• Marina Abramovic brings her sets of audience-participation activities and her artists from the Marina Abramovic Institute to participate in the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale. (Nation/Anand Chantarasoot)
  • Abramovic invites visitors to participate in some long durational activities such as counting rice grains, gazing at coloured sheets of paper, standing in silence or sleeping on camp beds at BACC. (Courtesy of Marina Abramovic)
  • Abramovic invites visitors to participate in some long durational activities such as counting rice grains, gazing at coloured sheets of paper, standing in silence or sleeping on camp beds at BACC. (Courtesy of Marina Abramovic)
  • Abramovic invites visitors to participate in some long durational activities such as counting rice grains, gazing at coloured sheets of paper, standing in silence or sleeping on camp beds at BACC. (Courtesy of Marina Abramovic)

The Stillness of Being

Art October 24, 2018 01:00

By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Nation

13,225 Viewed

Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic talks about her contributions to the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale



WHEN Apinan Poshyananda, the chief artistic director of Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB), unveiled the inaugural edition of this large-scale international contemporary art event, Marina Abramovic, a big name in the world of performing art, was among the first to volunteer her participation. 

BAB, which continues until February 3, sees more than 200 art pieces by 75 international and Thai artists spread over 20 venues around the city from riverside temples, historical buildings, to hotels, malls and galleries. 

Marina Abramovic /Nation: Anand Chantarasoot

And Abramovic isn’t only presenting a set of her audience-participation, long durational activities, but has also encouraged young artists who are inspired by her performing method and trained under the “cleaning the house” workshop by her Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI) to come forward with their works and messages.

“I first came to Thailand in 1983 and it was something that really opened my heart - the kindness of the people and the land of Buddhism. When Apinan talked about the idea behind the Biennale’s theme ‘Beyond Bliss’, I felt it was an important opportunity to put my works in this context. It’s true that there are many biennales around the world, but some of them are very political and deal with power and the art market. This biennale is for art itself,” said Abramovic during a recent group interview with the Thai press at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok where she is staying during her participation.

At the age of 72, she is still energetic and as always, dresses only in black.

“What’s important in life is to really love what you do. Black is so practical. I often don’t go home for five months. I’m like a gypsy – going from place to place.”

Marina Abramovic /Nation: Anand Chantarasoot

Abramovic gave a talk at Siam Pavalai Royal Grand Theatre yesterday in front of a 1,000-strong audience. In the next two years, she is going to have a big solo show “After Life” at the Royal Academy of Art in London and her exhibition schedules are booked through 2024.

At the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre until November 11, the veteran artist invites visitors to participate in some long durational activities such as counting rice grains, gazing at coloured rectangular sheets of paper hung on a wall, standing in silence on a raised wooden base, or sleeping on camp beds. The aim is to examine the limits of the body, the possibilities of the mind and being in the present time.

Abramovic invites visitors to participate in some long durational activities such as counting rice grains. /Courtesy of Marina Abramovic

There are some protocols to follow before joining the activities. All electronic devices and belongings must be stored in lockers and Abramovic’s assistants – they’re referred to as facilitators – will direct a series of preparatory exercises that need to be undertaken before proceeding, such as breathing and blocking and physical squats. Noise-cancelling headphones must be worn at all times and no one is allowed to speak.

“No cell phone, no gadgets, you become completely alone with yourself and in the present. Rice counting is about concentration. If you can count the rice, you count life also.

Abramovic invites visitors to participate in some log durational activities. /Courtesy of Marina Abramovic

“The papers have primary colours of red, blue and yellow and the idea is to sit for one hour in front of each colour. You’ll see the difference in how you behave. You will probably find the blue calming and meditative while the red will give you energy and yellow will make you nervous. The purpose is to see how you can be manipulated emotionally with colours. You can apply this to your own life. If you are feeling ill, something red can help. If you want to lose weight, use yellow,” she laughed.

However, she finds Thai facilitators “too polite”, as they perform a wai before leading visitors by the hand to different stages. This show of being “soft, sweet and loving”, she says, interrrupts the fluidity.

She won’t be showing up at her works because “I will completely interrupt the concentration of people there. The concentration will shift to me and I’ll become the obstacle to my own work.”

