Performance Artist Marina Abramovic: 'Art Should Be Disturbing'

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“I want to have something like Andy Warhol without the drugs.”— Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović, the most prominent performance artist in the United States, is not content with how we, the audience, do our part. So she’s working with architects to design the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performing Art in Hudson, New York. She aims to convert a theater-turned-public-tennis-court into a showcase for her signature style of long-form “durational,” physically and emotionally wrenching performance art.

“Art should be disturbing. Art has to have the power to open the eyes of the viewer. And art has to be spiritual,” the New York artist, who grew up in the former Yugoslavia, said when she spoke at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design on Monday evening.

Once, in a performance years ago, Abramović cut a star into her stomach with broken glass. Another time she was burned when she accidently lost consciousness inside a flaming star. In 1980’s “Rest Energy,” with her lover and performance partner Frank Uwe Laysiepen (aka Ulay), she held a bow and he loaded it with an arrow, pulling the string taught and aiming at her heart. A different time they passed a breath of air back and forth until they exhausted it and fainted

A rendering of the planned Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performing Art in Hudson, New York. (Greg Cook)
A rendering of the planned Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performing Art in Hudson, New York. (Greg Cook)

“This is not where I’m going to put my own work,” Abramović said of her planned Institute for the Preservation of Performing Art. “This institute in Hudson is where new work is going to be created.”

The new work of the  institute, scheduled to open in 2014, will not just be the performances but training—some might say indoctrinating, reeducating—audiences in what she sees as the proper way of watching these sorts of things. Picture everyone donning lab coats, practicing listening, and watching (sleeping is also tolerated) while sitting in mobile chairs, something like the hovering deck chairs in the Pixar film “Wall•E.”

Below are excerpts from Abramović's Harvard talk:

  • “I think that artists have so much more responsibility and a very clear function today. … Art should not be happening in nature. Because nature is perfect as it is. It should be happening in disturbed societies.”
  • “I’m not running this place. I don’t want to be director. … I just want to be a consultant. We want to create long durational work in any category. … I really want to use it as a laboratory. It’s a factory for learning, but also a factory for experimenting.”
  • “When you enter as a normal public, you absolutely can’t get in unless you sign a contract that says you’ll stay for six hours.”
  • “What you’re doing is giving me your word of honor and I give you an experience. And this is really a fair exchange because in our world, in our time, nobody has time for anything.”
  • “The idea of durational work is mind-blowing. If you take the simple example of opening the door. If you open the door and you don’t enter, and if you open the door and don’t exit … and you do it for three hours, the door isn’t a door anymore.”
  • “It’s not a painting you can hang on the wall and look at it tomorrow. If you talk about immaterial art, it’s about energy.”
  • “In the institute I will have a space filled with current. Where just the energy will flow and by sitting in the space you can actually feel it.”
  • “It’s going to really revisit ancient cultures and find out about invisible worlds and find out about energies we have completely forgotten.”
  • “Toilets in the institute are going to be for men, women and artists. We’re making a new category.”
  • “Making performance like I do is not something that has to do with the market.”
  • “If you say something is not possible in my mind it’s always just the beginning. And that’s what I do.”
  • “I’m looking at the entire Hudson as a performance place … To build hotels, which will have the television with only one channel and it’s a live feed from the institute.”
  • “It’s so important that … this is not only bringing some kind of international jet set into Hudson, for the privileged. This is really for normal people.”
Marina Abramović speaks at Harvard. (Greg Cook)
Marina Abramović speaks at Harvard. (Greg Cook)

This article was originally published on March 06, 2013.

This program aired on March 6, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Greg Cook Twitter Arts Reporter
Greg Cook was an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.