June 5, 2010

The Artist Is Absent

It is like going to the war.” –Marina Abramović on performance art

UPDATE: Klausie (sort of) blew it (Animal via Art Fag City & Linda Yablonsky on the Givenchy gala for ArtForum: “the fashion mob was tweeting like mad”)

Marina, saintlike, abstracted, ensconced in a monochromatic robe (in one of three patriotic colorways) with the functional slouchiness of a Snuggie.

'ó'quentiño' by Irene Regueiro, Patricia Alambiaga Arnal, Lebymar Blanco Pérez, Elena Bàez & Nela Sanchez

'ó'quentiño' by Irene Regueiro, Patricia Alambiaga Arnal, Lebymar Blanco Pérez, Elena Bàez & Nela Sanchez

But her costume has nothing to do with allusion or somatic comfort; it’s closer to the Zen of a color field, aiming for the very same transcendence through an entirely different medium.

Seeing the other people you come to that state where you start to feel unconditional love for the total stranger. That is what happened to me. My entire heart opened to the level that was incredible. You see them and by being still they become eyes like the door of the soul, you really start knowing them on the most intimate level. That is why people avoid looking in the eyes, especially here in New York. I looked by now, 1,565 pair of eyes. This is enormous amount of eyes. It was so touching to see I knew the people so intimately but never spoke word with them.

–Marina Abramović, interview on WSJ‘s Speakeasy Blog, June 1 2010 (Highly recommended)

As Hrag Vartanian points out, MoMA itself stakes a claim to authorship in The Artist Is Present (after setting a precedent with the @ sign): the exhibition existed as much in the digital space as it did IRL, where a web cam evolved into a kind of meta-art, largely through social media metastasis. The microsite was an exhibit about an exhibit—an anti-Chatroulette, if you will—while the Flickr feed of Marco Anelli’s unmistakable portraits could easily make for a post-hoc catalog and future exhibit. (H.V.’s excellent recap on Hyperallergic has spared me the need to eulogize the exhibit.)


First of all, I am not ashamed to admit that I knew very little about Marina Abramović before my first visit to MoMA’s comprehensive survey or her life and work two and a half months ago. Since that fateful first exposure, I have grown quite sympathetic to her work, which I would describe with adjectives like “raw,” “visceral,” “somatic,” ad infinitum.

While it’s probably too much to expect that the actors would reperform any pieces from the Rhythm series, it’s definitely illuminating to see certain pieces in the flesh, so to speak (namely Imponderabilia, with its ephemeral interactivity, but others as well). At least, it is for those who are unfamiliar with Marina’s particular brand of performance art—including myself, the first time around—i.e. the vast majority of MoMA’s visitors.

Marina & Ulay, Reunited

Marina & Ulay, Reunited

Unfortunately, the pieces executed by Marina’s minions are, in many ways, a novelty: the more you know about the artist and her oeuvre, the less successful the reperformances become. I found that they were far less impactful the second, third, fourth, etc. times around; the sheen of originality quickly fades once you recognize that the anonymous faces are rotating between the five ‘live’ works on the sixth floor. By the third time I visited the exhibition, I was far more concerned with where Marina and Ulay went when they walked off the screen in [the video of] Relation in Space (in which they repeatedly walk into one another) than the four people in the 8-foot cube behind me (reperforming Relation in Time and Point of Contact), taped off to demarcate its artness, hermeneutically if not hermetically sealed.

(Similarly, I found it interesting to see where the performer in Skeleton chooses to fix their diffuse gaze: the women gratuitously inviting rain under their dresses; Marina fondling herself; the men dry-humping a lush if admantly unresponsive field; or Marina in homage: victorious, self-lionized, Napoleonic, eternal. It turns out that they’re too busy “[going] back and forth between… euphoric moments and then intensely sad feelings of heaviness.“)

When I first saw this on T Magazine, I thought it looked like a movie trailer… turns out, it is.

In other words, the work on the sixth floor relies on an element of unpredictability that constitutes the essence of performance art. I distinctly remember when my first encounter with Luminosity, shortly after the exhibit opened in March. The white light is strangely forgiving: she struck me as painted, photorealistic, timeless in the split-second before I realized that she was not just an image but a real person. If that naïve (in a good sense) suspension of disbelief cannot be underestimated, it is precisely because it will never happen again.

