Monday, September 09, 2013


In 2010 I saw "The Artist is Present", the Marina Abromovic retrospective at MoMA in New York. I took notes, as I usually do at museums, and promptly ignored them, as I usually do as well.  Since that time, there has been an HBO documentary, "The Artist is Present'"  as well as this video, which went viral. This video made me want to revisit my thoughts.

I wasn't familiar with Ambrovic's work. I studied performance art in college pretty extensively, seeing and studying work by Karen Finley, Leonora Champagne, Rachel Rosenthal among others.  In my mind performance artists are disproportionately female.  I'm sure there's something in there for a thesis one day, but I know most of the artists I think of are female.  My exposure, though, was mostly on the "performance" side than the "art" side, and since I was studying in a theater department, the performance artists I studied and read were theater artists as well, bringing a slight sense of a gallery to the theatre. Abromovic brings the performance to the gallery, and falls more to the "art" side that than the performance/monologuist side.

I just found my notes from 2010, some inscrutable, as standing while writing in a small book does not make for legible cursive; even on a good day I sometimes can't read what I've written, but here are a sample of the notes, and I'll move them into something cohesive, I'm hoping....

People running up the stairs and MoMa when it opens ( I didn't realize at the time they were all getting in line for the chance to sit across from Abromovic in her red dress)

Performance art - Idea and self direction. I have some burr in my saddle about art being illustrative of an idea, especially when it feels like there needs to be an intermediary. I felt a little lost at the start, but the overall feel of the exhibit made me feel how self-directed performance art is. Yes, Virginia, it took me twenty years to figure out that people on a stage or in a museum either talking about themselves or using themselves as an object was essentially self-directed.

Seeing Abromovic's collected work re-staged with other people as her stand-ins brings the self-direction to a different level.  Her art is not so much about performing or exploring herself, but about endurance.

...and that's as far as I had gotten on a draft that I was working on before I watched the documentary tonight. I've attempted over the past few months to rewrite it - I have pages of odd notes. Of course, the film made me very sad that I missed possibly the best thing about the show - the artist herself.  I don't even know that I agree now with what I said above, but it's how I was organizing my thoughts until I saw the documentary.

What has been stuck in my mind, since I saw the video that made me want to revisit my notes, was a last line. I'll write it now, so it won't be last:

In the end, she has illuminated a most basic truth - All we have is another person, opposite us, looking back.

So now besides kicking myself for not having stood and watched what was happening, I'm kicking myself again for my response, which was more intellectual than emotional. It's usually that way with me at first; the emotion is the boom that follows once the plane has passed. The great thing is happening on the street and I turn away to order my lunch. Of course, in a retrospective space, with many gallery rooms and accompanying text, I went into museum mode.  Not a surprise.

A friend told me when her son was eight that she read a book about that phase of development. All the 8 year old really needs, it said, was for the parent to spend time directly with them, to see them, to give them attention. Watching Ambromovic's "The Artist is Present" piece and documentary made me think how many people in the audience wanted to be seen. The emotion was overwhelming. People felt seen, it seems, and also felt seen while doing it.  She spoke of the immense pain she felt from people.  A great deal of the documentary was watching those powerful transactions. There was an 8 or 10 year old boy, who crouched down after in response, his mother coming up to him and bursting into tears, saying how proud she was of him. One woman tried to take her clothes off and sobbed when taken away.  One man had a tattoo after seeing her 21 times.

For my part, I'm sure I thought at the time that it felt like so many acting exercises I'd done in countless classes, sitting in a chair opposite a partner, staring into his or her eyes, trying not to laugh, trying to be present.  Her piece, though, in how present she was and for how long, seemed to achieve a kind of transcendence. It's the actual presence that is real, seductive, beautiful, naked, terrifying.

My first response to seeing this draft was to erase my earlier thoughts, replace them with the more current reaction after watching the video. But in the spirit of the show, I don't think I can do that.  I've had a shift. I don't even know what I mean above about self-directed, except that it's exploration of a self and boundaries that challenges every viewer who sees it. Is it about the self then, or is it a bold challenge?  I don't have an easy answer; I like that I don't have an easy answer. I even feel like saying what I think her art about is glib, and it makes me uncomfortable I even wrote it. No wonder I didn't post it. I do think, though, that watching her do something was probably different than watching the actors doing her pieces - I imagine it's like seeing a star in a play, the vibration is palpably different.

I am very regretful, though, that I didn't stay and see her for a while.  I remember I went to MoMA to see the Tim Burton show, which in the end was exhaustive but not moving. I remember her show three years later, which must say something.  I especially remember the piece she did for the biennale reenacted, in which she sat in a long red dress scouring the flesh off of a mountain of thousands of cow skulls to protest the Yugoslavian civil wars.  I'm still amazed at that piece.

I have many reactions to the documentary - I could probably write another post about the film. The people, the faces, the emotions of everyone and what they were experiencing with her, from the ages of 8 to 80 it seems. Watching her piece was riveting.  It's hard not to be open. It's incredible watching someone so fearless. I can have no response but to open my eyes, and look back.

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