By Michael Benson
To witness the exhibition “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art – the institution’s first major performance art retrospective – is to experience both the ultimate victory and the last gasp of Titoism. A 40-year retrospective look at Abramovic’s work, it couldn’t be anything other than the zenith of her career, a kind of ultimate, brilliantly-lit endorsement by the US art world’s inner-circle nomenklatura. And as a gilded platform for her work, in which videos and stills of her original events have here been interlarded with “reperformances” by younger collaborators, the show was a weird compound creation—a retrospective centering on a live event (the artist is in fact present); a look back staffed by naked young bodies; and all in all, a remarkable sight for those accustomed to MOMA’s usually more decorous halls.
It was also, unmistakably, an Event. Because whatever you think about Abramovic’s gestures, some of which are as suffused with self-absorption as Rembrandt’s canvases are with dark tones, they’re undeniably worthy of attention. Equally undeniably, there’s something undeniable about them, if I can put it that way.
How does this represent a victory for Titoism? Let’s set aside that Abramovic continues to identify herself as a Yugoslav, making her almost as rare a bird as the vanished Dodo. Let’s set aside, also, the hagiolatry lurking behind the scale of the gigantic black and white photo of the artist which stands at least 8 meters high at the entrance of the show, looking astonishingly like a latter-day manifestation of communist-era personality cults. (Is it possible that Abramovic doesn’t recognize this?)
As this retrospective eventually made clear, the Yugoslav regime reacted to the unrestful events of Europe in 1968 in a way diametrically opposite that of kindred regimes elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It’s difficult to imagine the authorities of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Romania reacting to the arrival of what could only be described as radical ideas among their young people (even if “only” within the context of art) with anything other than consternation, surveillance, intimidation, and sometimes, arrest and prison time. To take one of many examples, the rock band Plastic People of the Universe formed in Prague within months of the Soviet Invasion in 1968. But it didn’t take long for them to be forced into the underground and forbidden to perform, with some of their members sentenced to prison terms.
At first, and directly proximate to that gigantic portrait of a serenely self-suffused Abramovic, MOMA’s curators attempted with words on the wall to position her as belonging to a quasi-dissident tradition. After reading that she is a pioneer of performance art, which is indubitable, viewers were informed “In the 1970’s she introduced her body as the object, subject, and medium of her work, starting with a series of performances antithetical to the political climate of socialist Yugoslavia.”
While this is true as far as it goes, you could say the same thing about the radical art experiments taking place at more or less the same time in the United States, the UK, France, and other western countries, sometimes with more dire consequences than Abramovic ever had to contend with. In fact if you take even a cursory look at the history of New York City’s Living Theater, a radically experimental theater group founded in 1947 by actor Judith Malina and painter-poet Julian Beck, you will discover a history of arrests and harassment by the authorities, particularly in the 1960s and 1970’s, either on trumped-up charges of tax evasion or equally ludicrous accusations of “indecent exposure” – as though they were producing pornography, not art.
Contrast this with Abramovic’s work, which was also frequently conducted unclothed. By the time visitors to the MOMA show passed the text quoted above and entered the first gallery room, there was no hiding that many of her most radical gestures took place unmolested and in full public view in Belgrade. Some, in fact, unfolded in a student cultural center converted for that purpose by the Titoist regime from a police barracks – talk about symbolism! – after student protests in 1968. Fast forward, then, to 2010 and New York City. What we have had, from March 14 to May 31, was an implicit continuity between that evaporated Yugoslavia and MOMA, in which a first stage provided and subsidized by a vanished regime extends – voila! – trans-Atlantic four decades later, having dissolved long since in its home country, now becoming part and parcel of MOMA’s polished floors. From nomenklatura to nomenklatura. Call it metempsychosis.
In Abramovic’s 1974 performance “Rhythm 5,” which unfolded on the ground of the courtyard behind the Student Cultural Center, the artist drenched a large wooden five-pointed star shape with 100 liters of auto gas. Here’s what followed, in her words:
I set fire to the star. I walk around it. I cut my hair and throw the clumps into each point of the star. I cut my toe-nails and throw the clippings into each point of the star. I walk into the star and lie down on the empty surface. Lying down, I fail to notice that the flames have used up all the oxygen. I lose consciousness. The viewers do not notice, because I am supine. When a flame touches my leg and I still show no reaction, two viewers come into the star and carry me out of it. I am confronted with my physical limitations, the performance is cut short.
A number of her performances end this way – they are “cut short” for one reason or another, either due to “physical limitations” or to avoid violence. When I saw a DVD of “Rhythm 5” at MOMA, I pictured the Marshall chuckling to himself somewhere else in Belgrade; Dedinje, for example. Seated in a chair rife with gold braid, he has a Cuban cigar in one hand and snifter of cognac in the other. Perhaps he is informed, days later or even on that very evening, that this event by the daughter of two Partisan heroes centered on a five pointed star, the very symbol of Communism. His chuckle turns into open laughter.
It isn’t malicious in the least, this laughter; rather it’s suffused with enjoyment at the skill with which he’s playing his own game.
Because in providing a sand-box for the kids to play in, in effect, he has achieved so much at one stroke. He’s exposed neighboring Socialist regimes as fraudulent and tremulous. He’s simultaneously co-opted and channeled a stream of energy on the part of “his” young people that, if overtly opposed by the state, could in fact have proven dangerous. And not least, he’s proven worthy of both Western open-society admiration (look, he doesn’t throw them in jail – he gives them a student cultural center!) and that of his own citizens (for the same reason). It’s brilliant, and five decades later, we have a self-consciously “Yugoslav” artist endorsed and enshrined for all to see in the central crown jewel of all contemporary art museums.
