Artist as Imitator

I just read Tatiana Berg’s interview with Anya Liftig, a Brooklyn-based performance artist who used the Marina Abramović performance taking place at MoMA as an opportunity to intervene with her own performance, The Anxiety of the Influence.

For The Artist is Present, the title piece of the Abramović retrospective, Marina 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. On March 27th, Liftig arrived at the museum dressed in a long blue dress, similar to the one that Abramović wears each day, with her long dark hair styled just as Abramović’s is. She was the first visitor in line, and she took her place across from the artist and remained there for the entire day.

Although I don’t doubt Liftig’s sincerity, I have trouble separating her from the masses who have been visiting the Tim Burton show dressed in the black and white stripes of Beetlejuice, or as Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp or Winona Ryder characters. And in fact, several people have viewed the Abramović piece as an opportunity to create their own performances: one woman caused a stir when she sat down, removed her coat, and revealed that her shirt had two large holes cut out of it, so that Abramović was forced to stare at her breasts. Amir Baradan staged a four part performance that he titled The Other Artist is Present, in which he first appears in a long red dress similar to the artist’s and proposes marriage to her bodies of work. He then dons a series of canvas-veils with various messages. Next he chants in Arabic. Finally, he leaves the table, but also leaves his wallet on it, which the security guards remove and take to him. These interventions reduce Abramović’s performance to a challenge: they are an attempt to startle  the artist, perhaps to even temporarily break her performance– to move her to speak or stand (which she never has). Indeed, as I’ve watched Abramović sit across from viewers, I’ve cringed as I listened to parents explain to their children that “Yes. It’s a staring contest.” These interventions feel like that– who will blink first?

I said in my last post about the Abramović show, that the difference between performance art and theater is that in performance art, the blood is real. These interventions feel like theater. When curator Klaus Biesenbach spoke about The Artist is Present, he explained,”It’s an act of extreme generosity. You are completing the piece together with the artist on an equal basis.” Marina Abramović is present as herself, but these interventions fail because her counterpart-performers are present as characters. They aren’t genuinely giving. Thus, the artist as imitator fails as anything more than a stunt.

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Filed under Art, Controversial Art, Museum

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