T’s Art Issue
Despite her success, the performance artist has chosen a monastic life in upstate New York, where she falls asleep to Canadian television and eats baby food.
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The New York-based artist Marina Abramović is sitting in the kitchen of her house just outside of Hudson when she invites me — over FaceTime — to join her in Greece this August for a workshop organized by the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI). “It’s only five days. No food, no talking and heavy exercise,” says the artist, 75, with a chuckle. Abramović founded the institute in 2007, originally intending to convert a derelict theater built sometime around the 1930s nearby into a top-of-the-line Rem Koolhaas-designed performance space, archive and education center. But when the project’s budget ballooned out of her control (Koolhaas’s plans alone were estimated to be $31 million, which didn’t include the handling of the theater’s pre-existing asbestos problem) and her fund-raising efforts fell short (a Kickstarter only got her to a little over half a million dollars), Abramović decided to turn it into something that didn’t depend on a physical location. Its new slogan? “Don’t come to us; we come to you.”
A look at how art is taught – if it can be taught at all – and what the future holds for aspiring creators.
Today, the MAI travels the world — stopping everywhere from Brazil to Bangkok and engaging its participants on the topic of performance art (it costs around $2,000 for a five-day workshop, and anyone able to pay is welcome to enroll). Its pedagogy is focused on enlightening its students about what’s physically and mentally required of oneself to create art, principally with the Abramović Method, a set of durational exercises created by the Yugoslavian artist (who first began to teach performance art in the 1980s in Europe) that involve whimsical (and totally serious) instructions such as: “Choose a tree you like. Put your arms around the tree. Complain to the tree.”
A version of this workshop is depicted in Matthew Akers’s 2012 documentary, “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present,” which shows her at her home with about 30 young artists she’s invited to re-perform five of her historical artworks for her retrospective of the same name at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010. “The whole idea is to slow down your mind,” Abramović says in the footage about activities such as swimming naked in a river, chanting and sitting blindfolded in a chair as she paces around beating a pellet drum.
Abramović has referred to herself as the “grandmother of performance art,” which she has been making her entire life. Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), in 1946, she was creative from an early age, eventually studying at the city’s University of Arts. In 1976, she met the German performance artist Ulay and began spending more time in Europe. The pair, who became lovers, collaborated on a significant body of performance art over the course of 12 years, living for some time nomadically out of a small Citroën van (which was featured in one of their works). They even, at one point, dressed like twins.
Abramović’s work often tests her own physical limits and the intentions of her audience: she has allowed the people around her to do whatever they want to her with 72 objects including a gun loaded with a single bullet (“Rhythm 0,” 1974); had her hair braided into Ulay’s, after which they sat conjoined for 16 hours (“Relation in Time,” 1977); lost consciousness while lying inside a burning five-point star (“Rhythm 5,” 1974); lived in a museum with only water for sustenance for 12 days, during which her single means of egress was a ladder made out of knives (“The House With the Ocean View,” 2002); stood in front of an arrow held by Ulay that pointed directly at her heart, which was amplified by a microphone (“Rest Energy,” 1980); and recreated the works of other great performance artists, including “Seedbed” (1972) by Vito Acconci, in which the artist lies hidden beneath a wooden ramp and masturbates (“Seven Easy Pieces,” 2005).
By the time she was in her 50s, she was a respected but relatively minor name — an “artist’s artist,” as the curator Klaus Biesenbach put it in a 2016 profile of her for New York magazine. That all changed, of course, the following decade, after the success of her retrospective at MoMA, where Abramović sat motionless for six days a week, seven hours a day, for a total of 700 hours, allowing anyone to take a seat across from her and gaze into her eyes. The work became a phenomenon, with people lining up around the block for a chance to participate.
Since then, Abramović — who has appeared in a Jay-Z music video, worked with Lady Gaga and has a fondness for the clothes of the fashion designers Walter Van Beirendonck and Riccardo Tisci — has become something of a celebrity. Here, she answers T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.
What is your day like? How much do you sleep and what is your work schedule?
