Marina Abramović: ‘I think about dying every day’

The artist, 74, talks about embracing mortality, her purely emotional art, spirituality and communism, and sex getting better after the menopause

I’ll be 75 in November. My grandmother, who lived to be 103, told me that 70 is when life starts to be really interesting. You’re free to do whatever you want, you have all the wisdom to do that. What sucks is if you’re sick; but if you’re healthy then life at this stage is incredibly enjoyable.

I think about dying every single day. It’s only when you think about dying that you fully enjoy your life. It means you can’t bullshit; everything that’s not important falls away, and you know death can happen any minute, any time – you are in the last act. You have to think about what you’re going to leave society: as an artist you have that obligation. Because if you have a gift, you have to handle it carefully. The gift isn’t given to you personally, it’s given to you to give to society. You have to think carefully about how you’re going to leave meaningful work behind.

Legacy is very important. If I die this minute, what will I have left behind? One thing I’ve been responsible for is putting performance art into the mainstream, because there was nobody in this territory before. Performance art was ridiculed, it wasn’t considered art at all. It’s taken all my life, 50 years of my career, but now it’s part of museum life, part of culture, part of the collections.

For a lot of art you have to intellectually understand it – you have to read lots of texts, that’s the key to it. But it’s not like that with my art. Mine is purely emotional: it hits you in the gut. That kind of art belongs to everybody; you don’t need any knowledge from before.

I was with Ulay [fellow performance artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen] for 12 years. He was the love of my life. And then he sued me. It was terrible – I lost on every point. I was incredibly angry. But then one day I opened my eyes and said, “OK, I lost. What’s next?” And what was next was forgiveness. He passed away in 2020 and we had this wonderful last year of his life when we actually became friends. It was an incredibly rewarding feeling, because anger is poisonous, not only to the other person, but also to yourself. Now I remember Ulay with tenderness.

I never wanted children. You have one energy in your body and the moment your energy is divided between being an artist and being a mother, one or the other suffers. All my friends got me to be godmother to their children, and that’s been wonderful – and also, all my students are my children. And I’m really proud of all of them.

Sex is very important to me. It always has been. Many people think after the menopause women give up the idea of sex. For me sex since then has been better, because you don’t need to worry about pregnancy. Right now I have a boyfriend who is 21 years younger. It’s great! I’ve no problem with being very sexually active. It makes me happy. I see sex as a necessary balance along with good food, humour, joy for life.

I lived with my grandmother until I was six, and she was the centre of my world. My parents were communists, but my grandmother hated communists. She was highly spiritual – in the morning she would light a candle and pray. There was a feeling of peace and tranquillity and that stayed with me for a long time. But from my mother and father I got everything to do with willpower and courage and the idea that your life isn’t important, what matters is the cause your life is there for, its purpose. That combination of spirituality and communism is what made me.

Humble Works: Artists and friends Marina Abramović, Nico Vascellari and Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich in conversation with Masterworks from Ancient to Modern is at Colnaghi, London, until to 22 November


Joanna Moorhead

The GuardianTramp

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