TED2015

Marina Abramović: An art made of trust, vulnerability and connection

Filmed:

Marina Abramović's art pushes the boundary between audience and artist in pursuit of heightened consciousness and personal change. In her groundbreaking 2010 work, "The Artist Is Present," she simply sat in a chair facing her audience, for eight hours a day ... with powerfully moving results. Her boldest work may still be yet to come -- it's taking the form of a sprawling art institute devoted to experimentation and simple acts done with mindful attention. "Nothing happens if you always do things the same way," she says. "My method is to do things I'm afraid of, the things I don't know, to go to territory that nobody's ever been."

- Performance artist
In her performances she’s been cut, burned, and nearly shot -- but Marina Abramović's boldest work yet is a gargantuan institute dedicated to transformation through art. Full bio

Now...
00:18
let's go back in time.
00:21
It's 1974.
00:24
There is the gallery somewhere
00:29
in the world,
00:33
and there is a young girl, age 23,
00:36
standing in the middle of the space.
00:40
In the front of her is a table.
00:44
On the table there are 76 objects
00:48
for pleasure and for pain.
00:54
Some of the objects are
00:58
a glass of water, a coat, a shoe, a rose.
01:00
But also the knife,
the razor blade, the hammer
01:06
and the pistol with one bullet.
01:13
There are instructions which say,
01:18
"I'm an object.
01:21
You can use everything on the table on me.
01:22
I'm taking all responsibility --
even killing me.
01:26
And the time is six hours."
01:30
The beginning of this
performance was easy.
01:35
People would give me
the glass of water to drink,
01:40
they'd give me the rose.
01:43
But very soon after,
01:45
there was a man who took the scissors
and cut my clothes,
01:48
and then they took the thorns of the rose
and stuck them in my stomach.
01:52
Somebody took the razor blade
and cut my neck and drank the blood,
01:56
and I still have the scar.
02:01
The women would tell the men what to do.
02:04
And the men didn't rape me
because it was just a normal opening,
02:07
and it was all public,
02:12
and they were with their wives.
02:14
They carried me around
and put me on the table,
02:16
and put the knife between my legs.
02:19
And somebody took the pistol and bullet
and put it against my temple.
02:20
And another person took the pistol
and they started a fight.
02:25
And after six hours were finished,
02:30
I...
02:33
started walking towards the public.
02:36
I was a mess.
02:39
I was half-naked, I was full of blood
and tears were running down my face.
02:40
And everybody escaped, they just ran away.
02:45
They could not confront myself,
with myself as a normal human being.
02:49
And then --
02:54
what happened
02:56
is I went to the hotel,
it was at two in the morning.
02:59
And
03:04
I looked at myself in the mirror,
03:07
and I had a piece of gray hair.
03:10
Alright --
03:15
please take off your blindfolds.
03:17
Welcome to the performance world.
03:22
First of all, let's explain
what the performance is.
03:25
So many artists,
so many different explanations,
03:29
but my explanation
for performance is very simple.
03:32
Performance is a mental
and physical construction
03:35
that the performer makes
in a specific time
03:40
in a space in front of an audience
03:42
and then energy dialogue happens.
03:46
The audience and the performer
make the piece together.
03:49
And the difference between
performance and theater is huge.
03:53
In the theater, the knife is not a knife
03:58
and the blood is just ketchup.
04:01
In the performance,
the blood is the material,
04:03
and the razor blade or knife is the tool.
04:08
It's all about being there
in the real time,
04:11
and you can't rehearse performance,
04:15
because you can't do many
of these types of things twice -- ever.
04:17
Which is very important,
the performance is --
04:23
you know, all human beings
are always afraid of very simple things.
04:25
We're afraid of suffering,
we're afraid of pain,
04:30
we're afraid of mortality.
04:33
So what I'm doing --
04:36
I'm staging these kinds of fears
in front of the audience.
04:37
I'm using your energy,
04:41
and with this energy I can go
and push my body as far as I can.
04:43
And then I liberate myself
from these fears.
04:49
And I'm your mirror.
04:53
If I can do this for myself,
you can do it for you.
04:54
After Belgrade, where I was born,
04:58
I went to Amsterdam.
05:00
And you know, I've been doing performances
05:03
since the last 40 years.
05:05
And here I met Ulay,
05:08
and he was the person
I actually fell in love with.
05:09
And we made, for 12 years,
performances together.
05:13
You know the knife
and the pistols and the bullets,
05:16
I exchange into love and trust.
05:19
So to do this kind work
you have to trust the person completely
05:22
because this arrow
is pointing to my heart.
05:26
So, heart beating and adrenaline
is rushing and so on,
05:29
is about trust, is about total trust
to another human being.
05:33
Our relationship was 12 years,
05:39
and we worked on so many subjects,
both male and female energy.
05:41
And as every relationship
comes to an end, ours went too.
05:45
We didn't make phone calls
like normal human beings do
05:49
and say, you know, "This is over."
05:53
