BEAUTY CAN BE FREELY?

A conversation between Marina Abramović and Harold Koda.

curated by Silvia Mella

One thing that I find really inspiring is when heavenly bodies, whom would otherwise never come into close contact due to their orbits cross paths or align together and align with the unconscious purpose of stimulating and disrupting each other to expand both their horizons. That is the same awe with which I approach these two titans meetings.  They had never meet before, but I knew it that they would have so much to share with each other.

Harold Koda: I notice your make up is very symmetrical. Is there something about symmetry that relates to beauty or do you have any kind of standard or codified ideas about what constitutes beauty?

Marina Abramović: I think beauty is overrated. There are so many factors that go into whether or not an individual perceives something as beautiful. I think in the past what was considered beautiful doesn't quite apply today.

H.K.: It's always changing and it's always unstable.

M.A.: Exactly, it's inconsistent. I have a very big problems with things being symmetrical. I would have recurring dreams as a child of symmetrical arrangements of seats on left and right with bells on them, and one bell missing would ruin the symmetry of the airplane corridor. Another dream would be an army with all the soldiers uniforms perfect, and I would go and remove a button from each of them to break the symmetry. So I feel like as an artist, my role is to break the code and create new ones.

H.K.: Do you think that this relates more to you introducing chaos or just somehow establishing a new order?

M.A.: I think that breaking the codes of symmetry is more about creating your own order, to propose a new solution for order. Especially when I was a young artist, I had to find a way to express myself and performance was my best tool. I didn't like theater, it was the enemy of performance because it's in a box and is artificial. Performance is something really true and in the moment: you have to break all the rules and create new ones, then maybe you can start to tolerate old ones again. Now I appreciate theater much more.

H.K.: Do you find that when returning to what you rejected [with a new point of view], it's completely altered by what intervened?

M.A. : Yes, I think that you return to things with a brand new perspective, similarly to how you have to sort of hate your parents to an extent growing up, but realize what they told you growing up makes more sense for you later on.

H.K.: What I noticed about creative personalities, being a curator and vouyuer of the creative process, is that creatives never truly relinquish control. What may appear outwardly to others as chaos, or asymmetry is really a new order imposed by taking a different form.

M.A.: My mom was obsessively ordered, when i was a child, she'd even wake me up to tell me that I was sleeping too messily and to fix my bed which is completely insane. So now when I go to hotels, the cleaning people think that I don't even sleep because I'm so still and don't wrinkle anything.

H.K.:(Laughing) How's your underwear drawer?

M.A.: Completely organized by color. Now I have to be organized in regards to almost everything. The ideal places for order are sanitariums, prisons, and monasteries because the order is so perfect that your mind can wander free, even if they’re not all ideal living environments.

H.K.: How do you work with others or deal with situations in which you are not in a position of power?

M.A.: I tend to let the person have control because I think as human beings, one of our problems is that we constantly go after what we like or are familiar with, and so we repeat the same mistakes. When I get an idea, if I have this sensation of fear and panic because it is completely new territory, I get excited. If an idea seems too nice and pleasant, I drop it. I’m not interested in it because I know the process will not bring any change.

H.K.: The thing about beauty is that just the word suggests a sort of complacency or standard that is shared whereas if you say "repulsive," it could be so many more things. Beauty seems to be more by consensus or at least what the majority would say is the consensus.

M.A.: When I was 24, I made a piece called "art must be beautiful," and it was really misunderstood.  Art has to be disturbing, ask new questions, has to predict the future, raise awareness in the people viewing it. These criteria adds to its complexity and to its adaptability for others so that they can take what they will from it. If art is too political, people will find it relevant today and the next, old news.

H.K.: One of the things I found fascinating is that every so often, magazines will take a bunch of pictures of women who are considered beautiful at the time and super-impose them over each other to find come up with some sort of generalized face. In the end you are stuck with what a plastic surgeon might consider beautiful.

M.A.: It’s horrible. Beauty comes from inside. What I’ve always found fascinated about being Slavic and coming from Eastern Europe is Russian icons. The beauty or light comes from inside them instead of outside. That inner-illumination is like divine presence.

H.K.: That’s a interesting point: an icon has that power and is very schematic, and people are able to project themselves onto it and identify with it better. When it’s too photographic or too representational of real life, it lacks that power. To me it’s more of an abstraction of an ideal.

M.A.: Yes, that inner light and the idea divine presence I find very very powerful.

H.K.: So are you a theist?

M.A.: It’s really complicated because I come from a Communist background, but my grandmother was highly religious, and my grandfather was the Patriarch Varnava of the Serbian Orthodox Church , and my mother and father were national heroes from World War 2, with my mother also being Director of the Museum of the Revolution and Art in Belgrade. I’m a strange mixture of the deeply religious and artist communities. As a religion though, what attracted me the most is Tibetan Buddhism, and not just the beliefs but the philosophy behind it as well.

H.K.: I was raised as a Buddhist, but I found it too hard to believe. Nonetheless, it made me conscious of the fact there is no way to arbitrarily state there is nothing or that another’s beliefs are wrong. I’m more comfortable with the plastic world, and empiricism, and the Age of Reason, but I don’t see truth in any kind of hierarchy.

M.A.: I just came back from Brazil. I was investigating places of power in nature like mountains, valleys, waterfalls, volcanoes, and their energy and its spiritual connection with the people who live near them; their shamanistic ways. Meeting these people and feeling that energy...I made over 100 hrs of film!

