AO On Site – New York: Marina Abramović “The Artist Is Present” at MoMA, March 14 through May 31, 2010

March 31st, 2010

Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, MoMA. Installation view with Portrait with Flowers, 2009. All photos by Ipek Irgit for Art Observed unless otherwise noted.

Marina Abramović is notorious for the centrality of her own body within her artwork. True, Abramović’s career can be read as a sort of bewildering physical endurance test, yet this would seemingly belie, a more important relationship than the artist to her own body, but the relationship between the artist, artwork and audience. In the case of her newest performance, The Artist is Present, part of the retrospective of the same name at MoMA, the artist is very much present, but most significantly the audience is present also.  In an interview on the MoMA website Abramović discusses her belief in the essential role the audience plays in performance art, if not all art work, “The work is done for the audience, without the audience the work doesn’t exist, it doesn’t make any meaning.”

Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, 2010

More text and images after the jump…

Sitting in front of Marina Abramović seems to create a plethora of meaning; all subjective, personal to the particular collaborator. Discussions about the exhibition and the experience seem to ensue all over town these days. Many questions: “But what if you make her laugh? I think I’d try,” (a rather crass thought) or, “What if you touch her?” But for most I think such ruinous thoughts are immediately dispelled once in her presence.  Even from a far the seriousness of her mission and her willful energy is quieting, consuming, and even awe-inspiring.  In a recent New York Times article, “Who’s Afraid of Marina?” Randy Kennedy interestingly, and rightly, focuses on the audience response to the exhibition.

Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, 2010. Detail.

Of particular note is the effect it has had on 48 year-old, New York make-up artist, Paco Blancas, who returned to the exhibition galleries so frequently as to become friendly with the gallery guards. Blancas then proceeded to sit with Marina for an entire seven-hour day uninterrupted. More than any other visitor Blancas has managed to insert himself into Abramović’s artwork to rather dramatic and powerful ends; Kennedy described it as “a kind of personal performance piece.” [New York Times] To Kennedy, Blancas described the experience of sitting with her thus “When you sit across from her, and look into her eyes, you feel the public but you don’t see them anymore. It’s almost like you are alone with her in this big museum, which is like being a part of the art yourself.” This is entirely in keeping with Abramović’s own understanding of the artist/audience relationship.

Paco Blancas sits with Marina Abramovic for seven hours in ‘The Artist is Present,’ 2010. [a flower every day]

Nonetheless, possibly the most moving incident in this new performance occurred on the opening night when Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) Abramović’s former collaborator and lover (the subject in many of the reperformances on the sixth floor) was the second person to take the seat opposite Abramović, at one point reaching out to take her hands in his. The effect on the artist was incomparable to any other moment so far in the performance. It was a powerful and memorable event that provoked tears to roll down Abramović’s face. What is more, it was a welcome action that brought the past into the present, as do the reperformances occurring upstairs. Ulay and Abramović famously performed Night Sea Crossing, which similarly involved gazing at each other across a table for seven-hour periods; echoes of this piece reverberated around the room as it was effectively recreated, or at the very least referenced.

Ulay with Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, 2010 [ArtInfo]

Upstairs the audience can find an significant volume of works packed into the gallery space, a stark contrast to the airiness of the atrium. One girl we visited with literally cried her way through the exhibition; intensity is high.  The pace and the drama are stepped-up for this sixth floor exhibition.  The exhibition is a chronological blast through Abramović’s most prolific performances starting with “Rhythm 10,” where she furiously stabbed at the spaces between her splayed fingers on the gallery floor, swapping knives when she cut herself. This is quickly followed by the equally daring “Rhythm 0,” where she encouraged the audience to do whatever they wished to her body with the help of 72 objects selected by the artist, including pins, a scalpel and a gun.

Marina Abramovic, Objects from the performance piece Rhythm 0, 1974

Installation view of ‘The Artist is Present’. Object from Ulay and Marina Abramovic, Relation in Movement, 1977.

In order to complement and amplify these performances, which are only re-told through photography and film, a group of 38 performances artists, hand selected by Abramović, re-perform some of the most interesting and intense of her works.  The pieces re-performed include “Nude with Skeleton” (2002), “Luminosity” (1997), and “Imponderabilia” (1977).  The latter particularly has attracted widespread media coverage, sometimes very prudish in nature, Jerry Saltz complains in the New York Magazine: I Made Genital Contact at the Marina Abramovic Show.” Saltz, at least, is certain the proliferation of naked flesh will provoke some level of public outrage. However, what is actually interesting about the re-performances is Abramović’s attempt to preserve her performances, to keep them alive, in an attempt to create a legacy the still exists in reality. In the MoMA online interviews that artist explains that, “For me performance only makes sense if its live, and does not make so much sense if it is documentation.” Furthermore, she outlines her objective in staging re-performances, “What I find very interesting is the idea of legacy, what you are going to leave after you die. But one thing you can leave, always, is a good idea and what I really wanted to leave is this good idea after me.”

Reperformance of Luminosity (1997), 2010.

Possibly the most important legacy Abramović will be leaving behind with this retrospective is the ability to permanently raise the profile of performance art. She said of the audience: “I hope they have a changed and different opinion about performance art.”

Marina Abramovic, video footage and bones from Balkan Baroque, 1997. ‘The Artist is Present’, installation view.

Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, 2010.

Related Links:

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present [MoMA Official Website]
Who’s Afraid of Marina? [New York Times]
A Rebel Form Gains Favor. Fights Ensue. [New York Times]
Performance Art Preserved, in the Flesh [New York Times]
Marina Abramovic and Laurie Anderson: Wise Women [Modern Painters]
Queen of Pain [New York Observer]
Klaus Biesenbach on the Abramovic–Ulay Reunion [Art Info]
Marina Abramović: High Performance [W Magazine]
Saltz: I Made Genital Contact at the Marina Abramovic Show [New York Magazine]
High-Wire Act [NY Times]
Marina Abramovic [Sean Kelly Gallery]