In Touching Video, Artist Marina Abramović & Former Lover Ulay Reunite After 22 Years Apart

In 2010, Ser­bian artist Mari­na Abramović had the hon­or of being the sub­ject of a pop­u­lar ret­ro­spec­tive at New York’s Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Through­out the show, Abramović per­formed a gru­el­ing piece enti­tled “The Artist Is Present,” sit­ting in the museum’s atri­um and invit­ing the swelling crowds of view­ers to sit direct­ly oppo­site her, in silent dia­logue. Abramović was no stranger to chal­leng­ing per­for­mances. By the time that MoMA staged the ret­ro­spec­tive, the then 63-year-old artist had engaged in count­less tax­ing exhi­bi­tions, earn­ing her self-giv­en title, “the grand­moth­er of per­for­mance art.”

In her first per­for­mance at 27, Abramović explored the idea of rit­u­al by play­ing a knife game on cam­era, stab­bing the sur­face between her splayed fin­gers with a knife and occa­sion­al­ly hurt­ing her­self; she would then watch a video record­ing of the vio­lence, and attempt to repli­cate it. Sub­se­quent per­for­mances includ­ed her explo­rations of con­scious­ness through the inges­tion of pills for cata­to­nia and depres­sion; anoth­er com­prised a 1974 incar­na­tion of her MoMA per­for­mance, where Abramović  sat pas­sive­ly before a table lit­tered with objects for six hours, invit­ing the audi­ence to put them to use on her per­son (of this piece, Abramović says, “What I learned was that… if you leave it up to the audi­ence, they can kill you… I felt real­ly vio­lat­ed: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stom­ach…”)

In 1976, Abramović  met Ulay, a West Ger­man artist who would become her lover and col­lab­o­ra­tor for the next twelve years. The duo fell into an imper­son­al abyss, los­ing their self­hoods and attempt­ing to become a sin­gle enti­ty through arrest­ing per­for­mances such as Breath­ing In/Breathing Out, where they locked mouths and breathed each other’s exhaled breath, even­tu­al­ly fill­ing their lungs with car­bon monox­ide and falling uncon­scious. By 1988, their romance had run its course; in typ­i­cal­ly atyp­i­cal fash­ion, the pair decid­ed to part by walk­ing from oppos­ing ends of the Great Wall of Chi­na until they met in the mid­dle, and then said good­bye.

On the open­ing night of Abramović’s ret­ro­spec­tive in 2010, the erst­while lovers were reunit­ed. The video above shows Abramović, sit­ting and steel­ing her­self for her next silent inter­locu­tor. Ulay approach­es, and Abramović, a vet­er­an of such dif­fi­cult per­for­mances, looks up to what may have been the sin­gle most unex­pect­ed sight of the night, jolt­ing her dig­ni­fied com­po­sure. Their reunion is a deeply ten­der scene.

via Enpun­dit

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Waters: The Point of Con­tem­po­rary Art

Jack­son Pol­lock 51: Short Film Cap­tures the Painter Cre­at­ing Abstract Expres­sion­ist Art

Free: The Guggen­heim Puts 65 Mod­ern Art Books Online

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

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Comments (36)
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  • Kika says:

    Phe­nom­e­nal Find­ing. Thank you.

  • Stefan says:

    Words are just use­less lux­u­ry between the two of them…

  • JON says:

    I have my reser­va­tions about this work. I don’t like the way her dress is designed to cov­er up the aper­a­tus she has for piss­ing in, like she’s super­hu­man and can go for 7 hours with­out a piss. Or queen­like and sim­ply does­n’t do those kind of things. There’s also the impli­ca­tion that she is tele­path­ic. I read a descrip­tion with the phrase ‘silent dialouge’ some­where, which sounds para­dox­i­cle to me. I do like para­dox­es but I don’t get the feel­ing that she was try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate this con­tra­dic­tion, it was a byprod­uct. I like the idea that we have a third eye/pineal gland, what­ev­er, which pro­vides sixth sence, but there is lit­tle or no evi­dence to sup­port this. Call me cyn­i­cle if you want, I prob­a­bly am…

  • Johno says:

    Beau­ti­ful video. One tiny dig at the arti­cle: car­bon monox­ide is pro­duced by com­bus­tion. It was more like­ly car­bon diox­ide (a major part of our exha­la­tions) that caused their uncon­scious­ness.

  • Johno says:

    Beau­ti­ful video. One tiny dig at the arti­cle: car­bon monox­ide is pro­duced by com­bus­tion. It was more like­ly car­bon diox­ide (a major part of our exha­la­tions) that caused their uncon­scious­ness.

  • Johno says:

    Beau­ti­ful video. One tiny dig at the arti­cle: car­bon monox­ide is pro­duced by com­bus­tion. It was more like­ly car­bon diox­ide (a major part of our exha­la­tions) that caused their uncon­scious­ness.