We walked the Great Wall
of China to say goodbye.
05:55
I started at the Yellow Sea,
and he started from the Gobi Desert.
05:58
We walked, each of us, three months,
06:03
two and a half thousand kilometers.
06:06
It was the mountains, it was difficult.
06:08
It was climbing, it was ruins.
06:10
It was, you know, going through
the 12 Chinese provinces,
06:12
this was before China was open in '87.
06:16
And we succeeded to meet in the middle
06:19
to say goodbye.
06:23
And then our relationship stopped.
06:26
And now, it completely changed
how I see the public.
06:28
And one very important piece
I made in those days
06:33
was "Balkan Baroque."
06:36
And this was the time of the Balkan Wars,
06:38
and I wanted to create
some very strong, charismatic image,
06:40
something that could serve
for any war at any time,
06:44
because the Balkan Wars are now finished,
but there's always some war, somewhere.
06:47
So here I am washing
06:51
two and a half thousand
dead, big, bloody cow bones.
06:53
You can't wash the blood,
you never can wash shame off the wars.
06:57
So I'm washing this six hours, six days,
and wars are coming off these bones,
07:01
and becoming possible --
an unbearable smell.
07:05
But then something stays in the memory.
07:09
I want to show you the one
who really changed my life,
07:12
and this was the performance in MoMa,
which I just recently made.
07:15
This performance --
when I said to the curator,
07:19
"I'm just going to sit at the chair,
07:22
and there will be
an empty chair at the front,
07:24
and anybody from the public
can come and sit as long as they want."
07:27
The curator said to me,
07:30
"That's ridiculous, you know,
this is New York,
07:31
this chair will be empty,
07:34
nobody has time to sit in front of you."
07:35
(Laughter)
07:37
But I sit for three months.
07:38
And I sit everyday, eight hours --
07:40
the opening of the museum --
07:42
and 10 hours on Friday
when the museum is open 10 hours,
07:44
and I never move.
07:47
And I removed the table
and I'm still sitting,
07:48
and this changed everything.
07:51
This performance,
maybe 10 or 15 years ago --
07:53
nothing would have happened.
07:56
But the need of people to actually
experience something different,
07:57
the public was not anymore the group --
08:02
relation was one to one.
08:04
I was watching these people,
they would come and sit in front of me,
08:06
but they would have to wait
for hours and hours and hours
08:10
to get to this position,
08:13
and finally, they sit.
08:14
And what happened?
08:16
They are observed by the other people,
08:18
they're photographed,
they're filmed by the camera,
08:20
they're observed by me
08:23
and they have nowhere to escape
except in themselves.
08:24
And that makes a difference.
08:28
There was so much pain and loneliness,
08:29
there's so much incredible things
when you look in somebody else's eyes,
08:31
because in the gaze
with that total stranger,
08:35
that you never even say one word --
everything happened.
08:38
And I understood when I stood up
from that chair after three months,
08:42
I am not the same anymore.
08:47
And I understood
that I have a very strong mission,
08:48
that I have to communicate this experience
08:51
to everybody.
08:54
And this is how, for me, was born the idea
08:55
to have an institute
of immaterial performing arts.
08:58
Because thinking about immateriality,
09:03
performance is time-based art.
09:06
It's not like a painting.
09:07
You have the painting on the wall,
the next day it's there.
09:08
Performance, if you are missing it,
you only have the memory,
09:11
or the story of somebody else telling you,
09:16
but you actually missed the whole thing.
09:18
So you have to be there.
09:20
And in my point,
if you talk about immaterial art,
09:21
music is the highest --
absolutely highest art of all,
09:24
because it's the most immaterial.
09:28
And then after this is performance,
and then everything else.
09:30
That's my subjective way.
09:32
This institute is going to happen
in Hudson, upstate New York,
09:34
and we are trying to build
with Rem Koolhaas, an idea.
09:38
And it's very simple.
09:41
If you want to get experience,
you have to give me your time.
09:43
You have to sign the contract
before you enter the building,
09:47
that you will spend there
a full six hours,
09:50
you have to give me your word of honor.
09:53
It's something so old-fashioned,
09:56
but if you don't respect your own
word of honor and you leave before --
09:58
that's not my problem.
10:01
But it's six hours, the experience.
10:02
And then after you finish,
you get a certificate of accomplishment,
10:05
so get home and frame it if you want.
10:08
(Laughter)
10:10
This is orientation hall.
10:11
The public comes in, and the first thing
you have to do is dress in lab coats.
10:13
It's this importance
10:17
of stepping from being
just a viewer into experimenter.
10:18
And then you go to the lockers
10:23
and you put your watch,
your iPhone, your iPod, your computer
10:25
and everything digital, electronic.
10:28
And you are getting free time
for yourself for the first time.
10:31
Because there is nothing
wrong with technology,
10:35
our approach to technology is wrong.
10:38
We are losing the time
we have for ourselves.
10:41
This is an institute
to actually give you back this time.
10:44
