Shortly before Marina Abramović’s 750-hour The Artist Is Present performance at MoMA in 2010—before thousands of people waited in an interminable line to have a staring contest with the pioneering performance artist—she explained what sets her work apart from theater.
“To be a performance artist, you have to hate theater. Theater is fake…The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real,” she said. “Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real…It’s about true reality.”
Lisa Levy, a Brooklyn-based visual, conceptual, and performance artist, is bored of the self-centered pretentiousness that currently sustains the art world, elevating artists like Abramović to a near-stratospheric status.
This weekend at Christopher Stout Studio in Bushwick, Levy, 59, will be perched on a porcelain toilet for five hours a day, naked, while people engage her during her performance, The Artist is Humbly Present.
It is a parody of Abramović’s 2010 performance at MoMA, which disappointed Levy, who admired Abramović’s earlier work.
“She seems to be really interested in money and fame now,” Levy tells me. “The Artist is Present was all about the experience of the visitor, which was like going to sit down with a deity. She wore a robe and the whole thing was very formal.”
Levy says her Bushwick performance will be the opposite: the nudity and toilet are symbols of humility (“If you’re intimidated by someone, just picture them on a toilet”).
Visitors are invited to sit on a toilet opposite her and engage her however they wish, though they’re expected to be clothed and to not touch the artist.
The toilet is not connected to any plumbing; when Levy really needs to “go,” she will do so in a “real” toilet off-stage.
Is there a point to her piece beyond mocking Abramović?
“I want to make it as accessible as possible for people who don’t know her or don’t know about art,” Levy says.
“The art that gets attention in the mass media is the stuff at the top of the art market, but that doesn’t necessarily overlap with art that’s furthering culture and enriching people’s lives,” Levy tells me.
She liked Damien Hirst’s work in the ’80s and early ’90s, before “the Sensation show” that caused such controversy in London in the 1997—and made famous a generation of YBAs (Young British Artists) like Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Marc Quinn.
Likewise Abramović’s Great Wall Walk, in which she and her then-partner, the German performance artist Ulay, trekked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle, where they ended their relationship.
“I could never commit to doing something like that,” says Levy, adding that many of her earlier works were “really brilliant and daring at the time.”
During her 40-year (and counting) career, Abramović has stabbed the spaces between her fingers with a knife, often landing on flesh; carved a pentagram into her stomach with a razor blade; lain naked on a cross of ice for an ungodly length of time; whipped herself; had a loaded gun held to her head; and nearly died from lack of oxygen while lying inside a flaming star.
This is Abramović’s “true reality,” but plenty of sensible people have failed to see the art in these masochistic performances.
Indeed, all art is subjective, but performance art provokes especially polarizing opinions because it’s so deliberately bizarre and, some would argue, challenging.
It’s easy to understand why the uninitiated might not think Abramović’s work any more compelling than that of Milo Moiré, the Swiss performance artist who squatted naked over a canvas and disgorged paint-filled eggs from her vagina so that they splattered to resemble a womb.
Moiré believed her work to be profound statement about femininity, fertility, and sexuality. Like most performance artists, she took care to explain the profundity of her work, so that viewers wouldn’t mistake its seriousness for heavy-handed bullshit.
Moiré had squeezed eggs out of her vagina—a stunt one might expect to see at a naughty burlesque show. But her “PlopEgg Painting” intended to inspire a “loose train of thoughts” about “the creation [of] fear, the symbolic strength of the casual and the creative power of femininity.”
The author David Sedaris, who dabbled in performance art after dropping out of college, recounted the experience later with pitch-perfect irony: “Here were people who made a living pitching tents or lying in a fetal position before our national monuments…This was the art world I’d been dreaming of, where god-given talent was considered a hindrance.”
Levy is equally self-aware. If there is a “message” in her work, it is to demystify and poke fun at the art establishment, with its lofty celebrity artists, lock-jawed gallerists, and rich people confidently mispronouncing artists’ names.
Levy is perhaps best known as Dr. Lisa, a psychotherapist with absolutely no credentials who invites people to sit on her couch—either in her studio or at a performance venue—and talk about their sexless marriages, their crippling self-doubt, and perverse fantasies.
Her 2002 show “Psychotherapy Live!” was so popular in New York that she performed it two years later at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the U.K. (She now has a weekly show on Radio Free Brooklyn, Dr. Lisa Gives a Sh*t.)
As a performance artist, Levy is always “half-serious and half-joking. I find humor in truth. I know [my work] is funny and absurd, but I’m also making a point.”
She expects that many people will be unamused by The Artist is Humbly Present, no matter how clearly she articulates the piece in her artist’s statement.
“I’m going to make it pretty easy to understand, in a way where people feel taken care of,” she says. “But I can’t explain a joke, so some people will find it offensive and some people will think it’s really stupid. I get that.”
Making people feel “taken care of,” as Levy puts it, is a recurring theme in her performances.
Last summer at Bushwick Open Studios she dressed up as “Grandma” and sat in a rocking chair with strangers on her lap—a kind of Mrs. Doubtfire character, ready with gentle aphorisms and reassurances.
It was one of Levy’s favorite performances.
“Yes, the grandmother was ridiculous, but it’s really liberating to just tell some stranger, as a game, how much you love them,” she says. “You don’t know them so they don’t take it seriously and there’s no commitment on either end. It’s important for me to help people feel accepted because I have my own issues about feeling accepted.”
The Artist Is Humbly Present is at Christopher Stout Gallery, 299 Meserole Street, Brooklyn, Saturday, Jan. 30 and Sunday, Jan. 31, 1-6 p.m.