Of course, the inherent ‘unrepeatability’ of Abramović’s work only underscores the singular nature of performance art. Again, although some have questioned the authenticity of reperformance—to the effect that any attempt to do so somehow devalues the work itself and Marina’s legacy—I think there is something to be said for the sheer novelty of reperformance, where ignorance is bliss.


Date: May 23, 2009
To: K. Biesenbach
From: M. Abramović
RE: Retrospective at MoMA

I decided that I want to have a work that connects me more with the public, that concentrates … on the interaction between me and the audience.

I want to have a simple table, installed in the center of the atrium, with two chairs on the sides. I will sit on one chair and a square of light from the ceiling will separate me from the public.

Anyone will be free to sit on the other side of the table, on the second chair, staying as long as he/she wants, being fully and uniquely part of the Performance.

I think this work [will] draw a line of continuity in my career.


via Arthur Danto in NYT

Hence, the true power of Marina presented herself: that of an artwork unfolding in real time. It was neither a performance nor art by most definitions of either word—performance suggests action and art suggests meaning—but, insofar as the medium is the body itself, it was Performance Art, reduced to its essence: presence (not unlike Tehching Hsieh’s “Lifeworks,” which also bear MoMA’s stamp of approval).

A friend and I agreed to get to MoMA early in hopes of earning an audience with her inimitable highness Marina Abramovic on a Saturday morning two months ago. Unfortunately, there was already a substantial crowd—to the extent that they let people into the foyer (between the ticket check and stairs to the atrium) 20 minutes before opening—by 10 AM (when we had agreed to meet at MoMA), despite the gorgeous weather, semi-early arrival and the ‘magical’ tourist attraction up the block.

A rough chronicle of my experience after the jump…

9:15 – I’m out the door and on my bike. It’s a beautiful day.

9:50 – I’ve made surprisingly good time to midtown, so I swing by the Cube for shits and giggles (recap linked above). [I proceed to bomb down Fifth Ave for a couple blocks, nearly sideswiping a few hapless tourists who are trying to hail cabs from the bus lane. Welcome to New York.]

10:00 – I arrive at MoMA. It’s already swarming with more of said tourists.

10:05 – Sara calls to inform me that she’s walking from the subway. We were going to grab coffee but I tell her that there’s already a couple hundred potential sitters milling around the ticket area; she offers to bring coffee for the both of us.

10:10 – They let ticketholders into the foyer but not up the stairs (mostly tourists with Citypasses; a few members such as myself). This is actually a good thing, because it means we can get closer to the foot of the stairs instead of having to wait in line.

10:15 – Coffee. The guard makes me step outside to consume a much-needed dose of caffeine—it might make all the difference when racing up those stairs.

10:20 – We’re back in, inching closer to the foot of the stairs.

10:30 – Up and at ‘em.


10:31 – Marina, matronly, serene.

10:31 – We’re behind three older folks (possibly VIPs) and a hipster couple who sort of cut us. But we’re sort of too polite to say anything, and they sort of seem to know that.

10:32 One up. (I guess photographer Marco Anelli wasn’t set up yet, because I can’t seem to find a picture of this guy on the Flickr feed.)

10:40 – One down.

10:45 – Two down. Turns out that third older folk is actually the guardian of a young Asian girl who has materialized and stepped up to the hotseat. I’d say she’s about ten years old, tops, and figure she’ll take about ten minutes.

11:00 – Quality time with Sara, if not Marina. Seriously, we’re bonding by the minute, shooting the shit about art and life and stuff. Here’s the twist: Sara has to be somewhere else at 2:00, so she has to leave at 1:15 (which we had established before we tried to make it to MoMA at 10). That seems like about the amount of time that I would wait anyway, so I agree that (worst case) I will leave at the same time as her and return if necessary.

