Friday, April 16, 2010

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

Thursday afternoon brought a rare outing for the girls of AiA's ad team-- a trip to see art together without an added business motive. We go to galleries all of the time, and look at art all the livelong day, but this the first time the four of us have taken an afternoon to view art on our own accord. We went because we found this exhibition in particular to be significant.

In case you haven't already heard (impossible!) Marina Abramovic is holding fort at on the atrium at MoMA, staring down museum visitors. She sits sturdy as a tree truck on a wooden chair in a long red (first time I went it was blue) polyester dress across a table from audience volunteers who absolutely cower in her presence. (You can watch live here.)

Each woman that I witnessed participating was breathing heavily, gripping the chair, and starring the artist down with active and twitching eyes. Perhaps this was a fluke, as hundreds of MoMA goers have sat in that chair thus far, and surely some of them played it more cool. But I suppose that is the point, now isn't it?-- It's an installation that changes, shifts,and alters with each new participant. And my experience proved that Marina isn't just sitting, staring, not talking. She has achieved a certain removal from active life.

When I expected to her engage with those who came to stare, I left understanding that she is actually purposefully disengaged. Her self awareness is shot, her eyes unfocused, her mind off. By sitting for twelve(ish) hours a day and not speaking even when she goes home at night, Marina has cleansed herself of this world, not even available when staring at her dead in the eyes.

The installation continues upstairs with works on video, in photographs, and reenactments. The most talked about being the two (naked!) people in a doorway, one a new Marina, the other a new Ulay (I'll get to him). They are facing each other with inches between, and gallery viewers are invited to pass through. Is it shocking? No. Is it embarrassing? Not really.

It's a somewhat solemn commentary on human connection. And yes, I know how that sounds. It sounds pretentious and overreaching, and like a big giant platitude, but I FELT IT. Marina and Ulay-- two people that we know to have shared a DEEP connection-- stand naked, exposed, vulnerable, and allow a third person to physically engage between the intensity of their presence.

Do you see? Do you understand why this work is important and what can be gained from performance art in all off its oddities? Instead of viewing a painting of the crusifixion by Giotto or Caravaggio, or Titian, we walk into a room with a (naked) woman high up on the wall, her arms spread in the sign of the cross. It's nothing but a painting cracked open. It asks us to consider what paintings are, what nudity is, and how can we get just a little bit closer.

Now Ulay, the gentlemen whom I've referred to three times without explanation, is Marina's past lover and artistic collaborator. They spoke frequently of being a 'two headed body', as if their minds and emotions had converged into one. As they defined this phantom identity, their individual identities became less accessible. Therefore, this love was also their art.

In one piece, Ulay is aiming a real bow and arrow inches from Marina's heart (an exercise in trust!), in another, they breathe into the others mouths in a lip lock until they have exhausted the available oxygen and they both fall to the floor unconscious. And of course, that standing-nude-in-a-doorway spectacle.

Throughout this time of collaboration, Marina and Ulay formed an idea of what they wanted their marriage to be. They wanted to walk towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, then meet in the middle and, voila, get hitched. However, during the seven years of planning the journey, the relationship took a different turn. In the end, they did walk from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, but when they reached each other in the middle they did not marry, but separated. It became their own public goodbye.

Vivien told me this story the morning that we saw the show together, and it just so happened that we reached the video installation (which is days and days long of two people walking on a split screen) right at the point of their meeting. We saw Marina's emotion emerge for the first time, as she embraced Ulay with complete respect and love and admiration. They had happy tears and smiles and giddy excitement before saying their quiet goodbyes.

You see, instead of hashing out their differences and hurting each other in order to break up as the rest of us do, Marina and Ulay took separate journeys of individual thought, reached the other, said goodbye, and that was that. They ended their relationship with the respect that they also took in sustaining it for so long. Crazy? Well, yeah. But also beautiful.

A recent article in the New York Times was published with tagline 'Few MoMA Visitors Seem Upset by Marina's Show'. It's true! Most visitors found the video of Marina screaming out in a deep howl for hours to be the most disturbing part of the exhibition. Not the nudity, not the skeletons or even those peasant women exposing their genitals to the rain. We didn't like to see the artist screaming-- isn't that a fascinating observation of the human spirit? Even the children were more upset by the howls than by the vaginas. I love that New York reacted the way it did and I love that New Yorkers can handle this show with grace.

The Artist is Present is significant, we all agreed. The same four women who mock bad art for fun all day agreed that we were lucky to have witnessed this show in our lifetimes. The Grandmother of Performance Art is there-- right now!-- on the Atrium of MoMA making some art school student twitch with the absence in her eyes. Go see her, New York.

1 comment:

Gail said...

I feel like you took me with you to MOMA when I read this installment on your blog. I am so glad you wrote about it so I could come along.