Μarina Abramović: Where is Riccardo? I am always on time. I don’t like to keep people waiting.
Riccardo Tisci: Buongiorno, signora Abramović!
M. A.: You are ten minutes late! I am much older than you, baby.
R. T.: Don’t hold it against me, please.
M. A.: You were also late on my 70th birthday!
R. T.: No, it’s not true. I am never late. Oh, yes. The traffic was terrible, I remember now. Something always happens.
M. A.: And to think that I wore the lovely T-shirt that you gave me in order to thank and please you. The one with the unicorns.
R. T.: You look stunning whenever you wear it. Where are you?
M. A.: In Rome. I’m staying at a beautiful room, very aristocratic. I am giving a talk on Maxxi tonight. In the beginning of September I’ll present the Callas show in Paris and then, at the end of the month, in Athens. I don’t need to tell you what a phenomenal work you‘ve done with the costumes.
R. T.: You are the one that’s phenomenal. The mother of masterpieces.
M. A.: So, this gentleman here has some questions for us, I think.
Vlasis Kostouros: The truth is that I have prepared a number of questions, but I’d like you to pretend that I am not here. I want the conversation to flow between you two, I’d like for you to become both the interviewer and the interviewee. I will serve as a witness to your conversation.
R. T.: Are you sure? Okay, then. Marina, I am in London. I was a bit off the weather the other day, not from Covid, don’t worry. It was just a cold. Ten days ago, I was in Madrid, supporting the Gay Pride. I am on the administrative board and we are fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
M. A.: Where exactly are you now?
R. T.: At my apartment in London.
M. A.: It looks as if you are in Capri. Since when is the sky so blue and bright in London?
R. T.: You know that we have the support of God every time we meet!
V. K.: Do you remember when you met for the first time?
R. T.: Allora! I’ve always been lucky in my life. I come from a normal family, but I was lucky enough to meet and work with rare and special people. I knew Marina long before she met me. When I was studying in London, Central Saint Martin’s, I was obsessed with her work. I still am. At some point, I was asked to work with an artist for a magazine. I have always tried to collaborate with artists that were secluded in a way, not so well known and established in their field. I wanted to work with a new talent. During my research, I bumped onto Paolo Canevari. At first, I didn’t realize that he was also Italian, I thought he was Colombian. So, I travelled to New York to meet him. I remember that we were both very shy. Pretty soon, though, we felt that we had a deeper connection. He started talking to me about his life, mostly his wife, without mentioning her name. The next day, we said we’d meet again, before I left for Paris. He invited me over to his house and promised to cook me pasta, to honor our shared origin.
M. A.: I must admit that he cooks wonderfully.
R. T.: I remember it was around December 8, I got to this wonderful house in Soho, we got to the upper floor and we started talking. We had a long conversation about religion. At some point, I noticed a very impressive woman, with vivid energy, coming towards us. She was wearing Yohji Yamamoto – I was crazy about his designs. I wanted to scream: “Who is this impressive presence?” But I didn’t. I am well mannered, I am not indiscreet. Suddenly, she started talking, a bit of English, a bit of Italian, with a heavy accent. She seemed independent and powerful. I was always fascinated by women like that. Paolo then turns to me and says: “This is my wife. Her name is Marina Abramović”. I think that I wanted to faint from awe. We started talking and I fell in love with her in mere seconds. In her face, I saw the perfect mother, the perfect woman, the perfect man, all at the same time. It was as if I had found everything I had been searching for in life. We became friends instantly. It might sound strange, but what connected us were the tears.
