Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present
is the first major retrospective of the groundbreaking performance artist, which opened in spring 2010 at MoMA.

Performance art is transient, yet its complexities, ephemeral nature and immediacy resonate in today’s artistic and cultural landscape. Art has always explored the current state of affairs, initiated debate and discussion, and driven forward a never-ending investigation of our current times. Enter Marina Abramović (b. 1946, Yugoslavia), an artist who, through concept and action, has consistently challenged and confronted audiences with obscure and sometimes very radical works over the past four decades.

Often called the grandmother of performance art, Abramović began as a painter, but realised her vocation early in her career. She recalls: “I remember one day I was lying on the grass looking up and I saw 12 military planes crossing the sky, very fast, and you know when you see the lines, it’s like an absent drawing because the lines are visible, then they slowly disappear and the sky becomes blue again. I was looking at this whole process and for me it was a revelation. I thought ‘why am I sitting and drawing in my studio, when I can go and do drawings of the sky’.” When Abramović began in the late 1960s, the act of performing with the body (often through extreme actions such as cutting, slapping, screaming and burning) was unnamed, moreover, unheard of and she became a radical pioneer. “I was like first woman walking the moon. You know, people thought that I was crazy, my mother and father were asked to meetings to discuss what kind of education I was receiving, and my professors of art were saying that I was lost. So, my art was really working against everybody: family based, society based, cultural based, and it was hard. I tell you, it gives you strength. It took me so many years to really understand what kind of art form performance really is,” says Abramović. Although not the only performance artist of her time, with the likes Bruce Nauman and Joseph Beuys gaining attention, Abramović’s determination to create using the self as the vehicle has helped to define this often misunderstood art form, and elevate its status to that of any other fine art.

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present is the first large-scale retrospective of the artist’s groundbreaking performance work. Abramović is internationally recognised as a pioneer and key figure in performance art, she uses her own body as subject, object, and medium, exploring the physical and mental limits of her being. In January 2010, Abramović was back in the UK with The Pigs of Today Are the Hams of Tomorrow at the Plymouth Arts Centre, which was the first curatorial project created in collaboration with the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art (due to open in Hudson, New York in 2011). Abramović understands the contentions around performance art, and with her 2009 piece, The Drill, at the Manchester International Festival, she implored the audience to participate for four hours uninterrupted, (they even had to sign a contract with the artist stating they would endure the duration of the performance), which ultimately resulted in a vast investigation into the perceptions of time, repetition and movement.

The Artist Is Present traces Abramović’s prolific career with approximately 50 works spanning over four decades of interventions and sound pieces, video works, installations, photography, solo and collaborative performances. Also included are the world premiere of a new work to be performed by Abramović and “reperformances” of influential historical pieces by performers selected especially for this exhibition. The live reperformances are included in a chronological installation of the artist’s work reflecting the different modes of representing, documenting, and exhibiting her ephemeral time and media-based works.

Best known for her durational works, Abramović has created a new work for this performance retrospective, The Artist Is Present (2010), which she will perform daily throughout the run of the exhibition, for a total of over 700 hours. For her longest solo piece to date, Abramović will sit in silence at a table during public hours, passively inviting visitors to sit across from her for as long as they choose within the timeframe of the Museum’s opening hours. Abramović means business, she will let the artwork transform her life: “Right now, I’m turning my house into a military camp. I just bought a three-month supply of toilet paper and washing powder. Because when I start on 6 March, I’m not talking, not just in time of performance, but throughout the entire three months. I will not communicate, and I have given my phone and computer to my sister. I have to be completely inside the work. I really want to see how the performance becomes alive, because three months is a long time. And over three months you can’t pretend, you can’t act, you have to come to some kind of naked truth with yourself and the public have to feel that vulnerability and openness and you have to be really radical and honest, and that’s very important.” Although she will not react, participation by Museum visitors completes the piece and allows them to have a personal experience with the artist and the artwork.

The live reperformances of five of Abramović’s seminal pieces will be presented alongside video and photographic documentation of the original performances, incorporated within a chronological presentation of the artist’s career. This questions the nature of performance art, and also looks to document, record and preserve it, which is very important to Abramović: “I think the relationship with the public is extremely important, no one ever talks about this – people come, go and look, but it’s about understanding and connecting with the work, because time-based art is live energy. People arrive at a museum with their own suitcase of worries, Blackberrys, iPods, how can anyone let anything in; it’s about slowing down, emptying and re-adjusting. I want to do an Andy Warhol laboratory, but without the drugs.”

