Starring Abramovic, Playing Herself

Manifesta Journal, N11
Starring Abramovic, Playing Herself

Marina Abramović: The Artist is present
Organizes by Klaus Biesenbach
MoMA, New York
March 14 – May 31, 2010

Text by Elena Sorokina

Reading the press releases of exhibitions today, one is struck by a certain shift of language: the PR jargon seems to be quite contaminated by theatrical vocabulary. Instead of “investigating” or “reflecting” on something, exhibitions today “stage” or “orchestrate” several “acts” while being installed in sets or mise en scènes, where curtains replace partition walls. The exhibitions employing this vogue terminology sometimes do try to enact issues in a more or less theatrical fashion, but very often this vocabulary doesn’t translate into any kind of “theatricality” in the presentation of works. Today’s proliferation of “live art” in exhibitions has been duly acknowledged in regard to the production, but what happens to the expositional logic when “live art” is integrated into the exhibition spaces?

The logic of display and the terms and conditions of including “live art” in exhibitions are shifting, and the diverse ways of intertwining the spatial and the temporal are being tested. Sometimes the live-art additions simply take on a festival model, with a schedule of events taking place consecutively. Other models combine some installation work on display—which may or may not stand for art, “contain” art or be art—and live events. But the main field of experimentation is the hybrid model, meaning the intertwining of “live” elements and components with the exhibition’s own temporality and experience of time. In such hybrid cases, the objects in space either stand for themselves, sometimes referring to some spirit of performance, or need to be “activated” by performances. In this context, Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at the MoMA in New York, “The Artist is Present,” practically catalogued the possibilities for performances’ display and enactment, with photo and video documentation, installations, archival texts, live performances by herself and “re-performances,” as Abramovic calls them, by the young interpreters she trained, all co-existing in the space of the museum exhibition. 

“Life” was included, or displayed, on the MoMA’s 6th floor through the motionless bodies of performers placed alongside videos and objects. The five live works, ephemeral and temporary by initial conception, occupied the space in a permanent manner, installation-like. The fact that other people were re-performing Abramovic’s work makes the discussions turn around the degree of authenticity of these performances and their art-historical correctness. Moreover, however, we could also ask what model of an “exhibition” is created by this specific display. Of course, the artist is present—Marina Abramovic herself sat through an epic endurance piece in the MoMA’s atrium—but who is exhibited? And what kind of “presence” does the entire show generate? In the first place, it insists on a permanent presence. In addition to the performers, who made five live works available for contemplation non-stop during the museum’s opening hours, Abramovic performed her piece The Artist is Present (2010)—every day, during museum hours, for the run of her show—her longest performance to date. The spectators were invited to sit across from the artist and look into her eyes, thus acknowledging her and their own “presence.” Some stayed just for a couple of minutes; others remained for long hours. 

The permanent presence of the human body in the exhibition space has a number of historical precedents, one of them performed by Abramovic herself. In The House with the Ocean View (2002–2003), she lived in the Sean Kelley Gallery for twelve days on permanent display. This piece is included in the MoMA retrospective, but only as an installation, while Abramovic herself is “permanently present” in her new piece. Among younger artists, the most obvious example of permanent presence would be Tino Sehgal, whose pieces roll continuously during the opening times of his shows. Different in nature and structure from Abramovic’s work, Sehgal’s pieces guarantee the permanent presence without any pain, or extreme endurance, involved: his interpreters work in shifts and there is no specific content related to pain or endurance—at least not yet articulated by Sehgal. We could say that the retrospective of Abramovic at the MoMA used the idea of permanent presence “à la Sehgal,” with performers working in shifts to guarantee the continuous run of the live pieces. The specific subjective temporality related to endurance—one of the constitutive elements of the five live pieces re-performed in the show—evidently got lost, replaced by “endurance on schedule” and generating a potentially endless loop of performances. 

The main principle of the organization of this permanent presence was, notably, the complete immobility of the performer. Of all performances made by Abramovic during the years of her career, only those entailing immobility were re-performed at the MoMA. They were all static—quite literally motionless and speechless. This was an obvious choice the museum and the artist made to facilitate the permanence and simultaneity of several re-performances in the show: the immobility of interpreters makes the space between the re-performing bodies and the public clearly defined, excluding any possibilities of accidental interactions. In addition, all re-performances happened—or were put on display—in a specific exhibition architecture: a cabin or display case, a structure on the wall or a wall shelf, on which the bodies of interpreters were posed. Imponderabilia (1977/2010)—two nude performers facing each other in a doorway, obliging viewers to squeeze between them to pass through—underwent perhaps the most notable modifications caused by display. The bodies were safely inscribed into the exhibition architecture between two partition walls in the back of the first space, building a passage between two different spaces of the show. Unlike in the original performance in which the “fleshy” doorway blocked the museum’s main entrance,  MOMA's "Imponderabilia"  represented just an additional alternative passage. The spectator’s choice was therefore not the original “who to face when passing” but actually “to pass or not to pass.” 

