Marina Abramović

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Closed May 31, 2010
by Wendy Vogel

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      Installation view of Marina Abramović’s performance The Artist Is Present at The Museum of Modern Art, 2010
      Photo: Scott Rudd
      © 2010 Marina Abramović
      Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

      View Gallery

      More ink has been spilled (and keys stroked) about the Marina Abramović survey, The Artist is Present, than most exhibitions in recent memory. Touted as MoMA’s first performance retrospective, this show covering the sixty-four-year old Serbian artist’s forty-year career sets an institutional precedent for organizing performance exhibitions of this magnitude. Featuring a variety of display techniques, including video, photography, sound installation and live performance, the exhibition leads me to ask: What does “presentness” do for the exhibition? How does MoMA construct it? And how does it matter for future performance exhibitions?

      The Artist is Present takes its title from the eponymous new work showcased in the museum’s expansive atrium. In it, Abramović sits in a straight-backed wooden chair from open to close every day for the exhibition’s three-month run, a total of over seven hundred performing hours. Viewers are invited to sit in a chair silently facing her one at a time. They may stay as long as they like. For some visitors, this can mean an entire seven-hour day; for others, a few minutes suffice.

      In contradiction to the work’s personal, internal and “transformative” intention, precise visual documentation is copious. Visitors to the atrium are confronted by three mounted video cameras and a still camera transmitting live feed and images of the piece to the museum’s website. Despite these mediatized intrusions that threaten the monastic quality of the experience, participants are moved (see Marina Abramović Made Me Cry.) If the artist is present, there is also the hope of being present with the artist: an experience distinct from the object contemplation typical of museum visits and the pace of everyday life.

      The sticky notion of “presentness” invoked in The Artist is Present hearkens back to Michael Fried’s 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood.” There, Fried argued for a difference between presentness and presence, the former being the condition of suspended time expressed in visual art such as painting and sculpture, and the latter being the condition of theatre. “Presentness is grace,” Fried asserted, as opposed to the so-called “literalist” specific objects of Minimalism that relied, like theatre, on specific time relations. Despite the fact that Abramović’s practice is structured around such bodily relations, this exhibition strives to link Abramovic’s performance with “presentness,” and thereby with the tenets of MoMA’s formalist past. By including the new work The Artist is Present, one the one hand, MoMA complies with the medium-specific definitions of performance that were generated from the 1970s onward: that of a medium that springs from sculpture and uses the body as material, is therefore free from relics and commodification, and one that puts intersubjective exchange as its focus. On the other hand, it constructs the artist’s presence itself as a sculptural monolith. So what does presentness mean here, as opposed to Fried’s definition? Is it an undocumentable, quasi-religious experience? The strategies utilized in the historical retrospective upstairs, premised on the use of documentation, suggest otherwise.

      The retrospective’s first gallery is solely devoted to cacophonous photographic and video documentation of Abramović’s early solo actions, restless and masochistic, such as the Rhythm series of the 1970s. Collaborative, durational works made from 1975-88 with her then-partner Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) comprise the second section of the exhibition. Grand theatricality enters the work of her later performances, such as the Balkan Erotic Epic (2005), in which the artist and Serbian villagers reenact folkloric actions linking sexuality with agricultural fertility.

      After blurring the line between fact and ethnographic fiction, Abramović problematizes the distinction between presentness and theatre. In her Seven Easy Pieces performances at the Guggenheim in 2005, in which she re-performed works by seven “seminal” artists (herself included), Abramović distinguished herself as one of the leading proponents of reenactment as an alternative documentation strategy. In this exhibition, re-performance is mobilized by a corps of trained protégés who re-enact selected earlier performances by Abramović. In some instances, the performances fall flat. Relation in Time (1977), a work conceived by Abramović and Ulay, becomes an airless tableau in which the performers are squeezed inside a curiously framed area (think puppet-theater) within the gallery. The original piece, in which the artists’ long hair was tied together for seventeen hours, relied on trust and intimacy for its success. This is shortened to comparatively brisk two-and-a-half hour shifts with a rotating “cast” at MoMA.

      For other works, the re-performance can produce a fanciful reinterpretation. Imponderabilia, a hilarious work dating from 1977, featured Abramović and Ulay standing naked and immobile across from each other in a gallery doorway, thereby forcing visitors to squeeze between them to enter the white cube. While the couple’s intimate relation to each other could not be reproduced in the re-performance, which features pairs of virtual strangers, the rotation of performers of different genders provide a variety of potential visitor experiences and, in the artists’ words, “object choices.” On my way in, I squeezed between two men; by the time I left, the performers were replaced by a male and female duo. In a short span, I had two completely different gendered experiences in the same space.

      Luminosity, a simple solo performance from 1997 involving the “transmission of pure energy between performer and audience,” was ripest for reinterpretation. A nude woman was mounted high on a wall under bright lights, semi-crucified on a bicycle seat, with her feet on small platforms and arms outstretched. Entering the room, the performer demonstrated the energy effect by looking directly at me until, after some minutes, seeing her arm twitch involuntarily and the hot lights become even more intense, tears began to stream down my cheeks. Seeing any woman crucified high on the walls of MoMA is no benign sight, and this woman and I empathized with each other: upon seeing my tears, her attention immediately snapped to the center of the room.

      Oh, Marina Abramović, you made me cry! Or was it you? Who exactly made me cry?

      My emotional outburst brings the question of presentness full-circle. Under what conditions does the idea of re-performance succeed, and when does it fail? For this exhibition, I believe it fails when durational works premised on the artist/author’s charisma, or interpersonal relationships, are restaged: when “Marina” and her “presentness” are performed as a character at the expense of the performer’s. In light of historical distance, it is still possible to preserve work via re-performance. Yet the question of preserving the artist’s aura makes the recreation of certain works next to impossible. Perhaps a better title for this exhibition would be The Artists Are Present, or The Artist and Presentness, or simply the imperative Be Present! As the words and enthusiasm devoted to this exhibition attest, people are prepared to engage.

      Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

      + 1 Comment
      Jill Bedgood
      Jun 4, 2010 | 6:47am

      I too saw Marina Abamovic The Artist is Present, but more accurately I experienced her / her art; and when I entered the final room, I unexpectedly burst into tears. Her intense commitment and belief in her work were obvious in the video documentation, especially when compared to a sleeping re-performer.  How do people survive—endurance, will power, inner strength, etc. etc.—she exhibits many facets of the human condition that many of us do not know whether we have or not.

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