So what you do here,
10:47
first you start slow walking,
you start slowing down.
10:48
You're going back to simplicity.
10:51
After slow walking, you're going
to learn how to drink water --
10:53
very simple, drinking water
for maybe half an hour.
10:57
After this, you're going to
the magnet chamber,
11:01
where you're going to create
some magnet streams on your body.
11:03
Then after this,
you go to crystal chamber.
11:07
After crystal chamber,
you go to eye-gazing chamber,
11:10
after eye-gazing chamber, you go to
a chamber where you are lying down.
11:12
So it's the three basic positions
of the human body,
11:17
sitting, standing and lying.
11:19
And slow walking.
11:20
And there is a sound chamber.
11:22
And then after you've seen all of this,
11:24
and prepared yourself
mentally and physically,
11:26
then you are ready to see
something with a long duration,
11:28
like in immaterial art.
11:31
It can be music, it can be opera,
it can be a theater piece,
11:33
it can be film, it can be video dance.
11:37
You go to the long duration chairs
because now you are comfortable.
11:40
In the long duration chairs,
11:44
you're transported to the big place
where you're going to see the work.
11:45
And if you fall asleep,
11:49
which is very possible
because it's been a long day,
11:50
you're going to be
transported to the parking lot.
11:53
(Laughter)
11:55
And you know, sleeping is very important.
11:57
In sleeping, you're still receiving art.
12:00
So in the parking lot you stay
for a certain amount of time,
12:03
and then after this
you just, you know, go back,
12:06
you see more of the things you like to see
12:10
or go home with your certificate.
12:12
So this institute right now is virtual.
12:15
Right now, I am just
making my institute in Brazil,
12:18
then it's going to be in Australia,
12:21
then it's coming here,
to Canada and everywhere.
12:23
And this is to experience
a kind of simple method,
12:26
how you go back to simplicity
in your own life.
12:29
Counting rice will be another thing.
12:32
(Laughter)
12:35
You know, if you count rice
you can make life, too.
12:37
How to count rice for six hours?
12:40
It's incredibly important.
12:42
You know, you go through this whole range
of being bored, being angry,
12:43
being completely frustrated, not finishing
the amount of rice you're counting.
12:48
And then this unbelievable
amount of peace you get
12:52
when satisfying work is finished --
12:55
or counting sand in the desert.
12:57
Or having the sound-isolated situation --
13:00
that you have headphones,
that you don't hear anything,
13:03
and you're just there
together without sound,
13:06
with the people experiencing silence,
just the simple silence.
13:09
We are always doing things
we like in our life.
13:14
And this is why you're not changing.
13:18
You do things in life --
13:20
it's just nothing happens
if you always do things the same way.
13:22
But my method is to do things
I'm afraid of, the things I fear,
13:26
the things I don't know,
13:31
to go to territory
that nobody's ever been.
13:32
And then also to include the failure.
13:35
I think failure is important
13:38
because if you go,
if you experiment, you can fail.
13:40
If you don't go into that area
and you don't fail,
13:43
you are actually repeating yourself
over and over again.
13:46
And I think that human beings
right now need a change,
13:50
and the only change to be made
is a personal level change.
13:53
You have to make the change on yourself.
13:58
Because the only way
to change consciousness
14:00
and to change the world around us,
14:03
is to start with yourself.
14:05
It's so easy to criticize
how it's different,
14:06
the things in the world
and they're not right,
14:09
and the governments are corrupted
and there's hunger in the world
14:11
and there's wars -- the killing.
14:14
But what we do on the personal level --
14:18
what is our contribution
to this whole thing?
14:21
Can you turn to your neighbor,
the one you don't know,
14:24
and look at them for two full minutes
in their eyes, right now?
14:27
(Chatter)
14:33
I'm asking two minutes
of your time, that's so little.
14:38
Breathe slowly, don't try to blink,
don't be self-conscious.
14:42
Be relaxed.
14:47
And just look a complete
stranger in your eyes, in his eyes.
14:49
(Silence)
14:55
Thank you for trusting me.
15:34
(Applause)
15:37
Chris Anderson: Thank you.
15:45
Thank you so much.
15:48

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About the Speaker:

Marina Abramović - Performance artist
In her performances she’s been cut, burned, and nearly shot -- but Marina Abramović's boldest work yet is a gargantuan institute dedicated to transformation through art.

Why you should listen

Marina Abramović burst onto the '70s art scene with cathartic performances that tested the limits of spectator participation and personal safety. The Artist Is Present, a Museum of Modern Art performance in which thousands of viewers queued for hours to face Abramović across a table, moved many to tears, and launched Abramović into mainstream celebrity.

Her latest work-in-progress is the MAI (Marina Abramović Institute), a sprawling upstate New York complex devoted to the preservation of durational performance pieces, arts education and the pursuit of heightened consciousness through Abramović’s artistic practices.