On November 16th, 2014 the seminal performance artist Marina Abramović and Hans Ulrich Obrist, one of the world’s most influential critics and curators, sat down at McNally Jackson Books to celebrate the publication of Obrist’s book, Ways of Curating. They discussed the rituals of creativity, night trains, da Vinci’s sleep cycle, and much, much more.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ: All right, so twenty-one years ago Hans was twenty-one. We met in Hamburg; he was the protégé of Kasper König, and he was curating a large show, and he was completely mad. This was my first impression. I said to myself, Oh my God, this guy is going to do something special, extraordinary; something different than anybody else. Do you remember our meeting?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Yes, it was actually when we did the show called the “Broken Mirror,” which was a painting show. It was a big show for me. Until then I had only ever curated an exhibition in my kitchen which only had twenty-nine visitors in three months. “Broken Mirror” was in the Deichtorhallen, and I was kind of spaced out. I had just installed hundreds of paintings, and then Marina and I met that evening in a hotel bar near the railway station.
MA: I remember your life had been totally upset by your sleep schedule because you were reading the biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and da Vinci wrote that if you manage to sleep only fifteen minutes and then wake up, do things, and then sleep another fifteen minutes, but never longer than fifteen minutes, you can create a completely new kind of a life for yourself. When we met, you had been doing this for an entire year, during which you were really on the edge of madness. It was amazing because it’s crazy—fifteen minutes!
HUO: At the end of the 80’s I had announced I would do my first book, but I just couldn’t write it—it was such slow going. And then I came across Balzac, whose output was extraordinary. He wrote dozens and dozens of books, and I read in a biography that he drank up to fifty cups of coffee a day. So I tried the Balzac rhythm and for a couple of months, you know, drank fifty cups. It was particularly strange when I would do it in a café because I would order all these espressos and they would bring all these chairs. Then I had to explain that, No, no, it will just be me.
In any case, it wasn’t really sustainable, and I also found out that Balzac actually died of this coffee habit in his early 50’s. So I decided I needed a different rhythm. After the first book was written using this Balzac thing, I came across, as you say, the da Vinci rhythm. And the da Vinci rhythm works really, really well.
MA: So it was successful for a year?
HUO: Very successful because you sleep seven, eight times a day for fifteen minutes, and then you’re awake for three hours, and then again fifteen minutes, and you’re never tired. I mean it’s very recommendable; extremely, extremely recommended.
The only problem was that it only worked when I was doing my kitchen show, because I was always at home. But once I had a job, you know, when we met in Hamburg, it started to be a problem because after three hours, no matter where you are, you have to sleep for fifteen minutes. We had this architect’s office where we produced the exhibition, and I went in there at four in the morning and lay down on the floor to sleep, but when the cleaners arrived, they thought somebody had died and they called an ambulance.
So that rhythm also wasn’t sustainable and I had to change again. Sleeping rhythms always have to do with rituals, and exhibitions are obviously rituals. As a curator, I think of exhibitions as rituals actually opposed to rituals of cinema and theater in which there is a time you have to attend, and which oblige the viewer to stay. Exhibitions are a very free ritual. Basically one can stay a minute or a year. And being such a little ritual, it also has limits—it only appears to the visual sense. As Margaret Mead said, we need to come out with rituals that appeal to all the senses.
But I also think that in life it’s interesting to reintroduce rituals. Tchaikovsky always said modern life is becoming poor because rituals are disappearing. I always believed him when he said that he splashed a glass of water down the toilet every day just to have a ritual.
MA: This is what really connects me to you and your work. You’re always looking for the new ways of curating, something which has never been done before. And you’re able to get into what you call the Places-in-Between. We all find these places when we leave our comfort zones—our houses, our cities, the friends we know—and are on our way somewhere. They can be the airport, bus stations; can be fast trains in Japan. And from that Place-in-Between, we go to that other place, the one we know, where we create again our habits and our own set of rules. But in the Places-in-Between, when we’re completely open to destiny, anything can happen, anything is possible. Our perception is so sharp and so clear; we see more things in that moment when we are vulnerable and not in our place. If somebody asks you to describe the door of your own house, maybe you don’t know how. But in those transitory spaces, the senses work in a different way. This is actually where one functions the most.
HUO: One of the great in-betweens was actually our first conversation which took place on bullet train in Japan where—
MA:—we talked so fast to match the speed of the train.
HUO: It was a great, great conversation because we drank more and more green tea. The more the train advanced, the faster we would speak.
MA: We discovered that every drug shop sold these little plasters with magnets, and if you have pain or a migraine or something, you could put on this little plaster and the magnet will do the work. And you had many packages of these magnets, and had literally just plastered yourself but didn’t know you were allergic to the stuff, and your whole head turned bright red.
HUO: It was also the night train. The night train is a very important medium for me because when I started, there was never actually money to stay in hotels. So I would always sleep on a night train to get to the next city, and I would do that for months and months throughout Europe. I just used Europe as one country and basically went from city to city. Our first meeting happened on a night train, and out of that conversation developed many, many exhibitions.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss-born curator and writer. He is the co-director of exhibitions and programs and the co-director of international projects at the Serpentine Galleries, London. His previous books include A Brief History of Curating; A Brief History of New Music; Everything You Always Wanted to Ask About Curating But Were Afraid to Ask; Sharp Tongues, Loose Lips, Open Eyes, Ears to the Ground; Ai Weiwei Speaks, and nearly thirty volumes of his Conversation Series of interviews with contemporary artists.
Marina Abramović was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Since the beginning of her career in the early 1970s, Abramović has pioneered the use of performance as a visual art form. The body has been both her subject and medium. Exploring the physical and mental limits of her being, she has withstood pain, exhaustion and danger in the quest for emotional and spiritual transformation. As a vital member of the generation of pioneering performance artists, Abramović created some of the most historic early performance pieces and continues to make important durational works. She lives and works in New York.
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