AO On Site – Marina Abramovic lecture at the MoMA, New York March 1st, 2010

March 3rd, 2010

Marina Abramovic and Klaus Biesenbach at Moma

Marina Abramovic gave a lecture Monday evening at the MOMA as a precursor to her major retrospective which will open there on March 14th. Abramovic has had a prolific career as a performance artist, much of her work pushes the boundaries of the physical body in endurance based pieces that posit her body as the art object.  The lecture was introduced by Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA’s PS1, as a way for Abramovic to speak before entering into a lengthy period of silence, a requirement for the main performance piece to the show, her longest solo piece ever performed.  She will spend over 600 hours in the museum over a period of three months without speaking or moving.

more images and text after the jump…

The talk began with Abramovic mounting the stage under a stark spotlight and saying to the audience, at my age, it is important that I write an artist’s manifesto.  She went through her manifesto, dropping pages of paper to the floor as she read them, dark spectacles on her nose, her words and presence commanding the audience.  There she covered a range of subjects relating the artist to life – love, death, suicide, society, self-idolatry, etc.,  more on the Manifesto can be found here.

The slideshow fired up, taking us quickly through her early life and early work including a piece called Rhythm 0 performed in Naples in 1974.  She put 72 objects (such as a gun, a bullet, an ax, a knife, a bone, a rose, etc.) a table and herself clothed in a white tshirt and black pants. A small sign instructed the audience that they could do anything they wanted including kill her.  She said that at first the audience was passive and quite playful, but they soon turned aggressive, cutting her, drinking her blood, dressing her up as a whore or the Madonna.  Abramovic also noted that the women wiped her tears away and didn’t inflict harm on her but instructed the men what to do.  The piece lasted six hours – she says when she went home after the performance she discovered “a piece of gray hair on my head.”

Marina Abramovic and Ulay

She then moved onto another period of her work – when she met Ulay.  They met on her birthday, and both wore two hair sticks stuck through a bun at the back of their heads.  Ulay and she fell in love and began making work together, living out of a car with a dog.  She showed a slide of their artist’s statement which read:

no fixed living-place
permanent movement
direct contact
local relation
passing limitations
taking risks
mobile energy

Abramovic showed some of her most famous works she performed with Ulay that happened in the seventies.  Relation in Space was a piece where Ulay and her walked briskly toward each other naked, when meeting slammed bodies together, with only the sound of their bodies amplified for the duration of one hour.  Another work entitled Expansion in Space was performed at Documenta in a garage under a supermarket after the artists arrived and find out they had been uninvited.  She said that she decided to take matter in her own hands.  This impromptu location drew a huge crowd who watched as she and Ulay hit their bodies with as much force as possible against two large columns moving them apart slowly and painstakingly across the room towards two other stationary columns.  Imponderabilia is another important piece, the video drew laughter from the audience. The piece consisted of Ulay and Marina standing naked in a doorway forcing everyone who entered the gallery space to rub uncomfortably against their nude bodies and also to choose which body – female or male they would face.  Many of these pieces will be reperformed by other people during the retrospective. An audience member asked the question of Abramovic – how do you feel about someone reperforming their work? Klaus responded aptly, saying that a playwright will have other’s direct his play, a composer will have other musicians play his opus, and with Abramovic it is no different.

Abramovic also spoke of a time period when her and Ulay went to the desert in Australia to live with aborigines. She said that answers were found in the desert because one was stripped of all context and confronted with oneself. She said that all the greats went to the desert, Jesus, Moses, etc. and they went into the desert a nobody and came back a somebody.

Their intense work and personal relationship ended with a magnificent performance in which they each started from either end of the Great Wall of China, he at the Gobi Desert and her at the Yellow Sea and walked all the way along until they met in the middle.  It was a way to say goodbye after twelve years of being together, Abramovic called the experience of this performance, “tragic, romantic and difficult.”  She mentioned that this was the first time that the footage documenting the piece had been brought together, for seven years, Ulay had kept his footage and her separately.  She hadn’t spoken to him until this retrospective, and she respectfully told the audience that he was the “guest of honor” and referenced her manifesto in which she said, “an artist must learn to forgive”.

At the end of her talk, it became open for audience questions – among the full theater were notables such as David Blaine, the magician famous for his arduous endurance work (its difficult not to make the assumption that his work is inspired by hers), Todd Eberle (who once said to me that he liked to take photos of people who had done something interesting in their lives), artist Marco Brambilla (who has a video on a compilation with Abramovic entitled Destricted), director Alison Chernick (known for her documentary on Matthew Barney No Restraint).  After a few questions, it became quickly clear that Abramovic is intensely focused and passionate about her work, she offers no compromises or apologies, and is steadfast in her commitment to push the boundaries of her own body.  After an impassioned response to a question, in which Abramovic leaned over the podium with piercing eyes, her speech gaining pace and volume, Klaus ended the talk by saying that he did not want the audience to exhaust Marina before her three month piece.  Abramovic, in a flourish, encouraged the audience to interact and participate.

– Hikari Yokayama