M. A.: Before you continue, I’d like to add something. I come from former Yugoslavia, from a communist family. If one word could characterize my upbringing, that would be “restriction”. As a child, I grew up feeling incredibly ugly and unwanted. Nobody really loved me. I always wore orthopedic shoes and a hideous skirt, I had a huge nose, my face was full of pimples, my hair was cut too short. I felt awful. I want to say that I grew up as a very insecure woman. When I started with the performances, I started gaining the energy and confidence that art has to provide. That’s what saved me. However, in real life, I remained unsure and incredibly shy. You know, when on the Great Wall of China with my then partner, Ulay, finishing the 2,500 km route, physically exhausted, I said to myself: “Enough with your insecurity!” I went to my hairdresser, I took care of my hair, I painted my nails bright red, I bought a lot of Yamamoto clothes – because for me he was an authentic designer – and I started walking on the street with confidence. And then, I met Riccardo. The thing that stood out for me, long before I realized his talent in fashion, was his energy. The reason we matched so perfectly was probably his Italian origin. You know, lot of drama, lots of tears, lots of emotions. We connected on an emotional/energy level. We started talking about life, art, love and I realized that the way he saw me was so different than the way I was used to people around me seeing me. Through his eyes, I saw myself in way I had never done before. He provided me with a sense of security that I had never dreamt of finding in people. What can I say about the clothes he has designed for me? Especially the ones for the Callas show are iconic, utterly authentic and original. You know, for me, in art, in all its forms, whether it’s fashion, or theater, painting, or cinema, there are two types of artists: the originals and the ones that follow the originals. For me, Yamamoto was original in fashion, and so is Riccardo. Being original means being different, inventing something from scratch, traveling to a country where nobody has travelled before. Original artists, like Riccardo, aren’t afraid of failure because they constantly try for something better. Each of his collections is another level, something entirely new. We have worked together again in the past, in Boléro, for example, but our collaboration for the performance of Callas was this other level I am talking about. I told him: “Ricardo, I almost died when my heart was hurt of love and passion. Maria Callas died hurt from love. Our only difference is that I was saved by my work, and she was not”. My idea to play all the main opera characters that had died of love and Callas had played on stage was born like that. I asked him: “Can you dress these characters?” In Callas’ mind, the permanent emotional murderer was Onassis. I thought that Willem Dafoe, an important actor of our time, could play him wonderfully. And so, our collaboration for this show that is based on trust, was born. When I explained the story to Riccardo, he thought about it and came back with lots of ideas. The smartest idea he had was to experiment with the concept of gender from a costumes point of view. Let’s take Norma, for example. She falls in love with her country’s enemy, Pollione, secretly has two children with him and eventually he leaves her for another woman. They end up in the pyre and death together. I have experienced a similar betrayal in my life. Riccardo had the brilliant idea of dressing Pollione in women’s clothes and Norma in men’s clothes. Stripping him of any masculine element, he automatically places him with the failed ones.
R. T.: When I was designing these clothes, I had Maria Callas in mind, as a timeless symbol of elegance and beauty, a woman that had incredible momentum and potential, who was capable of resonating through the ages. When Marina called and explained to me exactly what she was planning, I felt like a child in bed, listening to his mother’s voice narrating a beautiful story. I always told her that she and Callas have a lot in common, in the sense that they are both role models of powerful and out of reach women, who are extremely sensitive and romantic in essence. That’s why I say that for me this project is a celebration of women, those special creatures. We are lucky to have women in this world. I have worked with many women, but no one is like Marina. Marina, do you know that you have taught me the most important lesson in my life? Something that comes from the streets, from reality. That you can be yourself in any occasion, and this will always feel like a celebration.
V. K.: Callas never managed to keep the person she was on stage and in her real life separate. Do you feel like “other people” in your art and “other people” in your lives?
R. T.: It’s interesting you should mention that. Another common characteristic we have, is what people think of us. They think that we are very dark and closed personalities, but, when they get to know us, they realize that we are open, bright, fun people.
M. A.: Hilarious, I might add.
R. T.: A decade ago, we were in New York and people hesitated to come near you, thinking of you as a “sad monster”.
M. A.: They thought I was a witch.
R. T.: We, people, are very superficial. We hesitate to dive deep. Isn’t this also the case with art? Most people nowadays are into art just in order to be considered cool. They see a painting or attend a show just to say that they did so. Very few people try to understand what they saw, explain what they felt, if they felt anything.
