03/10/2012 12:14 EST | Updated 05/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Marina Abramovic: Being an Artist Means "Lots of Lonely Hotel Rooms"

So what makes a great artist? That you have a fever, that you are obsessed. And it's just total commitment. And lots of lonely hotel rooms. You know it's kind of a lonely life. This is why I couldn't have children, this is why I couldn't be married, I could not. It's like being a soldier.


I sat down with legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic who was in Toronto recently for the Canadian premiere of The Artist Is Present, a documentary on her work, which screened at the Reel Artists Film Festival. She is also setting up an institute for the preservation of performance art, in Hudson, New York, for performances, as she says: "minimum six hours in duration."

Photo: Marco Anelli. Courtesy Show of Force.

Q: Do you think we are headed toward the fourth dimension -- a new age of awareness where we go beyond the five senses?

A: That's a good question. I believe we are in an entirely new system of truth. I really believe things are different, consciousness is shifting, and it's connected. Most people don't see these things, I mean apart from global warming, apart from the things going on with the planet. I really believe that consciousness is going to another dimension. It's all about energy.

We are going to be aware of things, see things that we haven't seen before. We are on the border of creating a new system. Artists are the antennas of society, we are the function and we have a duty to deliver the messages..

Q: I read an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist where you said the 21st century would be about art without the object. Why is that important?

A: Because we don't need anything. The object is a tool to deliver the truth. You can develop the concept, you don't need object. (For the Artist is Present) I had a very traditional set up of two chairs and a table. I needed two months to remove the table, that is incredibly important. I could not remove the table until I got to the point in my own understanding, when I got to the point where you know the energy is enough. I really think that we use objects to hide ourselves behind. In the end we just need ourselves, that's it.

Q: At what point can we strip away (the artwork) -- so that every moment in life becomes an art?

You know, there's such a huge, huge amount of training and self control, you know every work starts with the first step, and we should start with the ritualization of everyday life. Like you drink the water, walking from here to the window, just being constantly in the present.

Q: Like a meditative present?

A: Yes, in the present. That's really the key to everything. And another key to everything is to learn proper breathing. Breathing is extremely important -- we don't even understand how important. Because in the breath, it gives oxygen to every cell in the body. And how, actually with different patterns of breathing, you can be angry, you can kill somebody, you can fall in love, you can be sick, you can be healthy, all through different patterns of breathing. In a way, this is why to me the Abramovitch Method is so important now. Because Ive spent so much time with different traditions on this planet, and I've tried to see what worked the best and I've made some kind of mixture that I can share with young artists and with the public.

Marina Abramović and Matthew Akers. Photo: David Smoler. Courtesy Show of Force.

AC: So if someone like me was going to New York, I could go and spend the day at your foundation, and have almost a spiritual experience there?

A: Yes, exactly. There's a crystal room and a meditation space. I'm now working on a new work in Brazil, a room with a magnetic field, you can lie on the bed and meditate in the space. This is an artwork -- I call them transitory objects -- which is going to be placed in the foundation permanently, so people can experience all the objects in three basic body positions: standing, lying, and sitting amid crystals.

The show is opening on the 19th in a museum in Milano -- PAC -- and we are going to use the Abramovic method. We'll see how it works, and if there is anything to correct. But we'll make a film about it -- about the principles of the Abramovitch Method.

Q: I often see work by young Canadian artists that, in my opinion, doesn't go far enough. There's no question that you have made a career of going as far as possible in your work. What advice would you give young artists today, who want to become the great artists of the 21st century?

A: Ok first of all, when young artists come to me and want to be rich and famous, well you can forget it. That is number one. Number two, he or she has to ask themselves if they are an artist or not. You know being an artist is like breathing. You know if you don't breathe you die. You have to have over and over again the need to create. That doesn't make you a great artist. That just makes you an artist.

So what makes a great artist? That you have a fever, that you are obsessed. That you are ready to sacrifice everything. And to really have a sense of what the work is about and what you want to do with it, and what it does to the public. And it's just total commitment. And lots of lonely hotel rooms. You know it's kind of a lonely life. This is why I couldn't have children, this is why I couldn't be married, I could not. It's like being a soldier. And if you are ready for all that, and you really have this obsession, then do it. But you know to be famous, or to be rich, it's a side effect. It's not the aim of art. And for me it took a long long time.

For me it's now 40 years of my career, and you know only in the last ten years have I paid my bills. It was a struggle, it was like the first woman walking on the moon, nobody even believed it was art in the first place. It takes a long time. So if you are ready to do that, then do it. Otherwise, do another job.