May 22, 2010
The Presence of Being
Awesome in scope and intention, Marina Abramović’s “performance retrospective” (“The Artist Is Present”) at the Museum of Modern Art is yet another salvo in her battle for a sanctified position in performance art history. That performance art is firmly in place in the Modernist (and postmodernist) canon is not at stake; from Dada to Mathew Barney, the strategy of artists using their physical presence and temporal duration to make art is exhaustively recorded, critiqued and validated. What is at stake, as Abramović well knows, is the issue of whether time-based, ephemeral performance “artworks,” whose very essence evolved from a de rigueur engagement with immediacy and confrontation, can be re-inscribed via hegemonic curatorial practices as “permanent” re-creations in the archives of museum culture.
Performance art has been mostly non-archival and temporary, reliant upon the memory of eye-witnesses coupled with reproductions of spotty quality. Granted, video and digital capability of the past 30 years has pretty much resolved the problem of documentation. Yet performance art’s “High Era” (roughly, from 1960 with Allan Kaprow’s first “Happenings” and Yves Klein’s Anthropometries) suffered from a lack of proper documentation. Or perhaps it benefited from various mythologies that grew from those second-hand accounts and fuzzy photographs. Ironically, today’s assertively accurate digital image technologies may have diluted performance art’s credo of spatio-temporal specificity with their introduction of doubt through the possibility of deceptive representation.(1)
Regardless of the documentation issue, the theories behind performance can be problematic for both its commercial marketability and its archival potential. Conceived as “anti-commodity,” acts of performance were designed to produce an audience response, to provoke and engage the viewers, sometimes to allow participation or interaction but, in any case, to bypass conventions of the “artwork” as an inherently static object. Except for cash taken in for admission fees, performance “works” themselves are not salable; they generate residue not revenue. Secondary objects like schematics, drawings, instructions, photographs, film or video have been the traditional commodity items of performance. As “non-objects,” performance artworks are simply defined by their durational time and the performance artist’s physicality; performance is simultaneously located in the artist’s body and the performance space.
I have expressed my concerns about recreations of performance art on this site. I believe that to replicate or “re-do” performance artworks directly contradicts the originating artists’ intentions, producing “conflicts that will undoubtedly arise in future re-enactments of previously performed works that were time-based in a specific place, encompassing a particular presence, and existing within a long-past socio-economic and political episteme.” Without the specific societal and cultural conditions of their particular time period, many of those epistemic issues or “talking points” related to a performance work would be lost on viewers of a “re-performance.”
“Re-performance” is the word Marina Abramović uses to describe the five older works from her oeuvre that are being re-done at MOMA. In one video on MOMA’s website, Abramović speaks of performance art’s documentation and the problems of recreation. She acknowledges critics who claim that “if there’s somebody else re-perform the piece, actually it’s not anymore the piece of the artist’s idea, it would be a new piece because he added his own, you know, personality inside.” Regardless of the “danger,” Abramović believes that her “solution” of re-performance is necessary to communicate the idea of these performances, to provide a “live” experience of them.
Such thoughts were on my mind as I entered MOMA last week to finally see the Abramović retrospective. Walking upstairs to the second floor, I was surprised to see Abramović’s newest piece, “The Artist Is Present,” installed there. Marina Abramović, the art world diva herself, sat in a simple wood chair facing a young woman sitting in a similar chair opposite; gone is a table originally part of the installation, perhaps because some visitors had stood atop it or placed their shoes upon it.(2) It was curious to me that this piece would be the first that MOMA visitors see. However, Abramović’s reasoning and the sadness of it ultimately became quite clear to me.
It has been noted that this piece is apparently a “re-do” of an earlier performance Abramović made with Ulay, her former partner, in 1977.(3) Reportedly, the intensity and emotional impact of this austere piece has brought many MOMA visitors to tears and the vast emptiness of this gallery had been magically imbued with a palpable psychic aura. Abramović’s face was alternately beatific or meditative, while her “visitor” (who sat opposite Marina for the entire two hours I was in MOMA) seemed in a trance. Neither moved, and the surrounding patrons were respectfully quiet, both those in the queue to take a turn opposite Marina and the rest of us who just observed.
