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Marina Abramovic, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
Marina Abramovic in Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

Q&A: Marina Abramovic

The performance superstar gets a riveting new documentary.


Dressed in a dark pantsuit, Marina Abramovic, 65, doesn’t look much like the daring performance artist known for going nude, or even like the ecclesiastically robed endurance diva of her 2010 MoMA retrospective. That show, which put her on the cultural map, is captured in a new documentary from director Matthew Akers, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. She sat all day everyday for three months, engaging in a sort of staring contest with museumgoers; some of them can be seen breaking down in tears—this after waiting in line for hours. The film doesn’t explain this reaction so much as put it into a context that includes Abramovic’s start, as well as her 12-year-long collaboration with Ulay, the German artist whose shambling, hangdog presence dominates the middle third of the film. Their life and work together—wandering Europe in a hippie van for five years, breaking up in an epic performance on the Great Wall of China—serve as the fulcrum of the doc and the deflection point for Abramovic’s astonishing rise to superstardom. TONY sat down with the artist to talk about the film—and to do a little staring of our own.

So how do you feel about the film?
I cried, and I don’t want to cry more. [Laughs]

Crying seems to be a common response to you and your work.
You know, we won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. I was incredibly impressed. It was like, all the Germans cried!

Why do people seem to get so passionately involved with what you do?
I don’t know. In the three months [of the MoMA show], 72 people sat more than 12 times. Which means waiting all night—it’s an enormous amount of energy they spent. And they became a group who met every month and had dinner together. And the guards from the museum, they’d go home and come back to wait on the line in their free time. So all these different groups—different jobs, different backgrounds—this experience unified them.

Your parents were partisan Yugoslavian heroes during World War II, and I read somewhere you had another relative who was the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

And he was a saint, too! I had a really crazy mix. [Laughs]

That sounds like a lot to live up to.
I rebelled so much when I was a kid, but talking now, I’m very grateful I had a family like this. Because in my family, the person was never important; it was the cause, the one you sacrificed your life for, the big themes, what you have to deliver. And that was the education, the discipline that was put in me as a child. I’ve always had this ideal of heroism.

At one point in the film, the curator of the MoMA show, Klaus Biesenbach, says, “Marina is always performing; she’s never not performing.” Is that true?
It’s not. For me, performance is a holy ground. When I perform, I really step into a different state of consciousness. Like now, we are talking; I don’t think I’m performing—I’m just talking. To create situations where I can make this kind of long-duration performance takes an enormous amount of infrastructure. And when the moment to perform comes, I cut everything out of my life. There’s no Internet, no phone calls.

You’d been a performance artist, both alone and with your former partner Ulay, for decades without any audience to speak of. And then, almost overnight, you became this huge global figure. How has that affected you?

It didn’t change me. Success came slowly, which is very good, because if success comes when you’re 25, you’re really fucked up. Woody Allen has a wonderful line: “Today I’m a star. What will I be tomorrow? A black hole?” That’s very important to know—that you have the moment, then you lose the moment. You have to see your chances, you have to take them, and you also have to see when you don’t have chances to take.

There’s another part in the film where Ulay describes himself as being lazy. Is he?
It’s true. He wouldn’t take chances as I did, and it was very hard, when we split. I had nothing. He said to me, “Oh, you’re going to last three, four weeks, then you’ll go back to your mama in ex-Yugoslavia."

He really said that?
Yes. And then I reinvented everything. It’s such hard work. People don’t actually understand how much work is behind all of it. So yes,I’ve achieved success, but I don’t have time to be conscious of that, because I wake up in the morning and work all day. That’s what I do.

In the documentary, you have a great term for success and its side-effect: “B product.” But you also say you love the B product.

I don’t hide my contradictions. I’m not showing myself as some kind of holy monk. Because I’m not. I have all these different parts: the hard-core performer and the one full of vanity who likes all of these nice things and loves fashion magazines. They’re all parallel and going together. But each of us has so may different personalities. This is human nature.

At another point in the film, Ulay asks you, “Are you the diva of performance art or the grandmother of performance art?” You never answer, so let me see if I can do better. Which is it?
Neither. I’m a soldier of performance art.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present is now playing at Film Forum.

Read our five-star review!

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