Marina Abramovic at MoMA

Feel Her Pain

By: - Apr 22, 2010

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Marina Abramovic
The Artist is Present
Museum of Modern Art
New York City
March 14 to May 31

In order to enter the galleries for the exhibition Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, at the Museum of Modern Art through May 31, it is necessary to squeeze through a pair of naked bodies. The male and female participants stare into each other’s eyes.

Approaching them there are momentary calculations and decisions. As a large person it is always challenging to negotiate narrow passages. The issue was how to accomplish this deftly with the least disruption of the nude couple. Or not. In making contact there are options. Her breasts or his Johnson. The decision appears to say a lot about us which is the point of the piece.

In this act of Break on Through to the Other Side it is a relief to complete  the experience. Frankly I don’t recall  much about the actual contact. It seemed important to have it occur quickly avoiding an incident. Like a lot of arts experiences nowadays it was best when over.

Not to say that I am a prude. But inevitably time has changed responses to the nude body. Other than the tiny increment of society that are young and beautiful, worthy of our gaze as feminists would say, most of us just lug our bodies about. Or recall with some nostalgia and dismay when we too were beautiful. We reach a point where mirrors and cameras are no longer our friends.

Whom the Gods love die young.

Having gotten through the fleshy gate I hung out and watched others passing through. Their responses and strategies were  interesting. Many were matter of fact while some were tittering in embarrassment.

Working our way through the exhibition, with more naked flesh on display, it all seemed so generic. The bodies, for the most part,  were not all that exceptional.

Context had a lot to do with this. We were encountering naked performers in the galleries of MoMA not a Times Square strip club. Or girls’ night out with the Chippendales.  There were no lap dances.

The New York Times has reported that not all visitors are well behaved. Some individuals have been ejected including a long standing member who has been barred for life. Just think, no more Picasso and Monet. Unless he masters new disguises to slip past the guards.

Actually, it sounds like a conceptual/ performance piece. To be banned from MoMA for life. Seems like something by Chris Burden or Tehching Hsieh.

What is most impressive about this MoMA exhibition is its ambition and uniqueness. Indeed it may be the most memorable undertaking in decades.

But is it worth the trouble? Well, that’s another issue and always problematic.

The first question, but a very important one, is why Marina Abramovic? By definition Performance Art is ephemeral. The artist, who was born in 1946 in Belgrade, has solved the problem of how to organize a museum level retrospective.

In addition to photographs, film, video and documents, the usual means of presenting Performance art, she is recreating some of the works by herself and in partnership with Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) from 1976 to 1988. A team of young performers have been enlisted to recreate the works during visiting hours in the museum.

The retrospective includes 50 works spanning four decades. For the title piece The Artist Is Present she appears daily. In this latest effort at Duration Art she will sit on the other side of a table, staring at visitors who, one by one, opt to sit opposite to her. The visitor determines the length of their stay. The artist, swathed in a red robe that dangles on the floor, is the constant. In all it is anticipated that she will log in some 700 hours.

Are we to be impressed by that? Is it interesting? What is the point?

We hung out for awhile. How long or even why is hard to say. It was interesting to actually see the artist. Lots of folks were sneaking photos which was strictly forbidden. Why? She wasn’t even nude for cripes sake. As a matriarch of performance art perhaps she no longer is required to disrobe.

What is this fetish with duration? Like who cares how long she sits. Or how many times  Tehching Hsieh punched in that time clock for a year. It was made visible at MoMA and the Guggenheim when photos and documents were exhibited. We could “see” the evidence of the work which liberated us from the ordeal of witnessing it. Conceptual and performance pieces are as demanding for the audience as they are for the participants.

The most famous performance pieces, the ones in text books and discussed in art history seminars, have been like the sound of a tree falling in the forest.

As a work of art Chris Burden, for example, had a friend shoot him. As he told me during an interview “I wanted to experience being shot.” It was during an era signified by assassinations. Rather outrageously I asked Chris if I might see the scar. Perhaps I was channeling Thomas who got to stick his finger into the side of the Risen Christ. After a moment of hesitation he rolled up a sleeve and showed it to me. I have been thinking about it ever since.

Had I been in New York, in 1974, would I have dropped by the Rene Block Gallery to see Joseph Beuys hanging out with a coyote in the piece I Like America and America Likes Me.

Imagine being in the audience in 1896 when the actor shouted “Merde” as the first word in the Alfred Jarry play Ubu Roi. Or May 29, 1913 for the premiere of Stravinsky’s  Le Sacre du Printemps when the audience rioted. Or Vienna during the 1960s for the outrageous stunts of the Actionists. Now it seems that Rudolf Schwarzkogler probably did not slice off his penis as a performance piece. His death, resulting from falling out of a window, may have been an accident. Visiting the studio of Hermann Nitsch I was surprised to learn that he no longer paints with buckets of blood. Just red paint.

While an increment of visitors to the Abramovitz exhibition may sprout a woody it is surprisingly unarousing. The packed audience is curious but blaze. For all its agita performance art, at least as presented here, has become benign.

Primarily because  avant-garde endurance and pain has become all too familiar. Tons of teens are slicing themselves. Everyone under 30 seems to have a tattoo or tongue bolt. Those huge ear plugs are just so, like, over. Unless, of course, it’s your kid. Ritual scars and branding? Ho hum.

When we watch House there is always that moment when the patient starts to gush blood or cavort about in a seizure. Instead of evoking shock it is just predictable and mildly amusing.

Contemporary life has blunted the impact of shock art. It takes more and more to get a rise out of us. Think back to 1960 and the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was scary as hell and truth is we never really saw anything.

In vintage videos in the exhibition we saw Abramovic smashing into walls. Over and over and over. It was disturbing to observe the audience watching. Why didn’t anyone intervene? In another video watched as she carved a star into her belly with a razor blade. Nice. That was really terrific.

More curious was a recent video of the artist and a group of Balkan women cavorting in the rain. These women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, wear traditional garb but bare  breasts, lift skirts, and thrust their pussies at the camera. Ok, but why? Other than voyeurism gone native what does it mean?

Mostly the performers enacting the works in the exhibition stare into space. Now and then it was disconcerting when they made eye contact. A man lying under a full skeleton fixed his gaze on me. It became a challenge as to who would break off first. I wondered why he was looking at me so intently. Perhaps he was bored and just amusing himself. .

In a separate gallery a beautiful young woman was performing the 1997 piece Luminosity. She appeared to be pinned to the wall like a butterfly in a circle of light. Looking closely she was perched on a bicycle seat. Slowly she raised and lowered her arms evoking the pose of a crucifixion. I wondered how she managed to remain suspended for so long.  Her breasts were small and I thought about that. It is what I remember about her. She picked me out of the crowd and stared at me. Just as I gazed back at her.

Recalling that now it seems so awkward. To have intimate moments in a public setting. I am not sure what to think about Abramovic for putting me in an awkward position.  By going public at MoMA Abramovic seems to have killed my interest in the medium. Performance art was never intended to become an arena event. What a sell out.