"We Deserve to Die Well"

Artist Marina Abramovic poses for portraits at the 69th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Sunday, Sept. 2
Artist Marina Abramovic poses for portraits at the 69th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

World-renowned artist Marina Abramović walked the Great Wall of China, had a loaded gun pointed at her head and sat in silence for over 700 hours -- all to give art a new meaning. She told Max Tholl why future generations should treat her legacy like Beethoven's.

The European: Ms. Abramović, you've repeatedly said that you must establish performance as mainstream art before you die. You're one of the most popular artists of our time, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. Have you already accomplished your mission?

Abramović: No, I don't think I have. My mission is not just to make performance art popular. It's about raising people's awareness and consciousness. That's why I will open my own institute where I teach the visitors about the synthesis between art, science, technology and spirituality.

The European: Raising people's consciousness is the cornerstone of your work. Why is it so difficult to be conscious?

Abramović: The problem lies very deep and highlights what's wrong with human nature in general: We all know what is good for us and yet we all do what is bad for us. We might wake up in the morning, feeling very energetic, thinking about all the things we could accomplish during that particular day, but then we just go and waste our energy on plainly stupid things. There's an old Tibetan practice telling us that when you wake up in the morning, you should just sit on a chair for a couple of hours without doing anything. You will feel how the energy doesn't flow outwards but remains inside of you. That's how you become conscious of your activities.

The European: Performance art, especially yours, is characterized by this difficulty of doing "something that is practically nothing." How difficult is it to give value or meaning to "nothing?"

Abramović: It's very difficult but it starts to pay off. I got people's attention but it took me more than forty years. Performance art is timeless, but it is also place-bound. You have to experience it first-hand. If you miss it, you can just see it as a documentation of the act, which is not the same thing. It is also immaterial because it lives from the energy of that specific moment. So it's not like a picture or a sculpture that is displayed at a museum for decades. You can't grasp or possess performance art.

The European: It challenges our conception of art as an object ...

Abramović: Exactly. The crucial question is: How can you conserve the energy of an act? I believe that a single performance can change the mindset of many people. That is the power of an immediate form of art. But to have this effect, it has to be long durational.

"Merely looking at things is outdated"

The European: Your performances often last weeks or months. Why would a short performance not work?

Abramović: We lack the intellectual and spiritual capacities to understand and grasp art within a few seconds. Art requires concentration and time to reflect.

The European: During a workshop called "The Drill," you kept the audience compliant and taught them how to understand long durational art and - ultimately -- how to "be".

Abramović: It's not only about time. I expected the visitors of "The Drill" -- as I expect visitors of my Institute -- to stay for a couple of hours because that is necessary to get into the right state of mind. But even more important is the exchange that takes place between the artist and the audience. You have to give me something in order to get something in return. You give me your time and I give you an unforgettable experience. That's a fair exchange.

The European: Does the art world need a change of mind?

Abramović: Too often, people walk around in museums and galleries, just chatting or having a glass of wine but they are not focusing on the art that surrounds them; they are completely ignorant to it. Only if you have the audience's full attention, things can actually start to unfold and develop.

The European: Do you think that the museum with all its restrictions is the right place for long durational performance art?

Abramović: If the art is powerful, the place is of little importance. Any place is good enough. Take my performance "The Artist is Present" that took place at the MoMA: New York is one of the busiest places on earth and nobody spends more than a few seconds thinking about something. And yet masses of people queued for hours or even slept in front of the museum just to come and sit with me. To me, it shows that people want to experience new things in the museum. Merely looking at things is outdated. People want to be part of the art.

The European: You once said that the audience is even more important than the artist ...

Abramović: Absolutely! You don't perform for yourself; you perform for others. The artist can perform but the audience has to complete the work. Without the audience, there is no art.

"Who are you when you peel the potato?"

The European: The idea of incorporating the audience into the art is often associated with Joseph Beuys, who regarded society as one great piece of art. Do you share his view?

