College may be quiet because of Reading Week, but on Friday students packed into a GMB chamber with standing room only as performance artist Marina Abramović accepted her honorary gold medal of patronage from the Philosophical Society before an entranced crowd,
Upon viewing Abramović before her entrance, the audience fell into a deep hush, broken only by the sustained applause upon her taking to the stage. The usually more ornate trappings of the debating chamber were stripped down, leaving two “uncomfortable wooden chairs”, two glasses and a bottle of water in a setting reminiscent of Abramović’s MoMA work The Artist is Present which saw her sit for 736 hours with whomever took the time to join her.
Described as the grandmother of performance art in an introduction by Phil president Ludivine Rebet, the Serbian performance artist delivered a speech which touched on the history of performance art and how it became mainstream.
“I was supposed to be put in a mental hospital because performance wasn’t considered art”, she joked to a bemused crowd. “Performance is serious business and is not easy, it takes every atom of your energy. It is the most immaterial form of art, apart from music”.
Speaking on what it inherently means to be an artist, Abramović spoke on the urge to create that exists in artists. “If a student comes to me and says ‘I’d like to be an artist’, I send them home”, she explained. “You are or you’re not. It’s like breathing…the deeper you go inside yourself, the more universal you come out the other side.”
Referring to the measures undertaken by renaissance artists to prepare for their work, such as avoiding sexual intercourse and withdrawing from society, Abramović said “it’s very old-fashioned that artists have to be fucked up, we don’t have time to loose ourselves. Our society is dying…artist should be the oxygen of society”
Responding to the opening question from Rebet, Abramović outlined how she displayed paintings of her dreams at age 14, but had a jealousy of Mozart, “since he started at seven and I was too late!”
Rebet then asked her about the balance between risk and compromise when making art. Abramović acknowledged that this was a big question and saying, “you have to compromise, otherwise you can’t make your work. She drew a contrast between American and European museums, where the rules are much more flexible, highlighting “Belfast especially”.
She regaled the audience with an example of an American museum, which featured a woman sitting naked on a wall. Lawyers then approached her and said that the work could only be done if a helmet, harness, and insurance contract was drawn up. “If anything happened, I’d go to jail!”
Opening up for questions from the floor, Abramović employed the audience to ask her anything on their minds, saying that she was here for them.
After a question from the floor asked Abramović to speak on her views on art and politics, she answered that “if art is only political then it’s like a newspaper, it becomes old news.”
One audience member asked her about the importance of saying a performance is a performance, which prompted Abramović to stand up to answer such a “complex question”. “I am so interested in the changing position [of performance art] in the public”, she said, outlining the difference between when she started and now. “On Facebook I have millions [of fans]. The audience have to be part of something.”
When asked about her relationship to physical documentation of art, Abramović showed a regret for not documenting more of her early work, when artists in the 70s were trying to be radical and disinterest in documentation and recording their work. She expressed a fondness for recording her work with a basic static camera, but remarked on the readily available tools to artists to document their work at present.
“In the 70s you had such bad materials for recording, so you have good works documented badly. Now you have such shitty pieces documented so well!”
Taking up the charge of “shitty pieces”, Rebet asked Abramović about her opinions on bad art. “I’ve made shitty pieces myself…If I see an artist who makes great work and the next work is horrible, it means he’s a very good artist because he’s trying something new.”
The question of what makes art good or bad drew a nervous laugh from Abramović and the audience. “It’s electricity, it’s there…that electricity is everywhere.” She described an experiment carried out by neuroscientists which showed that almost 90% of test subjects responded more to an original than a copy.
Responding to a question about sexism in the art world, Abramović showed hesitation with the premise of the question. She outlined that even though she is female, she is an artist and spoke about how needless labels existing in the art world don’t matter. “What I will say is women are afraid to take a risk, How many men create things in the middle of the night with women bringing hot soup to them, but how many women make things in the night with men bringing hot soup to them? I make my own hot soup!”
Later, remarking on the feminist performance art of the 70s, Abramović expressed a distaste for female artists to be exhibited and grouped together away from male artists.
Abramović, who infamously presented a work which saw participants deploy numerous items on her including a loaded gun, has in recent years gained a younger legion of fans thanks to her collaborative work with pop star Lady Gaga. She worked on Gaga’s latest album ArtPop, and Gaga has practiced the “Abramović method” —where the body goes where it wants to go — under her watchful gaze.
Ending on a mixture of jokes and a heartfelt tribute to long durational performance, Abramović gave the audience some parting advice. “Our lives are so fast, our art has to be slow, slow, slow.”