What are we supposed to get from this? In all honesty, I began thinking about the simplicity of the arrangement and how Abramović is presenting herself as artwork. As simplistic as that sounds, there are other considerations that revolve around the idea of “celebrity” and what it means to become intimate with such an iconic art world figure, if staring into someone’s eyes embodies “intimacy.” However, a “stare-down” with Abramović seems fairly daunting, given her stature in art history and well-regarded role in performance art. Still, one wonders what the visitor/sitters think about – do they believe they are “encountering” Abramović’s presence or her past when they look into her eyes?
Wandering upstairs to the rest of the show, I can hear other pieces before I see them; anguished moans, screams and voices mingle with hushed whispers from museum visitors. Here is the history, the past life work of Abramović in photography and video: “Freeing the Voice” (1975), Abramović screaming until she loses her voice; “Art Must Be Beautiful” (1975), Abramović brushes her hair with metal brush and comb while continuously repeating “Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful;” “Rest Energy” (1980), Abramović and Ulay stand opposite one another holding a bow and arrow, with the arrow pointing to her heart.
There is more of this traditional documentary detritus, of course, but it was “re-performances” that I came to see. As expected, there are serious contradictions between what the intentions of Abramović’s originals once were and how the re-performances have changed those intentions now. Only one, “Relation in Time” (1977), seems to have be re-cast effortlessly. In her original piece, Abramović sat back-to-back with Ulay, their hair tied together and at MOMA it survives relatively intact except for the fact that the original was only 17 hours long; here it is performed 7 hours a day for the duration of the exhibit.
Altering the time-length of a performance would not seem to seriously affect its intentions. However, when we realize that certain aspects of Abramović’s re-stagings have essentially created all-new interpretations of her works, we begin to see the “re-performance” dilemma. For example, how does the 2010 “Luminosity”compare to its original version? In her 1997 original, Abramović sat naked on a bicycle seat mounted on a stand; there is a still photograph from a video that shows her only a few inches off the ground; inexplicably Abramović re-staged her MOMA re-performance of “Luminosity” with the female re-performer mounted high on the museum wall - an eight-foot ladder stood to one side of the gallery space, presumably so that re-performer could climb up on the bike seat. Does this difference somehow make the 2010 performer more “object-like?”(4)
Without a doubt, the most controversial, talked-of re-performance at MOMA was the 2010 “Imponderabilia.” This was originally another pairing of Ulay and Abramović back in 1977 and there is film footage of that original showing the two standing naked at a gallery entrance as fully-clothed persons walk between them to enter the space. Much has been said about this re-performance and its re-staging by Abramović that has now evolved to two nude females standing at the alternate entrance to one of the MOMA gallery spaces.(5) Abramović may have been forced to make the gender switch as it has been reported that the male performer “became visibly aroused” and had to be removed. Additionally, an “unspecified number of patrons have been ejected for groping performers.”
In its present incarnation, this “titillation factor” clearly changes the 2010 “Imponderabilia” re-performance significantly. In their 1997 original, Ulay and Abramović were representative of both genders. Last week, two nude, attractive and fit females were the re-performers when I passed between them. I found this experience to be sexually charged, as I am certain it must have been for other heterosexual males who walked between the young, nude women. So is the 2010 re-performance still about “close physical contact with another human being which is generally considered disturbing between strangers?”(6) Or is it now about the controlled invasiveness of personal spaces violated, both that of the re-performers and the visitor, with the added frisson of an authorized permissiveness?
Let me be clear: I understand that artworks can have multiple “meanings,” that aesthetic ambiguity allows individuals to perceive and interpret a work in completely different ways. Interpretation by the viewer is not at issue here. The question is whether or not a re-interpretation of an existing artwork is thereby deemed authentic and sufficiently worthy for recognition as archival quality by museum culture. In Klaus Biesenbach, MOMA’s “Curator at Large,” Abramović has found an erstwhile supporter who obviously champions her belief that performance artworks can enter museum collections as a re-constituted version. Nevertheless, institutional largesse does not automatically confer positive critical assessment.
