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Monday, March 16, 2020



Montano: If you were to trace the concept of ritual back to your childhood, could you remember any actions that you performed ritualistically?
Abramovicˇ: I remember very clearly, a need for order, for what is al- lowed and what is not allowed. This did not come from my family background or whatever I was taught, but simply came from my life. I will give you a few examples. I would go out on the street to walk, and when I reached the staircase, I felt I must take the first step with my left foot, then left with right, left with right, feeling that if I don’t do this, something terrible will happen. Or sometimes I would go somewhere and there would be many seats to sit on, and I would know that I must sit exactly in the first row, the third chair from the right. Again, if I don’t do it, something terrible will happen. And it was this incredible panic in me and also some very strange relation to order: symmetry and asymmetry. And I remember that I had incredibly traumatic dreams, waking up in complete panic. Often I dreamt that I would pick up one button from the uniform of the old Yugoslav army—just one button— and the whole cosmic order would change. I would be facing madness in the dream and wake up in complete fear. Later on, I related this to my performances, because every time I had a concept in my head from my early work, I was incredibly afraid from it. It was total panic. And that was just from the concept. So every time I felt the panic, I knew that I was on the right track. If there was no panic, I would not do it. In my early works with the cutting and blood stuff I did, I had an incredible fear of bleeding, but I had to go through that. To break through the symmetry of early childhood. I broke through the inside voice, which told me that I should not do some- thing. In real life, as a child, I listened to that voice, but in perfor- mance, I broke it.
Ulay: I have listened to Marina’s story often, but each time it goes one step farther. I remember one thing in particular about my exis- tence, one thing that disturbed me very much when I was born, or be- tween being born and one year old. So often I was handled like an ob- ject, and so I couldn’t be confident being a baby. I was put into a basement, a cellar, a bomb shelter, and my mother would, with force, open my mouth, because of the pressure of the bombs exploding, to keep my lungs from blowing up. That action was repeated sometimes three or four times a day over several weeks because it happened that I was born in a place, in a steel city in Germany in 1943, that was maybe the worst place to be born. I remember this very weakly because my mother told me and also people I talked to later on gave me many more details on the issue. There was also a certain sound I couldn’t re- alize as a baby. I couldn’t know what was happening, and that was even worse. I couldn’t explain myself, I couldn’t hide myself. And at the same time, it was an initiation. In other countries, initiations are done when there is not so much a particular age but a certain mental devel- opment. The aborigines initiate children around the age of fourteen. But I do think that what happened to me was a very powerful initiation but happened when I was too young. I was entirely passive, so I was made an object. That’s my earliest memory from 1943-44.
So the whole notion of being an object became a very obvious thing in our work, in all of our performances—to make yourself an object. Marina was saying that she stood in front of the stairs and had to choose first the left foot. If you make a mistake and fall, at that very moment you are an object. T. S. Eliot in The Cocktail Party describes a lady com- ing down the stairs. She mistakes the last step and falls. She becomes an object because she is out of control; she is just falling. The moment you fall unwillingly, without a choice, without choosing, in that moment you are left to be an object, the same as lying on an operating table, where you are a piece of furniture. You see, it’s the noninvolvement of self, of consciousness, of decision, of realization.
Montano: Is that similar to a state of void or emptiness?
Ulay: There is no one meditation. There is, for example, a one- pointed concentration. But each person has their subjective point of focus. I don’t think that two meditations would have the same focus, the same awareness. I only know in our work Night Sea Crossing, which we are doing here at the New Museum, unless we become an object, the piece would be entirely unbearable, because there is itching or there is pain. You say, “It’s happening to my body or to my mind.” So you have mental and physical sensations and you call them for what they are. If I have a pain in my bum and I put my concentration there and just admit it, I make an object of it, and suddenly it becomes almost like a piece of sculpture. I think that it is a very intelligent mechanism, really, and would be very helpful to everyone, even in their daily life. It’s another kind of survival. So I have an unpleasant memory of being an object in 1943 and now I use that in my work. It works for me now, but it took a lot of time.
[Marina leaves to answer the phone.]