The works included are: Imponderabilia (1977/2010), in which a two nude performers stand opposite each other in a doorway, so that visitors who wish to pass must move through the gap between the two, deciding to face him or her; Relation in Time (1977/2010), in which two performers sit quietly, connected to each other by their long hair, which is tied together; Point of Contact (1980/2010), in which two performers stand face to face with arms bent, just barely touching the tip of each other’s index fingers; Nude with Skeleton (2002–05/2010), in which a nude performer lies beneath a skeleton, animating it with the motions of his or her breathing; and Luminosity (1997/2010), in which a nude performer, suspended high upon a wall and immersed in light, gives the appearance of floating before the wall. Imponderabilia, Relation in Time, and Point of Contact were originally created and performed by Abramović and the artist Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen, b. 1943, Germany), her partner from 1975 to 1988. A group of 36 performers (selected out of 180 hopefuls) chosen by Abramović will reperform these pieces continuously in shifts throughout public hours in the sixth floor galleries.

The first section focuses on solo performances created when she was based in Belgrade (1969–75). For the performance Rhythm 0 (1974), Abramović placed on a table 72 objects that people were allowed to use in any way that they chose. Among them were scissors, a knife, a whip, a gun and a single bullet. For six hours the artist allowed the audience members to manipulate her body and actions. By the end of the performance all of her clothes were sliced off, she had been cut, painted, cleaned, decorated, crowned with thorns, and had the loaded gun pressed against her head. A table with examples of these objects, as well as a 35mm slide projection showing photographs of the original performance, is included in the exhibition. This piece surveys human behaviour and the mob mentality, because Abramović was passive and non-responsive participants pushed the boundaries to shocking limits, which was not only surprising to Abramović, but the participants alike.

The next section of the show is an exposé of her collaborations with Ulay. Works include Rest Energy (1980), in which Ulay held a bow taut with its arrow pointed directly at Abramović’s heart, and Nightsea Crossing (1981–87), a series of 22 performances that featured Abramović and Ulay sitting motionless at either end of a rectangular table facing each other, completely silent. The exhibition includes video of the original performance of Rest Energy and images of the Nightsea Crossing performances.

The third segment focuses on the years 1995 to 2005, when Abramović embarked on a new chapter of solo works about being alone and about dealing with her cultural, ideological, and spiritual origins in the Balkans, her family background, and feelings of shame and suffering amidst the atrocities that affected her home country in the 1990s. The installation Balkan Baroque (1997), for which she won the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the Venice Biennale in 1997, consists of a three-channel projection portraying life-size images of the artist, her mother, father, 6,000 pounds of cow bones, and copper vessels filled with black water. The original work encompassed a performance by Abramović, who scrubbed for six hours per day, for four days, the remaining meat off of the bones, physically deconstructing violence, pain and suffering associated with war.

The final section consists of works from 2001 since she has been based in New York. In The House with the Ocean View (2002), the artist lived in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York for 12 days in a cross-sectioned structure of rooms. The exhibition includes a three-channel video projection of the performance, in addition to a sound piece in which Abramović narrates her every action during that 12-day period. Seven Easy Pieces, presented in 2005 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, first illustrated Abramović as an agent of the history of performance art. For each night of the seven-night programme, she selected a different seminal work of performance art from the 1960s and 1970s. These works included: Jospeh Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), and Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure (1974). The project was premised on the fact that little documentation exists for most performances from this critical early period. Seven Easy Pieces examined the possibility of repeating and preserving an art form that is, by nature, ephemeral. The exhibition includes a seven-channel video installation of the performances.

Performance art is capricious, at times tedious, but the concept continuously redefines artistic plateaus and captures the imagination. Marina Abramović is one of the most intriguing artists working today. She knows no limits and continues to drive forward not only performance art, but also unnervingly reconstitutes what is often considered art. She is passionate about performance art, and in particular durational pieces; the retrospective at MoMA celebrates her commitment to the art form, and never-ending ingenuity to re-invent new works time and time again, Abramović enthuses: “This is one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present was organised by Klaus Biesenbach, Director, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and Chief Curator at Large, The Museum of Modern Art. The Artist Is Present continued until 31 May 2010, and Marina Abramović was in the UK at the Lisson Gallery, London from 13 October – 13 November 2010.

Cherie Federico