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Marina Abramović: Free yourself from the fear and embrace the pain

Sonning Prize — She has starved herself in the name of art. But as we speak she is »famished«. We met up with performance artist Marina Abramović when she received the Sonning Prize in Copenhagen. The interview didn't go quite as expected.

You know what has been hugely important for me to experience?«

Marina Abramović has her elbows on the table, hands folded as if in prayer. She has spoken for a long time, every time she has been asked a question. But now she is quiet for a moment.

Her gaze is intense. And in one way you can both understand, and at the same time wonder why, thousands of museum visitors queued up to sit and look her into her eyes for hours as she performed her most famous work to date, The Artist is Present, in 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art, MoMa, in New York.

»To learn how to forgive. Even those who have been terrible to you. You have to understand why they are the way they are. Maybe they’ve had a childhood that made them evil. When you take all of that in, you will find space in your heart for forgiveness.«

Marina Abramović is in the University of Copenhagen’s (UCPH) boardroom at a press conference in front of four journalists. She has just been presented with the Sonning Prize, Denmark’s largest cultural prize, in the Ceremonial Hall for her lifelong contribution to European cultural history.

She actually won the award in 2023, but a blood clot in her lung prevented her from traveling to Copenhagen to receive it. After a serious illness with both a coma, and multiple bouts of critical surgery, Abramović — who is known in her artistic practice for her thematic work on life and death — was finally presented with the DKK 1 million prize.

And now she’s here. And I have asked her whether there’s anything she wishes that she’d known when she was younger.

»Oh my God, yes! Do not fall in love with the wrong people. Falling in love has always been my biggest problem, because how was I going to get out of it? If I had known everything I know today, I wouldn’t have made half of my mistakes.«

Like what?

»To try to change or to save someone. You have to leave people the way they are. Accept their mistakes. Be generous. This is very important. Forgiveness is an amazing thing. Bearing a grudge is a very bad thing. When you’re filled with anger and hatred, you harm everyone around you. Also yourself.«

An artist must not turn themselves into an idol

Marina Abramović has been active for five decades and refers to herself as  »the grandmother of performance art«. She made a name for herself with a number of sensational works of art at the beginning of her career. They gave rise to both indignation, and admiration, around the world, and they helped establish performance art as an independent genre.

The extreme works include Freeing the Voice (1975), where she kept on screaming until she lost her voice, Lips of Thomas (1975), where she whipped herself until bleeding and then lay down on an ice cross, and the Rhythm series (1973-74), including Rhythm 0 (1974), where she placed herself in front of an audience and a table with 72 objects – including scissors, scalpel, gun and cartridge – and invited the audience to use the objects on her as they pleased.

In 1975 she visited the women’s exhibition XX at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, where she performed, for the first time, the work Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful. Here she brushed her own hair with a metal brush until she started bleeding, while again and again chanting the title of the work.

You have to ask yourself: Why am I here? Can I contribute anything to humanity, to society, my work?
Marina Abramović

She is most famous for the work The Artist is Present (2010), in which she sat motionless on a chair at MoMA in New York for eight to ten hours a day for three months. Visitors could sit across from her and maintain eye contact for as long as they wished. At an event at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, UCPH, she said that one guy had sat there for seven hours.

Her work also includes setting up the Marina Abramović Institute, which offers workshops in a special method, the Abramović Method, which she has developed over 40 years, according to the institute’s website. The method is designed »reboot the body and mind,« strengthen the ability to connect with others, and to provide better focus, stamina and concentration.

And a moment ago, the internationally acclaimed 77-year-old performance artist was trying to teach the guests at the award ceremony her core skill: Presence. »It’s very simple: Breathe,« she said, and had the whole hall breathing in and out twelve times simultaneously.

»Welcome to presence,« she said, and the whole hall applauded. For the occasion, Abramović read aloud from her artistic manifesto, An Artist’s Life, from 2011.

The doctrines include: An artist should not lie or steal ideas from other artists. An artist must suffer. An artist should not have control over their life. But complete control over their art. An artist should not repeat themselves. Abramović said three times:

An artist should not make themselves into an idol

An artist should not make themselves into an idol

An artist should not make themselves into an idol

And finally:

»An artist should give their unconditional love to the world.«

Go there, experience it for yourself

After the award ceremony there is a press conference. And this is where the artist now sits opposite four journalists. Marina Abramović claims she is feeling »famished.« In comes a plate of cheese sticks, food on sticks, and petit fours, which she eats while answering questions.

One of the journalists present, apart from being a journalist, is herself a performance artist. And she asks Abramović how she will continue with her projects and ideas after her death.