Ulay: I don’t want to use the word ritual for my work, even though Europeans are concerned with that word. We have very romantic souls. We are much more romantic than you Western people, and rit- ual is a daily exercise of many people, whether they are conscious of ritual or whether they are doing something for the sake of ritual. It can be divided into two areas: the mechanical actions, which for most of us comprise all of our daily actions, but which can be done ritualisti- cally—like brushing your teeth—and the second area, where some- thing is being done for the sake of ritual itself. Then there is an initia- tion, a liberation, a different sound, which involves a different sensitivity. But I really do not use the word ritual. I have been witnessing real rit- uals, mainly with the Australian aborigines and the Tibetans. They have a context, a motivation, and an action that is very foreign to me. I look at it and understand it in my way, but I could not place myself in such ritual.
Montano: Performance is trying to change the chemistry of the brain by designing actions and new techniques that keep us attentive.
Ulay: Here is already the big difference: I consider the brain as abso- lutely secondary—primarily secondary. I consider the brain to be first sec- ond, but not first first. I think your heart is primary, of the essence, for the simple reason that emotion conditions the whole chemistry and thinking; intelligence is secondary. The new Western world overestimates the brain and underestimates emotion, so the whole emotional life in the new West is disastrous. What you substitute for managing your emotional life be- comes psychiatry. A therapist runs your emotional life. If you look at art, minimal art, it is a typical invention of the new Western world because it is much less emotional. It becomes an intelligence, a kind of language, minimalized, unemotional. And there’s a big difference. We Europeans have an emotional hangover, so our rituals are different.
Montano: How do you feel that the work changes your daily life?
Abramovicˇ: Actually my way of life doesn’t change the way of my art. The way of my art changes my life. In periods of growing and experi- encing, I see obstacles, I see something that I must go through. Then, immediately, I think we must build the work which is about that ob- stacle, and then you go through it. One example: when we came to the end of our physical performance work, we needed a new solution to problems. To get the solution, we needed different circumstances, so we decided to go somewhere where we didn’t know if we could exist—that’s the desert. In the desert is born the new work. So we cre- ate situations where we confront life very heavily with our art concept. And then, through the execution of the work, we find our experience and our life on a different level. So it’s going on like this all of the time. Life does not change the art; it’s really the other way around.
Montano: It’s using life material to make art, and the art affects the life.
Ulay: That’s already a therapeutic implication, which is very, very in- teresting for us, but not the most interesting for the observer. Certainly, by the nature of the work it has a strong therapeutic impact, which is very good, but there are other values. There is a communication value, aesthetic value—it’s not enough for it to be only therapeutic; that’s not enough for our way.
Montano: Can you talk about one of your pieces? Are any easy?
Abramovicˇ: I don’t remember that ever happening. I do remember a theater piece, called Positive Zero, becoming bad from my point of view. I became physically sick. It was so difficult. We invited Tibetan lamas and [Australian] aborigines to do the music part in a very big theater. It was an important encounter because it was the first time that the aborig- ines and Tibetans met. But there was something about the piece that I could not handle. Something ran over me. Too many people were involved—thirty-five people. And how it came out was not good. It was the first time for me, because every time we do a piece, it’s for a state of mind at that moment, so it’s not a question of being good or bad.
I find that the most important time in our performance is when thinking is not involved. There are not too many such moments, and you really have to work very hard to get to that point. And I think that if we can extend that, put our life into that moment, then we talk about realization. The future has to do with direct transmission, and there will be no object between you and the public, just this transmis- sion of you, being there. The only way to do this is to work on your- self. Nothing else works. If we have such a power to make objects, then we can do without objects, too. We can all go and sit on a moun- tain and go on a retreat, fine, but our function is very difficult; it is to do this purification work, to do it at the same moment that we are pub- lic. It is really hard in a way, because it is easier to go to the Himalayas and meditate and be in the right vibrations and not be disturbed. But in the job of performing we bring to it all of our imperfections plus the public’s plus the effort to do it.
Montano: Then we have the responsibility to be refreshed, revived, or taught so that we can do the job. Do you have a spiritual teacher?
Abramovicˇ: In Europe the idea of art and religion is very dangerous. They criticize anything that has to do with this.