At least one artist has granted a museum rights to carry out and re-perform a performance piece which provides a possible solution how performance can authentically enter a museum to become institutionalized and re-performed. The young Berliner, Tino Seghal, has sold a performance piece entitled “Kiss,” coincidentally to MOMA, who “loaned” it to the Guggenheim Museum for exhibit this year. Seghal “sells the pieces, for prices that reach into six figures, as editions; the sales agreements are oral; only the cash paid in is tangible. He stipulates that he or someone associated with him must oversee the execution of a sold piece. If unauthorized changes are made, the result will be considered inauthentic, a fake.”(7)
About her first re-performances, “Seven Easy Pieces,” staged at the Guggenheim in 2005, Abramović has said, “My version will be exactly as the piece was, but as a very long duration piece.”(8) This seems to clarify her position that re-performances should be “exact” but this is not the case with the re-performances in the 2010 retrospective. Further questions are raised concerning statements attributed to Abramović about her 2005 re-performances, and those statements have become part of the textual accompaniment to the MOMA exhibition:
“[Abramović] has said that ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ was a product of her frustration with contemporary mass media’s representation of those seminal historical performances with the lack of documentation of them and with the loss of understanding of the context in which such performances were originally executed.”(9)
Granted, and if this the attribution is correct then it indicates that Abramović is ignoring the fact that her 2010 exhibit contains five of her previous performance pieces that are partially if not wholly re-performed outside of the contexts in which they were originally made. Unless MOMA has somewhere provided other information, texts, historic documentation that would allow the museum visitor access to and “understanding” of the cultural, political, societal eras in which those original performances were made, then they are completely “new” performance works.
I do not have a problem with Abramović re-doing old work as new work if she is willing to address these critical deficiencies. Peggy Phelan has stated: “To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. . . Performance is the attempt to value that which is nonreproductive, nonmetaphorical.”(10) Perhaps it is best to remain that way – nonreproductive – and this critical position would deny the compromised possibility of re-performances of older works.
As I walked back through MOMA’s atrium I began to reflect on the overwhelming accomplishments of Abramović. Her life’s work is on display in the museum and it is testament to her strength, stamina and courage as an artist. Her best works are perhaps behind her now and this is what casts a pall of sadness over the present on-site performance piece. Abramović herself is perhaps beyond the point of endurance work, finished with self-affliction and pain. She is still now, receiving visitors in an institutionalized parlor, unabashedly accepting the respectful gazes as she affirms the simple presence of her being.
Image: “The Artist Is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art, through May 31, 2010.
1. A photo was once sufficient evidence of “truth.” Nowadays, celebrities who claim their heads are “Photo-Shopped” on nude bodies have usurped photography’s credibility.
2. Besides a handful of “showboating” performance artists, Marina has shared that chair with many more famous: “Abramovic welcomed a stream of guests to sit with her amid a crowd of art-world onlookers that included an impressive contingent of artists who work with performance, including Matthew Barney, Terence Koh, Kalup Linzy, Megan Palaima, Dara Friedman, and Damaris Drummond. Magician David Blaine, a performer of another sort (and a fan of Abramovic's), was there as well, along with Björk, Michael Stipe, P.S. 1's Kate McNamara and Christopher Lew, Whitney Biennial curator Gary Carrion-Murayari, curator Clarissa Dalrymple, Chuck Close, P.S.1 chairwoman Agnes Gund, and critic Jerry Saltz.”
3. “Essentially, it’s a solo version of ‘Nightsea Crossing,’ with Ms. Abramović sitting silent at a table in the museum’s atrium, facing an empty chair. She’s scheduled to sit there all day, every day, during museum hours, for the run of her show. The museum estimates that, if she can stick to the plan, she will sit for 716 hours and 30 minutes, earning her a record for endurance in the performance art sweepstakes. - From “Performance Art Preserved, in the Flesh,” New York Times, Mar. 11, 2010.
4. Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik also noted that “The young "re-performers" at MoMA get to have foot- and hand-rests, too, which helps dilute the piece.”
5. “The nudes-in-a-doorway piece, for instance, is no longer installed on an obligatory path from one place to another; it's off to one side, so that MoMA can leave an alternate, more obvious route for those visitors the work might unsettle. That means that no one passing between those nudes is doing it against his or her will, or with surprise, or is taking anything but pleasure in it. Also, now that it is "staffed" by a changing roster of gorgeous professionals, the whole piece becomes voyeuristic and suspect. It's one thing for an artist to offer her body to her audience; it's another for her to pay young beauties to do so.”
7. “In the Naked Museum: Talking, Thinking, Encountering,” New York Times, January 31, 2010.
8. Moulton, Alan. Flash Art 38, No. 244 (October 2005): 89.
9. Quoted from “The Artist Is Present” wall text at MOMA.
10. Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London, 1993, 146-152.