  • Mili Sefic says:

    If need­ing to men­tion Mari­na’s geographic/historical/artistic back­ground, call­ing her Ser­bian is not cor­rect. Yes, today it’s Ser­bia, but back when she was inspired by and was active in the region. it was Yugoslavia. A com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent place, time and sys­tem and has noth­ing to do with Ser­bia today. Also, she now lives in New York and last time i checked, NY is in the USA.nnnYou claim to be a sci­ence and cul­ture write, how­ev­er you con­tem­pla­tive and inves­tiga­tive skills are at a shame­ful lever. nnThen again, the arts/culture world is full of you.nnnThis video is 3 years old and you write about it now? Has noth­ing hap­pened recent­ly worth writ­ing about?nAnd since when does a pathet­i­cal­ly tear­ful meet­ing of an ex fling have artistic/cultural val­ue worth me read­ing about it? nnnnThank you for mak­ing soc­cer games seem more artis­tic than art.

  • Yossarian says:

    TO Mili Sef­ic

    Mari­na was born and edu­cat­ed in Bel­grade, cap­i­tal of Yugoslavia back then, and the cap­i­tal of Ser­bia today. As I can see from your fam­i­ly name, you come from Bosnia, to which Mari­na nev­er had any con­nec­tions… Sor­ry. It is Ser­bia, still.

  • Ray says:

    Despite the cyn­i­cal com­ments about this meet­ing, I found it to be very touch­ing and mov­ing. For what­ev­er rea­sons, they went there sep­a­rate ways — how love­ly to meet some­one you once loved/lived with, to make that con­nec­tion albeit briefly, almost like a soul­ful hel­lo.

    I have lost con­tact with many loved ones over the years, it would be won­der­ful to have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to just sit with them a while and meet on a heart­felt lev­el, either to say hel­lo again or sor­ry for what I may of done that caused them pain.

    As years slip by we have time to reflect on what once was and what is left now, on our behav­iour and the lessons life has taught us, it is called matu­ri­ty!

    Some­times in life we have to trust that every­thing hap­pens for the right rea­son, that it is all meant to be, these beliefs do not stop us hav­ing regrets though!

    If you have ever tru­ly loved you will know that time is not the pre­ver­bial great heal­er we are taught it to be -
    ‘I used to think time would make it all bet­ter ‑But I have learned bet­ter as time passed away’

    In life it is eas­i­er to crit­i­cise, con­demn and blame oth­ers for things that are wrong or that do not fit into our own belief sys­tems, I try real­ly hard to let go of neg­a­tiv­i­ty, being judge­men­tal or want­i­ng to wound oth­ers with my words or actions.

    So if any­one reads this — I will say thank you —

    ‘Namaste’ — Be Lucky.

  • Beverley McMullan-Kungl says:

    I just viewed this video on face­book with­in the last week…the dif­fer­ence between the two is the one I watched had an incred­i­bly beau­ti­ful song Ulay Oh play­ing with the video. Every time I watch it I’m brought to tears! If you wish to see the video I first saw here’s the link…

  • Dana Raftopoulos says:

    Does any­one know what were the words he said to her when their hands touched?

  • Neli says:

    It sounds some­thing like “I’ve wait­ed my whole life for this”..

  • Elizabeth says:


    My friend post­ed this on her wall and albeit beau­ti­ful.. sup­pos­ed­ly the back sto­ry is…“when they had this grand idea to to walk the Great Wall of Chi­na on oppo­site ends and meet in the mid­dle… It was a loooong-ass feat! By the time they met up with each oth­er he had impreg­nat­ed his Chi­nese guide! That is why they broke up!” Kind of makes you under­stand his expres­sions and hers.

  • Zaida says:

    A friend post­ed this on Face­book so I am just now find­ing this video. It brought me to tears and was very touch­ing. I was inter­est­ed in know­ing more and came across this arti­cle. Read­ing a few com­ments, it made me sad to see so many negative/ugly com­ments! Thank you for your com­ment. It was exact­ly what I need­ed to read and more. Words can­not express how per­fect­ly your words res­onat­ed with me. Thank YOU!

  • Zaida says:

    That last post was in reply to Ray’s com­ment.

  • Terrance says:

    I not sure what he said as it was not ful­ly clear.. so if I was to assume some of the sounds.. I will take he said…
    I loved you my whole life.

    Respect­ful­ly he keep her wish to part which is what he did.
    It was when she reach out to him that he told her this.

    Love is nev­er lost.. we keep what we had at the time.. It takes a greater love only to replace it.

    God bless.

  • Vialli says:

    Great and touch­ing.

    Great pro­duc­tion, great sound­track by How I Became the Bomb, and real­ly sen­si­ble com­ments by Ray.

    Thank YOU!

  • rachel says:

    i love ur mes­sage very pow­er­ful.

  • ramona says:

    did they see or spoke to each oth­er again after this mag­i­cal encounter?

  • Karen says:

    I read in an arti­cle that she said “they met and talked the morn­ing of the open­ing” so it was­n’t the first time she had seen him.

