We sat down and spoke with the grandma of performance, arguably the most successful performance artist in history, and Giuliano Argenziano, director of Marina Abramovic LLC. – an art historian with a sense for business
Find out how art and finance mix when these two passionate temperaments enter the office.
Marina, given that CorD Magazine, covers mostly news on diplomacy, business and finance, what do you think the average businessman can learn from you? You’ve explored the restrictions of body and mind – how do art and discipline combine so well?
A businessman? Nothing. This is why I need other people to take care of the business side. For me only my work is important. I wouldn’t say that discipline is the key, but rather determination. You first need to decide what you want to do and that is where discipline comes in. Once you know what you want, you need to be disciplined to realise the how.
Giuliano, what does your average workday look like? Is there a sort of routine, or is every day a chapter in itself?
No, and that’s what I like about my job – every day is different. I can work from New York, London, Paris, my hotel room – a 9-5 job would never work for me, I like the changing environment. Every day is a changing chapter, because, basically, every day I take a little time for myself, but the moment I open my laptop, every email is different, I say – what’s happening today? And it’s always something new.
In a way, I see myself as a man of the future, because my job is projected into the future, not to the present. With all the projects that we’re working on, my mind is always on the next thing.
Marina, you once stated that If you can’t count rice for three hours, you can’t do anything good in life. Can you explain the exercise to our readers?
Rice is mixed with black lentils. The first part of the exercise is to separate the rice from the lentils and then count both. It is partly about concentration, but it is mostly about commitment and doesn’t necessarily need to be three hours, but before you start the exercise you need to commit to count until you finish the amount you took from the pile… even if it takes three hours.
Giuliano, what has working with the greatest artist of our time taught you? Have you counted rice? Has it changed your perspective and perseverance?
I might be a proud person, I am – because I always like to think of Marina and me, as two people learning from each other. I learn from her, of course, but she also learns from me – that’s what makes this relationship so successful and productive. She has taught me how to improve this set of skills that I already had. I did count the rice – Marina wants everyone who works with her to go through the Marina Abramović method, to go through the journey themselves, because how else are you gonna talk to clients about it?
So, she organised this workshop upstate (New York), and of course I counted the rice, but I also went through these five days – we were not eating, not talking, no clocks, laptops, no phones, nothing at all, we were just immersed in silence in our thoughts, engaging in these exercises – Marina gave everyone huge piles of rice and lentils to separate, and it really was a huge pile, and I think maybe she realised that maybe it was too much, so she rang the gong and said, okay, this exercise is done. I thought I was not done – not to finish wasn’t an option for me. I had to finish – it took me six and a half hours to finish. So the perseverance – I had it in me. I’ve spent seven years with Marina and it’s really been an evolution.
Marina, did your strict upbringing impact on your life as an artist in a good way? Now that you dictate your own life, are you still strict on yourself?
I’m not sure if it impacted me in a good way, but it made the rules that needed to be broken more obvious. Sometimes I am strict, sometimes not. When I work I’m always very strict, but privately I love to eat chocolate and watch stupid films.
Giuliano, being the director of Marina Abramovic LLC, are you in a way curating the artist’s everyday life?
The day to day things Marina does is handled by the other three people who work in our office. The appointments, schedule, storage, logistics, that kind of thing. I am more like the frontman; I’m the one who meets with clients, starts talking about projects, understands what a project is like so that I can also see the financial outcome of it, then I’m the one that does negotiations, for the finances, fees, but also for the contracts. In that way, I’m projected into the future because, for me, this project in Belgrade was already done, because I already signed the contract – I’m already onto the next thing.
Rice mixed with black lentils is partly about concentration, but it is mostly about commitment and doesn’t necessarily need to be three hours, but before you start the exercise you need to commit to counting until you finish the amount you took from the pile, even if it takes three hours.
How does Marina being Serbian and Giuliano a Neapolitan – both very passionate temperaments – translate into your work relationship?
Marina: It is very emotional from the first day, precisely because we are similar, and this made us become a family. The same passion applies when discussing business decisions.
Giuliano: I am a Neapolitan original, both very passionate characters. Yes, we are very passionate and very confrontational with each other, I cannot deny that. It’s a relationship that’s very particular, very special, but in the end, it’s not about the conflict, but rather about the solution. We speak a lot about this – how to reconcile my point of view and hers.
