Here is the full transcript of performance artist Marina Abramović’s Talk: An Art Made of Trust, Vulnerability and Connection at TED conference.
Now let’s go back in time. It’s 1974. There is the gallery somewhere in the world, and there is a young girl, age 23, standing in the middle of the space. In the front of her is a table.
On the table there are 76 objects for pleasure and for pain. Some of the objects are a glass of water, a coat, a shoe, a rose. But also the knife, the razor blade, the hammer and the pistol with one bullet. There are instructions which say, “I’m an object. You can use everything on the table on me. I’m taking all responsibility — even killing me. And the time is six hours.”
The beginning of this performance was easy. People would give me the glass of water to drink, they’d give me the rose. But very soon after, there was a man who took the scissors and cut my clothes, and then they took the thorns of the rose and stuck them in my stomach.
Somebody took the razor blade and cut my neck and drank the blood, and I still have the scar. The women would tell the men what to do. And the men didn’t rape me because it was just a normal opening, and it was all public, and they were with their wives. They carried me around and put me on the table, and put the knife between my legs. And somebody took the pistol and bullet and put it against my temple.
And another person took the pistol and they started a fight. And after six hours were finished, I started walking towards the public.
I was a mess. I was half-naked, I was full of blood and tears were running down my face. And everybody escaped, they just ran away. They could not confront myself, with myself as a normal human being.
And then — what happened is I went to the hotel, it was at two in the morning. And I looked at myself in the mirror, and I had a piece of gray hair. All right — please take off your blindfolds.
Welcome to the performance world. First of all, let’s explain what the performance is. So many artists, so many different explanations, but my explanation for performance is very simple.
Performance is a mental and physical construction that the performer makes in a specific time in a space in front of an audience and then energy dialogue happens. The audience and the performer make the piece together.
And the difference between performance and theater is huge. In the theater, the knife is not a knife and the blood is just ketchup. In the performance, the blood is the material, and the razor blade or knife is the tool.
It’s all about being there in the real time, and you can’t rehearse performance, because you can’t do many of these types of things twice — ever. Which is very important, the performance is — you know, all human beings are always afraid of very simple things. We’re afraid of suffering, we’re afraid of pain, we’re afraid of mortality.
So what I’m doing — I’m staging these kinds of fears in front of the audience. I’m using your energy, and with this energy I can go and push my body as far as I can.
And then I liberate myself from these fears. And I’m your mirror. If I can do this for myself, you can do it for you. After Belgrade, where I was born, I went to Amsterdam. And you know, I’ve been doing performances since the last 40 years.
And here I met Ulay, and he was the person I actually fell in love with. And we made, for 12 years, performances together. You know the knife and the pistols and the bullets, I exchange into love and trust.
So to do this kind work you have to trust the person completely because this arrow is pointing to my heart. So, heart beating and adrenaline is rushing and so on, is about trust, is about total trust to another human being.
Our relationship was 12 years, and we worked on so many subjects, both male and female energy. And as every relationship comes to an end, ours went too. We didn’t make phone calls like normal human beings do and say, you know, “This is over.” We walked the Great Wall of China to say goodbye. I started at the Yellow Sea, and he started from the Gobi Desert.
We walked, each of us, three months, two and a half thousand kilometers. It was the mountains, it was difficult. It was climbing, it was ruins. It was, you know, going through the 12 Chinese provinces, this was before China was open in ’87. And we succeeded to meet in the middle to say goodbye.
And then our relationship stopped. And now, it completely changed how I see the public. And one very important piece I made in those days was “Balkan Baroque.” And this was the time of the Balkan Wars, and I wanted to create some very strong, charismatic image, something that could serve for any war at any time, because the Balkan Wars are now finished, but there’s always some war, somewhere.
So here I am washing two and a half thousand dead, big, bloody cow bones. You can’t wash the blood, you never can wash shame off the wars. So I’m washing this six hours, six days, and wars are coming off these bones, and becoming possible — an unbearable smell.
But then something stays in the memory. I want to show you the one who really changed my life, and this was the performance in MoMa, which I just recently made. This performance — when I said to the curator, “I’m just going to sit at the chair, and there will be an empty chair at the front, and anybody from the public can come and sit as long as they want.”