Crazy Stuff at the MoMA: “The Artist is Present” Review
The Moma’s latest exhibit, “The Artist is Present,” a retrospective of the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic, is a sprawling, complicated, astounding, and maddening mess of images and ego. Outlining forty years of performing, “The Artist is Present” recreates the work of this unique artist, through video, models, and live actors. In addition, Abramovic herself will perform in a new piece, “The Artist is Present-“ she will sit at a table throughout museum hours, inviting patrons to sit across from her, silently, as long as they wish.
Since the late 1960s, Abramovic has preformed solo works and pieces with her one-time partner, Frank Uwe Laysiepen, throughout the world. Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, some of her work deals with Balkan ritual and conflict in Eastern Europe, but most of it revolves around the frailty and strength of the human body. Her works and her personality have had influence in the art world as well as pop culture- one of her pieces is fictionalized in an episode of Sex and the City. Having achieved great fame in her field, Abramovic has turned her attention to preserving her art, first by recreating projects herself of artists she admires, then by establishing the Marina Abramovic Institute for Preservation of Performance Art (set to open 2012).
The retrospective at the Moma means to prove that performance art can be preserved. It features videos of Abramovic screaming for hours until she loses her voice, dancing naked until she collapses, and quite forcefully brushing her hair. In one video, Ulay and Abramovic formed a human doorway that museum patrons had to squeeze through to enter the rest of the exhibit. This human door is recreated in a corner of the exhibition space in the Moma; after following a guard’s instructions, guests can slide in between a (completely still and silent) man and woman. There is also a naked woman lying under a skeleton (apparently to make it look as though the skeleton is breathing, although I didn’t notice) and another sitting what appeared to be a bicycle seat up on a wall, mirroring a crucifixion.
Lively debates about Abramovic’s motives (one woman said about the artist, “It’s all about her, her, her”) and questions about meaning (I told my guest “I’m not getting the men humping the ground video”) abounded in the gallery. Some people were angry, some were confused. Most of Abramovic’s works aren’t designed to anger or delight the audience, or even create a “happening” that involves the audience. Granted, these things do happen. But they are not Abramovic’s motive- she seems to be mainly interested in the limits of her own body. Though her pieces certainly make the audience think (and argue with each other), it’s hard to tell if Abramovic intends to attribute meaning to these pieces, or if they are indeed just about her.
These motives become even more complicated when considering the issue of re-staging past performance. If the important part of the performance is Abramovic herself, why bother to re-stage at all? Without the personality behind the performance (and the years of performing and reputation Abramovic has built up over the years), the recreations fall a little flat. I found myself wanting to see her, the person behind all the original and crazy ideas, rather than the people she trained.
Even though the artist is present metaphorically AND literally, the exhibit holds the audience at arm’s length. This, of course, is the point. Despite having the audience sit across from her at the table, Abramovic doesn’t supply any answers to us, but asks us rather to think and come to our own conclusions. For this reason, “The Artist is Present” simply can not be missed, as it is something you will think (and talk) about for days to come.
“Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art (212-708-9400; moma.org), now through May 31st.[ad#Author test Google Adsense]