Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Artist is Present. (And naked.)

Performance artists have a tough job.  They regularly subject themselves to gruelling, public displays that can take a toll on their minds and bodies.  Then, the performance is gone, often leaving little more than a photo or a video of the event and hopefully a few good reviews from the right critics.  The rest of us? Well, we're frequently left wondering, "What the hell was that?"

I've always thought there's another problem with performance art.  How does it live on within the context of art history?  Sure, you sometimes see a Yoko Ono video as part of a museum show.  And there are the occasional photos, remnants, or other memorabilia thrown into exhibitions in hopes of adding street cred.  But as I've frequently said, "No one's ever going to have a major retrospective of a performance artist."  I guess MoMA decided it was time to prove me wrong.

Currently on view at MoMA is Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.  This is the first major retrospective of a performance ever at the Museum of Modern Art.  And while it had all the chaos and craziness of performance art, it also had an in-your-face-intensity that shook me up like few other exhibitions have.  And I've never been to a museum with so many real live naked people.

The exhibit includes a new work, The Artist Is Present, which consititutes Abramovic's longest duration of time she's ever performed in a single piece.  For the work, the artist performs in the museums large atrium every day the museum is open between March 14 and May 31.  During that time, visitors are encouraged to sit silently across from her for a duration of their choosing, becoming participants in the artwork rather than remaining spectators. That's a lot of time to have to sit and stare. 

While we were there, there was a long line of spectators hoping to have their turn at the chair.  We were at the museum for nearly two hours and the same woman was in the chair the whole time.

The exhibition continues on the sixth floor and here's where things get interesting.  Much of the show is video projections but there are also re-creations of past performances with live performers as well as artifacts from past performances.

Take Rythym O from 1974.  This was down right creepy but made a definite impact.  The original work featured a table with 72 objects including a candle, a rose, chains, an ax, drugs, syringes, and even a gun.  Abramovic then invited audience members to apply the items to her body in whatever way they wanted as she stood, unresisting, for six hours.  At MoMA, they had the 72 items on display and that was plenty to creep me out.  Although I'll take the fact that she survived as sign that humanity is in OK moral shape.

In 1976 Abramovic met German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, who called himself Ulay.  They became a performance-art team.  In 1977, the two performed Imponderabilia, in which the two artists stood naked, facing each other in the frame of a doorway seperating two galleries.  Museum goers were forced to squeeze between the two naked bodies.  This work is re-created at MoMA, although a note near the two performers makes it clear that in the original performance, the naked bodies were closer together, making it hard to squeeze between.  This work is like nothing I've ever experienced in a museum setting. It was part unnerving, part embarassing, and part exhilerating.  It's even caused the revocation of one visitor's membership and banisment from the museum.

There are plenty of other works featuring both Ulay and Abramovic.  But a note about their final performance was one of the things I found most interesting.  In 1988, the two started at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China. They walk towards each other for three months until they met in the middle.  At that point, the lovers and performance-art couple broke up. Lady Gaga's got a long way to go before she really understands the meaning bad romance.

Other live performances at MoMA included a couple sitting back-to-back with their hair braided together (Relation in Time), a couple continuously making eye contact while barely touching each other's fingers (Point of Contact), a naked man or woman with a skeleton draped across his or her body (Nude with Skeleton), and a naked woman hanging on a wall and illuminated by a blinding light (Luminosity). 

I'm not sure how I feel about this show.  On the one hand, it's one of the most interesting exhibitions I've been to in a long time.  It forced me to reconsider my hectic life and to wonder what it would be like to slow down in such a dramatic way. Maybe there's something to these extreme acts of contemplation. The show also made me realize how uncomfortable we are with our bodies and the bodies of others. This art may have had more impact on me more than most exhibits I've seen.

That said, I'm still not sure I'm convinced that performance art is much more than a fleeting, shock-for-shock's-sake endeavor that explores little more than the artist's ego.  Still, I'm glad MoMA started the dialogue.

If you're interested, The New York Times offers a great slide show from the MoMA retrospectiveThe Artist Is Present runs through May 31.  My best wishes to Abramovic, because I'm guessing the performance is getting pretty gruelling this late in the run.

1 comment:

  1. I think I have already exhausted all my questions and comments about this in person.