Choreographing Stillness: An Interview with the Artist and Choreographer Maria Hassabi

By Susana Montanes-Lleras, Art History, PhD Student, Case Western Reserve University

Maria Hassabi, STAGING, 2017, live installation view, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Performer: Jessie Gold. Courtesy: the artist, Koenig & Clinton, New York, and The Breeder, Athens; photograph: Thomas Poravas. Image via Frieze Magazine.

Maria Hassabi is a New York-based artist and choreographer. A lecture featuring Hassabi titled Paradox of Stillness will be presented, for free, as part of the Museum’s Contemporary Artist Lecture Series on Saturday, December 14, 2:00 p.m. at the CMA’s Morley Lecture Hall. In the essay and Q&A below, Susana Montanes-Lleras, Art History, PhD Student, Case Western Reserve University, discusses Hassabi’s work and interviews the artist on what to expect from the her upcoming lecture.


Maria Hassabi (b. Cyprus) is a New York-based artist and choreographer and one of the most fascinating artists in contemporary art. Her work provides a poignant reminder of our relationship with time and space, images and living bodies, through the continuous performances she calls live-installations. These live-installations inhabit exhibition spaces for prolonged stretches of time, as the performers move across space with incredibly slow sustained movements. The relation of the live bodies of the performers and the still images they create highlight the spaces in between that we tend to ignore in our fast-paced lives, the spaces between places, the moments between actions, and even the stages of each movement.

Maria Hassabi, STAGING — undressed, 2017, live installation views, Aarhus City Hall, Denmark. Performers: Jessie Gold, Hristoula Harakas, Maria Hassabi, Oisín Monaghan. Courtesy: the artist, Koenig & Clinton, New York, and The Breeder, Athens; photograph: Thomas Poravas. Image via Frieze Magazine.

Performa, the leading organization in commissioning ground-breaking live performance by visual artists, recently announced Hassabi as one of the winners of the fifth edition of The Malcolm McLaren Award. This prize is awarded during each Performa biennial to “a visual artist who demonstrates strong potential through an innovative and thought-provoking live performance commissioned during the biennial.”

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC, 2016, live installation view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy: © the artist and The Breeder, Athens; photograph: Thomas Poravas. Image via Frieze Magazine.

As a preamble to Hassabi’s upcoming lecture, Paradox of Stillness, I asked her some questions about her artistic practice, and learned what we can expect from her upcoming lecture.

Maria Hassabi, STAGING: Solo #2, 2017, live installation view, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Performer: Hristoula Harakas. Courtesy: © the artist; photograph: © Tino Kukulies. Image via Frieze Magazine.

Being a choreographer, why did you choose museums and galleries as a space for your performances?

Maria Hassabi: This is something that happened organically, partly due to the nature of my work. Creating images through physicality with a direct dialogue with sculpture, have been prominent ideas in my work for a long time.

When the first invitation came to present my work in a museum setting/exhibition context, I was immediately tuned into considering the attention of the visitors in such spaces and how it differs from a theater audience. Then there was the architecture. I wanted to use the existing architecture as a space to navigate and even highlight it with the ways the works would inhabit the space. A black box theater is similar to the white cube in the way that both spaces are quite neutral and ready to be transformed by each artist. Museum atriums and public spaces on the other hand, already contain information of their own.

How do these spaces and the art in them interact with your choreographies and the performers?

Maria Hassabi: My interests in these contexts are the existing architecture and the visitor’s attention, rather than in the other artworks in the space. These are the two points of departure I refer to when I make work for such contexts. Other elements that I take into consideration are the overall content of the institution, their opening hours and visitor flow.

Why do you use photography to document your works?

Maria Hassabi: There are plenty of reasons. I find it important that the works are documented and photography is immediate and accessible. My works are based on images, abstract or actual, they’re very much about these “still” moments in space and time. Photography can capture them, and make them still for “real” — take their breath away. Recently I’m also working with photography and video as mediums to expand possibilities of liveness through digital technology.

How do the photographs relate to the live performances?

Maria Hassabi: Photography can capture another aspect of the work that perhaps was not considered in the making.

You named your lecture “Paradox of Stillness,” what is the meaning of stillness so important in your work?

Maria Hassabi: Stillness became the epicenter of my work in 2009 when I zoomed in on the idea of creating images through live performance, by using the body’s physicality as the main vehicle while sidestepping obvious theatrics. The more I worked with the idea of stillness, the more I realized that the live/alive body can never be still. There are physical reactions. For example, a twitch of the eye, or simply the act of breathing, that keeps the body alive and therefore not still. These reactions became very important to me and reminded me of John Cage’s idea of silence. Stillness never exists in liveness. This is the paradox.


Hassabi has presented her performances and installation all over the world at some of the greatest museums, theaters, galleries, public spaces, festivals, and exhibitions including the Centre Pompidou (Paris), K20, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (Düsseldorf), documeta14 (Kassel), the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), The 55th Venice Biennale (Venice), Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels), ArtSonje (Seoul), and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (Melbourne), among many others.

Maria Hassabi’s free lecture, Paradox of Stillness, takes place on Sat, 12/14 at the CMA. Reserve your tickets now.

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Cleveland Museum of Art

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