“The Artist is Present”?
On a bright spring Saturday recently, I went down to the Museum of Modern Art to see a retrospective of the work of the performance artist Marina Abramović (Yugoslav, b. 1946). The ticket lines, even the lines for annual memberships which my friend decided to buy, were very long, and the people waiting in them were international and diverse in age. Yet standing out in numbers and style throughout the museum were the battalions of young hipsters. I venture that nowhere else in New York (with the possible exception of a major Apple store) can one see so many young men ironically wearing jazz hats (also a flat-top version known as a “porkpie hat”- think of jazz men in the ‘50s). Not content to house some of the greatest modern art in the world, MOMA strives to be hip. Indeed, judging from the show of the work of film director Tim Burton and the show I will describe below, it might even be trying a little too hard to be hip.
MOMA is currently offering the first ever major retrospective of the work of a performance artist, the centre piece of which is a work by the artist herself: “The Artist is Present” by Marina Abramovic. Seeking to convey the “presence” of the whole of Abramovic’s work to a larger audience, the exhibition (which ends on May 31) includes live re-performances of Abramović’s works by other people hired for the occasion from the boundless supply of underemployed dancers and actors in New York. Some of the re-performances involved male and female nudity. Much to the mirth of the broader public that nakedness inspired some visitors to get a little too participatory, causing MOMA to post some very imposing guards near the human exhibits.
The stunning-looking Abramovic performs “The Artist is Present” fully clothed. Wearing a long red gown that pools around her on the floor, the artist sits at a wooden table in an atrium. Visitors take turns sitting across from her for as long as they want, “becoming participants in the artwork rather than remaining spectators.” The guard who was monitoring the line of waiting participants the day I was there told me that the sittings lasted from a few minutes to hours (one day, four people took up the whole day). Was Abramavic really present? She maintains a soft gaze on the person before her, looking down and shutting her eyes to rest only in the moments when the seat is vacant. Brightly lit and constantly filmed (indeed, you can see live action footage by going to the MOMA website), this act is meant to distort “the line between everyday routine and ceremony.”
“Narcissism!” scoffed one onlooker who stood near me. Others marveled that Abramovic could go all day without eating, drinking, or going to the toilet. Still others, including the friend I went with, were enthralled. I was intrigued by the scene but my heart wasn’t touched. I observed that Abramovic seems to go deep inside herself, the way prisoners do to bear their ordeals- she even had the days “served” marked off in black on a vast white wall. Can a person really make an art form out of that state that many of us seek in solo or communal privacy in meditation halls, churches, and temples? What was missing for me in Abramovic’s performance was any hint of real vulnerability. As an onlooker, I couldn’t trust that there was truly any exchange, any sharing or remembering of common humanity, between Abramovic and the people sitting opposite her. It was striking and strange but ultimately hollow. To borrow some words from that famous Englishman, James Bond, the viewer was a bit shaken, but not stirred. What is presence? “The Artist is Present” shed little light.
Letter from New York Spring 2010
The author is executive editor of Parabola, a quarterly magazine about the study of the myths, rituals, symbols, and arts of the world’s spiritual traditions. see http://www.Parabola.org