I love routine. It gives the day order. I feel good when I follow a routine. If I don’t — when I’m traveling, and my schedule gets crazy — I become unbalanced. I love the regularity of a monastery: The monks wake up before sunrise, then they go to the toilet. Then they do the meditation. Then breakfast. Then they will do physical work. I try to follow a very similar schedule. I like to wake up early. It’s very funny to talk about going to the toilet — Western culture is ashamed of this, but I want to discuss this. Is that OK?
When you go to sleep in the evening, all the energy in your body is in a state of rest. When the sun rises, everything in you wakes up. If you don’t go to the bathroom before sunrise, all the toxins rise from your feet to your brain. This is why so many people wake up tired. In some Eastern cultures — like in India, Japan, China and so on — they learn from an early age to go to the bathroom before sunrise. It’s not easy to do it if you’re not used to it. I had to train myself. Then I drink a glass of warm water. Sometimes I put ginger in it, sometimes not. Then I make tea and read the news.
How many hours of creative work do you do in a day?
My old friend Rebecca Horn is a wonderful German artist. After she has lunch, she goes to sleep. Except she’ll say: “I’m going to work.” When she wakes up, she will have had a dream. And then she’ll make her work. So, she counts her sleep as working hours. Many artists get their best ideas from their dreams or in a state of complete tranquillity. I hate the studio. It’s a trap to me. Ideas come from life.
What is the first piece of art you ever made?
I had my first exhibition of paintings when I was 14. I painted my dreams. I remember being so jealous of Mozart because he started composing when he was a young child. I knew it was too late for me to be a genius, but I tried my best. I remember my first painting. It was of a candle from which there were streaks of light that were different faces, and one face fell on the table — it was my face. It was about how you inherit an image of yourself. Or something like that. It was all in green and blue.
What was the first work of art you sold and for how much?
When I lived in Yugoslavia, we had no money. I wanted to be independent from my family, to be able to buy books and go to the cinema and do my own things, but I never had the pocket money. Since I was always painting, my aunts and relatives and friends of my relatives would order pieces from me. They would come and say: “We would like to have sunflowers, an open window and a full moon.” Or another would say: “I would like more tulips with the fish, cut a little onion, cut a little lemon and make the curtain move in the wind.” In 20 minutes, I was done and then I got some money. Now this was in dinars. In terms of dollars, it would have been about $10, maybe $15 — $50 would have been a huge commission. I’m embarrassed to say I signed them all with a very big “Marina,” like Picasso. I thought they would just disappear. But my mother got sentimental in her old age; she didn’t like that I was doing performances instead of paintings, so she bought back all my paintings from my relatives. She died and now I have maybe 50 of them. Maybe I’ll burn them one day.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin? What’s the first step?
The first step is to get an idea. Not an easy idea but one that makes me go, “Oh my god. No, no, no, no.” An idea that gets stuck in my stomach. Then, I get obsessed and, finally, I say, “OK, I’m going to do it.” That moment of decision is very important. Then I do it. But a piece always starts with an idea that I don’t like — something I’m afraid of — and going into the unknown.
How do you know when you’re done with a piece?
When I don’t have a gram of energy left in my entire body or soul, then I know. Therefore, criticism doesn’t affect me anymore. My early works were heavily criticized; now, they’re all in the most important museum collections. But at the time, if I read criticism, I couldn’t leave the house, even though I knew the work was good. At the same time, I can tell when a work is not good, even if it’s being called a masterpiece. It’s a gut feeling.
How many assistants do you have?
Until I had the MoMA show, I had only one assistant. I made that entire MoMA show with only one assistant, which is unbelievable. I come from a different part of the world, where even one assistant is a huge luxury. After the MoMA show, I ended up with seven. But it became too much work. Now I have four.
Have you assisted other artists before? And if so, who?
