! It’s possible! The one performance I made, the piece was called “Boat emptying, stream entering”. This was after the Chinese wall walk [a previous work of Marina’s] that I understood, we have to get rid our luggage, we have too much luggage, only when we don’t have suitcases any more can the stream bring us somewhere else.
H: No suitcase, no crime!
M: And light traveler!
H: One of the things I forgot to ask you before, was about color in this exhibition IMMATERIAL. I mean Yves Klein has the famous blue. Whenever, I spoke to Raymond Hains about it, who was good friends of Yves Klein in the 50s, Raymond always said that for Yves Klein, color was a personified abstraction. Whenever you think of blue, you think of Yves. Yves the monochrome! In your exhibition, there is also Jim Lambie who uses all kinds of striking colors. I was wondering if there is a link between color and immateriality…obviously, there are many color theories in the 19th century and the 20th century. You have Munsell, and Ostwald, von Goethe, and Bauhaus and such color theorists – so I am wondering about the connection between immateriality and color…
M: It is interesting that in the 19th century, color was really the way to present Bach. There were so much work and studies on Bach and presenting Bach through color. The color was related to vibrations, and color was a kind of language for vibration, for higher and lower vibrations, each color has a vibration – violet is the highest, and black is the lowest – and I think it’s not about the color but about the vibration. It’s interesting, something Yves Klein said about all of his paintings, even the monochromes, Klein said “All my paintings are just the ashes of my art.” It’s not about paintings, it’s about something else, and the color is just one representation and it’s not even about color. It’s all about light and vibrations.
H: That could not be a more wonderful conclusion. I have one last question, and this is only one recurrent question that pops up in all my interviews. Even if I’ve asked this question many times before, I feel that it is urgent in the context of the immaterial to ask you this question again… If you have an unrealized project, a project that is too big to be realized, a project that is too small to be realized, and the sense of utopic dream or any sort of unrealized project… For today in the context of your forthcoming show about the immaterial, do you have any unrealized immaterial projects?
M: Yes, but it’s immaterial but it actually consists of something. My biggest wish is to go into a spaceship that will go into the other galaxies, other galactic systems and never return. All my dreams in my life, is to know, what is behind the cosmos… we know the cosmos, but what is behind, what are the black holes? I would just like to be on the space trip, even now. I think I would be ready even now. Just to sit down and to really know, what is behind all of this. That is the only question, the urgent question that I have in my head. I want to go into space and see the earth from a different point of view. But not to just seeing it and then come back… Not to come back.
H: There could not be a more wonderful conclusion, Marina. Thank you so much.
Immaterial, curated by Marina Abramovic ends November 30