[iDC] The Artist is Present
Michael.Benson at pristop.si
Tue May 25 01:52:28 UTC 2010
To witness the exhibition Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art the institutions first major performance art retrospective is to experience both the ultimate victory and the last gasp of Titoism. A 40-year retrospective look at Abramovics work, it couldnt be anything other than the zenith of her career, a kind of ultimate, brilliantly-lit endorsement by the US art worlds inner-circle nomenklatura. And as a gilded platform for her work, in which videos and stills of her original events have here been interlarded with reperformances by younger collaborators, the show is a weird compound creationa retrospective centering on a live event (the artist is in fact present); a look back staffed by naked young bodies; and all in all, a remarkable sight for those accustomed to MOMAs usually more decorous halls.
Its also, unmistakably, an Event. Because whatever you think about Abramovics gestures, which are as suffused with self-absorption (some would call it egotism) as Rembrandts canvases are with dark tones, theyre undeniably worthy of attention. Equally undeniably, theres something undeniable about them, if I can put it that way.
How does this represent a victory for Titoism? Lets set aside that Abramovic continues to identify herself as a Yugoslav, making her almost as rare a bird as the Dodo. Lets set aside, also, the hagiolatry lurking behind the scale of the gigantic black and white photo of the artist which stands at least 8 meters high at the entrance of the show, looking astonishingly like a latter-day manifestation of communist-era personality cults. (Is it possible that Abramovic doesnt recognize this?)
As this retrospective eventually makes clear, the Yugoslav regime reacted to the unrestful events of Europe in 1968 in a way diametrically opposite that of kindred regimes elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Its difficult to imagine the authorities of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Romania reacting to the arrival of what could only be described as radical ideas among their young people (even if only within the context of art) with anything other than consternation, surveillance, intimidation, and sometimes, arrest and prison time. To take one of many examples, the rock band Plastic People of the Universe formed in Prague within months of the Soviet Invasion in 1968. But it didnt take long for them to be forced into the underground and forbidden to perform, with some of their members sentenced to prison terms.
At first, and directly proximate to that gigantic portrait of a serenely self-suffused Abramovic, MOMAs curators attempt with words on the wall to position her as belonging to a quasi-dissident tradition. After reading that she is a pioneer of performance art, which is indubitable, viewers are informed In the 1970s she introduced her body as the object, subject, and medium of her work, starting with a series of performances antithetical to the political climate of socialist Yugoslavia.
While this is true as far as it goes, you could say the same thing about the radical art experiments taking place at more or less the same time in the United States, the UK, France, and other western countries, sometimes with more dire consequences than Abramovic ever had to contend with. In fact if you take even a cursory look at the history of New York Citys Living Theater, a radically experimental theater group founded in 1947 by actor Judith Malina and painter-poet Julian Beck, you will discover a history of arrests and harassment by the authorities, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, either on trumped-up charges of tax evasion or equally ludicrous accusations of indecent exposure as though they were producing pornography, not art.
Contrast this with Abramovics work, which was also frequently conducted unclothed. By the time visitors to the show pass the text quoted above and enter the first gallery room, theres no hiding that many of her most radical gestures took place unmolested and in full public view in Belgrade. Some, in fact, unfolded in a student cultural center converted for that purpose by the Titoist regime from a secret police barracks talk about symbolism! after student protests in 1968. Fast forward, then, to 2010 and New York City. What we have, for the next two and a half months, is an implicit continuity between that evaporated Yugoslavia and MOMA, in which a first stage provided and subsidized by a vanished regime extends voila! trans-Atlantic more than four decades later, having dissolved long since in its home country, now becoming part and parcel of MOMAs polished floors. From nomenklatura to nomenklatura. Call it metempsychosis.
In Abramovics 1974 performance Rhythm 5, which unfolded on the ground of the courtyard behind the Student Cultural Center, the artist drenched a large wooden five-pointed star shape with 100 liters of auto gas. Heres what followed, in her words:
"I set fire to the star. I walk around it. I cut my hair and throw the clumps into each point of the star. I cut my toe-nails and throw the clippings into each point of the star. I walk into the star and lie down on the empty surface. Lying down, I fail to notice that the flames have used up all the oxygen. I lose consciousness. The viewers do not notice, because I am supine. When a flame touches my leg and I still show no reaction, two viewers come into the star and carry me out of it. I am confronted with my physical limitations, the performance is cut short."
A number of her performances end this way they are cut short for one reason or another, either due to physical limitations or to avoid violence. When I see a DVD of Rhythm 5 at MOMA, I picture the Marshall chuckling to himself somewhere else in Belgrade; Dedinje, for example. Seated in a chair rife with gold braid, he has a Cuban cigar in one hand and snifter of cognac in the other. Perhaps he is informed, days later or even on that very evening, that this event by the daughter of two Partisan heroes centered on a five pointed star, the very symbol of Communism. His chuckle turns into open laughter. It isnt malicious in the least, this laughter; rather its suffused with enjoyment at the skill with which hes playing his own game.
Because in providing a sand-box for the kids to play in, in effect, he has achieved so much at one stroke. Hes exposed neighboring Socialist regimes as fraudulent and tremulous. Hes simultaneously co-opted and channeled a stream of energy on the part of his young people that, if overtly opposed by the state, could in fact have proven dangerous. And not least, hes proven worthy of both Western open-society admiration (look, he doesnt throw them in jail he gives them a student cultural center!) and that of his own citizens (for the same reason). Its brilliant, and five decades later, we have a Yugoslav artist endorsed and enshrined for all to see in the central crown jewel of all contemporary art museums.
