I invited three cult women artists to reflect on nationality, what it means to be an outsider, a woman and foreigner and how these conditions are reflected in their art making. Originally we planned on meeting and talking in New York, but as Vanessa just moved to LA, we had to record our conference on Skype between New York, Los Angeles and Milan. I asked Marina to moderate the panel. —Helena Kontova
Marina Abramovic: I would like to begin with the topic that you, Helena, mentioned today regarding nationality and how it is reflected in our art making. When I left Yugoslavia I went to live in Holland, and then from Holland I traveled most of the time and I felt like a modern nomad. In my work, I look backwards. In the beginning it really didn’t have much to do with where I come from. Even if I am Yugoslavian, I haven’t been a Yugoslavian artist, and here I do not feel like an American artist. I don’t have a strong sense of belonging to any given nationality. I am used to thinking about a kind of global space. I wanted to know how this was going for Shirin…
Shirin Neshat: Well, the question of nationality has always been a troubling issue for me, and which must explain why this topic has remained a central theme in my art. Perhaps I wouldn’t have even become an artist had I not felt this emotional and political crisis in relation to my country. Just like Marina, I also consider myself a modern nomad, but at the same time I must confess that I live with an obsession, a perpetual longing to return home or at least to re-establish a close relationship with my country. I am not totally satisfied with the idea of living as an Eastern nomad in the West. However, very likely if one day I was finally reunited with my country, and this sense of longing were to end, I would most likely stop being an artist. So my situation is a bit different from Marina’s I think.
MA: It’s different from mine because I can go any time I want. Can you actually go back to your country, if you want?
SN: I would rather not speak about this very personal issue, Marina, for various reasons… but what you said is exactly the point, I mean, the absence of choice is the critical matter. Our experiences are without a doubt very different ones. I think in the back of your mind, you have that psychological comfort that you can always return to your homeland. Another important issue is that Serbia and the USA are indeed culturally very different, but if you think about the two countries of Iran and the USA, they are not just culturally different but in total political conflict. This tension naturally brings an added weight of pressure for those Iranians who not only endure hostile treatment from their own government but are also the targets of international racial discrimination.
MA: Now, that’s really true. I wanted to know how it was with Vanessa, because you come from Italy and that is a totally different story.
Vanessa Beecroft: I do come from Italy, but I have always had British documents. What I have always suffered since a very early age is dislocation. I was raised in Italy with an English name and an Italian mother. We didn’t really belong to the local culture, and I felt I was in the wrong place. When I came to the States I was immediately integrated, because I was an immigrant like everybody else, but I resented the culture because I was raised against the United States, politics, imperialism and mass culture… Yet I continued feeling that I didn’t belong to the place in which I found myself. When I went to the Sudan a year ago, I felt that could have been my country, my place. I ended up identifying more with people there that are in a situation that is not stable. Culturally, I never belonged to an artist group, so I’m kind of isolated. I never belonged to any situation, unless I was put in it by some curator, so I feel I’m kind of alienated from any network. That’s it!
Helena Kontova: The main Praguebiennale 3 topics are dedicated to “Outsiders,” a theme that is discussed in Prague because the country, and especially its art community, is still decentralized and isolated. The role of the outsider in contemporary art is an important issue, and I wanted you to discuss whether being an outsider still produces the right stimuli or if it is a necessary condition for people to become artists. For Shirin, if I understood well, it was an important starting point. But I think the same is also true for Marina and for Vanessa, even if in different ways.
MA: For me it was very important to start my career as an artist in Yugoslavia. Working with performance and sound installation in that period, when these forms didn’t even exist in former Yugoslavia, in Belgrade, was like being the first woman walking on the moon, so there was a kind of purity and innocence about it. Later on when I went to the West, the most difficult thing for me was to develop an entirely new practice, because my practice addressed Yugoslavian issues: it was against the system, the bourgeoisie, communism, and the social and family structure. I had to develop a completely new way of working and use more universal parameters. But the strange thing was that the longer I was away from Belgrade, the more I came to see the situation in a different way. So now I am dealing with a lot of Yugoslavian issues, more than when I was living there. It’s a kind of idea of distance and closeness and distance that really works very well. So, Shirin?
