Marina Abramović: “When so much is taken away from us, we have to look at the things directly in front of us”

Quarantine, self-confinement could become a ritual practice of lucidity. The Endurance Art godmother reveals how getting stuck tested her capabilities.

Marina Abramović, Lucia di Lammermoor scene, photo by © Marco Anelli, on the set of the shooting for Abramovic/Willem Dafoe films shown during the first part of ‘7 Days of Maria Callas’ in Munich, courtesy of the artist

During coronavirus times, the inescapable contradictions at the heart of writing about performance art lays in the chiaroscuro between endurance and ephemerality. Especially when referred to the oeuvre of Marina Abramović (1946, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, now Serbia). By this interview, her claim to arts suggests to us that any artwork cannot exist or be complete without the presence of the audience and the desired transfers of energy.
Her performances, in this sense, have always been interactive, and our actions or presences may affect her continuing ability to focus and maintain the willpower to go through the exhausting ritual fast. An act of faith and perseverance? She always creates a space in which this experience, whatever it means to us, becomes possible. In times of contagion and self-confinement, we have to realize how reducing physical choices and emptying the self out has now larger cultural ramifications in today’s paranoid, social-distanced world than we may care to accept.

At the moment, Abramović is in Germany, she is working in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper. She is rehearsing her opera 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. Maria Callas, the primadonna assoluta of the 20th century. Abramović has been fascinated by the life of the “Tigress”, as Callas was known, for decades. She has now developed this opera project, in which seven deaths on stage are recreated in exemplary form on the basis of the musical and scenic formative highlights of the respective operas – all arias that were immensely important for Maria Callas.

In seven films and together with Willem Dafoe, Marina Abramović will die seven times and at the end of the performance, with the real death of Maria Callas in Paris in 1977, will be on the stage performing as herself. In addition to the well-known arias from the 19th and 20th centuries, Serbian composer Marko Nikodijević will compose music for the opera’s musical arrangement, and with it illustrate how Callas’s unconditioned love for her art never allowed a separation between the person on stage and the private person. The music is by Marko Nikodijević while scenes of operas belong to Georges Bizet, Gaetano Donizetti, Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi.

Marina Abramović at the Bayerische Staatsoper, photo by Christoph Koch and Wilfried Hösl, courtesy of the artist
Marina Abramović, Bayerische Staatsoper, photo by Wilfried Hösl, Courtesy of the artist

Following the actual quarantine government decree, how are you organizing your shelter, as a space for composing and re-composing your “normality”, also in terms of studio-space? 
By circumstances I find my shelter in one of the biggest opera houses in Munich the Bayerische Staatsoper, rehearsing my opera 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. It is a new challenge to learn to rehearse while practicing social distancing and limiting gathering to two people at a time. I am looking at 3,500 empty seats, imagining an audience from an enormous stage.

Which kind of practices, of rituals will you probably adopt for connecting (also spiritually) to the world outside?
In this moment it is very important to follow very strict rules which I made for myself:
7:30 am, wake up. Exercise on yoga mat.
8:15 am, shower, dress.
8:30 am, make breakfast.
9:00 am, have a walk.
10:00 am, go to theatre. Rehearse until 1:00 PM.
From 1:00 to 3:00 pm, go home and make a simple lunch.
At 3:00 pm, go back to theatre and rehearse until 5:30 pm.
6:00 pm, come home. Take a shower
7:00 pm, watch the news. Make the dinner
8:00 pm, speak to my office in New York.
10 pm, go to sleep.

From Freeing the Memory, Freeing the Body, and Freeing the Voice (1977), to The House with the Ocean View (2002), to 512hours (2014) how does the practice of endurance in different situations of self-confinement changed, for you, in time?  
A long time ago I realized that it is not life which changes me but the performances I do which change my life. I never rehearse my work because if I do, I will see that I don’t have the energy to do it. I just write instructions and put myself in the front of public to complete them. That extra energy of the public watching helps me to go much further than my own physical and mental limits.

Marina Abramović at the Bayerische Staatsoper, photo by Christoph Koch and Wilfried Hösl, courtesy of the artist
Marina Abramović, Bayerische Staatsoper, photo by Wilfried Hösl, Courtesy of the artist

Your performative practice is based on testing human limits, in several different circumstances. Instead of feeling stuck, or drawing the short straw or unable, have you ever experienced the deprivation of your real freedom, your mighty expressivity? If yes, which has been and which is now your personal antibody (or antidote)? 
I never felt the deprivation of my real freedom. Every task I set up in front of me I realized from the beginning to the end. Maybe sometimes to the viewer it could look like I’m in a prison of my own ideas, but that prison is my choice. I am willing to through the experience of feeling stuck in order to test my capabilities.

Many artists, under quarantine, around the globe, are expanding their subjectivities, once in quarantine, and they are getting used to “go public” using social media. Which will be the audience’s function, the public’s role during your lockdown? 
In this moment I am probably the luckiest artist because I am not in full lockdown in my home. I arrived here in Munich just before Germany went on lockdown, so now I’m here. I am in the biggest theatre in the world in Europe doing something I always wanted to do. To transport the opera to my audience I will use livestream technology. In these times with so much taken away from us, it is important to look at the things we have directly in front of us.

Russians often repeat: there are times when we all have to behave тише воды, ниже травы (quieter than water and lower than grass). How nature, on your opinion, could represent part of our renaissance and part of our destruction, in such contingent times? Are we really fighting against and sheltering from, at the same time, an invisible weapon? 
It is very important to be objective about the situation in which the world finds itself. The more difficult the situation is, the more we need culture and art to survive. I remember Susan Sontag going to Sarajevo in the time of the Bosnian war and directing Waiting for Godot in a bomb shelter. The most important thing is to keep the human spirit up, not down.

How MAI’s program will be organized, after Paula Garcia’s project, during the next weeks? 
The MAI project in Istanbul had to close early because of the virus situation. But as soon as the things get better, we hope to re-open. We also have to postpone our workshops in Greece. Olympics are postponed, The Boston Marathon is postponed. We, like everyone, have to find out once the danger is gone how we can bounce back and work again.

Could you please express a whish or leave a message for several performing artists who are forced staying at home, modulating their daily life spaces as a studio? 
What is really important is to learn the lesson that we are more than 6 billion people on this planet and because of global warming the earth is rebelling. This disaster has to teach us to think differently about our responsibility to humanity. 

7 Deaths of Maria Callas
April 11
An opera project by:
Marina Abramovic
Bayerische Staatsoper
Max-Joseph-Platz 2 D-80539 Munich, Germany

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