The Artist, the Audience and The Space In Between: Marina Abramović Talks Pushing Boundaries in her Latest Film
What is an artist’s role in the current universal climate? An audience? How can an artist move forward with their own internal exploration and simultaneously share that journey with their audience — making it something significantly more kinetic?
These are questions Marina Abramović has pioneered throughout her decade-spanning career, breaking waves with her “Rhythm” series in the 1970s and up until recently with perhaps her most well known piece, “The Artist Is Present,” at MoMA in 2010. She continues to examine themes around pain, performance and healing with her new film, Marina Abramović in Brazil: The Space In Between. The ultra-personal documentary, now available as a Vimeo original, premieres online this week and also at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
In the film, director Marco Aurélio del Fiol follows Abramovic on a journey down to Brazil, where she seeks refuge and inspiration in the famous healer John of God and beyond. The audience, an intimate passenger on the trip, witnesses everything from testings of faith, torment, transcendence and an ayahuasca trip that Abramović calls the “most horrifying experience” of her life. When watching something created by an artist who’s made a career off of her ability to connect and share emotions, energy, it’s not hard to be swept up in the intoxication of Brazil and its metaphysical and spiritual labyrinths.
Filmmaker had a chance to talk to the renowned performance artist about this latest cinematic venture. When asked why she chose Brazil, she explained, “I wanted to really see if these people could help me go through healing and if I could make new work out of it.” The film is indeed more an exploration than a finished piece of work — reminiscent of the solo performance art live form, where the excitement comes from the unknown. We talk about what revelations the film brought her, the state of the planet, the need for spiritual awareness and why she’s continued to make art. To her, it’s about being a needed “power station of energy” and “concentrated volcano,” one that’s ready to share love, experiences, enlightenment. If the artist pushes those boundaries, perhaps the audiences they’re connecting with might do the same.
Filmmaker: On the MoMA blog, you discussed your first piece, “Rhythm 10.” You cut yourself 20 times or so during the piece, but said that you can push the limits in front of the public much more easily than in your private life. Is this why you decided to have someone film you on the trip to Brazil? To have an audience on your journey as opposed to doing it alone?
Abramović: No. First of all, I’ve done lots of spiritual journeys before, with deserts and isolation, with Tibetan monks and monasteries. But I only have the diaries with me and I never film anything. The older I get, I’m always trying to communicate different experiences to my public, [so] I was thinking this was a good moment to take the public on my trip and create this movie. It took four years to research and not to be just a tourist in another culture, but really go into the experiences of these people I was meeting. This film came out of the deep unhappiness I was facing at the time with divorce and a broken heart — all these things that all human beings feel.
I wanted to really see if these people could help me go through healing and if I could make new work out of it. This was the idea. But also, I need the public and in this case just knowing that I was going to make the film and the public was going to watch it also helped me to go through this — especially ayahuasca, which was the most horrifying experience of my life, by the way. You know, the energy the public gives to you, this is when you push the limits. Otherwise in normal life, I always try to avoid it. This is why you have to set up and stage things in order to push yourself. People don’t like to push themselves. They like to do things that are easy, comfortable, the things they like. If you do this, you never change. I needed to push in different ways, to create the change.
Filmmaker: Right. Tell me why you chose Brazil? You said you researched before you went, and many people in the film are coming to see this healer and have nothing to lose. Did you feel similar, have nothing to lose? Or were you wanting to explore the limits of your faith?
Abramović: No, when I saw John of God I was ashamed that I came, just because of a heart broken, having ligament problems with my knee and my eyes’ vision — these little problems next to the serious problems with people coming with life-threatening diseases. So I’m ashamed about my problems, but it’s very funny because when I came to film John of God, he says, “I’m just a man. 120 spirits incorporate me, and I have to ask each of them permission to film you.” I had to wait ten days and one day he comes, very happy, and says, “Okay, all spirits like you. You can film it.”
So to do this I have to stay three days in his meditation place, to do whatever everybody else was doing. Then, he asks me to hold instruments — you know, kitchen knives and some [other things]. It was such an incredible experience to see how something which our medicine and our Western way of life can’t explain at all, how this works. The people don’t feel the pain and they’re healed. Pretty strong stuff.
Filmmaker: You’ve said many times that the stronger the performance, the stronger the transformation, and some of the healer’s tactics could be called performance. The cutting of the eyeball, the stabbing into the woman’s belly — was this performance, especially with your camera around? If so, what did you learn from that?