SN: Well, I think that everything I have ever done somehow goes back to the experience of being an “outsider.” I always think of myself as an outcast, whether I’m among Iranians or Westerners. When I look back at my work retrospectively, I find it ironic that all my female characters are also “outcasts” within their social realms whether due to sexual, cultural or political factors. There is a constant tension between the “individual” versus the “community,” and often the impossibility of their integration. In my latest project, the film of Women Without Men, which is based on a novel, the story is entirely based on the lives of four women who, each in their own way, are outcasts within society. They all flee the social environments and converge in an orchard in the countryside, and end up creating their own utopian community that is independent from the outside world and laws. Obviously the choice of this narrative metaphorically plays out some of the issues that I’m battling with in my life: the question of exile, the need for a place of refuge, security, a place to call home, paradise, and so forth.
HK: Vanessa, you were talking about the difficult position you experienced feeling different and detached…
VB: My problem is not one of belonging or not; I think it is a privilege not to have an attachment to a given country because it allows me to move with more flexibility. I identify with whatever I want to identify with. By listening and comparing my position with those of Marina and Shirin, I identify with their strong backgrounds: Marina in terms of culture, the period she started working in and its context, and Shirin for her country’s situation. I started working in a period void of any cultural significance, and which necessarily took on an identity that I am not proud of. For example, I would like to thank Marina for her performances; I use it as a technique that was already established by her and others like her. In terms of subjects I neither had a political-critical moment like the ’70s nor a political crisis like the one that Shirin depicted.
MA: This is very interesting because in the ’70s, when I first came to Italy and did some performances, I could find hardly any working woman Italian artists. There was Marisa Merz, but she was so overshadowed by Mario Merz that she hardly had any shows at that time, so I think that your work came to open another platform entirely. For me it was very interesting to see that you received international recognition. What do you think the reason for that is? Why you left Italy so early?
VB: I was lucky to have immediate support, for example by Giacinto di Pietrantonio and Flash Art, but at the same time I felt that my work was vulgarized, it was sexualized and I wanted to be far from such a reading. I also didn’t feel connected to previous movements like Arte Povera — I had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t even educated to follow any local master, so I had to get out, to leave.
HK: But there is so much Italian iconography… you use lots of images that are connected to Italian history as well.
VB: That’s right, like for example Pasolini, all the intellectuals and directors from the ’60s. I am very fond of that period or the old painters, even the avant-garde. But I’m not really interested, I don’t know much about the current art situation, I never knew much about it and I didn’t want to be involved with it. I have an attachment to the Italian language, the iconography and also the politics and intellectuals of the past. I am very fond of them, but I don’t need to be in Italy.
MA: Shirin, how would it be if you had a large retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Iran? What do you think the reaction would be? Is this possible in the future? If so, I would really like to go to such an opening, to see how it would function, from this context into that context. I asked myself the same question and I would be so afraid to do such a show.
SN: Unfortunately such an event would most likely be impossible in the near future with the current political climate. But without a doubt my work would receive a mixed reception. On one hand, for the first time the work would be really understood because I believe the Iranian people could truly grasp the poetic sensibility of my art, which is rooted in Iranian cultural history, so I wouldn’t have the problem with which I am faced by my Western viewers. On the other hand, the work could be terribly dismissed and misunderstood, because it’s highly conceptual and influenced by Western art history, therefore it could be criticized for its “foreign” flavor.
