“MoMA will never be the same again,” Sean Kelly exulted at the opening of The Artist Is Present, the museum’s new Marina Abramovic retrospective that runs through May 31. Granted, Kelly is Abramovic’s dealer so his enthusiasm was to be expected but, yes, MoMA is a highly charged space right now. And the coupling of the Abramovic show with that of William Kentridge makes for such a one-two punch—one that even goes along with the Whimsy Noir of Tim Burton, who at least is packing in the teens, some of whom doubtless will pick up the museum habit.
So to the Abramovic show. This presents both a new work and pieces chosen from her 40-year career as the doyenne of performance art. As “re-performed” by 37 artists she has trained in her home in Hudson, New York.
Click Image to View Our NSFW Gallery of Marina Abramovic
I have seen much of Abramovic’s work over the years. I was among those present for one of her performances a while back. It involved us drinking coffee from cups with a hole in them with predictably splashy consequences. That is not recreated here. In November 2002, I also went to The House With The Ocean View at the Sean Kelly Gallery. Abramovic lived for twelve days, naked, saying nothing and unmoving—at least while I was there—on a platform halfway up the gallery wall which had been subdivided into a minimalist bedroom, bathroom and living room. A ladder descending from each space had butcher’s knives as rungs and there was a telescope for anybody who wished to examine the artist up close.
I went twice, each time finding the audience wholly absorbed, clearly dug in for a long spell. There is often a whiff of mystic hoopla about performance art—as with James Lee Byars and, yes, even the sainted Joseph Beuys—but I have never detected anything other than clarity of purpose and exercise of raw will about Abramovic.
The House With The Ocean View is re-performed on the sixth floor at MoMA. So are many of the pieces Abramovic made with her partner of twelve years, the German artist, Uwe Laysiepen (known as Ulay), with whom she worked so closely that they described themselves as a single entity, “The Other.” Some of these works are quietist, like Point of Contact of 1980, in which the two were connected by touching forefingers. And some were quietly ominous, like Rest Energy of later that same year, in which Abramovic held an archer’s bow while Ulay kept the bowstring taut with a finger, the arrow aimed at her heart.
On the sixth floor, the pace was as slowed as walking through water. It’s as if interaction with live performers enforces a special behavior and the atmosphere is further changed by a sonic envelope created by the tapes that are an element in many of the pieces—a changing mélange of harangue, whispers, yowls and gurgles, as though you are moving through a meeting hall, an asylum or a zoo.
There is lots of nudity around and the performers are in tiptop shape but no erotic charge is intended and none is delivered. It seems the tableaux are too real—brutally so, sometimes, as when Abramovic cuts a star onto her torso—for anybody to mistake this in-your-face closeness for intimacy. In 1977’s Imponderabilia, she and Ulay stood naked facing each other on either side of an entrance so narrow that those who squeezed through could scarcely avoid bodily contact with Abramovic, Ulay, or both.
This piece is re-performed and one of the team who do so in shifts is Jacqueline Lounsbury, a Pilates teacher from San Francisco. The entrance in an internal wall is far wider than the original but Lounsbury sustained some minor collateral damage anyway. “I got a scratch on my rib cage and on a breast” she said, matter-of-factly. She added that she actually appreciated the human slipstream because when it was absent for a lengthy period her temperature dropped. “My body was really cold. My feet went numb,” she said.
I took a sequence of escalators down to the second floor where the 62-year old artist herself takes part in one of her most demanding pieces ever. She sits at a plain table in the middle of a square space, its perimeter defined by tape. A sign at the entrance read: VISITORS ARE INVITED TO SIT SILENTLY WITH THE ARTIST, ONE AT A TIME, and a small group were waiting patiently to do just that.
Abramovic was wearing a floor-length navy blue robe, a pigtail over her right shoulder. Opposite her was a young woman, her shopping bag on the floor. In due course, she arose and ceded her position to another. Abramovic noted this change only by leaning inwards. This movement was swiftly duplicated by the new arrival.
The square has extra illumination from four tall studio lights, fronted with a glass panel, one at each corner. At the far corner the internal space rises 110 feet to the sixth floor. There were people peering down. Indeed there were people peering down from every level from floors and alcoves with honey-colored light. Despite the stillness at its center the entire space seemed as activated as a theater or a sports arena.
I returned a few days later. By half past four, Abramovic was clearly exhausted, with her eyelids fluttering, sliding shut, a goner, then snapping open and as one sitter rose to leave she would fold like a tent, letting her arms dangle to the floor, but would swiftly resurrect herself for the new arrival.
Those who have seated themselves opposite her so far include the artists Joan Jonas, Tehching Hsieh, and Valie Export, one of whose own performances Abramovic re-created in 2005 in Seven Easy Pieces, her first attempt to turn the ephemeral into the durable. (She also re-performed Vito Acconci’s Seedbed and Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare).
If she can hold out, Abramovic will be at her table during museum hours from now until the end of the show’s run in two months.
If—her parents were Yugoslav freedom fighters. I like her chances.
Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.