Doryun Chong on Marina Abramović’s ‘The Artist is Present’ at MoMA
Since March 14 of this year, Marina Abramović has been sitting in the grand atrium inside the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, every single moment that the museum is open – from 10:30am till 5:30pm every day of the week except Tuesdays, and until 8 pm on Fridays. She will continue doing this until May 31, the last day of her retrospective exhibition at MoMA, “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present.” That’s 67 days and 496.5 hours according to my calculations. (Clarification: While I am on staff at MoMA, I had no role in organizing this exhibition. The following thoughts and impressions are purely personal.)
Abramović, who was born in 1946 in Belgrade, is no stranger to the art world and – one could argue confidently – is one of the founding figures of performance/body art. You can’t open a textbook on the subject without seeing an image of, for instance, her legendary work Rhythm 0, which she presented in Naples in 1974. Abramović placed 72 objects on a table including scissors, razor blades, a gun and a bullet, and told viewers that they could use any of the objects to do whatever they wanted to her over the course of six hours. The situation gradually escalated, with viewers growing more and more audacious, and after three hours some spectators intervened because they felt that the artist’s life was in danger. After having made many such iconic works and becoming an art historical subject, and after having earned many accolades and awards including the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennale in 1997, Abramović has nothing left to prove, you might think.
But Abramović isn’t Abramović if she isn’t always testing limits. So she sits there, every hour of every day during the run of her exhibition at MoMA, dressed in an at-once austere and glamorous dress – tight in the bodice with a Chinese collar and flowing below the waist, a royal blue at first and in the past few weeks a striking red – on a simple wooden chair in front of a simple wooden table in the center of a square marked by four sets of large light reflectors that not only illuminate her and the space but also focus the attention on her already charismatic presence. An identical wooden chair faces her from across the table, and anyone may sit to face Abramović for whatever duration he or she chooses – in a staring contest or a telepathic communion or whatever one imagines this encounter with the artist to be. Of course, in a city like New York, you find people inevitably taking this as an opportunity to challenge and one-up the artist. There are at least two instances I know of in which young performance artists showed up dressed exactly like Abramović. One was a woman, the other was a man.
What goes on in the head of Abramović during this performance is anybody’s guess, but in case you wonder what the point of the work is, the title tells it all: The Artist Is Present. Abramović is present. She presents herself to you, the viewer. She is in the present. She is the present. If you can’t be present in her presence (because you’re in Japan or elsewhere), you can even watch her live online [http://moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/marinaabramovic/].
Another point I think the artist’s most recent performance makes is that performance art is by definition a living medium. And Abramović’s forceful way of making this point has generated an incredible amount of conversation and debate within the New York art community, in some of which I have participated myself. Even as she is respected and acknowledged as living history, Abramović always has been a polarizing figure. And many colleagues and laypeople I’ve talked with about the exhibition are deeply split in their reactions. Some are angry because they feel she is spectacularizing and instrumentalizing the museum for her own sake. Many also have much to say about the “reperformance” of some of the artist’s historical pieces: for instance, Imponderabilia (1977), in which Abramović and her collaborator at the time, Ulay, stood naked in a narrow passageway constructed at the entrance of a museum so that anyone who wished to enter or exit had to turn sideways to squeeze themselves between the two – choosing to face one or the other.
At MoMA, several works from the past are being re-presented, re-physicalized and re-performed by young performers (I hear they are mostly artists or dancers) working in shifts. In its reperformance, Imponderabilia is located not at the entrance or the exit but in the middle of the gallery, where one could simply choose to walk around the wall and avoid participating in the work altogether. The times I’ve seen it, there were a man and a woman, just as in the original. I’ve also read, however, that sometimes there are two women (I haven’t heard of there being two men). If having to choose to face either the man or the woman – requisite in the original work – made a certain point about the viewer’s sexuality and social behavior, what does it mean that gender binaries are no longer part of the work’s constitution? One might say that all these modifications amount to a misrepresentation of the historical condition of the original work.
Some of those who disagree with the method of reperformance have compared it with Abramović’s “Seven Easy Pieces,” the artist’s own reperformance of works by her peers from the 1960s and 1970s, which she staged in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in 2005. Some of the other artists’ works that Abramović selected often appear in art-history textbooks next to her Rhythm 0 or Imponderabilia: for instance, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1971) and Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965). One reaction I have heard is that these reperformances by Abramović – though approved by the other artists, at least those who are still living – were not so much a gesture of admiration as one of “robbery,” almost an act of cannibalism. When I countered by saying that Abramović’s reperformance of other artists’ works is not the same as having other artists reperform her own works, I was told that her “employment” of the younger artists is akin to an act of vampirism. When I asked, “Well, then, how do you truly represent such time and site-specific works?” I was told simply, “Just show documentation!”
The question, for me, still remains: when we show documentation of historical actions, many of which tend to be black-and-white still photographs, do we not tend to fetishize the documentation? Because photographs are always incomplete and tell their own stories, we often ask artists, or those who were present when they were realized, to verbalize them. Can we necessarily trust their memories and their words? Why is it that we are so fixated on – and trusting of – documentation, when one of the most important intellectual lessons we have learned in the past few decades is to be fundamentally suspicious of the truthfulness of words and images? If the exhibition consisted purely of photographic and video documentation, wouldn’t that be truly a kind of institutionalization?
Museums are by definition holders or keepers of objects, and curators are supposed to keep these objects as they are, preserving and even “fossilizing” them. But couldn’t an introduction of actual living bodies – especially by an artist who is still living and actively making work and reconsidering her own history – be seen as an institution’s anti-institutional way of thinking about its relationship with living art, artists and histories? At least in my mind, these are extremely interesting questions. It might be illuminating to hear Abramović’s responses to these questions (while still maintaining a critical distance from those responses), but I have the feeling that she may not want to say much, if anything at all.
Addendum: This column was written more than a month ago, and just as it went online, the curtain finally fell on the exhibition. The decision was taken to leave my essay as it was submitted, but a number of factual corrections are necessary in hindsight:
(1) Abramovic sat in the MoMA atrium for almost 700 hours in total. I don’t quite know how I got my calculations wrong, but clearly, I underestimated it by a long shot.
(2) Abramovic also changed her dress one more time along the way into a snow white garment, and the table between her chair and the participant’s chair was removed.
(3) I have been informed that the reperformance of Imponderabilia did indeed feature two male performers, although I never saw this myself. (DC)