Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Artist is Present: Marina Abramovic

Written by Danny Kopel
The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Marina Abramovic ’s work, The Artist is Present, dutifully outlines her career, making legitimate claims for performance art as a serious discipline that deserves—no, demands—recognition. Klaus Biesenbach has curated the first large-scale performance-oriented retrospective at MoMA, the logical next step for the museum’s growing interest in collecting performance. Marina Abramovic, the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art,” is indisputably one of its main players, so her show is a fitting inauguration for MoMA’s new venture.
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The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Marina Abramovic ’s work, The Artist is Present, dutifully outlines her career, making legitimate claims for performance art as a serious discipline that deserves—no, demands—recognition. Klaus Biesenbach has curated the first large-scale performance-oriented retrospective at MoMA, the logical next step for the museum’s growing interest in collecting performance. Marina Abramovic, the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art,” is indisputably one of its main players, so her show is a fitting inauguration for MoMA’s new venture.

Each piece by Abramovic begins as a neat proposal. When describing Rhythm 0 (1974), for example, she explains that: “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility.” The premise is always simple, but the performances themselves are charged and multivalent. Abramovic has often appeared nude in her performances, a decision which can place her under tremendous strain and often, danger. The (passive and naked) female body under duress has, for many, immediate associations. But her work is less concerned with such themes. Instead, it is committed to a greater and universal sense of poetry. She places herself in scenarios that test, exhaust, and endanger her, seeking recourse in extreme situations to illustrate, as a martyr would, the resilience of the human body and mind. (Susan Sontag’s famous 1962 essay, “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer,” would have been a few pages longer if it postdated Abramovic’s career.)
 
Duration, stoicism, pain, hunger, eroticism, sleeplessness, punishment, and surrender are not simply themes in Abramovic’s work. They are strategies she employs—or endures–for her performances. The items on view (photographs, video, artifacts) and the live re-enactments of some of her most iconic works certify that these are her main materials. Among the pieces recreated here are Relation in Time (1977), a seventeen-hour performance during which she remains back-to-back with Ulay, her former lover and longtime collaborator, their hair tightly wrapped in a single bun, and Luminosity (1997), in which a nude female performer is held high on a wall by a bicycle seat.
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Abramovic’s repertoire of performances is so iconic, ingrained and—let it be said—institutionalized, that the shock value, which so energized the first live iteration of these works, has been somewhat reduced. Visitors to this exhibit will not take issue with the fact that much of the work is erotically confrontational or violent. And while a live nude performance at MoMA is likely to draw crowds, the controversial aspects of this unique exhibit do not revolve around its ability to embarrass or outrage. The real point of contention is the notion of “re-performance,” or the remounting of live performance works, that Abramovic champions. She trained the “re-performers” herself, a process that Mathew Akers chronicles in his upcoming documentary.

Though it is impossible for “re-performed” work to convey the context in which it was originally enacted, this exhibit effectively communicates the physical robustness and heightened focus necessary for such an undertaking. Some lament that Abramovic’s physical body, crucial because so many of her performances are born of highly personal obsessions, is conspicuously absent. However, her hand is firmly at work here as if to reassure her audience that little has been compromised or violated.
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On the occasion of her retrospective, Abramovic will present a new work, a live performance in which she herself will appear. Sitting at a table across from an empty chair, “visitors are invited to sit silently with the artist, one at a time.” At the end of the show’s three-month run, she will have logged seven hundred hours of stillness, her gaze firmly fixed on the sitter. The Artist is Present will be Abramovic’s longest durational experiment. Though the gesture is more restrained than in previous, more manifestly provocative works, it has already proven to be one of Abramovic’s most emotionally inflected performances. On opening night, Ulay approached the table. This was the first time he and Abramovic had appeared together in public since the dramatic conclusion of their professional and personal relationship in 1988.

The Artist is Present is at once a tightly controlled experiment (the taped-off square, the cold lighting, the severe orderliness of the playing space) and volatile confrontation, unpredictable with each individual encounter. If the thrill of her earliest work depended on the performer’s total submission to the audience’s will, here it is the communion between the artist and each participating member of the public that accounts for a tension rife with potential. It has taken Abramovic, who began her career in the early 1970s, nearly forty years to shift from submission to surrender, but her authority remains undiminished.
 
 
All photots courtesy of Marina Abramovic and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Reperformed continuously in shifts throughout the exhibition Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present at MoMA, March 14-May 31, 2010

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