All of the re-performed pieces were lit like exhibition objects and the light was adapted to the surrounding space: spotlights on the bodies in a dim video-saturated environment, such as Nude with Skeleton (2002/2005/2010), or high-contrast light inside the cabin-like structure for Relation in Time (1977/2010) and Point of Contact (1980). This display inside of the cabin-like structures objectified the performances on view, and we can rightfully doubt whether the actual role of interpreters was one of a performing subject or an animated object. A certain playful confusion was (perhaps purposefully) created between what was live and what was not: walking out of the relatively dark space where Nude with Skeleton was displayed, one was immediately stuck by Luminosity (1997/2010) in bright light—a nude young woman, her arms outstretched, sitting on a bicycle seat mounted high on the wall. Casting deep shadows on the wall in front of which the performer appeared to be floating, the illusion of a suspended sculpture was very strong, even if it lasted for just a second. 

But what did this rather lifeless presence of life add to the MoMA retrospective? Strangely enough, this specific mise en scène of “life” in a museum didn’t bring together multiple temporalities; rather, it firmly inscribed “life” into a traditional regime of contemplation [with two participatory exceptions: Imponderabilia (1977/2010) and The Artist is Present (2010)]. In spatial terms, the retrospective pursued a classical formula: an immobile “art” and a moving spectator, which could be seen as reproducing the situation of a video installation. The multiple Abramovic interpreters present for the entire duration of the exhibition were working in shifts, as if on a loop. As a result, spectators faced the same choice as if they were watching videos: to go after a glimpse or to continue watching.  For some viewers not familiar with Abramovic’s performances, it was not clear what was going to happen next and whether the “living sculptures” would suddenly start moving or doing something. A certain hesitation occurred: is the show some kind of display for a possible “action” of the bodies, or are these bodies part of a tableau vivant? Trying to negotiate between performance in its various manifestations and the models of its display, the retrospective inevitably ends up in a certain regime of theatricality, creating a mise en scène in which the bodies of performers seriously contributed to the dramatization of display. Space as practice for performance art—as defined in the seminal text by Roselee Goldberg—becomes here the spatial mise en scène of performing bodies, deliberately staged. 

Lately, since her Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005, it has been clear that Abramovic—outspokenly anti-theatrical at the beginning of her career—theatricalizes performance’s new embodiments, but to what degree? When Chris Burden refused to let Abramovic re-perform his piece as part of Seven Easy Pieces, in which Abramovic reenacted five performances by her peers dating from the 1960s and 1970s, he made circulate the following statement written by Tom Marioni: “The performance art of the early 1970s was concrete. We made one-time sculpture actions. If Mr. Burden’s work were recreated by another artist, it would be turned into theater, one artist playing the role of another.” Although degrees of theatricality could be detected in re-performances at the MoMA, we can’t say that the youth, who were especially trained by the artist to re-perform her works, “played Abramovic.” Rather, lacking Abramovic’s experience and personal history, which provided a psychological and historical “sense” to her pieces, what these young people “performed” was a repertoire of endurance-mediation-concentration for the sake of being on view, exposed and immobile. The spontaneity, immediacy and interaction, a specific and fleeting moment in time, a certain non-repeatable urgency and sense of primary experience—all that was gone, but what remained? 

Trying to negotiate multiple temporalities, the retrospective gaze of the MoMA exhibition created a present through re-performing the past—and generating an epic, meticulously constructed present. Under Abramovic’s attentive eye, the show kept this present in full control: no improvisation or uncertainty was allowed and the specific temporality of performance was given a solid, museum-like permanence. If we assume that the present moment stands for the immediacy of the performance, the “retrospective present” of the show, which insisted so much on the idea of permanence, dramatized rather than simply conserved history. Solidifying the ephemeral and theatricalizing the modes of display, the show resurrected the performances into a second life in art history. According to Abramovic’s own statements, the re-performances were made for the sake of saving them for history, and the show clearly demonstrated that theatricalized display has become her strategy for the historicization of performance.  Theatricality of display in the exhibition had yet another aspect: the artist’s own presence as a splendid mise en scène. Her epic endurance piece The Artist is Present was played in MoMA’s atrium, where Abramovic, the only “art” in the cathedral-like verticality of the huge space, sat surrounded by an elaborate light-rig and encircled by a line of spectators (among which Sharon Stone and Isabelle Huppert made appearance), waiting for their “moment of presence.” Wearing diva gowns, simultaneously reminiscent of clerical garb, Abramovic’s performance evoked in the critics and commentators of her show the metaphors of self-enshrinement, alluding to a saint and a star at once. It was Abramovic’s theatrical and spectacular official entrance into history and, quite literally, her model of the historicization of the present.