Our points of view are not always aligned, sometimes they are and we understand each other really well, but other times they are not and that’s when we need to work more on finding common ground. If we don’t find it, sometimes she’ll say ‘I want to do it my way’, and then she’ll own the success or failure of the project she decided to do. This is something I also learned from Marina – how not to fear failure. As the director of Marina Abramovic LLC, I never contemplate failure, and she knows – I can be a success and I can fail, and if I do fail, never mind. This is something that I admire.
Marina, you’ve brought performance art – as an immaterial art form that was always marginalised by the art establishment – into museums, making it almost commercial in a way. Was it intentional; was it a goal of yours?
I never intended to make it commercial, but I always wanted to bring it into the museum, to make it official and recognised. The commercial is something different, it means you can sell it, but selling something immaterial is an art in itself.
Giuliano, what is the most demanding part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job is to foresee whether the project we are being proposed makes sense both financially and also artistically, and it’s really important to balance the two. Because a project that only makes sense artistically – well, that’s a problem for me. I have to think of Marina’s work as something that also gives a good financial outcome because in New York things aren’t easy – we have overheads, we have expenses, the company costs money.
How do you pick a project; how do you speak with Marina about the project; how do you agree about a project? Generally, we need to agree because it needs to make sense financially for me, but it needs to make sense artistically for her. I would say that the bonus part in all of this is that we often speak the same language because I’m an art historian with a sense of business.
I have a deep knowledge of Marina’s work and you can’t imagine how much this helps me navigate situations with directors and curators of institutions. It helps to understand the market of her work, to understand her value – of her work, but also of her as a person. Let’s not forget, performance art is immaterial and Marina *is* her own work.
When you see her, her presence, that is – she is carrying her own work. That part also has a price for me; it has a price tag. Marina is an artist, she doesn’t think about finances, she wants to make art, she’s a people person, she wants to be with people, but for me what’s also important is to have an outcome.
Marina, you said you hated the expression “retrospective” because it implies that the artist is going to die in a few years and that their work is over – is your show “The Cleaner” a rebirth of sorts?
I wouldn’t use the word rebirth. The Cleaner title refers to the cleaning of the past, memories, work. It also symbolises making room for something new.
Giuliano, how long did organising “The Cleaner” take?
It took a very long time. This has been a retrospective that started with two big institutions – Moderna and Louisiana, and then other institutions showed interest. When we started The Cleaner, with the opening on February 2017 at the Moderna in Stockholm, we didn’t have all seven institutions lined up already, they jumped in little by little.
The truth is that we started organising it in 2013. It’s a retrospective – we needed to figure out what to do with this huge amount of work. My office needed to organise the archive in a completely different way. The archive was very clear to Marina – she’s the artist, but how do you make it accessible to the curators and directors of museums? You have to create a system, to streamline.
Marina, how can one develop the qualities you mention – a willingness to fail, courage, silence, resilience, endurance? Can you work them like a muscle, or is it something ingrained?
People are afraid to fail, and so they try to avoid it at all costs. They think their world will end if they fail. So, the first thing to do is to fail for the first time and then you will see that the world doesn’t end. This will develop courage – you won’t be so afraid to fail again. And trying over and over again will build resilience and endurance. Silence is a different matter entirely.
Giuliano, is there a performance of Marina’s that you’ve enjoyed more than others, one that relates to you more than others?
This is a tough one… “Confession” – although made for the camera, I consider that performance, when she’s facing the donkey. She was communicating with the donkey, telling him the story of his life and she wouldn’t leave the space before he left, so it was an exchange of energy. Another one I really like is “The Onion”. We did a parody of her work for her birthday and I performed it. It was intense. The metaphor of the onion itself, complaining about life – in the end, we are all the onion, we are all complaining about our life. Life to me is the onion, the many layers of it the way we face them, the way we complain, the way we overcome them… I am very attached to that work.
Marina, after 40 years without a performance in your home country, how do you feel?
Very emotional. And nervous. It still feels so exciting to be here.
Lastly, Marina, if the audience and performer make the piece together, if it’s a dialogue, will the dialogue be different or more emotional in the city of your birth?
It will definitely be more emotional. but also different. Our people judge by their gut feeling. They either feel the work or they don’t, and this is the real indicator of the quality of a piece. This makes our audience a very tough crowd, so I really hope they will enjoy the show.