Abramovic invites visitors to participate in some long durational activities./Courtesy of Marina Abramovic

For BAB, the Marina Abramovic Institute – a multidisciplinary collaboration of artists for immaterial art and long durational works – issued an open call for Asia-based artists working in all forms of performance to create new long-durational performances. The result is a group of eight artists who each present a daily eight-hour performance over the three-week period on the theme “A Possible Island?”

“We had more than a hundred applications. The criteria for choosing the participating artists are charisma, quality, stamina and total dedication to the project. You can be physically strong but if you don’t have real power and determination, it’s nothing. The workshop is very important to training the body. No talking, no eating and heavy exercise for many hours.”

During the interview, Abramovic asked one person to hold the doorknob and slowly open and close the door in a repetitive movement. 

“I give this exercise to my students for three hours daily. You never go out and you never go in then the door stops becoming the door, but is your universe. It’s very important to support young artists because to perform eight hours a day is very difficult, especially if you are doing it for the first time. In the evening when they finish the performance, we have to ask if they need some help. Each one is like a baby to me and I feel they are my responsibility.”

Indian artist Vandana invites audiences to gaze at a candle flame to find their inner self. /Courtesy of BACC

Indian artist Vandana invites audiences to constantly gaze at a candle flame, challenging their minds to stay in the present and connect with their inner selves. To question the sense of being a human in this fast-changing world, Thai artist Taweesak Molsawat will each day walk along different routes from his home to the BACC, a journey of about five hours. 

Myanmar artist Lin Htet spends the entire three weeks within an enclosed structure made up of barriers and barbed wire as he comments on the ongoing Rohingya crisis.

Myanmar artist Lin Htet spends eight hours a day in an enclosed structure over the course of three weeks to explore the identity of minorities. /Courtesy of BACC

“His piece is so strong and incredibly tense. He stands there for eight hours daily and just looks at you through the barrier. It talks so much to your heart and you really feel the pain and tension. To do that, you have to slowly breath, concentrate your mind, focus your gaze and get the state of mind – it deals with time. The longer you spend time with the people, the more you get. If you give yourself 100 per cent, you get back 100 per cent.

“Eight hours are normally the period a museum is open. You never see the beginning and you never see the end. You always see that kind of fluid continuation. If you go home, it’s in your mind and stays there. That’s why long durational performance is important. But if you do something for just one hour, you can act and you can pretend and after few hours everything is forgotten. You can’t do eight hours during three weeks by pretending.”

Marina Abramovic /Nation: Anand Chantarasoot

Abramovic’s blockbuster work is 2010’s “The Artist is Present”, in which she sat silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair for seven hours a day, six days a week for three months at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as more than 1,000 people took turns sitting in the chair to gaze at her.

“I prepared myself for one year for ‘The Artist is Present’. I sat, I didn’t go to the toilet, didn’t eat and drink water – absolutely nothing. To do this, you have to change your metabolism. For one year, I didn’t have lunch and every day I had an early breakfast to have enough time to go to the bathroom and after that I sat for eight hours of performance. And then I would eat in the evening and drink water during the night. I changed the body to a opposite circle.”

What does she want to do first after completing a long durational work?

“I just want an ice cream, I can’t do anything more!”

Since arriving in Bangkok, she has visited some of the works and is enthusiastic about the quality. 

“I visited some temples and I was very impressed by how the artists bridge traditional and contemporary art. The two giants (a work by Thai artist Komkrit Tepthian at Wat Arun) are absolutely fantastic because they make you think. Another work (by Thai artist Tawatchai Puntasawsdi at Wat Pho) with a strange structure and symmetrical magic is also great for its conversation between traditional and new.”

Komkrit Tepthian's three-metre-tall fibreglass sculpture "Giant Twins" is at Wat Arun. /Nation: Tanachai Pramarnpanich 

When she visited Thailand all those years ago, one of her favourite activities was learning how to cook Thai food.

“I learn how to cook tom yum goong and tom kha gai. I also discovered durian and it’s now my favourite fruit.

“I’m also good at ping pong. I love reading and watching movies and finding young interesting artists is my big passion. My book (‘Walk Through Walls’) is dedicated to two categories of people – friends and enemies. So many friends become enemies and so many enemies become friends. But I forgot the most important category - stranger. And next time I’m going to do that with strangers. I always say to my students to talk to strangers every day,” she says.