21 May 2024

You don’t have to be really into art to enjoy a talk by veteran performance artist Marina Abramović. “My work is serious but in life I’m hilarious. Humour is an important part of my life,” the Serbian artist told the press.

She stayed true to her word and did just that, keeping an audience of almost 1,000 strong in their seats for 2 hours at a recent lecture titled “History of long durational works of art and MAI” at the Bangkok Art Biennale.

“Is there anything special about your talk?”, a reporter asked her during the press conference for the lecture. “Apart from me, nothing!,” she quipped as the room dissolved into laughter.

The talk, as the title implies, was all about longduration performance art. She designed it as an introduction to anyone who was interested in the genre. She showed good quotes on art, visuals and many of her shows as well as those of other artists around the world and, at one point, she also led the packed room in doing some exercises that were perhaps an example of the routines she has done with her students at the MAI (Marina Abramović Institute).

Marina Abramovic talks long duration performance art in Bangkok. (Photo Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale)

She tried her best to share her 50 years of experience in this field of art in which she has always strongly believed. She believes that long-duration work could change the world as it first changes the artist, then the audience in the process.

“Art has to have more meaning. Beauty is one of those meanings but it isn’t the only one…. Art has to be disturbing and emotionally move you. It doesn’t matter how it looks – beautiful or ugly – but it has to do something to you,” she told the audience.

She believes in the power of long-duration art and especially how it can change a person mentally and physically.  “If you perform 15 minutes, 2-3 hours or even a day; you still don’t change. You can pretend to be someone else, but if you do something for one month or 8 hours a day for 2-3 months, the art becomes a life in itself. The change comes from inside of you and passes on to the public which is an important part of the performance. Without the public, it is not a performance. And the art is very powerful as the public and the performer becomes one.”

The Serbian artist gave an example of one of her students who proposed that she would count the seconds eight hours a day for 2 months. Abramović said that it was impossible but the young artist insisted she wanted to try. She actually started performing and while it was a struggle, after 10-15 days people started coming to see her work and gave her support.

“In the end, it became space, time, life and everything,” she said.

Abramović showed the video, which towards the end, sees the public joining the artist in counting the seconds and celebrating her success. It was touching and moving.

Talk includes the breathing exercise based on Tibetian wisdom. (Photo by Veena Thoopkrajae)

Covid and Marina

At one point when she asked the packed Plenary Hall at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre to follow her breathing practice, she said, “Oh it’s difficult with the mask on. We don’t need it as I think everybody has already had Covid. You had it and I had it.” The room erupted in laughter.

At 76, the globally famous performance artist stayed strong on stage, only pausing and sitting briefly during the short video presentation. It was obvious that the pandemic didn’t defeat her, and just like the famous saying goes “what doesn’t kill you, make you stronger, she came back stronger, especially her spiritual side.

“Covid is a blessing. Of course, if you die, it is not a blessing. For artists, Covid gives us time to read, to think and work, not travel like crazy. Time to realise how smart we are and how the mind is so fragile.

She saw the pandemic as a blessing as the entire planet became united regardless of skin colour, religion and beliefs, with everyone having the same fear. “It was a big lesson for me. It took everyone out of their comfort zone,” she added.

The Covid-19 was actually her “sanctuary” time as she refused to perform on any online platforms. “I hate performance on the Zoom. Bad sound, bad image, but more importantly, no physical audience. Performance is about the relationship with the audience . If you take this out, it’s not the same. I just waited and was very patient,” she said.

The lecture in Bangkok offered, apart from a brief history of long durational art, a delicious glimpse into her life as a young artist – from her walk with then partner Ulay on the Great Wall of China to her “Artist in Present”  in New York’s MoMA and “The Crystal Wall of Crying” in Kyiv, Ukraine.

She has always said that art changes the artist and that rings true when one follows her talk. The Abramović of today is an inspiring figure who is – in her mid-70s – still full of positive vibes and humour to share with everyone. The art has really transformed her spiritually and what she has done as routines for her students at MAI is just like meditation; it purifies the mind.

The lecture by Abramović gave the audience an almost spiritual lift. And as she said at the lecture, “Art is the oxygen of the society.” She has proved her point as her talk and participation in the Bangkok Art Biennale actually give art lovers a breath of fresh air.

By Veena Thoopkrajae