'I have found my soul mate'

Last Tuesday, Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic’s three-month retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York came to an end, as did her performance piece “The Artist is Present”, for which she had sat silently at a table in the museum’s atrium, all day every day for the duration of the show. Visitors were encouraged to take up the empty chair next to her. At the close of the exhibition, Riccardo Tisci, the creative director of Givenchy and a friend of Abramovic, threw her a celebratory party. Beforehand, the two got together to discuss their symbiotic personal and professional relationship; Vanessa Friedman, the FT’s fashion editor, listened in.

Riccardo Tisci: I met Marina about three and a half years ago through her ex-husband; I had been commissioned by Another magazine to do a project with an artist, and I wanted one who wasn’t so well known, so I found [Italian artist] Paolo Canevari. We were working mostly by e-mail, but one day he invited me to Sunday lunch. I didn’t actually know he was Marina’s husband, because I’m not one of those people who Google their hosts before they meet, so I went over, and there was this woman in a black Yohji Yamamoto dress, long black hair, black shoes. She’s walking around doing stuff, and Paolo’s saying ‘Marina this’ and ‘Marina that,’ and about halfway through it dawned on me: this was Marina Abramovic. I started sweating.

Marina Abramovic: I knew who Riccardo was, because growing up in the ex-Yugoslavia, my mother was obsessed by French culture; everything French was good, and everything else was bad. She took me to the Alliance Française at 11 to learn French. So I knew about Givenchy, and Audrey Hepburn and all that. But, at the same time, in the 1970s artists saw fashion as this huge enemy: the only reason you would dress up and have red lips would be to seduce a curator so they would show your work. It wasn’t until I moved to Paris in the late 1980s that I felt allowed to be interested in fashion.

RT: I had been at Givenchy about one and a half years when we met, and I invited Paolo and Marina to a show.

MA: I was absolutely blown away. There are a lot of designers who make women look cheap and vulgar – you see those dresses, and you think: how am I supposed to be in that? – but Riccardo’s work puts a woman in charge of their space and time and self. I think it’s because he has eight sisters, so he knows women in his veins. I found out we also have a similar sense of humour, and he loves art, and understands it, and loves things that are very strange. Performance art is very strange.

RT: It’s about emotions, which is what I feel everything I do needs to be about; giving and getting emotions, and when I can’t sense that any more in this job, I think I will stop. The funny thing is, when I started my career I always did installations or performance pieces, and only when I got to Givenchy and all the critics kept saying they had to see the clothes move did I do the full runway, which I had always thought made girls look like robots.

MA: There was a critic who once said to me, ‘I hate your work because it always makes me cry,’ but that’s why Riccardo actually loves it. So we’ve become better and better friends, and after I got divorced we became even better friends.

RT: The first time we worked together, I was curating an issue of a magazine in Paris, and I asked Marina to do a piece where she interpreted me, and I sent her an haute couture dress.

MA: I had it shipped to Laos, because I was working there at the time, filming a piece, and it arrived in this big cardboard box, this extraordinary ball gown. I took it to a place where there was a pool and a waterfall and I put it on and got into the water and started washing it, just destroying it.

RT: And then I was sent a box full of these pictures, and I couldn’t believe it. Because it was so clean – water, daylight, a woman with her face scrubbed clear of makeup – but also so dark. She ruined this thing, and the combination made something else altogether, which is what I think the relationship of fashion and art should be. That’s when I thought: I’ve found my soul mate. Because it also goes all the way back to our childhoods – I grew up poor, we didn’t even have a washing machine until I was 14. This washing by hand was part of my life.

MA: And I remember when my grandmother got our first washing machine. My God, it was so special; she used to take the clothes out of it and wash them by hand because she didn’t want to hurt the machine. It’s amazing that I’m 63 and he’s 35: there’s this huge difference in age, but we don’t feel it at all. We get together and all these ideas come pouring out ... We had this idea – someone wanted to take our portrait – and I thought it would be funny if we did Riccardo drinking milk from my breasts. Because that’s really what it is, we feed each other. We’re family.

RT: I sat with Marina twice during this last piece [at MoMA], once when it was just starting, and it was rainy and cold out, and there weren’t so many people in the museum. I left and felt filled with this melancholy, almost the way you do after a funeral. And then I was there on the last day, and it was amazing – it was this feeling of lightness and festivity. I had this memory of sitting facing Marina in Greece at a time when we were both full of darkness after bad loves, tears pouring down our faces. This was like the opposite, like when I was a child and I went to a church in the south of Italy and it was full of candles and white flowers. It’s what we recognise in each other, this capacity for darkness and also light.

MA: It’s why I chose the dress code for the dinner that Riccardo had to celebrate the end of the piece: black and white and gold. It’s how I live my life, all extremes, plus gold to let the light in ...

RT: But they are also the main colours in my collections; it took me a long time to use any other colours at all. So we made this incredible dress for her for the party –

MA: – inspired by a piece I did called “Dragonhead”, which was about snakes.

RT: It’s a jacket of 101 snakes, all patched together from tiny pieces of snakeskin, with a big gold belt, and this incredible dress underneath that makes Marina look like a 1950s screen goddess.

MA: I loved it! I’ve never worn a dress like that, and I can only wear it because I lost so much weight, not really being able to eat for the last three months. It’s a great contrast to what I wore when I was sitting, which was a robe like a blanket.

RT: This is what we want to show: that you can be an artist but also be a woman, and look extraordinary and super-sexy.

MA: That you don’t have to be just one way, just a serious and tortured artist.

RT: I think Marina could open the door to that for a whole generation. And then, next, I want her to art-direct a fashion show for me.

MA: I want to train models to walk a different way. I –

RT: Don’t tell!

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