Elena Ferrante talks to Marina Abramović: FT Weekend Magazine Cover
24 September 2021
‘I have a lot of questions for you’: Elena Ferrante talks to Marina Abramović:
The world’s most private novelist exchanges letters with the world’s most public artist
FT Weekend Magazine invited the reclusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, a longtime fan of Marina Abramović’s work, to discuss art, writing and more with the performance artist, on the occasion of her new London exhibition. Ferrante guards her anonymity carefully, so the conversation took place over a series of emails. The results are published for the first time below.
Elena to Marina
In general, in a discussion, I tend to emphasise differences. In our case the most obvious difference is this: for more than 30 years I’ve decided to appear only in writing; you, for 50 years, have put yourself with your whole body, your whole person, courageously at the centre of the stage. And yet, since I began reflecting on your extraordinary performance “The Artist Is Present”, it has seemed to me that the concurrence between body and work that you create is not so far from my cutting myself off from the published book.
But I want to explain in what sense. In “The Artist Is Present”, even more forcefully than elsewhere, you make of Marina Abramović — the artist — the work itself. And you offer that work to the public to contemplate no differently, in my view, from the way a carefully wrought text is offered to readers. I mean that the body, too, with its many experiences, is raw material, just as much as stone, wood, paper, ink. What’s important is how that material is worked poetically, how we invent it, how we become its author. The rest is the industry of greatness, marketing, success, celebrity, biographical and autobiographical detail: things that are not at all irrelevant, and which we can enjoy or — with a self-control that I can assure you isn’t easy — relinquish.
Marina to Elena
And one difference between us is that, in a discussion and my work in general, I actually like to find elements that unite people and make them relate to each other. When I wrote my memoir, Walk Through Walls, I saw similarities between writing and long-durational performance. Both practices entail an openness to editing as long as we are willing to look at things with both curiosity and an open heart.
During “The Artist is Present”, for example, I realised that the table that was separating me and the person sitting across from me was actually obstructing the flow of energy exchange between me and that person. That energy is so important to me when establishing non-verbal communication, which is why, at some point during the three-month-long performance, I decided to get rid of the table in favour of a more essential setting.
The title itself, “The Artist is Present”, outlines one of the main aspects of performance art: something that happens here and now, in the presence of the artist. On the other hand, after my performance at MoMA, I realised more and more that the public had a much bigger role than just being a mere spectator.
The subsequent efforts in my practice have been addressed toward public participation and, while I cannot cut myself off completely from the performance, I have definitely found a way to blend in so that the audience can make their own journey.
But you are right, nonetheless, it is always me in the centre of my work. I have to start with myself because myself is what I know best. My body is my universe and it’s the beginning of everything.
Performance art can be radical if you open yourself to bold choices, like you did with your writing and the decision not to appear in public. Can I ask you why?
Read the full conversation online here and in print 25-26 September. Elena Ferrante’s emails have been translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.
Marina Abramović’s exhibition Seven Deaths is at 67 Lisson Street until 30 October, and 22 Cork Street until 17 October.