Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present
I should preface this review with an admission: performance art usually gives me the jeebs pretty bad. Like many art forms, it has a tendency to be pretentious and unintentionally humorous. Unlike other art forms, the performance often mandates the presence (and occasional participation) of the audience – which is where things tend to get uncomfortable for me. Sure, there are some great performance artists out there – I love Roman Signer – but for every great one, there are at least one hundred of them doing stuff like this.
I was able to catch another retrospective exhibition at the MoMA last week – that of the self-described “Grandmother of Performance Art” Marina Abramović. Her show, The Artist Is Present, consists of a live performance by the artist (more on that later), photo stills and videos of her previous works and re-created live performances of her historical pieces. Serbian born Marina Abramović has been at this for a while – exploring the limitations of the human body and mind through self exploration and mutilation since 1973 (which, having been born that year, could and should be my new slogan) by means of live and filmed performances. She received the Gold Lion Award at the 1997 Venice Biennale where an installation of her work was shown – an exhibit which I was able to see in person then and one which can be viewed in her current show at the MoMA. Her work was lampooned on the TV show Sex in the City during it’s last season and it is worth noting that James Franco loves her.
Ms. Abramović’s body of work has been evolving for nearly forty years and as such, it is difficult to explain it. Her best-known early work, a piece titled Rhythm 0, is one which directly involved the audience in a dangerous way. For the performance she he laid passively on a table for six hours while the public was invited to use any of 72 items (including – but not limited to – nail varnish, a feather boa, knives, chains, a pitcher of water, cupcakes, a gun and a single bullet – all laid out on a table next to her body) on her. While the audience was squeamish at first – initially reacting with modesty and trepidation – they apparently became increasingly bolder and more violent as the performance went on, cutting her clothes, poking her with thorns – one person even pointing the loaded gun to her head. When her six hours were up, the artist rose from her table and walked towards the crowd – all of whom ran off during this confrontation. Several of the items used during Rhythm 0 were on display at the MoMA, along with photo stills from her 1974 performance. Seeing such a diverse group of items – arranged left to right from most lethal to least – was actually quite a chilling, thought-provoking experience. I find it nearly impossible to get in the mind frame of Abramović in such a case – I could never allow myself to be so vulnerable or willfully place myself in such a dangerous position. I think it’s fascinating, however, to discover what ordinary humans will do to each other - unprovoked and in a non-threatening environment - and I believe that was her point all along.
Marina Abramović’s interest in the connections between herself and her audience is explored in such a daring way – she exposes herself – literally and figuratively – often subjecting her own body to pain, pleasure and scrutiny in the process. In her MoMA exhibition, live performers re-enact her previous works throughout the gallery along with videos and photos which help to contextualize the pieces. While at times it was very uncomfortable to walk through (I am thinking specifically of a piece that asks the public to pass between a doorway that contains two, nude figures facing one another) I thought this addition to the show created a layer of involvement to her body of work that it otherwise would not have garnered. Her live performance during the run of her current show is incredibly simple – the artist is filmed while sitting in silence at a table and the public is invited to sit across from her and essentially engage in the World’s Longest Staring Contest Ever. I personally would find it excruciating, having to stare into the eyes of a stranger for any length of time without making the usual niceties – all with a crowd watching you (and while on film no less). I don’t know if I would be able to make a non-verbal, ephemeral connection with another person under these circumstances, but it is an interesting concept.
Abramović’s commitment to her craft is evident and admirable, she continues to use her body completely – and while some of it can feel self-important, provocative and silly – her work left an indelible impression on me which had me thinking about it long after leaving the gallery. All she, or any artist for that matter, can do is ask that you look at it and draw your own conclusions from it.
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present runs to May 31, 2010 at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art. Click here for more information about the show.