HK: Can you tell me a bit about your most recent aspirations? What is your biggest aspiration at the moment? Artistically…
MA: We are going to answer this question. What we haven’t addressed is your situation because it is really interesting that all four of us, not just par hasard, are talking about these things. Because you, Helena, you come from Prague and you witnessed the ’68 situation, and you have been in this kind of art world and weren’t absolutely accepted, and then you went to the West and now you are the editor for Flash Art. You are the one who initiated the Prague Biennale and invited us to do something. I just wanted to know how you feel about not living in Prague, being a nomad, leaving your country and then going back to your country with new ideas…
HK: I am living these kind of shifts nowadays without any real big dramas. It was dramatic for me, let’s say thirty years ago. I still feel however like a foreigner, like an outsider everywhere I go, everywhere I am I feel very different from people that are around me, and the same thing happens when I go to Prague now. People also consider me there differently than they would have if I had been living there all this time. I think in some way they are happy about the Prague Biennale, but in many ways they are still very protective of themselves.
MA: You know, every time I leave Yugoslavia I feel so Yugoslavian and when I go back I feel like a complete foreigner. But let’s talk about aspirations: my biggest wish, since I am almost 60 years old, is really to have time to do only the projects that I wish to do and nothing else because the entire structure is so pressing in art today that you actually run out of time. I don’t have time in my life, but I am creating my performances that have a longer and longer duration. So, actually, I have time in my work, which I don’t have in life.
HK: Shirin, can you tell us what is your greatest wish at the moment?
SN: I’ll be living in Morocco for the next several months, so I’m looking forward to this experience, and I welcome the opportunity to finally spend some time outside of Western culture and to live in an Islamic country. I’ll be shooting my film in Casablanca, a very interesting city, which I’m growing to like. We will make believe Casablanca is Tehran in the 1950s, as they do have a strong resemblance in their architecture and general look. Generally speaking, this film has been my greatest artistic challenge in its scope and merit. I’ve taken four years to prepare it, and now I’m nervous but remain totally inspired by this novel of Women Without Men, and deeply committed to portraying the political atmosphere of 1950s Iran. The story takes place in August of 1953, during the CIA-organized coup d’état against our government that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister, Dr. Mossadegh, and reinstalled the Shah who many considered a dictator. This historical event, which changed the face of Iranian politics ever since, explains the foundation of the Islamic revolution in 1979, and most importantly the logic behind the profound anti-American sentiment among Iranians and other Middle Easterners. So as you can imagine, particularly at the moment when we are on the threshold of an US military attack on Iran, I find it critical to speak with some truth about history. Of course I’m an artist and my film will approach the subject artistically. But my dream is to finally see this film happen.
HK: Vanessa, you just returned from Korea, and before that you produced an entire project about the Sudan…
VB: My aspiration right now would be not to feel any pressure to accomplish an exhibition or anything like that. I’m kind of trying to fade out and focus back on the Sudan. At the moment I would like to continue a sort of documentary fiction about that country, or in general, using that country as a metaphor for what is happening in many other countries. I am not too sure I will be able to do that, but my interest now is there and I want to try even at the cost of losing the art world or any artistic or aesthetic concern.
SN: I really appreciate, Vanessa, what you said about your plans for going to the Sudan and not knowing whether your work will follow or not. Because I think there is a great risk; I consider myself, maybe like you, in mid career as an artist, and at some point you wonder if you lose your soul, and if that happens then your work will… and I think that sometimes we have to throw ourselves in situations even if there is a great risk, just to experience life again and just to feel alive and be adventurous, and really I am so glad that you are going to do so. I am sure it is going to be very, very inspirational.
MA: But you see this idea of really surrendering yourself to situations, it is so important and so many young artists don’t do that, because they are kind of addicted to the city, to the market. For me it was so important to live with aboriginals for one year in the Central Desert, and then to live with Tibetans because there are really experiences that actually change you in a very deep way. We always have to surprise ourselves, always have to have the sense of risk, otherwise you are always repeating the same thing! And that’s not the point. All of us agree on that!!
