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Helena Kontova

Flash Art 255  July – September 07





IINVITED 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. —HK


MARINA ABRAMOVIC, Carrying Elvira Facing Down, 2006. C-print, 183 x 153 cm.

Courtesy Lia Rumma, Naples/Milan. Photo: Attilio Maranzano; VANESSA BEECROFT, VBSS South Sudan, 2006. Digital print, dimensions variable. Photo: Vanessa Beecroft. 

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. 


Clockwise from top: VANESSA BEECROFT, VBSS South Sudan, 2006. Digital print, dimensions variable. Photo: Alexa Hoyer; MARINA ABRAMOVIC, The Hero (for Antonio), 2001. Photograph, dimensions variable; SHIRIN NESHAT, Zarin, 2005. Video still. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York. Photo: Larry Barns. © Shirin Neshat 2005.

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.




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