Marina Abramovic Thinks the Pain of Love Is Hell on Earth

“I’m all for heroism,” Marina Abramovic says. “I love heroism.” And at 76, after a long and groundbreaking career, she is largely viewed by the art world in heroic terms. Abramovic is currently the subject of a show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where she is the first female artist to host a major solo exhibition in the main galleries of the 255-year-old institution. She also has two new books: the lavish “Marina Abramovic: A Visual Biography,” a sort of life-spanning scrapbook accompanied by an expansive series of interviews conducted by Katya Tylevich, as well as “Marina Abramovic: Nomadic Journey and Spirit of Places.” That one is also in the scrapbook-y vein, a collection of the roaming artist’s travel notes and sketches. If that all seems like a lot of looking back for such a forward-thinking artist, well, it’s occurring in the shadow of an event that would cause a little reflection: Earlier this year, Abramovic, whose work has so often been rooted in fearlessly enduring pain, suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. “Physical pain, I understand how to control,” Abramovic says about her health scare. “That I could not control this was frightening.”

Marina Abramovic in her studio in Belgrade in 1969.

From the Marina Abramovic Archives

You said the public can see itself in your work and relate to your relationship to pain. But you choose to undergo pain. So how much of an analogue can your work be for people who aren’t choosing pain? It’s complicated. So many people choose to take pain as a way of life; there’s people who live a painful life in order to punish other people who they don’t want to be happy. To me it’s really about the choices you make in your life. I am giving you the possibility of different choices. You can find bliss and be happy; you don’t need to be with somebody you don’t love. I wanted to inspire people about freedom in their life and the choices they make. You see the suffering, you see honesty, you see the incredible difficulties — and they’re overcome. We need examples in order to lift our spirit and be inspired.

But it feels strange to be happy? Yes! We are living in the strangest period of human history. We are ending this year with two wars: in Ukraine and Israel. Then there are natural disasters. Things are not getting better. We have to understand that the only reality we have is living every day as if it’s the last. Which is also the philosophy of performance: to be in the moment. How important are we? We are dust. I was also thinking how interesting it is that in war, when everybody was making art that reflected what happened, Henri Matisse was painting flowers. I finally understand that. The way to fight is not to reflect horror and put your spirit down. It’s to create something with beauty that gives you hope.

You don’t think any good art comes from happiness? Louis Armstrong or Stevie Wonder — Ah! Music is a whole different issue because singing, in general, you have to sing from your heart and open your heart. I’m talking about visual art. I’m talking about literature. Especially writers. You think Beckett is happy? You think Kafka is happy? Do you think Dostoyevsky is happy? Is Proust happy?

Maybe when his character bites the madeleine or hears Vinteuil’s sonata. OK, I’ll give you the madeleine.

Abramovic during a performance in the early 1970s.

From the Marina Abramovic Archives

You said we’re dust. But there is an element of grandiosity about you. How do you balance those two ideas? Yesterday I had a woman run to give me a child to hold because it was good luck. I said, “My God, this is too much!” The ego is the most dangerous thing for an artist. That you start believing in your grandeur, that’s the end of your creativity. So many great artists are [expletive] human beings. But I don’t want to be one of them! I see artists as servants of society. Before, the artist was serving the popes and aristocrats and Medici. Now it’s industry and banks or whatever. But performance art never became a commodity because it’s immaterial.

Performance art never became a commodity? There’s this whole apparatus — the Venice Biennale and Documenta and curators — and all this money is being spent. It’s not outside the art market, but I was teaching and making money in different ways — not because I was paid for a performance. It all looks very glamorous: You have great openings, you’re drinking Champagne. But this is not what it’s about. I spent all of my life to move performance art to the mainstream. I did it, and when you’re talking about a commodity, it’s such a little achievement. If you think of anybody else selling work for millions, it’s the opposite for performance people. I still have a huge mortgage to pay. I still have to work every day because I never have the kind of money like artists who produce objects.

On social media, you can see people doing things that have the DNA of performance art: filming themselves sleeping, or doing things considered inappropriate in public with their bodies. But that’s all about trying to monetize lives and become influencers. Do you see any connections between what people do on social media and performance art? This has nothing to do with art. Some years ago, I was invited to Silicon Valley to talk about the future of art. I was talking about my prediction that the future will be immaterial and how this immateriality could work in a very spiritual way. They could not understand what I was talking about because they believe that Instagram is art. Instagram is not art. Social media is not art. These kids are not artists. I’m sorry, but they’re not.

Abramovic performing at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” exhibition in 2010.

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Why are things on Instagram and social media not art? Simple. It’s not in the context of art. Everything you have to see in context. If the guy is making breakfast and we are all looking at his breakfast, I don’t give a [expletive]. It’s not in the context of art. If you make the same thing in the gallery, it is in the context of art. Context makes all the difference.