HK: Marina, I wanted to ask you: your recent work Balkan Epic was made in your country of origin. Do you think that the fact that this was made in your country gave you a particular force or strength to contribute to this final effort? Has it contributed to this really strong, very convincing and powerful imagery?
MA: I could never have made this kind of work when I was there. I couldn’t even see it. I remember friends of mine asking me, “Where did you get this erotic material? We were living there and we never saw it.” So you have to be far from your home to see a clear image. If you are too close you don’t get this kind of material, you don’t think in that way. Only now I can see it, because I am far enough away — only in years, because it’s been 35 years since I left — now I can deal with that material and I can really look through the past translated and twisted and understand what’s happening. I would like to ask this question to Vanessa: my favorite work of yours is the marines in the gallery [VB39, 1999]. This is unbelievable, absolutely my favorite work, how you used them in this situation, and I am really sorry you didn’t continue more in this direction. Use all the American army, why not?!
VB: I was going to complete the Navy project with war veterans, but at the time I couldn’t find any. The last project was going to be like a drawing. An official military formation of Vietnam veterans, amputees and not in alignment like the ones in the other projects, but with gaps, showing what had happened after the battle, what was on the other side in the same way it was shown before, with the same precise order, like a geometrical drawing with missing parts. I was going to tailor the uniforms to fit the changed bodies. The Navy project wasn’t about gender, it happened to consist mostly of males. It was a project about power and rules and a picture that represented something I wanted to challenge, like in my other work. Personally I don’t think it is beautiful, it is there to see what reaction it can generate.
HK: I would like to know how Shirin connects with the erotized females of Vanessa and Marina, because her female figures are very different, more psychological, more fragile. I would be curious to know her opinion about that.
SN: Well, these are two completely different works so it’s hard to speak about them in general because, I see that in Vanessa’s work, she is less interested in women as a single protagonists but as a collection of protagonists, therefore the characters lose their individual identities, and it’s more about the relationship between one another or in the social space. One doesn’t necessarily need to study each character. Whereas with Marina’s work, as far as I understand it, she really deals with individual characters and you get absorbed in the inner lives of each individual as she acts them out. But about the male subject, as an Iranian woman artist, I’ve had to be very careful about how I represent the masculine force in my work. I’m very conscious of the already existing, overly negative clichés image about Muslim men, and I have no interest in reiterating them.
HK: I would also be interested in Vanessa’s comment on the representation of femininity and masculinity in Shirin’s work, because it is very different and there are some similar points with her work too, such as the separation of man and woman.
VB: When I see the work of Shirin I feel it is intellectual and of a different weight than mine. I’m not competent enough to express any comment on it, I don’t know. I can talk for myself and say that in my case the women are representative of issues that I have or that I have problems with and I prefer to extend these to a large group instead of addressing one character, using a more universal group. I wanted to recreate an image that, despite its appearance, was not necessarily pleasant, that was abrasive to the audience and that would create a sort of shame or embarrassment or other feelings. I wanted the audience to psychologically react to it; it’s not really a finished picture until the audience is part of it.
MA: What I find interesting in Shirin’s work, apart from what Vanessa was saying about the intellectual aspect, is that for me there are so many aspects, so many levels of interpretation while being capable of producing an extremely emotional response. I remember one of the first works I saw where she had the men on one side and the women on the other. And there was such an emotional impact, not just for me, but for most of the audience, and for people even from Europe it was like a bomb, everyone was talking about it. She really touched upon some kind of ancient, primordial imagery that we have in our mind. And there is some kind of language, even if she is dealing with Iranian issues, that are not just Iranian but from everywhere, in any time. You can relate to Sicily, you can relate to Montenegro, to the Basque country and, I don’t know, wherever. So that kind of transcendental power of the work is to me the most interesting because I have never been in Iran, but I can project other things from my own culture onto that culture. It’s something that by watching it you come to a certain moment where your spirit is elevated in some way, I don’t even fully understand how…
SN: I think that one thing that all three of us have in common as artists is that our work tends to emotionally “disturb” and “provoke” the public. When I think about Vanessa’s work, performances and photographs, and when I think about all of Marina’s work, they all seem to touch the audience in their guts. And although I don’t like to categorize art, I think female artists often have that power to demand and draw out an emotional reaction from the audience. I’m not sure if what I’m saying is a correct interpretation but certainly many other female artists that I appreciate, including Louise Bourgeois, have that emotional power over me.