Abramović: You have to think big. The most important art is the one that seeks to incorporate society and to transform it in one way or another. That was the impetus for Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and also Joseph Beuys. Interaction fosters complexity -- which is good. Art is always complex, but every new generation of artists adds a new layer of complexity. Art isn't finished when it is displayed in a museum; it has to go beyond that.

The European: Are you not afraid that this complexity might drive people away instead of attracting them?

Abramović: No. I am the perfect example that complexity can be simple.

The European: Joseph Beuys said that even a simple and banal act -- like peeling a potato -- can be a work of art if it is a conscious act. Do you agree?

Abramović: Joseph Beuys also said that everybody can be an artist but that's not true. Context matters. You can peel a potato in the most artistic and conscious way but if you do it alone in your kitchen, you are not an artist; you are a cook. Do the same thing in a museum and it's art.

The European: But context doesn't have to be a place like a museum; just the intention can be context.

Abramović: Of course, but the most important thing is the question: "Who are you when you peel the potato?" -- to use that example. Are you a cook or are you an artist? That's the defining question. Let me give you a good example: The American theater director David Levine produced a piece called "Bauerntheater" in which he rented a potato field just outside Berlin and hired a classic Shakespeare actor to go there every day for one month in order to plant potatoes. The audience arrived with buses and watched him planting potatoes. Is that theater? Yes it is.

The European: "All the world's a stage."

Abramović: If you want it to be.

"I need the risk of failure"

The European: Performance is not only a very direct and engaging art but also a vulnerable one. You can't hide behind an object and because it is live art, it also bears the risk of imminent failure.

Abramović: That's partly the reason why it is so demanding and why you have to put all your energy into it. Many performance artists can't stand that pressure and have returned to the seclusion of the studio. But the studio is a safe place. I need the risk of failure.

The European: Why?

Abramović: You can't venture into new territories if you can't accept failure. If you only think about success, you will repeat yourself over and over again. Think about failure and the possibilities it offers you! Failure is very underrated and misunderstood.

The European: But even in that case, failure is just a means to achieve success.

Abramović: You can never plan success. That's why artists should experiment. And yet, the great tragedy of art is that many artists follow public demand and produce only the art they think will sell. Eventually they will become successful but that's not the purpose or point of art. I learn more from failure than from success.

The European: But you have more success than failure.

Abramović: I am very popular but I have a relatively low value in the art market if compared to someone like Jeff Koons, for instance. Such artists sell objects and the public wants to have these objects. But performance can never be an object and people are therefore not ready to pay as much for it -- even if the experience is probably more intensive. People collect material things; not experiences.

The European: That's why legacy is such a complicated matter in performance. It can't be conserved or passed on like other art.

Abramović: I hope that my work won't be passed on as pure documentation -- that would miss the point. I want to leave it up to future artists how to deal with it or re-enact it. There is no record of Beethoven playing his compositions; we only know them as interpretations. Every generation will have different opinions about it and that keeps it alive. It's not just a dead documentation in the history books.

"The artist is a free human being"

The European: I was quite puzzled by the theater piece "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović" that you conceived with Robert Wilson. Isn't it paradoxical for a performance artist to "stage" her own life?

Abramović: It is important for me to find out what's allowed and what's not. The artist is a free human being and can do whatever he or she wants. I hated the theater when I was young because it felt so fake. But as I said before: You have to venture into new fields. I have also been criticized for the work I did with Lady Gaga, but I wanted to revisit the world of pop music. Once you become secure in your own field, you can start to look abroad. Also, I am now in the last half of my life and the theater piece gave me the opportunity to stage and reflect on my own funeral. That was an interesting experience.

The European: Death plays an important role in your work. In your artist manifesto you wrote that the artist should "die consciously without fear."

Abramović: We should die without anger, without fear but fully conscious. Too many people are dying in anger or in fear but we deserve to die well. We have to understand that life is just a temporary thing. But we waste so much energy trying to forget or ignore that. If you realize that life is finite, you will make the most of it.

The European: Consciousness can also free us from the fear of death. A fear that is actually worse than death itself.

Abramović: You can only enjoy life if you accept that you are going to die.