I Love You, Marina Abramovic.

18 May

Marina Abramovic

A recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City introduced me to the work of Serbian and Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramovic.  The museum is currently featuring a retrospective of the artist’s work, as well as hosting Abramovic’s longest performance yet, The Artist is Present. I truly have not been more impressed by performance art, nor by a single museum exhibit to the extent that The Artist is Present captivated my attention.

The retrospective of Abramovic’s work shows unbelievable feats of a woman who uses her body as the medium of her work. Beginning in 1970s Yugoslavia, Abramovic’s performances focus on the manipulation and limits of the human body. Some of the pieces I took notes on were feats of the human body and mind that seem to have been completely unmatched.  In a performance titled Freeing the Body, “in trying to transcend physicality, Abramovic covered her head and continuously moved her body to the beat of a drum until she collapsed from exhaustion.”  In Freeing the Memory, “Abraomovic recited all the words she could think of, stopping when her memory failed her.” This piece made me wonder how man words I could recite before going completely blank. Not everyone can do what Abramovic does in her performances. Both of these performances were captured on film and can be viewed in the MoMA exhibit. The use of numerous multimedia in Abramovic’s art can be seen throughout the exhibit in the form of film, sound, and live actors.

In a 1973 piece titled Rhythm 10, Abramovic recorded herself playing a game of Five Finger Fillet (the game where you take a knife and try to stab the surface in between your fingers, while traying to avoid cutting yourself) with twenty different knives. Abramovic cut herself a total twenty times, listened to the recording of her stabbing herself with the different knives, and attempted the process again, in an effort to merge the past with the present.

In 1974’s Rhythm 0, Abramovic tested the limits of the relationship of an artist/performer with his/her audience.  Abramovic place 72 various objects on a table with a sign that informed the audience that they could use the objects on her in any way they chose.  Some of the objects included a knife, a gun and bullet, grapes, cotton balls, a slice of cake, and a single rose. Over a course of six hours, Abramovic allowed the audience to do what they pleased with the objects, with one participant loading the gun and aiming it at Abramovic’s head. Abramovic discovered, “if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed.” Rhythm 0 is a performance that chilled me; the control that Abramovic granted to the audience is something that could lead to sexual and physical abuse, and even death. Abramovic’s bravery is very impressive.

Starting in 1976, Abramovic paired with German-born performance artist Uwe Laysiepen, known professionally as Ulay. The performances by Abramovic and Ulay display the utmost in trust between partners and performers.  In a piece with a title I cannot recall, Abramovic and Ulay were nude, simultaneously running and colliding into large columns in front of an audience. In a recurring performance that would later become the basis for 2010’s The Artist is Present, Abramovic and Ulay sat opposite each other in chairs at a table.  A card describing the performance indicated that Abramovic and Ulay were not interested in what they were doing (sitting idly and silently at a table), but more about what they were not doing.  I took this to mean that the artists were interested in how long an individual can withhold himself or herself from reacting or acting on impulse.  The exercise is not only about patience, but also about self-control and avoiding base reactions.

Imponderabilia, 1977

Another Abramovic and Ulay performance recreated live in the MoMA exhibit is Imponderabilia, where the pair stood nude, facing each other in a doorway. Visitors to the work were invited to pass through the doorway, having to squeeze between two naked persons.  When I saw the recreation of Imponderabilia, two attractive young women were definitely nude, and facing each other in a doorway.  One by one, visitors, passed through the threshold.  I did notice that a good amount of men were gawking at these young women, and even more people could not seem to stifle their giggles as they passed by.  This piece, whether intentionally or not, makes a statement on nudity and the comfort level of humans in the presence of said nudity.  I honestly felt a little badly for these young women – their bodies somehow became the source of the pleasure of others, and not the neutral, beautiful works of natural art they were meant to be.

One of the most impressive pieces in the Abramovic retrospective was Balkan Baroque (1997), in which Abramovic scrubbed the meat off of 600 pounds of cow bones to symbolize the genocide of World War 2.  The MoMA exhibit displayed a huge pile of cow bones, though I am unsure of whether the ones on display are the ones Abramovic scrubbed clean. The exhibit lead to a room lined with photographs depicting Abramovic’s journey from a young girl in a volatile Yugoslavian household, to the accomplished performance artist and filmmaker she became.  Known as the “grandmother of performance art,” Abramovic’s life is as surreal as some of her works. Her life and work is stunning, and anyone who will have the privilege of seeing The Artist is Present before it closes on May 31st will feel the same way.

Marina Abramovic sits in the second floor atrium of the MoMA from its opening hour until a little past 5:30 PM.  The first time I see her sitting there, eyes fixed on the visitor sitting opposite herself, Abramovic looks waxen, and likely exhausted by her effort to remain completely motionless.  On the first day I see Abramovic, I see her end the performance at exactly 5:30 PM. She lowers her head and begins to weep. I can only imagine the immense effort and strength required to sit for nearly eight hours straight.

On the second day I came to MoMA, I wanted to wait to sit with Abramovic. I was unsure of whether there was a formal line to sit with the artist, but I did take some time to sit outside of the giant square on the floor and observe. I was able to sit and watch for around twenty minutes until I became restless. At this point, I realized that I was likely too impatient to wait to sit with Abramovic.  This notion makes me wonder whether one of Abramovic’s goals with The Artist is Present is to make a statement on human patience and its rapid dissipation in the era of online social networking, text messaging, and Blackberrys.  Think about what normally happens when you make eye contact with another person.  You try to look away, because making such contact is perceived as uncomfortable and invasive.  The 1,000-plus visitors who have sat across from Abramovic faced a fear that many are not willing to face. Prolonged eye contact is intimate and honest, and Abramovic holds no fear of being either of those things.  Perhaps Abramovic’s efforts have touched me because of a yearning I’ve had for human connection, something I feel that I’ve been without since my best friend and lover chose to leave me. I often wonder when someone’s gaze will captivate mine again, when I will be able to share a happy silence with another once more. Even though I did not sit across from her, I think Abramovic gave me a small taste of this feeling and the hope that I will find it again.

Marina Abramovic performing "The Artist is Present".

At its conclusion, The Artist is Present will total over 700 hours of performance time, and will be Abramovic’s longest performance yet.  Despite my enjoying The Artist is Present, many people will not understand, or simply care what Abramovic is up to. On my first day witnessing Abramovic sitting in the MoMA atrium, an older southern woman approached my mother and me, saying “I don’t get it. Am I missing something?” I imagine that this would be the reaction of most people, though my mother kept asking, “Where the hell is she going to the bathroom?” I suppose that may be a valid question, but it was also obvious to me that Abramovic is super-human, and she likely can avoid the bathroom for several hours. Marina Abramovic is an artist who has made her life’s work about her body, and she can do things with her body that the majority of human beings either will never care to do or be able to do. She is an artist whose genius impressed upon me a woman deserving of the amazing retrospective hosted by MoMA.

The Artist is Present runs until May 31st, 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

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2 Responses to “I Love You, Marina Abramovic.”

  1. mollinationllination June 29, 2012 at 2:58 PM #

    Thank you for this article. I just discovered Marina Abramovic today, and I think I too, am in love with her. To say she is fascinating is a gross understatement. I’m absolutely captivated by her, and I think this was a lovely piece befitting of her genius.

  2. mollination June 29, 2012 at 2:59 PM #

    Thank you for this article. I just discovered her myself, and I think I too am in love with her. To say she is fascinating and is a gross understatement. I am absolutely captivated by her. I think this is a great piece befitting of her genius.

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