HK: And still man and woman are often divided in your representations, as well as in Vanessa’s work. Marina on the other hand formed part of a couple, for many years you were working together with Ulay. In a certain moment your collaboration finished because you split in your lives so you split also in art. Could you tell us something about this experience?
MA: The only couple capable of collaborating on a long-term basis is Gilbert and George. The couple collaboration can only be for a period of time and then will definitely turn into disaster, sooner or later. The problem in long-term collaboration is that you take your ego and the other person has to take his ego and you fuse them together in something that Ulay and I called at the time of our collaboration “that self,” like two bodies turned into one body, which is something that can work only if both collaborators do it. Once you say “this is my work” and the other person says “this is my work” the whole collaboration falls apart. I was very idealistic and very enthusiastic about the idea of collaborating, because I thought, “If you give the best of yourself and another person gives the best of himself, you can create something stronger than just one person.” And when our collaboration after 12 years didn’t work, for three years I tried to hide the fact that we couldn’t collaborate anymore, we couldn’t even talk anymore, just for the public, because they projected so much positive energy onto us and our work. And once I really admitted to myself that it didn’t work, I came to understand that collaboration can only be for brief periods of time.
HK: Shirin, you met your husband during the production of one of your works…
SN: Yes. I think that everything I have ever done has been in one way or another in collaboration with someone or a group of people. I agree with Marina that it’s not an easy process, but I have learned that it is all about a tedious negotiation. I compare collaboration with dance. That once you have a partner, you must learn to respect and learn to discover your partner’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes you lead and other times he or she leads. I find collaboration makes artists humble, as we all can suffer from our egos. But the biggest challenge in collaborating is of course not to compromise the essence of your art and give in to mediocre ideas.
HK: Vanessa, can you comment on this? Obviously you have a different point of view…
VB: In my work I unconsciously identified the male with society, rigidity, rules, the system, the military, all the negative things. In Korea they just told me that I had a chauvinist idea of the male, that the male is the bad guy. And I do, yes, in my work, males are the bad guy by never being addressed, they are the audience, the abuser, the violator, even if this is not representative of reality. I inevitably left the male out so as to look at the women, looking at him. In my world there is no collaboration with the male. Perhaps recently I have been collaborating under cover with a Sudanese male and an African-American male, but it is not official.
HK: Is it easier for you to collaborate with black men than with white men?
VB: Yes, because they belong to a non-dominant class, with whom I identify. I was raised in a matriarchal family, with no men. I wish I was able to go beyond this limitation, but unfortunately it’s my advantage and my limitation to be a female.
HK: It is an advantage and a limitation at the same time?
MA: I completely disagree. I really think that the gender doesn’t matter at all. It’s what you produce that matters. And I think that sometimes there are advantages or disadvantages, but it’s about the product, it’s about the work. It doesn’t matter if it’s made by a man or a woman; I really think that art doesn’t have a gender.
SN: I completely agree with Marina that although we can expect that art made by female artists somehow resonates with their femininity, it shouldn’t be limited to a discussion about gender. We are dealing with subjects that are not only female subjects, but often we tell our stories through a female protagonist.
Helena Kontova is the Editor of Flash Art International.
Marina Abramovic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1946. She lives and works in New York.
Vanessa Beecroft was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1969. She lives and works in Los Angeles.
Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran, in 1957. She lives and works in New York.