11:15 – We muse on what it will be like to sit across from Marina. I’m going back and forth between a kind of performance anxiety  [pun intended]—I hope I make a good impression!—and a cool confidence that is most certainly effected by her demure gaze, more glass than plastic, of transcendent discipline or perpetual forgiveness. We also wonder about how long we might sit for, assuming that one gets lost in the moment (or, if you like, the present). I’m also concerned that I will not be able to fully immerse myself in her presence, that the demands of the real world—specifically, that many of the people behind me in line have been waiting at least as long as I have—will permeate or even inhibit my experience (I’m later glad to learn that this also occurred to Arthur Danto… not to mention MoMA, which began limiting sitters to 30 minutes for the last few weeks of the performance).

11:30 – My wildly inaccurate estimate makes me wonder if Marina somehow appraises each of her adversaries—i.e., whether she can tell how long someone will sit just by, well, looking. For some reason, I can’t imagine that her gaze is completely focused on the person across from her the whole time: she can see the line of would-be contenders behind the sitter.

11:45 – I’m pondering the irony between us, here, waiting in line indefinitely, and the hundreds of people waiting in line outside the Apple store.

12:00 – Sara mentions that there is sense that a sitter might feel trapped, that you don’t want to be the one who gets up first—i.e., that Marina is the perpetual hostess, who must remain seated at MoMA all day, every day. It’s an interesting power dynamic: she is holding court in the atrium, where permission to sit with her is a matter of protocol… but the guest can leave whenever he or she pleases. But these concerns are immaterial. “The concept of failure never enters my mind.” (via)

12:15 – By now, it’s impossible to tell how long the girl will sit there. She clearly doesn’t give a fuck about the demands of the real world.

12:20 – Jason Schwartzman is here with Humberto from Opening Ceremony and an unidentified female friend. He takes a picture of Marina and the girl. I secretly wish that I was the sitter in Jason Schwartzman’s snapshot.

12:30 – Sara and I have more or less resigned to the fact that there is a strong possibility that we won’t get to sit. The wait is an experience in itself. Again, we convince ourselves that this purgatory is but another facet of Marina’s performance, that potential sitters must face uncertainty by design.

12:45 – The couple in front of us steps out of line. That leaves the woman, whose anxiety towards her daughter(?) is clearly more empathetic than impatient. In fact, I’m beginning to doubt that the woman will sit at all, so for all intents and purposes, we’re on deck.* Just as we have been for the past two hours.

1:00 – Down to the fucking wire. Fuck this girl. What is she trying to prove?

1:10 – It’s over for us. No chance.

1:15 – Now it’s really over for us. We get up and walk across the atrium for a parting glance at our nemesis.


1:16 – There she is. The girl isn’t even concentrating at this point; I see her eyes darting back and forth between her narrow eyelids (I can say it because I’m Asian).

1:16 – Wtf? She’s getting up!

1:16 – Omfg. She’s done.

1:16 – Sara has to run, but she suggests that I try and get my place back in line—everyone else knows that we waited all morning and they would probably be sympathetic if I explained the situation. In a show of solidarity, I decide that we can try again another time.

*1:30 – I’m already long gone (probably flying across the 59th St Bridge at this point), but it turns out that the woman did sit, for all of 13 minutes (according to MoMA’s not-quite all-knowing Flickr).

And that, friends, is the story of how I didn’t sit with Marina Abramović.


Marina Abramović Webcam also has a video.

More Marina:

  • NYC Andre has a guide to the sitters, including an übercomprehensive list of celebrities, artists and other notables. (Recommended)
  • A Flower Every Day (for M.A.)
  • The Last Day on Artinfo.
  • An interview with bizarro Marina.
  • I appreciate that the Guardian opts for an accent on the “c,” in Abramović, as well they should.
  • An additional note on Imponderabilia: I’m reminded of the Piero Manzoni retrospective at Gagosian, which featured his pedestal piece, which invites an audience member to become a statue at their discretion (prefiguring Gormley’s plinths by four decades). As with Abramovic’s passage piece, an aloof security guard lorded over Manzoni’s pedestal from a few feet away, advising visitors that the piece was on display for viewing and nothing more. In a bizarre twist, the guard became the art: a performer-turned-statue as per Manzoni’s piece, 91 cm from herself, perhaps, but always within orbit of her treasure, dutifully covetous.

Perhaps a particularly cheeky artist could create the following piece:

One (1) performer dressed security guard stands in each room of a gallery during the exhibition of the piece. The performer(s) is/are to act like a security guard for the duration of the performance.

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