  • Kyle Roberts says:

    There may be no piss­ing aper­a­tus or the inter­view could be false

    What sort of prepa­ra­tion did you go through for this per­for­mance?
    To do this piece I had to go through real­ly strict train­ing and it took me a long time. Six months before, I became veg­e­tar­i­an. I eat at cer­tain times because of diges­tion. I nev­er went to the bath­room, and Jer­ry Saltz (art crit­ic for New York Mag­a­zine) made all this effort to find out how I pee. After the sec­ond day of the per­for­mance, [I real­ized] it will nev­er hap­pen. I take the last pee at 8 in the morn­ing. In the evening when I sleep, this was real­ly dif­fi­cult to train. I have to take water every 45 min­utes and sleep, and 45 min­utes and sleep, because not to dehy­drate dur­ing the night. But then dur­ing the day I didn’t [have to pee]. And then I had this very strict diet with very light food and only eat­ing in the morn­ing very cer­tain things and in the evening. I didn’t engage in any social events. I didn’t talk to my friends, except the cura­tor and the doc­tor and [a few oth­er] peo­ple. I had prob­lems with my eyes. I went to the eye doc­tor because it was a real prob­lem and I explained to him what I was doing and he said, “Yes, but why are you doing this?” So he could not help.

  • Terrance says:

    Yes they talked the morn­ing of the open­ing which was the next day.. He showed up open­ing night and that is when the meet the first time in all that time. The morn­ing open­ing was the next day, after the open­ing night. So does that make sense.

  • Medeline says:

    Beau­ti­ful­ly touch­ing video, I wil apol­o­gize for every­one who missed the point here and resort­ed to fault find­ing smdh.. yes I am judg­ing you com­menters real­ly???

  • Karen says:

    Yes real­ly. Sure it’s a sweet moment but they are writ­ing this like these two haven’t seen each oth­er in 30 years. If you read her inter­view after this hap­pened she says they had talked “that morn­ing” before the Open­ing. It was 22 years since they had bro­ken up, and dur­ing those 22 years they had kept in touch and worked on a few projects. They make it sound like after 30 years of no con­tact she was sur­prised dur­ing the Open­ing by his appear­ance and that’s not what hap­pened. Yes, it’s a love­ly moment between two past lovers but when put in the cor­rect con­text it’s not as “mag­i­cal” in my opin­ion, and yes, I’m allowed to have one.

  • Anna says:

    I fre­quent­ly go 7 plus hours with­out pee­ing. Wake up, pee before I leave the house and return 7, 8, 9, some­times even 10 hours lat­er with­out using the bath­room.

  • Karin says:

    The fol­low­ing is from Maria in an inter­view. I won­der if things improved at all in the months before Mari­na sat across from Ulay at the open­ing.

    When we split, Ulay lit­er­al­ly packed all the mate­r­i­al and took it away so I didn’t have access to any of it for 12 years. And I went crazy. For sev­en years we didn’t talk. Then we got a lawyer. Ulay want­ed to sell his things because he was not inter­est­ed in our col­lab­o­ra­tion any­more because he want­ed to just have mon­ey because he had a new wife… What­ev­er. So, we get this con­tract with the lawyer, and I had to find lots of mon­ey. I found a col­lec­tor who loaned me the mon­ey with­out inter­est, but I had to give work in exchange and pay over sev­en years. I was pay­ing every month to get this…

    Jesse: This chunk of your past back, yeah.
    Right. So he want­ed to have cash mon­ey, and he got cash mon­ey. But the con­tract was real­ly tough for me because every­thing, our work togeth­er, he always gets 20 per­cent from every sale. And I can’t sell with­out a gallery. So if we have 100 per­cent, the gallery would get 50 per­cent, I’d get 50 per­cent. From this 50 per­cent, he’d get 20. I’d get 30.

    But you were able to buy all the rights back from him?
    For only 10 per­cent more, I could have con­trol. I have con­trol for 10 per­cent of that cost. And I didn’t sell one thing because I want­ed time to go by. I only start­ed sell­ing now because the price is right. I’d been mak­ing my own work, work, work, work till just recent­ly. And now I just sold the first work six or sev­en months ago, from our file. So I have all con­trol of every­thing and if it’s sold, he gets 20 per­cent.

    So we’re talk­ing about stuff that he got, and then you got it back.
    Yes, yes. I bought it 20, 15 years ago. It was a night­mare, and now it’s very clear. I have lots of prob­lems with him because just right now, you know what he’s doing? He’s tak­ing pho­tographs of the work he doesn’t have rights to and putting his name on it. But in any book, you can see his­tor­i­cal­ly, I always men­tion two names because it is a his­tor­i­cal fact. I’m so tired of this because I real­ly think it’s not fair. This is why I’m tak­ing care of the work. I, his­tor­i­cal­ly, have to be. He’s pre­sent­ed that this whole era is about Ulay.

    [At this point, Richard leaves to get his cam­eras set up while Mari­na and Jesse con­tin­ue to talk.]