Abramović: To me, it was not a performance because he was taking things as they are. This is the healing and this is the healing explanation. What I learned about is the power of the body. The power of the faith is limitless. We don’t understand that actually we have the power to heal any disease if we want to if we really have the faith. There is evidence there. People really get healed. This is a wonderful feeling to know that we have this in the body. But we are not trusting it. I’m not interested in, as I said in the film, religion, just in the spirituality. Strong spirituality is a base for human beings to actually exist on this planet with dignity.
Filmmaker: I love the moment you have with Dorothy. She’s one of my favorite people that you encounter.
Abramović: Oh my god, Dorothy is wonderful! I’m also talking about the future and about the soul’s different dimensions. Scientists are talking about this in different ways. But we’re all talking about the same thing.
Filmmaker: Well, you say that the world is already dying, too. This has been on everyone’s minds lately with global warming, the climate crisis and also the recent insanity of our political and emotional world. Should we focus on saving that world, or saving our souls for the next dimension, like Dorothy is?
Abramović: I think the world is not palpable to save anymore. I think that the planet rebelled against humans, basically. Somebody told me that humans are a cancer on this planet, because there’s so much destroying of the planet that the planet actually doesn’t love them anymore.
So the thing is, it really needs to go back to deep spirituality and raising consciousness of what’s happening. I don’t think it’s possible, I really don’t. It’s not that I’m pessimistic, I just think it’s already too far, but what we can do is raise consciousness and understanding to other people. We’re all walking blind and numb, human beings, without seeing all that. People don’t understand that everything’s connected to everything else. They see themselves as individuals, separated from unity. We don’t understand community, how everything, even cutting one tree, what kind of disaster that creates in the planet. The tree’s a living force and all this is so much loss and the artist — not just the artist — everyone, if they could just do one action, that will contribute to raising consciousness about this planet, everything will look different. Everything that’s happened, the political situation, it looks like we have to go to the worst, to go to the point of the bottom, in order to wake up. People are sleeping.
Filmmaker: I’ve always found solace in nature and I think this film is a lot about that. You say that we don’t need our art in nature, we need art in the cities. I live in New York City, you’ve lived here for a long time. How can we bring that nature and beauty to the cities? Is it here already, and if so, where is it? Where can we be looking for the kind of art you’re speaking of?
Abramović: I am thinking of creating some kind of stations of solitude for the city now because my institute won’t have to change to be more virtual and immaterial. The first thing we are struggling to build is in the Hudson, but more and more I’m thinking that outside New York is wrong, everyplace is the wrong place. I think that New York is the place we need it the most. In New York, we need certain moments of total tranquility where we just stop minds for a while. You know, just stop for a moment.
Filmmaker: You’ve always played with this idea of exchange in performance. For every ounce you give of yourself, the audience gives of themselves. I always think of your most well known piece, “The Artist Is Present.” When has this been accomplished, when has it failed?
Abramović: Well, you know it’s a process — comes and goes. The more present I am, the more the public can benefit. The long duration of work is very important. This is why I’m more and more interested in a long duration of work. You need time to get to the certain state of mind, and then the public needs the time to get to that point, too, to create that kind of intense emotional exchange. The more the performer is in that state, the more the public has a chance to connect. You have to radiate that kind of energy, which is pure emotional energy, you know? That’s what my work is about.
I have this friend of mine who says, “I hate your work. It always makes me cry.” Our Western way of understanding work is always through the head; it’s always intellectual. Sometimes you have to read so much text to understand what the work means to the world. My point is that work has to give you some kind of electricity in your stomach when you look at it. Then, you look with the artist, and you want to know more about it. But the work itself has to be a power station of energy. You have to be that kind of trigger, concentrated volcano, that you can give unconditional love to everybody that asks you, that’s close to you.
Filmmaker: That’s hard to do. It’s challenging.
Abramović: But also, it’s such a different form of art. You know, I actually choose one of the most difficult forms of art, believe me. So many of my peers have already stopped in their late seventies doing this stuff, and I’m still doing it. I can’t believe it! Yesterday was my seventieth — no, the day before yesterday, I turned 70. It’s like, oh my god 50 years of this work! I’ll always feel that I’m still curious, like a child. I always feel that I didn’t develop enough, that I don’t know anything. Almost every day for me is like the first day. I never feel that I’m finished. It just feels like it’s beginning.