From the archives: A conversation between Marina Abramović and Maria Balshaw

Susie Stubbs

With the Whitworth art gallery newly reopened and MIF15 around the corner, we return to our all-time favourite Whitworth-MIF collaboration, back in 2009.

This July, Manchester International Festival returns to the Whitworth gallery – this time to showcase an original, collaborative commission from Gerhard Richter and Arvo Pärt. In the countdown to what promises to be an extraordinary event, we thought we would dig into our archive and show you this – an exclusive interview between performance artist Marina Abramovic and director of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Maria Balshaw (below).

Filmed in 2009 ahead of Abramovic’s festival commission, Marina Abramovic Presents, the artist describes a four-hour “durational” work that saw the Whitworth stripped of its artworks and replaced with fourteen of the world’s leading performance artists. As an experience, it was little short of epic: visitors were first “de-programmed” by Abramovic (in a session that saw the audience donning white coats, engaging in primal screaming and staring at strangers), before being released to spend hours wandering the bare-walled galleries, encountering the artists Abramovic had handpicked to perform there.

As an experience, it was little short of epic – and summed up what MIF does best

This writer had her doubts (I don’t really “do” primal screaming) but the effect of the evening was dramatic. It was strangely liberating, an experience unlike any other – and one that has stayed with me in the years since. And, for me, that 2009 commission gave a small glimpse of what was to come at the Whitworth. Taking the art off the walls – all of it – may have been at Abramovic’s whim, but the decision to do so rested with the gallery’s director, Maria Balshaw. It was a brave decision. It was a huge risk. It shook that old gallery up as surely as if a giant had leaned down and turned it on its side. And it paid off. Here’s to a few more rules being broken when MIF returns to the Whitworth this year.

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