Artist is Present

Written for Ms. Magazine, 2010

As I take another bite of hot peppers in my favorite Szechuan dish, my eyes water, everything disappears and for a moment – I am in ecstasy. This is just a brief exercise in transcendence. Now imagine eating a plate full of hot peppers, sitting naked, on a block of ice – in front of an audience.

Marina Abramowic (Belgrade, 1946), The Artist is Present, is the largest representation of a single performance artist in the country, at MoMA through May 31st, 2010.

Showing performance art is not always easy, popular and sometimes, if you weren’t there, then you just weren’t there. Performance happens in a moment, where time, place and context enfold the meaning.

It is no coincidence that performance art grew simultaneously with the introduction of the video camera, allowing for both the audience and location to expand. It also may not be coincidence that a majority of early video and performance artists were woman, who could perform anything, within their own spaces. Abramovic’s work is well documented, a decision an artist who chooses to work with her body as subject and medium must be conscious of.
Conscious she is. The first encounter you will have is the artist. Wearing a long red dress in the center of a large sectioned off arena, she sits across the table from a participant. The two of them stare at each other surrounded by the audience. While the guest can leave at any time, like an anchor to her show, Ms. Abramovic will have sat starring for over 700 hours by closing day.

The exhibition spans her work from solo through collaboration with former partner Ulay. The relationship lasting 12 years was discontinued after walking for three months towards each other on the Great Wall of China, where they met to say goodbye.

What I love is the confrontation she creates with what can be said as nothing, so little, or maybe.. everything – Her body. Using her body as medium she delves to the core, exploring relationships of performer and audience and her own endurance. From fasting and living on display for 12 days, in the Sean Kelly Gallery (House with an Ocean View, 2002), to sitting within an overwhelming pile of bones scrubbing of the blood and singing folk songs (Balkan Baroque, 1997). With each work limits are pushed.

Making a strong decision to enlist performers to re-perform selections of her and Ulay’s collaborations, these live bodies set the show alive with performance and at best, confrontation. Marina does not let the audience not be present.

I visited the exhibition during Spring break. Though crowded, not a single person bumped into me. I became aware that the audience was also aware, aware of their body, other people? Uncomfortable? I’m not sure, but it alleviated the claustrophobia I expected.

When Imponderabilia was originally performed in 1977 by Marina and Ulay, they stood just a little closer than the MoMA re-performance. For today’s purpose, to get from one end of the exhibition to the other, you must squeeze yourself through two naked bodies, two women or a man and a women, depending on the day. Squeezing through them is like jumping of a high dive, you are conscious of going for it and in that moment something changes, different for everyone who passes through the bodies.

What happens when the context of the MoMA becomes the space of performance, does the meaning change, or does it serve to expand the canon?

We may only later see the long range effects of what such a show reaps on the next generation of artists. Those given the privilege to see this momentous exhibition of a strong female performance artist within an influential institution, whose walls so nicely hold paintings.

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