A few years ago another major New York museum, this time the Guggenheim, got this dynamic precisely wrong at their Abramovic retrospective; you could say they bought the wrong party line. Under a photo of Rhythm 5 on their website, we read to this day Nancy Spector discussing an artist who, as she may not have been entirely aware, came and went as she pleased, commuting from Belgrade to Paris, performing with equal ease in Yugoslavia or the rest of the world. Though personal in origin, writes Spector, the explosive force of Abramovics art spoke to a generation in Yugoslavia undergoing the tightening control of Communist rule.
If this is tightening, one is entitled to ask, bring on the straight jacket! None of which is to diminish the magnitude of Abramovics achievements. To walk through the many halls at MOMA representing her lifes work is to encounter a creative force both prolific and consistently provocative, even if the State felt no need to rise to the occasion. It can also be an experience of nostalgia, not of the Yugonostalgic kind after all, most of her work was conducted abroad, despite the observations above but rather for a vanished era of 1960s and 1970s experimentation. It was a highly fertile period long since buried under waves of subsequently defunct -isms, with even post-Modernism expiring on top of the heap well before the turn of the century.
Theres an eerie quality to the recreations of some of her work, which are staffed by a committed group of 36 people trained by Abramovic in what NY performance artist Laurie Anderson recently called Marina boot camp in the countryside north of New York City. While these restagings cant recapture the social moment the original works were made within, they do possess their own power. Visitors seeking to move from the first gallery room to the second can chose to pass between a pair of closely positioned naked bodies, for example a restaging of one of many pieces represented at MOMA that are taken from the decade-plus collaboration between Abramovic and the German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, or Ulay. Their 1977 piece Imponderabilia, staged in the Galleria Comunale d'Arte Moderna in Bologna, is also best described in Abramovics words:
"Naked we stand opposite each other in the museum entrance. The public entering the museum has to turn sideways to move through the limited space between us. Everyone wanting to get past has to choose one of us."
And there they are, at MOMA, not Abramovic and Ulay at the narrow doorway but two naked women (though at other times its a man and a woman, as in the original; shifts rotate throughout the day). Passing between them provides a frisson of realitya radically opposite sensation from the cybernetic virtuality of so much contemporary art. Elsewhere in the show, a naked man lies under a human skeleton, with the (artificial, were told) skeleton respirating along with its still-living partner (originally in a 1995 video called Cleaning the Mirror II, it was restaged in 2005 as Nude with Skeleton. Both times Abramovic provided the living component of the macabre pair).
Another gallery presents a startling sight: a young woman, entirely naked, arms outstretched in a cruciform shape, essentially mounted on the wall like an enlarged butterfly specimen. On closer look, its apparent that shes seated on an almost invisible bicycle seat, but because her legs descend on either side of it she seems suspended in mid-air, staring straight forward, her arms unsupported in what clearly must take an enormous effort. (When I described her as being in a crucifix position to MOMA press representative Daniela Stigh, who I had called to find out the title of the piece, I was told that she didnt mean it to be explicitly a crucifix, though of course many interpretations exist. Well, ok! Glad we sorted that out. Called Luminosity, the piece was first staged in 1997, with Abramovic, of course, in the starring role.)
As one may expect, not just from the name of the show and the gigantic personality-cult photo at the entrance (titled Portrait with Flowers, 2009), the centerpiece of The Artist is Present is in fact the Artist, indubitably Present. Clad in a bright red gown, at least on the day I went, illuminated by four vast film lights shining through diffusion gels, Abramovic is seated at a table across from a chair in which any visitor is invited to sit for as long as he or she wishesduring which time the Artist will gaze serenely into their eyes. And she will be so seated for every day of the shows 10-week run; seated, in fact, for what we are told will be 700 hours, in whats being billed the longest-running performance piece ever staged. (See it, live, at http://moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/marinaabramovic/)
Despite featuring the Artist in present tense, this center-piece is also a restaging or reinterpretation of a collaborative work first performed with Ulay in 22 cities between 1981-1987, under the title Night Sea Crossing. In the original, which was performed about 90 times, it was Ulay and his lover Abramovic who gazed into each others eyes, for hour after houruntil pain or exhaustion forced them to stop. In 1988, evidently for much the same reason, the couple broke up after twelve years of intense collaboration. Their final performance involved walking towards each other from opposite end of the Great Wall of China, he starting from the Gobi Desert and she from the Yellow Sea. Three months after starting this bipolar journey, they met for the last time and parted ways. Since then, her career has prospered, while he has largely vanished from the scene though he did, of course, have a recent retrospective at SKUC, in Ljubljana, curated by Tevz Logar.
When I arrived for the preview of The Artist is Present in March, Abramovic had already been sitting at her table for several hours, and a line had formed of people intent on pulling up a chair across from her. But three hours previously the crowd had been much sparser. As New York-based Bosnian-American artist Soba Seric described it, around that time a tall man with a frazzled beard and dark clothing entered the vast atrium space in which Abramovic will sit for the next two and a half months. Striding over on long legs, he eased himself down in the chair opposite the Artist. It was Frank Uwe Laysiepen, a.k.a. Ulay. After a moment of recognition, Abramovic began to weep. Reaching across the table, she grasped his hands. He soon rose and vanished into the growing crowd. Her 700 hours of sitting had begun.
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