I cut garlic and cleaned onions for [the American composer] John Cage, but I don’t think I was his assistant. He was macrobiotic and while he cooked, I would sit in his kitchen and listen to his wisdom and love every minute of it. He lived in a big loft — he was with [the pioneering dancer and choreographer] Merce Cunningham at that time — that was full of cactuses. He had this wonderful routine: He took four hours a day to prepare his food. Macrobiotic food takes a long time to make. Then, for another four hours, he maintained the cactuses. They were so fragile. Some of them needed only a drop of water, some needed you to talk to them. Some only flowered once a year. He made a list of everything about the cactuses. Also, he had names for them.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
I love Mozart, Bach and Satie. I really like classical music. I grew up with it. Later, I started liking world music more. I like the rusty voice of the Costa Rican Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. Lately, I listen a lot to Anohni, who is a friend of mine. I’m currently touring my work “7 Deaths of Maria Callas,” so I’m listening to Maria Callas a lot as well.
What is the worst studio you’ve ever had?
The most difficult time was in the ’80s, when Ulay and I lived in a car for five years. We had stuff, but we couldn’t keep it all in the little car we had, so we stored things with other people. At least 25 different people had our stuff: boxes filled with drawings, ideas, unfinished works, winter clothes, summer clothes, that sort of thing. We had to have a list because otherwise we didn’t know where anything was anymore. That was really the worst because I don’t like chaos. Here in upstate New York, I have 10,000 square feet where everything is perfectly organized. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s because I come from communism.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you are a professional artist?
Very early. I’m lucky I never doubted who I was. As a child, I was always painting the walls until my parents gave me a studio, which was just a small little room where I could do whatever I wanted.
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
I like baby food. There’s a Dutch baby food company called Brinta that makes rice powder, which you mix with milk. That’s the kind of food I like. I also like mushed banana or apple sauce, any kind of food like that.
Are you bingeing any shows right now?
I just finished this documentary about Andy Warhol [“The Andy Warhol Diaries” (2022)]. I found it very interesting. He appeared on “The Love Boat” TV series, which was the trashiest thing of the ’80s. People would say, “You’re all about glamour, money and excess, anything else?” And he was like, “No, nothing else.” He never denied who he was. He embraced everything about himself. He saved himself in that way. He created his own world. And he is about glamour, money and trash — but he’s also so much more. When I can’t sleep, I like to watch a television show that has lots of seasons. I was looking for the longest show I could find, and I came across one called “Heartland.” It’s a Canadian show that’s many seasons long about a family and horses and nothing ever happens. A horse breaks a leg, another one has a baby. The family eats. They wash dishes. They make a pie. It’s absolutely wonderful.
How often do you talk to other artists?
With artists, you can cross paths and so many things happen while you’re together. Then years can pass where you don’t see them anymore. We’re like clouds. Right now, I’m very close to Anohni. I’m not so much into my generation — they complain too much. They’re always too tired, too sick, too old. I prefer young artists.
What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
Cleaning is very important to me. I clutter everything to the point that it’s disgusting, and I go into a moment of denial, and then I clean everything until there’s nothing left. I teach a course called Cleaning the House — not the physical house but your own body. I do this twice a year. I go to India to an Ayurveda hospital, and I eat only the cleanest food for 21 days. I’ve done it every year for 30, 40 years. But yes, I postpone things because I don’t want to think about them, and that only makes it worse. But I don’t think I’m unique in that.
What is the last thing that made you cry?
I recently made a work called “Crystal Wall of Crying” (2021). It’s 40 meters long and made out of coal and 150 healing crystals. It’s about the 1943 genocide in Ukraine that killed 130,000 people in less than three days. There’s never been any monument in Kyiv about it. Recently, the Russians bombed the TV station only half a mile from where the wall, which is still there, was installed. It will survive. The monument will now serve two purposes: as a remembrance of what happened in 1943 and today. What’s happening is terrible. Putin is a madman.
What do you usually wear when you work?
I’m very jealous of Julian Schnabel, who decided at one point to wear pajamas. I like comfortable clothes with holes and old T-shirts. This isn’t the Hamptons. When I stay in the Hamptons, you have to put on makeup just to go buy bread. Here, nobody cares. And I don’t see anybody except for the deer.
What is your worst habit?
Chocolate. I’m so good at many things: I wake up early; I do yoga. But chocolate — I love it too much.
This interview has been edited and condensed.