    Jesse: You talk about ener­gy fields a lot.
    It’s all about emo­tions. Now so many works of art are illus­tra­tions of the­o­ry. You need to know a lot of the­o­ry to under­stand what work means. But some­times a work of art doesn’t need any the­o­ry because you’re emo­tion­al­ly moved. And lat­er on you want to know more about it and you might start read­ing and look­ing into the­o­ry. But I think that this work is real­ly to do with emo­tions. With The Artist Is Present, even peo­ple who didn’t know about per­for­mance, who just came to the muse­um on a week­end trip with their chil­dren, they all had something—there was an emo­tion­al impact. So the ener­gy worked on an emo­tion­al lev­el. I can’t explain the ener­gy itself, but I can explain that it had cer­tain emo­tions in dif­fer­ent ways—you know, cry­ing, lov­ing, being there, think­ing about them­selves in a way they nev­er did before.

    So ener­gy to you is sort of like life force.
    But then you can talk about how, in doing the same activ­i­ty, rep­e­ti­tion has huge pow­er. To repeat the same thing cre­ates this kind of zone in this square with the four lights. So that kind of zone, when you enter, the ener­gy is dif­fer­ent there. That’s why peo­ple came in for five min­utes and 40 min­utes lat­er didn’t believe that they’d been in there for 40 min­utes. That space was charged with that kind of ener­gy by rep­e­ti­tion.

    It’s inter­est­ing that for a lot of peo­ple, and maybe peo­ple espe­cial­ly in New York City, you have to set aside a sep­a­rate zone to stop and expe­ri­ence what we’re talk­ing about in terms of ener­gy.
    They would nev­er do it them­selves.

    It was like a venue that was giv­en to expe­ri­ence these kinds of things.
    And it’s amaz­ing how it worked. I didn’t have any idea that it would work like it did. I had no idea peo­ple would wait in line.

    The line often ran around the block, like at a rock con­cert.
    It’s just amaz­ing. It’s like first of all you enter the zone, and you have a very strong aware­ness that you’re being observed by the square of peo­ple wait­ing, you’re being observed by me, and then you’re in this light. I’m just like a trig­ger for them­selves. I’m like a mir­ror to them. After a while they don’t look at me any­more, their eyes look inward into their selves. That gives them that incred­i­bly pre­cious time that they nev­er had because they’re run­ning around with their Black­Ber­rys. This was kind of a lux­u­ry that they indulged in once that would change every­thing. The whole piece is about being in the present. Being in the moment, not reflect­ing on the past.

    And that’s some­thing you’ve thought a lot about in your work, right? The present.
    That’s why I removed the table that was there in the begin­ning of this piece. The table wasn’t nec­es­sary. At the end of one day ear­ly on, a man came in a wheel­chair. I didn’t even know if this man had legs or not because the table was obstruct­ing the view. I said, “What kind of for­mal­i­ty do I need?” Because The Artist Is Present was an exten­sion of an old­er piece, Night­sea Cross­ing, which had a table, I thought I need­ed a table again. But then I thought, “I don’t need a table. I don’t need any­thing.”

    I’m think­ing of a very ear­ly piece of yours—the metronomes spread through­out four or five rooms. That’s a piece that was very much about being aware of time. Where do you think your inter­est in the pass­ing of time and the present come from?
    I can’t remem­ber. There was always this idea of how life is fleet­ing. I think it had very much to do with meet­ing the Bud­dhist way of think­ing. I start­ed read­ing and reflect­ing on the tem­po­ral­i­ty of every­thing and how mate­r­i­al things aren’t of any kind of impor­tance. The glass, just throw it on the floor and destroy it. We touch things that aren’t impor­tant, but then the only thing we real­ly grasp is the present. It’s the only thing that’s real. The future hasn’t hap­pened and the past already hap­pened. So to extend that present, how to extend it and also to involve peo­ple, to me it’s become very impor­tant. And I’ve always believed that art in the 21st cen­tu­ry would be art with­out objects. When I removed the table it was, like, so clear.

    What you said a minute ago, about peo­ple who don’t know much art the­o­ry com­ing upon your work at MoMA—that’s great. Any chance to wel­come peo­ple from out­side the art-world cir­cle jerk into the actu­al expe­ri­ence of look­ing at art should be tak­en.
    It’s also real­ly impor­tant now to know how to leave a lega­cy and how to teach. One thing we always for­got to teach to the pub­lic was how to per­ceive this type of art. Until now, the idea of the muse­um has been very 19th cen­tu­ry. Don’t touch, just look.

    It’s like a zoo for art.
    And I see the enor­mous need the pub­lic has to expe­ri­ence things and to change that. And that’s why the peo­ple start­ed wait­ing. They want­ed to be there on that chair, to expe­ri­ence some­thing the muse­um doesn’t give them. Anoth­er very impor­tant thing is that the pub­lic is always per­ceived as a group, nev­er as an indi­vid­ual. And by tak­ing that indi­vid­ual and putting him in front of me in the chair, it becomes a one-to-one expe­ri­ence.

    It’s inter­est­ing to hear that com­ing from a for­mer com­mu­nist. Group­think was very impor­tant to the com­mu­nist ethos, at least as prac­ticed in East­ern Europe before the var­i­ous col­laps­es.
    Total­ly. [laughs] But I was always the black sheep in the group. I want to make some work next, but I have to wait until some fairs because I want to use a black sheep. I need a black sheep.

