This past week I saw the Marina Abramović show at MoMA.Thrice. (Once on Tuesday, for the opening, again on Friday, because I had the day off, and again with friends on Sunday.) Originally from Yugoslavia, and now based in New York, Abramović is one of the pioneers of performance art, and she continues to perform, long outlasting her peers of ordealism– Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman— who have ceased performing and moved onto other media. She uses the body and her body to explore ritual, endurance, state of consciousness, and the relationship between artist and audience.
The show begins on the second floor with the title piece, “The Artist is Present,” a performance in which Abramović sits in silence at a table in the middle of a large, taped off square. Viewers may participate by entering the square, one at a time, and sitting silently across from her for whatever duration they choose. Abramović remains there every day that the museum is open, (six days a week), from the time the museum is open until the last visitor leaves, an exercise in meditation, in endurance, in control and perception of the passage of time.
Curatorially, I found the second part of the show, on the museum’s sixth floor, somewhat problematic. The galleries include archives of Abramović’s past performances in chronological order. Photographs, videos and objects– remnants of performances– are included in addition to reenactments of five pieces by other performers. In 2005, Abramović performed “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim– reperformances of five significant works by others, and two of her own. The work addressed the inherent ephemeral quality of performance, and the difficulty that exists when attempting to archive it, but breaks with the “purist” view that the immediate nature of performance means that it should not be documented at all; instead she treats performance as one would treat a musical score. Abramović’s decision to have her own works reenacted is consistent with her message from this past work, and I am personally interested in the idea of archiving ephemera. However, I found it distracting to have these reperformances side by side with the videos and photographs of the original performances. It took away much of the power that comes with a live performance; often the performance is only thing in the room—the audience comes specifically to view it. But this was not the case here. Thus, the energy that is so much of what Abramović’s works are both about and rely on, was missing. I don’t object to the reperformances themselves, but I think that they would have been more powerful if they were separated from the relics of the original performances– in their own rooms, or even together in one room.
Additionally, I wondered why they chose to reenact “Nude with Skeleton” at all. In Abramović’s original performance, she lies nude, a skeleton draped across her body, rising and falling with her breath. A video at MoMA (the quality jarringly different, clearer, than the other video shown, perhaps because it’s on LCD screens rather than projected) shows her cleaning the original skeleton. But the skeleton used for the reperformance appears to be plastic, and upon inspection of the wall text, it’s revealed to be a “replica.” Why not go further? Why not replace the nude performer with a mannequin? The difference between performance art and theater is that in performance art, the blood is real. The reenactment of “Nude with Skeleton” was theater.
That said, go see “The Artist is Present.” Sit across from the artist and focus on your breathing, your consciousness, and on hers. Exchange energy. Look at archives from previous works. Watch the video of “Rest Energy,” in which Abramović grips a bow with the arrow pointing toward her, and ULAY, her partner and collaborator, holds the arrow to the bowstring with his fingers, and then they both lean back until the bowstring is taut and the arrow points at her heart, the sound of their breathing, further intensifying the experience. Look at the collection of seventy-two objects that Marina allowed audience members to use on her in “Rhythm 0,” which include wine, scissors, a whip, a single bullet, and a gun. Watch the “The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk” in which Abramovic and ULAY, collaborators, friends, and lovers from 1976-1988, each walk the entirety of the wall, starting at opposite ends of the wall, meeting in the middle and having an emotionally intense goodbye, after which they never saw each other again, until ULAY, now Frank Uwe Laysiepen, sat silently across from Abramović on the opening night of “The Artist is Present.” Wow.