A few years ago another major New York museum, this time the Guggenheim, got this dynamic precisely wrong at their Abramovic retrospective; you could say they bought the wrong party line. Under a photo of “Rhythm 5” on their website, we read to this day Nancy Spector discussing an artist who, as she may not have been entirely aware, came and went as she pleased, commuting from Belgrade to Paris, performing with equal ease in Yugoslavia or the rest of the world. “Though personal in origin,” writes Spector, “the explosive force of Abramovic’s art spoke to a generation in Yugoslavia undergoing the tightening control of Communist rule.”
If this is tightening, one is entitled to ask, bring on the straight jacket! None of which is to diminish the magnitude of Abramovic’s achievements. To walk through the many halls at MOMA representing her life’s work was to encounter a creative force both prolific and consistently provocative, even if the State felt no need to rise to the occasion. It could also be an experience of nostalgia, not of the Yugonostalgic kind – after all, most of her work was conducted abroad, despite the observations above – but rather for a vanished era of 1960’s and 1970’s experimentation. It was a highly fertile period long since buried under waves of subsequently defunct “-isms,” with even post-Modernism expiring on top of the heap well before the turn of the century.
There’s an eerie quality to the recreations of some of her work, which were staffed by a committed group of 36 people trained by Abramovic in what NY performance artist Laurie Anderson recently called “Marina boot camp” in the countryside north of New York City. While these restagings couldn’t recapture the social moment the original works were made within, they do possess their own power. Visitors seeking to move from the first gallery room to the second could chose to pass between a pair of closely positioned naked bodies, for example – a restaging of one of many pieces represented at MOMA that were taken from the decade-plus collaboration between Abramovic and the German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, or Ulay. Their 1977 piece “Imponderabilia,” staged in the Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna, is also best described in Abramovic’s words:
Naked we stand opposite each other in the museum entrance. The public entering the museum has to turn sideways to move through the limited space between us. Everyone wanting to get past has to choose one of us.
And there they were, at MOMA, not Abramovic and Ulay at the narrow doorway but two naked women (though at other times it was a man and a woman, as in the original; shifts rotate throughout the day). Passing between them provided a frisson of reality—a radically opposite sensation from the cybernetic virtuality of so much contemporary art. Elsewhere in the show, a naked man lay under a human skeleton, with the (artificial, we’re told) skeleton “respirating” along with its still-living partner (originally in a 1995 video called “Cleaning the Mirror II,” it was restaged in 2005 as “Nude with Skeleton.” Both times Abramovic provided the living component of the macabre pair).
Another gallery presented a startling sight: a young woman, entirely naked, arms outstretched in a cruciform shape, essentially mounted on the wall like an enlarged butterfly specimen. On closer look, it was apparent that she was seated on an almost invisible bicycle seat, but because her legs descended on either side of it she seemed suspended in mid-air, staring straight forward, her arms unsupported in what clearly must take an enormous effort. (When I described her as being in a “crucifix position” to MOMA press representative Daniela Stigh, who I had called to find out the title of the piece, I was told that “she [Abramovic] didn’t mean it to be explicitly a crucifix, though of course many interpretations exist.” Well, ok! Glad we sorted that out. Called “Luminosity,” the piece was first staged in 1997, with Abramovic, of course, in the starring role.)
As one may expect, not just from the name of the show and the gigantic personality-cult photo at the entrance (titled “Portrait with Flowers,” 2009), the centerpiece of “The Artist is Present” was in fact the Artist, indubitably Present. Clad in a bright red gown, at least on the day I went, illuminated by four vast film lights shining through diffusion gels, Abramovic was seated at a table across from a chair in which any visitor was invited to sit for as long as he or she wishes—during which time the Artist gazed serenely into their eyes. And she was so seated for every day of the show’s 10-week run; seated, in fact, for what we are told was 700 hours, in what’s being billed the longest-running performance piece ever staged. (See it, live, at http://moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/marinaabramovic/)
Despite featuring the Artist in present tense, this center-piece was also a restaging or reinterpretation of a collaborative work first performed with Ulay in 22 cities between 1981-1987, under the title “Night Sea Crossing.” In the original, which was performed about 90 times, it was Ulay and his lover Abramovic who gazed into each other’s eyes, for hour after hour—until pain or exhaustion forced them to stop. In 1988, evidently for much the same reason, the couple broke up after twelve years of intense collaboration. Their final performance involved walking towards each other from opposite end of the Great Wall of China, he starting from the Gobi Desert and she from the Yellow Sea. Three months after starting this bipolar journey, they met for the last time and parted ways. Since then, her career has prospered, while he has largely vanished from the scene – though he did have a recent retrospective at the SKUC gallery in Ljubljana, Slovenia, curated by Tevz Logar.
When I arrived for the preview opening of “The Artist is Present” in March, Abramovic had already been sitting at her table for several hours, and a line had formed of people intent on pulling up a chair across from her. But three hours previously the crowd had been much sparser. As New York-based Bosnian-American artist Shoba Seric described it, around that time a tall man with a frazzled beard and dark clothing entered the vast atrium space in which Abramovic will sit for the next two and a half months. Striding over on long legs, he eased himself down in the chair opposite the Artist. It was Frank Uwe Laysiepen, a.k.a. Ulay. After a moment of recognition, Abramovic began to weep. Reaching across the table, she grasped his hands. He soon rose and vanished into the growing crowd. Her 700 hours of sitting had begun.