    A lit­er­al black sheep.
    Yeah, yeah. I want a lit­tle black sheep.

    This zoo anal­o­gy, where the art is trapped like a sad ani­mal—
    Espe­cial­ly at art fairs.

    Espe­cial­ly at art fairs. And you men­tioned the­o­ry too. Do you find an exclu­siv­i­ty to the art world? The aca­d­e­m­ic nature of the way peo­ple inside it talk to each oth­er, along with the insane amounts of mon­ey that trav­el back and forth in it, lead to not a lot of entry points for the aver­age cit­i­zen.
    Art is so com­plex now, what’s hap­pen­ing. First of all, the muse­ums become like mod­ern tem­ples. Peo­ple don’t go to church, peo­ple go to the muse­um because there is art that can ele­vate your spir­it in cer­tain ways, with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly being reli­gious. So that’s one thing. Then art becomes a com­mod­i­ty. So art becomes a way of invest­ment. Peo­ple buy art with­out car­ing about what the art rep­re­sents. It’s just a way of mak­ing mon­ey. So then art los­es its pur­pose in many ways. This exhi­bi­tion by Damien Hirst, “End of an Era,” was very impor­tant for me. It opened just before my show did. I was always think­ing that yes, this is the end of an era and the begin­ning of a new one. The whole thing with his dia­mond-skull piece, it’s such a metaphor and such an incred­i­bly iron­ic piece to real­ly reflect what soci­ety has become.

    The extreme price is actu­al­ly an impor­tant part of the piece.
    I think that we need some­body like Jeff Koons or like Damien Hirst. Every soci­ety needs that to reflect our own van­i­ty and what art has become. So the thing with the eco­nom­ic cri­sis right now, it’s very good for art. It’s actu­al­ly excel­lent. The worse the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, the bet­ter it is. Every time when per­form­ers have dis­ap­peared and then reap­peared again, it’s always when an eco­nom­ic cri­sis has hap­pened. [laughs] It’s real­ly phe­nom­e­nal, but at the same time, per­for­mance art has the biggest pos­si­bil­i­ty for trans­for­ma­tion because it’s deal­ing with the pub­lic and the pub­lic expe­ri­ence. The pub­lic needs to be edu­cat­ed on how to per­ceive this new form of art. I start­ed to do this thing called pub­lic drill, like a mil­i­tary drill, last sum­mer.

    Drill like in boot camp?
    Yeah, I made this big piece in Man­ches­ter called “Abramović’s Choice,” which is 14 inter­na­tion­al young artists who per­formed for 17 days.

    Right. It’s also been referred to as “Mari­na Abramović Presents…”
    Each day, only 250 peo­ple can come to the muse­um. The muse­um had been emptied—for the first time in his­to­ry we asked the muse­um to be emp­ty of col­lec­tions. It took six months to emp­ty it just for the per­for­mance. Then the pub­lic come in, and they have to give their word of hon­or that they would not leave the space for four hours. They had to dress in white coats. Once they have white coats on, they can go into the space. Then I spend one hour with them. For 17 days, each day, 250 new peo­ple. And in this one hour I tried to slow them down. I tried to get them to for­get about time. I tried to give them exer­cis­es in breath­ing, lying on the floor, every­thing. And then after that they’re allowed to see the oth­er three hours of 14 oth­er per­for­mances that were hap­pen­ing par­al­lel to this, all simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Then they take their white coats off, get a cer­tifi­cate of accom­plish­ment, and they go out. I think that what I want­ed to cre­ate was a school for the pub­lic to per­ceive a new form of art—to learn how to do some­thing when nothing’s hap­pen­ing.

    Do you think that kind of stuff needs to hap­pen out­side of insti­tu­tions like MoMA? Sort of in more pop­ulist places?
    I made this his­tor­i­cal jump to final­ly becom­ing main­stream art at the MoMA in this exhi­bi­tion. It was nev­er main­stream art, just as video and pho­tog­ra­phy weren’t main­stream art and then became it. But I pro­pose that insti­tu­tions do these kinds of work­shops, and my insti­tu­tion would deal with that—to edu­cate the pub­lic how to per­ceive when noth­ing hap­pened.

    Is this the thing that you’re doing in Hud­son, New York?
    Yes, you have to pass through Hud­son to see the build­ing. It’s on the way back to the city. It’s this huge build­ing with columns.

    I think I know the build­ing you’re talk­ing about. When does it start and what will hap­pen there?
    2012. By 2012 I have to raise enough mon­ey to restore it and make it very sim­ple. I want to start with video, music, the­ater, dance, per­for­mance, and cin­e­ma, but only com­mis­sioned works of art by young artists and known artists who’ve nev­er done per­for­mance pieces but would con­sid­er doing it, with a min­i­mum of six hours. Every­thing has to be a long dura­tion. This is an insti­tu­tion for long-dura­tional work. I actu­al­ly want­ed to cre­ate these chairs with reversible beds, so you can last ten hours. If you want to you can sleep, there’s a blan­ket. In this arm there’s a cold drink, and in this one a hot meal. So you nev­er leave.