H.K.: Have you been to Ise? It’s a Shinto shrine in Japan.

M.A.: I haven’t been to that one in particular, but I have been to others.

H.K: There’s something about the presence of nature that has been cultivated in a way to elevate it that is so deeply moving. You enter the main shrine in the same way that you would others, but then you see the use river and riverstones, and how clear the water is. There are granite steps that go into the water with fish swimming over them and it’s incredible. There’s this transparency of your environment.. you have to see it.

But anyway, do you think beauty is more about light or shadow in terms of conventions we use to identify it?

M.A: I think it’s a mixture of both. You can’t have one without the other.  Regarding religion, though, I’m more spiritual than a practitioner of any religion. I’ve had experiences with incorporating spirits after I went to visit this man called John of God whom operates on people with no anesthesia.

H.K.: Tell me about it. Did he actually have you present while he was operating on someone?

M.A.: Yeah, of course. It’s a thing where there are a lot of people present, but I had asked him six months or so before if I could film it, and he said no, but when he saw me, he said "I can’t unless I ask the permission of the spirits I invoke.” He got permission, and I was able to witness one of his operations. It shook me. It was very powerful.

H.K.: I believe that places of both design and nature are beautiful and have energy.

M.A.: Yeah, and also of note is that churches and other buildings had historically been built on or near places of power or where people felt a spiritual connection, and I feel like we’ve lost that to an extent.

H.K.: How did you go into fashion?

M.A.: When I was growing up, it was definitely a "no-no" to be into fashion as an artist, because it represented vanity.

H.K: ...and the ephemeral and temporal.

M.A.: That...and something insubstantial, cheap, or vulgar. I remember in the 70s even wearing nail polish and lipstick as an artist was frowned upon.

H.K.: I guess because it was bourgeois and associated with a mindset of conventional beauty.

M.A.: There was a bit of collaboration with Dadaists and fashion and Surrealism, but there wasn’t much. Like Coco Chanel: making costumes for theater and such, but yeah, not very much crossover. For me, it was really when I was between 40 and 50, and I was sad and feeling abandoned by the man I was in love with. I spent more time on myself: I bought a beautiful Yamamoto jacket, got my hair done, and I asked myself “What’s wrong with this?” I felt good about indulging myself.

H.K.: What were you into wearing before? Was it intentionally transgressive?

M.A.: Not really, I wore pretty much white shirts and trousers, nothing special. Performance artists in the 70s–there were only really two appropriate looks, dirty white or dirty black.

H.K: In NY there was a Yugoslavian designer, Zoran, and his approach to fashion was all about minimalism. He loved color, but everything was modular and seamless or with straight seams, and he kept pushing it and making it simpler and simpler while using the most luxurious fabrics. Are you familiar with him?

M.A.: Yamamoto was the first designer I really bought. He had a documentary, and he was saying “In old days if you were sleeping, you would hang your clothes up, and if you woke up and forgot who you were, you would know by the clothes in front of you your role in society." He was very much influenced by Russian clothing not necessarily Japanese like you’d expect. With Issey Miyake even, they would ask him why he designed such large dresses, and he’d say it’s so important that there is space between the fabric and the body for your spirit to leave: that got me thinking about fashion in terms of truly original designers and the others, and I was really interested in original designers.

H.K.: Who are the Originals you admire most at the moment, if you had to make a short list?

M.A.: I’d definitely put Riccardo (Tisci), my friend of course, and Yamamoto, because I love him, but Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons–her clothes, never mind that you can wear them, are art in the way that they are detailed. My favorite was a piece with strange buckles and hinges all over the body.

H.K.: Right, because she is someone who advocated for originality over any preconceived ideas of how things should be. 

M.A.: Her interest was to create something new over something marketable.

H.K.: When she did her bump dress that looked like there was a tumor or growth coming from the side–(M.A. interjects)

M.A.: That was also a favorite of mine.

H.K.: Merce Cunningham had her do some costumes for his dance, Scenario.

M.A.: I saw that ballet. I loved it. Oh, I also love Margiela.

H.K.: Did you ever see his Barbie collection? You know with Barbie dresses, the snap has to be the same size as a normal dress despite it being miniature, for our hands. Well, he took the simplistic design of these dresses he blew their size up 100 times to life-size. Everything was so large but still so simple because on a doll you didn’t have the same refined cut, it was beautiful.

M.A.: There was another exhibition he did where beside each piece on display, there was a piece of paper that noted number of hours it took to make it. 300, 1000, etc..time is so important to both art and fashion, and I found this really relevant to what I do as a performance artist.

I’m really good friends with Riccardo (Tisci). I made a piece with him called ‘The Contract.’ I said to him, “Riccardo, let’s make something together. Is it true that fashion takes from art? Well, I’m the art, and you’re the fashion, just suck my tit!” and that’s exactly what he did. I loved it!

H.K.: I saw that as well. It definitely got people talking. Regarding beauty: In your early works, did you wear makeup?

M.A.: Never. During my performances I still don’t wear makeup, and I don’t use dresses. I sort of have this robe that I use to keep warm but nothing else. However, I'm delighted to enter this other world after performances where I love to wear things. Let me show you the jacket Riccardo made for me: isn't it amazing? It's a pleasure to wear.

I’d get a lot of criticism by my generation for my interest in fashion, but I asked myself "why shouldn’t art meet fashion and beauty"? Art is supposed to push and cross boundaries.