»I bequeath a lot of books and materials, apart from my institute. There are eight workshops each year, they are very simple. When you arrive, your phone, computer and watch are taken away from you. Then five days follow without food, talk, and with hard physical exercises. You’ll understand why this is good for you.«

It’s my turn to ask questions. But the press conference is almost over. So I say my questions can wait until our solo interview, which is scheduled to take place after a brief reception.

»Yes but then, when should I rest? I need to rest,« says Marina Abramović to the UCPH staffer who is in charge of coordinating things. The University Post’s exclusive agreement for a half-hour interview after the reception is cancelled by the main protagonist.

»We do it for 15 minutes, then I go to the reception. Come on, I’ve said so many good things already! I say good things all the time,« she remarks, raising her hands towards me in a what-is-it-that-what-you-want-to-know gesture.

With a feverish movement, I cross out half of the questions I had prepared in advance.

Here at the university, the students are trained in scientific methodology. You have developed your own method. What does it consist of, and how do you learn it?

»The Abramović method was developed over my years of practice. I quickly learned that I can’t do performances without training my body both physically and mentally. I also learned that Western culture is very limited, so I went East,« she says, before mentioning the time she has spent with Tibetan monks, the indigenous people of Australia and the Amazon, where she studied shamanism.

»All these cultures have rituals where you can learn to push your mentality and your physique. I see myself as a kind of bridge: I take my learning from the cultures, and then I go back to the West and create performances that would be impossible to carry out if I hadn’t learned to be present. I would never have been able to perform The Artist is Present if I hadn’t trained for it for a whole year. I trained my body to go without food all day, so my metabolism changed. Just like an astronaut’s.«

Do you take the method with you in all aspects of life, or do you bring it forth when you have to carry out a performance?

»I use it all the time. The method is for students, artists, and for ordinary people. You may work in a bank, and the method will still benefit you. It has different levels. If you want to write about it, go there, and experience it for yourself. Maybe this summer. Just go. It’s one week. See what happens,« Abramović says.

This one will be a hard sell to the Editor. I checked. A five-day workshop costs around DKK 18,000.

Be the best

The day before the Sonning Prize was awarded, Marina Abramović visited South Campus for a guest lecture and a Q&A. Here she was met with a standing ovation from students, who fell over each other to ask her questions: Does she ever feel emptied of all creativity? What does her long black hair symbolize? What does she sing in the shower?

The performance artist was happy to answer all questions. And she had a clear message to the young people:

»Spend your time on something meaningful. Not on parties, and not on taking it easy. That’s not good enough,« she says.

Whatever you do, strive to be the best. If you are a gardener, then be the best gardener. If you are a baker, then be the best baker. It's too easy to just sit there and criticize everyone else. And it's a waste of time
Marina Abramović

What did you mean by the advice you gave students yesterday?

»When you’re young, you think: Let’s party, do drugs, drink, waste it all, right? But as you get older, you look at what you’ve accomplished. And when you get old, you’ve run out of time. You have to ask yourself: Why am I here? Can I contribute anything to humanity, to society, my work?«

»Whatever you do, strive to be the best. If you are a gardener, then be the best gardener. If you are a baker, then be the best baker. It’s too easy to just sit there and criticize everyone else. And it’s a waste of time.«

At the University Post, we have written a lot about poor mental well-being among young people. In your work, you have dealt with pain a lot. Do you have any advice for dealing with pain?

»If you have depression, it’s a disease that needs to be treated. But if we’re talking about physical pain, it’s about understanding what pain is. Free yourself from the fear and embrace the pain. Physical pain is much simpler than emotional pain. For example, my leg hurts terribly all the time. Even right now. But I don’t care.«

Abramović points to her leg and shrugs.

»I can’t afford emotional pain. I have had my heart broken and I just cried. I didn’t go to the psychologist or anything, I just cried, and cried, and cried. But one day I woke up and had finished crying.«

Stop eating and you will see

I have read that you abstain completely from alcohol and even painkilling medication. Why is it important for you to be able to feel yourself all the time?

»I’m probably the only artist who hasn’t been drinking my entire life. I’ve never liked alcohol, I love chocolate – but that’s another story.«

Abramović laughs.

»Drugs have never interested me. I experimented once in connection with a documentary (The Space in Between, ed.). It was the worst experience of my life. People said it was going to be life-changing, but I …«

»… I experience something when I don’t eat. The longest I haven’t eaten was for 16 days. And that time, wow. I would not recommend anyone to do without food for this long as it is too dangerous. You begin to digest your own muscles, but the effect is so strong. When you take drugs, you get a special experience, but the next day you don’t feel well. When you’re not eating, on the other hand, your energy gets higher day by day.«

But now Marina Abramović has to eat. She is, as she said, »famished.«

The press conference is over and she wants to eat before she goes back to the reception. We, the four journalists, are slowly getting up to go.

»No please stay!« she says. »It was nice, very friendly.«

And so we stay seated while the performance artist eats.