    Like a pre­fab­ri­cat­ed life.
    You’re in the piece all the time, even if you sleep. That’s what I want­ed to do. This is a very impor­tant area because there is Bard Col­lege, MASS MoCA, and the Dia Bea­con. And also Colum­bia would like to col­lab­o­rate. We have so much inter­est already, so this is the right moment to devel­op this.

    I was real­ly excit­ed when I was read­ing the cat­a­log from the MoMA show and I saw that you’d select­ed a text by Alexan­dra David-Néel. I love her. I think she was amaz­ing.
    Me too, her and Madame Blavatsky are my favorites. I like Blavatksy going to the can­dles look­ing for the truth.

    So good. And the pho­tos of Alexan­dra David-Néel in her Tibetan-explor­er gear. How did you dis­cov­er her?
    I was very inter­est­ed in the begin­ning, before Tibetan Bud­dhism, in phi­los­o­phy. So I was read­ing a lot about Madame Blavatsky’s auto­mat­ic writ­ings. She was Russ­ian, liv­ing in Lon­don, and she was a friend of David-Néel’s.

    Did you iden­ti­fy with her? Did you take inspi­ra­tion from her?
    Yeah, I did. I real­ly did. I’m not tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from oth­er artists because oth­er artists take inspi­ra­tion from some­thing else, so it’s like tak­ing sec­ond­hand. I’m not inter­est­ed in sec­ond­hand.

    Slop­py sec­onds.
    Trav­el­ing and nature for me are huge inspi­ra­tions. Any­thing to do with, as I call them, spaces of pow­er: water­falls, earth­quakes, or vol­ca­noes, some kind of incred­i­ble, tremen­dous ener­gy. Ari­zona, with the cac­tus, it’s just a mys­tic place.

    There’s a lot of pow­er there.
    Incred­i­ble. You have to be at that pow­er place and you just start being and you have your own expe­ri­ence. I love this thing that, like, in rocks, there is a cer­tain mem­o­ry in rocks. So you go to the land­scape and you have the same vision. And anoth­er per­son goes to the land­scape and has the same vision because the actu­al idea is in it.

    It’s embed­ded in the rock.
    I lived for one year with the Abo­rig­ines in the Aus­tralian desert. And there I saw lots of things, I mean I expe­ri­enced the most amaz­ing things. They have an extra sense of per­cep­tion. They can walk on ecto­plasm with­out touch­ing the ground. I’ve been with the tribes. One entire year is a long time. That changed my life. That changed my life com­plete­ly. The Abo­rig­ine is the per­son who is born with this abil­i­ty already. We prac­tice the tech­nique to get there, but the Abo­rig­ine doesn’t need it. They don’t need to do any­thing.

    And what about us?
    Oh, we are total­ly des­per­ate. We are invalids because tech­nol­o­gy cut us off from that kind of per­cep­tion.

    We made tech­nol­o­gy into a crutch.
    They say of us, “Oh poor white man, doesn’t have his own dream.” Because they have their own dream, they are con­nect­ed to nature. Every­thing is con­nect­ed to every­thing. By the urban way of life, by cov­er­ing the floors with con­crete and par­quet, we don’t know where the genet­ic lines are any­more. We can’t tap the ener­gy from the plan­et.

    It seems like through your work you can tap into some of it, though.
    My work changes me because it has such high aims, almost unreach­able, and I go through them, and then that changes me. But if I’m just in my own life I always use the easy way, like every­body else. You nev­er get any­where with that.

    Is the dan­ger and pain in your work a means to ampli­fy the present?
    No, it’s more to under­stand the phys­i­cal lim­its of the body. I was very inter­est­ed to see what the phys­i­cal lim­its were. In the ear­ly stages of these per­for­mances, I went to see oper­a­tions in hos­pi­tals. The brain, the hip— I’d be in there for three or four hours. They use saws, they use wires, they use every­thing, test­ing the phys­i­cal lim­its. And lat­er on in life through these per­for­mances I got very inter­est­ed in men­tal lim­its, which I think is so much more dif­fi­cult. Everyone’s like, “Oh, she’s not doing such dif­fi­cult pieces.” But it’s not true. The oth­er ones were short, I could do a piece in whatever—one hour, two hours—and then have six months to rest.

    Yeah, and phys­i­cal pain is sort of tan­gi­ble. Psy­chic pain is kind of abstract and hard­er to con­front, right?
    Yeah, total­ly. Because it’s like you’re deal­ing with a kind of mate­r­i­al you don’t real­ly know, you know?

    You’ve said that around 1989, you felt the need for change, for laugh­ter, plea­sure, and glam­our.
    Yes, yes. Did you see my new Ric­car­do Tis­ci?

    Oh, you mean for the cel­e­bra­tion? The clos­ing recep­tion for the MoMA show? Yeah. You looked very glam­orous.
    God. He made haute cou­ture for me. I looked the best ever.