Ulay: This is true and not true. It is not necessarily appreciated to mention the word and talk about it, but there were a large number of important artists who were very religious—Rothko, for instance. In general I think that we fail to apply things to daily life and things stay intelligent philosophies. And this is a symptom of what happens with religion. Religion theoretically is a philosophy, and for most people it is a doctrine that is readable and understandable, but unless you prac- tice, there is no religion. And this is one of the attractions and reasons why we like to go to Asia, because in Asia, in every corner, in every piece of dirt, you find philosophy, and it is applied and entirely ab- sorbed in people’s behavior and existence and daily life.
Abramovicˇ: From the moment of birth until they die. In Western so- ciety, art is a result of disconnection between nature and humans. In Asia, art is not only functioning in its religious sense, it is completely connected and does not exist independently. Here it is disconnected, independent. We would like to start a new kind of school that brings together philosophy, religion, art, and all things. It would be in a beau- tiful setting and someplace where we can transmit what we learn. Maybe we can all get together and make a big school.
Montano: This interests me also very much. I have attempted some- thing like that. For sixteen days each year of this seven-year piece, a collaborator will live with me so that we can learn from each other. When you work together, what do you do for each other?
Ulay: There is no question: we couldn’t do what we do if we weren’t together.
Abramovicˇ: What is interesting is that there are two different elements. For us to put something together and produce a third thing, and for us not to kill each other but to stand next to each other, we create a third energy. The third energy is called that self, not myself, not himself. That something should be independent from both of us, especially free of egos. It took years and hell to do this. We really fight and have different ideas.
[Ulay leaves to answer the phone.]
Abramovicˇ: He would come with one [idea], I with another one. We’d always start with an enormous amount of material. Then we’d reduce, come up with one or two elements until it’s just right for both of us. Until then we don’t do anything. This third element should go out to people. It’s very difficult because we started out as independent performance artists. And the ego problems are enormous. And now it’s a step further to work together. If anything happened and we didn’t work together, I would never go back to working alone. I would work with three people or more. There’s something so attractive about the collective energy. We just did a theater piece with two more people. There were four of us. It was incredible. Real hell. We fought like mad. And then the piece came out, and it had all of these elements in it. No one thing was destroyed. That’s very important. And mistakes are important. From the piece that I considered not so good, I learned so much. I had incredible physical troubles. I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t trust thirty-five people. When Ulay and I make a perfor- mance, I know exactly how far we can trust each other, but in that sit- uation I didn’t know.
[Ulay returns.]
Ulay: You mentioned earlier about finding a teacher. I have found him [points to Marina]. I think the whole process of collaboration is wonderful. It’s not that she tells me what to do or I tell her what to do, even though sometimes we are critical of each other. What we really do is teach each other. I have another teacher. I have been a long time in India, seeking the teacher, and I didn’t find him. But I found one where I never expected to find one and in a place where I was not looking for one. That was in the Australian desert, where I met this old aborigine, and for some reason, maybe because the aborigines are the oldest culture remaining alive on earth, it’s difficult to grasp their minds. But at the same time I was very close to the man and it was simple. He must have recognized me for something, for being someone or nobody. And I recognized him. We were without in- troduction. We didn’t need an introduction because he has two eyes, a nose, and mouth—as I have. But there was that click. And he became a teacher for me, not so much when I was in the desert with him but when he came to my place. In 1983 I went down with a plane to the desert, picked him up, and brought him all the way to Amsterdam. And we had a very good time together. We spent twenty-four hours of the day together. Suddenly, after a day or so, I realized something, and that just blew my mind in a very good way; it was a good implosion: the man did not know the concept, nor did he use the words no or yes. He never used these words, and that brought a little bit of trouble. So each time when I went to bed at night when he was lying down or sitting quietly, I lay there and thought over the day in detail to see if I did everything well or not. Did I make a mistake? I didn’t know because he didn’t say yes or no. So the moral impact was of such a degree that I found him to be a good teacher. We stay in contact. I will visit him again, and the simple thing of not telling me yes or no was my realization of having found a teacher.
Abramovicˇ: I have a dog. That is special. I obsess about her when I travel. Anything wrong, this dog picks up. She is a barometer. It’s a very big dog and has been with us ten years, since Ulay and I have been together. This aborigine came and he looked at this dog, and I was afraid that she would attack because she is really a wild dog. And he looked at her and said, even though she is a female, “Oh, I know this old man for a very long time!” And I really felt so strongly, “That’s true.” And when the aborigine sent us a letter, he ended, “How is this big dog, the old man?”


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