Social media has made it so common for people to publicly share their lives and their bodies. What have you learned about what it means for one’s sense of self to do that? For 55 years, I’ve taken my body as object and subject for my work. So my body is not just present as my body but present as a human body. You’re emotionally moved because my body is your body.

You become a symbolic stand-in for human beings. In your day-to-day life, do you see other people as symbolic too? I developed this deep understanding of human nature. I love humans. To me, the most interesting are the ones who are angry, who are difficult, who are constantly unsatisfied. How can I help them to elevate the spirit and change themselves? This is my favorite thing to do. It’s so interesting to see how people are different. I understand energy.

What do you think of my energy? Not bad at all. You’re very pedantic. You’re very clean cut. Good teeth.

Oh. What do you think of my energy?

I think we can go riskier. Risky? I don’t know. Risk just for risk, I’m not interested. If you create something artificial, it’s not good. People are so afraid of simplicity, but it works.

I’ll ask simpler questions. Who loves you? This is like a Zen question. You are very tricky. Who loves me? This is not important. It’s that I can love. It’s not about some absent love coming to me. Most important is how to generate unconditional love, because love, if it’s conditional, is temporary. It comes and goes, and then it’s all disaster or suffering. But if you have unconditional love, general love for the planet, human beings, the rocks, the trees, everything else, this is the love that nourishes. This is the love I’m interested in. Who loves me? This is up to them, not up to me.

You needed so much love. But when I asked “Who loves you?” you said it’s not who loves you, it’s what you love. You learned that because you didn’t get the love you needed. Exactly. You have to understand that nobody is going to come and help you. That makes you incredibly tough.

You know, I just was reading some Ernst Jünger, and he has a line: “Tell me your relation to pain, and I will tell you who you are!” Wonderful. It is important not to fear pain, to understand pain and accept it. Then pain is much more bearable. Like now, when I was in the hospital, they were giving me opiates every two hours because there was unbearable pain. But I understand if I take this, I will look like a vegetable. So I was taking every two hours, four, then eight and nine, and then finally I didn’t take any. I just deal with pain. But this for a much faster recovery.

But we’re talking about physical pain. Have you learned how to deal with emotional pain? No. Honestly, give me any type of physical pain. Emotional? Wow. This is the most difficult. The thing about emotional pain, just feel it. I’m totally against having medication. Medication, I hate. You have to feel it. That’s all we can do. You ever have love pain?

Of course. It’s hell on earth, huh?

Yeah. Anybody told you differently is lying. People say, “Oh, no, I can deal with this.” That means they never feel love.

A still from Abramovic‘s “Seven Deaths” (2021).

From the Marina Abramovic Archives

In that book you say, “I want to understand where my work comes from.” Do that book’s explanations feel satisfying? It makes your motivation all seem very one plus one equals two. It’s very simplified, it’s true. But at the same time I find incredible lessons in looking back. My upbringing made me who I am. This kind of concentration, willpower. Honestly, young artists are so spoiled. I learned to be tough.

Why do you think young artists are spoiled? Because when you come and say “I want to be rich and famous” — oh, my God, they can immediately leave my house. It’s about work. It’s not about immediate recognition. It takes years of good work in order to come somewhere. Lots of them want fast recognition. Just think of Basquiat. I’m not saying that he’s spoiled. He produced enormous amounts of work, he was such an amazing talent, but the exposure — when artists get recognition very fast and very young, you don’t know how to handle. You die young or you overdose or whatever. You’re not used to recognition. I don’t have this problem. I got it at 70.

But I wonder if this connects to what I was asking before about whether you see people as symbolic. Maybe that came back to bite you. I don’t think so. We went to the tribes to live for a long period of time, and it was the most profound experience I had.

In your memoir you also write about having premonitions. Do you still have them? There is something that I believe: When you’re in balance with yourself and your surroundings, everything happens that’s supposed to happen. You think of somebody: Somebody appears in front of your door. A phone call comes, and the first sentence is the answer to something you’re thinking. You never have this in your life?

I think they’re coincidences. No. Because there are moments when you’re in complete balance with energy, outside and inside, and when it happens this is the phenomenon. Monks or people who live in much longer states of meditation, that’s their normal way of life. Long durational performance actually developed these abilities. Because in the long durational, you don’t pretend. You aren’t playing somebody else. You become totally connected with the knowledge you are receiving from everywhere that is available but we are not used to. It’s called “suchness,” which means emptiness but emptiness full of meaning. It’s a contradiction. If we could live like this, it would be a dream.

Are you one of the wow artists? I would never say that for myself, my dear. This, history has to tell.

Opening illustration: Source photograph by Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. He recently interviewed Alok Vaid-Menon about transgender ordinariness, Joyce Carol Oates about immortality and Robert Downey Jr. about life after Marvel.

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