    How do you feel in stuff like that?
    I love it. You know, most artists want to present them­selves in one cer­tain way to the pub­lic. It is like they are shy. After this Great Wall piece that I did with Ulay—

    Just for those who don’t know, this was your final piece with Ulay. You each start­ed at one end of the Great Wall and then walked until you met each oth­er.
    Right. I under­stood that I was always pre­sent­ed, prob­a­bly, as very skep­ti­cal and tough. I was just so fed up with this because I had the oth­er side too. I love bad jokes. I’ll tell you the dirt­i­est jokes ever. I love eat­ing, end­less­ly, choco­lates. I love glam­our.

    You do come off as very much an ascetic in your work.
    It’s all rolled togeth­er. And I think that peo­ple can relate to me much more because of this human thing. Because every­body has this con­tra­dic­tion in them­selves. But they are ashamed to show it.

    I’ve often thought that artists who like to be seen as work­ing class just feel defen­sive about hav­ing art as a career. Let’s talk a lit­tle about The Artist Is Present. How did you feel at the moment it end­ed?
    Did you see the end­ing?

    It was insane.

    The ova­tion last­ed for like 15 min­utes.
    Six­teen, they told me. And they only stopped because they were laugh­ing. Then my ex-hus­band appeared there and he kissed me. And I was like [gasps]. He left me two years ago, and now I’m still in love with him. It was so emo­tion­al for me, this end­ing.

    When some­body would start to cry while sit­ting with you, what would be going on inside your head?
    Some­times I cry with them because you devel­op this uncon­di­tion­al love, which is a real­ly incred­i­ble feel­ing to have for a total stranger—with peo­ple you nev­er saw before. I saw this huge man. He was like, this bik­er or some­thing. He sits on the chair, very angry. Ten min­utes lat­er, he was weep­ing. But we’re not talk­ing cry­ing. It was like, tears run­ning down his face. He was so incred­i­ble. I had to cry. I mean, just right away there was this reac­tion. I cry a lot, by the way, because there’s so much pain and lone­li­ness in New York. It’s just unbe­liev­able.

    There’s a lot of inner tur­moil going on in New York, yeah.
    And peo­ple are not used to look­ing in each other’s eyes. It’s amaz­ing how sim­ple this con­cept was.

    Look­ing strangers direct­ly in the eyes is usu­al­ly seen as some kind of a chal­lenge. It’s like the ani­mal king­dom, like dogs lock­ing eyes with each oth­er.
    When I was trav­el­ing in the Mus­lim coun­tries, in Arab coun­tries, I taught myself to avoid men’s eyes. Because if he looks at you nice, he owns you. The moment you catch his eyes there’s the idea of own­er­ship, which is unbe­liev­able.

    There’s also this idea of a star­ing con­test.
    It’s only the begin­ning that’s like a star­ing con­test. After a while, you’re sit­ting there and thought process­es start, and soon, you don’t even look into my eyes any­more. You’re actu­al­ly… you can look inside your­self. It’s just anoth­er thing. I cre­ate the stage and cer­tain rules. And then every­thing else that hap­pens is up to you. It trig­gers all these emo­tions, and emo­tions are over­whelm­ing. You know, dur­ing the last week of the show, peo­ple would wait for hours. The muse­um closed at 5:30, and the ones who stayed all day but didn’t get in would just go down to the cor­ner and wait from 5:30 till the next day, which is insane.

    That’s incred­i­ble.
    Actu­al­ly, wait­ing is a part of the process too.

    Right, that’s what I got the day that I was there. A woman was sit­ting with you. She was dressed in these clothes that were just like yours, but they were black instead of white. She had her hair done like yours too. I thought it was kind of goofy. And then she stayed there for hours. I thought, “I’d be angry if I were wait­ing behind her.” But then I real­ized that, of course, that’s part of it.
    And at some point you give up. Just total­ly give up. And then some­thing else takes place, so it doesn’t mat­ter if you’re there or not. I changed on so many lev­els because of this show. I real­ly am dif­fer­ent. So many things don’t both­er me any­more. Noth­ing can raise my anger. It’s amaz­ing.

    Do you think that will fade?
    I hope not.

    Do you remem­ber the woman I was just talk­ing about?
    Oh yeah. She had the same robe as me but in black, and I was in white. So it cre­at­ed a strange image, like the Bergman movie The Sev­enth Seal.

    Max von Sydow play­ing chess with Death, yeah.
    Yeah, he’s play­ing chess with his death. And I had this impres­sion. And then I was reflect­ing on Mozart. Close to the end of his life, he was very sick with fever and he had no mon­ey at all. And this strange man appeared, all dressed in black and gave him this enve­lope with lots of mon­ey in it and said, “My mas­ter sent me with an order for you to write a requiem.” So he’s writ­ing this requiem, and he’s won­der­ing why this mas­ter nev­er appeared or asked about the progress of the work, and he still has a fever the whole time. And at the end, you know, he didn’t fin­ish the requiem. But he start­ed hal­lu­ci­nat­ing that this requiem was actu­al­ly for his own death, and that the per­son who ordered it was Death him­self. So I start­ed think­ing about that while I was sit­ting there. Maybe my own death has come to vis­it me. But I think very often about that. In Amer­i­can cul­ture, you’re so scared of dying. And every­thing about dying is removed. You have to be ever young, and you can’t age, and all the rest. But to me, death has to be part of every­day life because only when you under­stand that it can hap­pen any minute can you enjoy life.

