This past spring, I had the pleasure of traveling to New York and visiting the much discussed Marina Abramovic retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Abramovic, often called the “grandmother of performance art” (she is thought to have coined the term herself) was then in the beginning phases of her longest ever solo performance, a seven week endurance piece called “The Artist is Present” where Abramovic sat silently at a table while museum visitors took the chair across from her and met her gaze for as long as they desired. The morning that I arrived at MoMA, I entertained the idea of standing in line and becoming part of the performance, but lost my patience when a young hipster presumably trained in marathon meditation took the seat across from Abramovic and did not get up for what seemed like over an hour. Later, I spotted him giving an interview to a reporter waiting outside the exhibition about his moment in the spotlight. If you look here, you can probably locate him among the portraits that were recorded of every museum goer who took part in the performance. Actress Sharon Stone (Day 18, portrait 10) and CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour (Day 34, portrait 7) even got into the act.
Abramovic performing at MoMA, March 2010
(a picture I took from one floor above the main action)
While weighing the option of getting back into line, I was able to climb the stairs to the top floor of the museum and take in the stunning retrospective which featured live “re-performances” of Abramovic’s most famous works by a group of young artists she had specially trained to participate in the show. These individuals, some completely naked, performed milestone Abramovic works such as Relation in Time (1977); Rest Energy (1980); Luminosity (1997); and The House with Ocean View (2002), bravely enduring the combination of probing eyes, difficult to hold poses, and mental tedium that is part and parcel of performance art. While I was there, a minor scandal erupted when one patron was ejected from the museum after inappropriately touching a male artist performing Imponderabilia (1977) --a performance where the public must navigate a very limited space between two naked performers to gain entry into another space.
All of the publicity surrounding Abramovic during and since the exhibition has once again raised important questions concerning the place of performance art in the public gallery and the role of performance art in the canon of art history. How are explorations into the limits and discipline of the body related to the current, and some argue limited, state of contemporary art? At what point does Abramovic’s work blur distinctions between spectacle and artistic performance? Does it matter that Abramovic herself is now seen as a kind of celebrity? It is notable that the Abramovic show stands as the largest and most substantial exhibition of performance art ever staged at MoMA, and it is clear that the large crowds surrounding her work are as much the result of human curiosity as they are the genuine interest in her artistic achievement since her early days working in communist Belgrade.
Perhaps some of these questions will finally be addressed in a new film that is currently in development and titled simply Marina. Unlike the highly conceptual and experimental fiction film Balkan Baroque produced by Pierre Coulibeuf in 1999, this film is far more documentary in its approach and includes fascinating interviews with Abramovic concerning her preparation exercises and training methods while planning and training artists for the MoMA exhibition (see film clip below). I for one have a great deal of respect for the discipline and the focus required to pull off the range of works Abramovic has accomplished over the four decade span of her career. I am just left wondering how much her message was lost during her much discussed and often misunderstood retrospective.