M. A.: I want to say something extremely important at this point.
R. T.: You are scaring me!
M. A.: The thing that connects us both with Callas, the thing that makes us understand what death for loves means, is that we comprehend a connection. The connection between incredible possibilities and incredible fragility. When you create a collection, you know its dynamic, but at the same time, you also know how vulnerable it is. The same happens with me every time I present a new project. The same was the case with Callas. It was as if we embody both strength and vulnerability in the same face. And this is an extremely rare characteristic. It’s something only we understand. We were both close to dying of love, but our work saved us.
R. T.: I was thinking that we are talking about a Greek artist, about a show that you will present in Greece and I remembered that our friendship actually began in Greece. We traveled to Santorini, we used to go to the beach with the impressive rocks every day and everything was so intense. Even eating a dish of spaghetti would give birth to an intense feeling. Greece, in my heart, is related to a personal love story. You know well that in all my love stories, I did everything in my hand in order not to love the other person. I was afraid of love, I was afraid of falling in love, but I finally learned what it’s like to fall head over hills in love and to feel like you can’t live without the other person. Greece taught me that. In the beginning, I had linked the country with a love trauma and didn’t want to visit it. Years later, I loved it deeply and now I can’t wait to return to Greece. We have a similar culture and we express it in an intense way.
M. A.: Greece is very similar to Serbia. We are orthodox, we always wear black when mourning someone, Greek grandmothers cook the same food my grandma did. Every time I go to Belgrade, I feel deeply sad about all that’s happened there in the past, so every time I return to Greece is like returning home without hurting. I love Greece. Honestly, love is the most important human emotion. Without love, nothing has any value. There are so many different types of love. Love for our child, our mother, our family, our country, love for the universe. Very often, we are afraid of loving, because we are afraid of getting hurt. Love goes side by side with pain. Those who love are those who get hurt even more. Riccardo, we are haunted by the same curse, do you know that?
R. T.: What do you mean?
M. A.: When we love, we love utterly and completely. We lose ourselves in love. It’s painful, it’s hell. We suffer, but this emotion leads us to creation. You know really well that no one has ever done anything great out of happiness. Love makes you suffer and love makes you create.
R. T.: I totally agree with you. Whenever I hear you speak, it’s like listening to myself.
V. K.: You never disagree, then?
R. T.: I think that the only moments of disagreement have to do with people we know. Marina is more innocent than I am. I always tell her: “Careful of this person, don’t be so open with them”. And every time she ends up telling me: “You were right after all”.
M. A.: You are my protection, I know that well.
R. T.: It’s very difficult to find someone that thinks in the same way that you do. When we started hanging out, many people tried to come between us, but no one succeeded.
M. A.: It’s because our relationship is based on trust. We do exactly what we think is right, there is no censorship. Your friendship is one of the rarest.
R. T.: In most relationships, there is always someone who is trying to gain something from the other person. In ours, there is just honesty. Every time you present a new project, I admire your guts in taking on the task, with all that’s going on in our society. It’s very brave doing something that people are sceptic about.
M. A.: Lately, everyone asks me how I deal with the pandemic, whether it has affected my work, if The seven deaths of Maria Callas is a reaction to what we are experiencing. I respond that it has nothing to do with Covid-19. All eras have difficulties that will eventually pass and then others will follow. Love, however, is a timely emotion. People will forever keep dying for love.
V. K.: I think that our time is up.
M. A.: We could be talking for hours. Riccardo, I love you, take care.
R. T.: I love you, too. Can’t wait to see you in person.
* Marina Abramović, The seven deaths of Maria Callas, 24, 25, 26, 28 and 29 September, at 19.30 (Sunday at 18.30) Stavros Niarchos Hall of the Greek National Opera.