    That’s some­thing I was going to ask you about. I won­dered if issues of mor­tal­i­ty had any­thing to do with you think­ing about time so much in your work.
    Oh, so much work is about that. I was always think­ing how every artist, in his own work, you could see the way that he’s going to die. It’s so strange.

    How do you mean?
    So many artists die on the toi­let. But they dress them up and say they died in the stu­dio. It’s amaz­ing. I even stud­ied it—how many artists died on the toi­let.

    Give me some names.
    Oh, there are tons of names. I have it writ­ten down some­where. But we’ll just leave it that way. Let’s not dimin­ish the impor­tance of the artist.

    Peo­ple will need to do their own research.
    If I think about my own death, the most impor­tant thing to me is to die con­scious­ly. Con­scious­ly hap­py and with­out regret and with­out anger. It’s incred­i­bly impor­tant. The Sufis say that “life is a dream and death is wak­ing up,” so I real­ly want to wake up nice­ly. But you know, one of my grand­moth­ers lived to 103. Her moth­er lived to 116.

    You’ve got a ways to go.
    I’m 64 in Novem­ber! That is a seri­ous age. But I don’t feel it at all.


  • Karin says:

    Why I did­n’t mean to post the entire inter­view, only the part per­tain­ing to Ulay and Mari­na after the Great Wall. Regard­less if they did or did­n’t have much con­tact Ulay show­ing up to hav­ing a sit­ting with Mari­na, my heart just breaks watch­ing them meet. It reminds me of how peo­ple in love, at always at great risk of hurt­ing each oth­er. The expres­sion “You hurt the ones you love.” rings true. Their inten­si­ty when they came togeth­er as artist and lovers burned them up like a shoot­ing star. Like being on a car­ni­val ride where you are spin­ning fast with your body pressed against a huge drum wall, sud­den­ly the floor just falls away. How could it have not felt like that, these two peo­ple sit­ting across from one anoth­er? I was over­come with emo­tions watch­ing the video — The Bomb. The sense must have been flood­ed., and I do believe the words he prob­a­bly spoke when she reached our her hands to him were ones of : I always loved you, and I’m sor­ry for the pain I caused you. , and you are as beau­ti­ful today as you were then. This is, what I want to believe.

  • Aleksandr says:

    From an indi­vid­ual who can nei­ther spell nor pro­duce a cohe­sive argu­ment the obvi­ous emo­tion­al val­ue of this piece is lost. Yes drunk­en brute sports such as soc­cer are bet­ter for you than this type of art.

  • MJ says:

    I loved the way they met, how­ev­er I watched a doc­u­men­tary on them and while watch­ing I noticed some­thing a lit­tle off. When Mari­na was men­tal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly prepar­ing her­self for her big exhi­bi­tion at the MoMa, she and Ulay saw each oth­er dur­ing this time. She had din­ner with him and they exchanged ideas and thoughts about her per­for­mance. In con­clu­sion, as sad­den­ing as it may be, I think the “meet­ing for the first time” was just for show. They had seen each oth­er pri­or to the per­for­mance that Mari­na was in.

  • susan says:

    Can you be more spe­cif­ic about which arti­cle you read? I’m get­ting bits and pieces of oth­ers read­ings and it’s confusing…I too was so moved by their meet­ing “for the first time since the walk on the great Wall of Chi­na” but real­ly want to have the prop­er con­text of their relationship…and what about Ulay? What has his life turned out to be like…did he stay married…not much men­tion of his sto­ry.

    Thank You…

  • Christopher gaylord says:

    Ulay =TURD!

  • lorry sullivan says:

    I did­n’t think of her try­ing being super­hu­man, every time I watch the video I think of more­na as a lost soul. Cloth­ing that she could hide in, as if being wrapped in a cocoon… I guess that’s why ““beau­ty is in the eye of the behold­er”

  • Constance Whitehead says:

    Please tell me more about Ulay. Where does he live, is he still mar­ried? What is he work­ing on? The Artist Is Present, has changed my life.

  • Erik says:

    1) You read the phrase “silent dia­logue” in the first para­graph of the arti­cle you are cri­tiquing, so I’m not sure why you can’t seem to remem­ber where you encoun­tered it.
    2) Noth­ing in the arti­cle, includ­ing the elu­sive phrase above, implies tat the artist is a telepath.
    3) How­ev­er, my irri­ta­tion is nice­ly tem­pered by my inter­nal chortling over your attempts to spell the words that are meant to make you sound more intel­lec­tu­al­ly qual­i­fied to appraise the work.

  • shima says:

    Thank you for writ­ing this! I need­ed to read it.

  • Michele Harrod says:

    Ray, your words are tru­ly beau­ti­ful. Thank you!!

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