When Marina Abramović dies, she would like Antony from Antony and the Johnsons to perform at one of her three funerals where no one will wear black and Marina-shaped marzipan cake will be served. Now, the self-proclaimed and widely recognized “grandmother of performance art” seems quite immortal. With a retrospective and new performance piece “The Artist is Present” running through May 31st at the MoMA, the artist is silent, despite numerous provocations. She will not be communicating with anyone, aside from eye contact across a wooden table. Her intimate, fascinating biography “When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography” has come out just in time to complete the silence. I met author James Westcott at the book release party, just before the artist's retrospective. With thorough excavations of her artistic and emotional life stacked on the table, Abramović promenaded the crowd, shattering my attempts to look casual. James Westcott charmingly welcomed my giddy enthusiasm and has also graciously shared some thoughts with me about Abramović’s sense of humor, his most elusive interviewee and his favorite piece by the artist.
Marina Galperina: In writing ‘When Marina Abramović Dies,’ what were the contradictions, the challenges and the joys?
James Westcott: To all three: the fact that Marina Abramović is an artist who is still very much alive! Extremely alive. And also to all three: the miraculous yet very fragile working structure I had with Marina whereby she was co-operating fully — pouring out her memories in weeks of intense interviews, opening her archive completely — and yet had no control over the book or how I used any of the material. So I was reliant on her total generosity and her total surrender of control. She is amazing at reaching that point of surrender in the most intense and climactic moments of her performances, but in every day life Marina, like any great artist, is naturally very concerned with control and nervous when she loses it.
Aside from talks with the artist herself, which interviews had a great affect on you and why?
Maybe it was the three most difficult interview subjects. The one person who refused to talk at all: Nesa Paripovic, who was married to Marina between 1971 and 1976; he simply hung up the phone when I went to Belgrade to try to track him down. The one person who didn’t want to go on the record; [name withheld], because she was the only person who remained totally un-seduced by Marina’s overwhelming charisma. And the one person with whom Marina has feuded over the years even more than with Ulay: her bother Velimir Abramovic, who only agreed to talk to me on my second trip to Belgrade. His analysis of Marina was so powerful, and so crystalisingcrystallizing. After Marina’s breakup with Ulay and her increasing success in the art world, Velimir was very critical of her embrace of fame and fashion. He thought her interiority was disappearing and she was becoming like a mirror, reflecting the desires of those around her. But he said this was not necessarily a negative change. “Probably that is the change that every priest has to go through. You cannot function as a priest if you are an involved person.”
Seeing the artist in person reveals more of her sense of humor. What function does humor have in her work and life? And irony?
There are so many minor works that are really funny and silly. Like Luther (1982), in which Marina and Ulay put a cactus in a gallery, surrounded it with barbed wire, and made the gallerists speak nicely to it every day. They wanted to see if it would shed its spikes in this protected and loving atmosphere. It didn’t. But there is also so much humour in the pieces that seem dead serious. Especially in the video documentation. When I was watching Charged Space in a video library in Amsterdam, I had to stop myself from cracking up: the way Marina and Ulay pitter-patter around in circles, getting more and more stupidly dizzy, is undeniably funny. I guess Marina is a good Buddhist in the way she mixes humour and seriousness so well. She couldn’t do all these extreme tasks if there wasn’t also a kind of gutsy black humor behind them. I don’t think she uses irony at all; the finesse and condescension of irony isn’t in her constitution. She is thankfully much more blunt and much more generous than that.
In terms of Rhythm O, which left Marina Abramović to the devices of the museum visitors for six hours as she was stripped, scratched, drenched in water and threatened with a loaded gun, do you consider Abramović’s audience sadistic?
Yes, as a microcosm of all of us.
Do you think she’ll ever put her life in the public’s or someone else’s hands for a performance again?
She did exactly that in Rhythm 0 with the gun and the bullet. And with Rest Energy with Ulay in 1980, when Ulay held an arrow, Marina held the bow, and they leaned back with the arrow pointing at Marina’s heart. In a conceptual or metaphorical sense I think her life was in his hands in every performance they did together, but in Rest Energy it was really literal. But I don’t think she’ll do such dangerous performances again. Her focus now is on time and pure presence, not on danger.
What does Marina Abramović think of the title your book?
I think her attitude towards it is the same as for the whole book: she’s kind of offended by (parts of) it, but also accepts it and appreciates it with unbelievable tolerance and generosity.
Which works speak to you most personally?
The Lovers (1988), where Marina and Ulay walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle, because it was the first work of hers that I ever heard about and because I didn’t know such things could be done a) at all, and b) as art. The House with the Ocean View, because this was the first eye contact I ever had with Marina. Rest Energy, because it represents the way we can all be totally undone by each other, and yet must remain open to that possibility.
Post by former AFC intern turned Animal New York blogger Marina Galperina