PRINT January 2006


Marina Abramovic

SITTING SQUARELY BETWEEN Jack Nicholson’s five and Bartók’s ten, Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces occasioned a week of nightly pilgrimages to New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum last November. There she presented a different performance each evening, beginning at 5 PM and culminating at midnight. Yet the performances, save for the final two, weren’t actually her own—at least, not in the conventional sense. Rather, the artist had chosen five works from the 1960s and ’70s that she deemed pivotal (and for which she pointedly obtained permissions and agreed to pay copyright fees). These were slated for “reenactment,” as the accompanying brochure put it, but the title of Abramovic’s program suggested something closer in spirit to musical covers than paint-by-numbers duplication.

The artist opted for an impressive roster of pieces by her peers Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane, and Joseph Beuys, to be followed by a return to her own Lips of Thomas, 1975, and the premiere of a new work. In reading the lineup, it was impossible not to imagine these ghosts of Performances Past watching from on high in the spiraling tiers of the museum. Yet in picturing them brought impossibly together, whispering their approvals or complaints, I began to wonder what affinities and distinctions would inevitably arise. Even better, why these five founding figures; why these seven performances? Or, more fundamentally, why at all? Arriving at the first of the series, I found that I had already begun considering the performances before they’d even commenced.

Which is, of course, what Abramovic would have hoped for. Her interest in exhuming this dematerialized material was geared toward a literal, physical reinvestment in it—one aimed at problematizing the question of just when a piece of live art begins and ends, to say nothing of how to keep such “liveness” alive. One could argue that Seven Easy Pieces began ten years ago, maybe longer, in Abramovic’s 1995 monograph Cleaning the House. More a psychic scrapbook than a conventional chronology of the artist’s work, the volume presented photographs of meditating monks in Thailand; turn-of-the-century photos of a female medium producing ectoplasm; documentation of some of Abramovic’s own work; and canonical images of performances by every artist she reprises in Pieces (and a few she doesn’t, such as Chris Burden, who denied her request to perform his 1974 Trans-Fixed)—all plotted out like the branches of a carefully constructed family tree.

But no matter how long the artist had been beginning to begin her new series of old works, Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure started promptly at 5 PM on November 9 atop a round white platform constructed at the center of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous (and famously difficult) rotunda. When it was originally presented in 1974 at Galerie Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf, the piece consisted of a stack of paper, each page bearing instructions of fewer than two hundred words, to be taken and performed by the viewer. There was no set duration for the prescribed actions and no guarantee that anyone had ever actually performed them. But Abramovic took Nauman at his word, opting to diligently explore the possibilities inherent in his poemlike proposition as many times as it would take to fill the preappointed seven-hour time frame.

Pressing, throwing, and sliding herself against a clear pane of glass, Abramovic, dressed in blue coveralls, turned out a pedagogical-sensual rendition of a Conceptual-textual piece. “Press as much of the front surface of your body (palms in or out, left or right cheek) against the wall as possible,” instructed her prerecorded reading of Nauman’s words. Wearied by hour three, she was downright exhausted, if still forceful, by hour six, a layer of spit and sweat coating the glass. “Consider body hair, perspiration, odors (smells),” intoned her voice, and indeed, after the hundredth-plus iteration, it was impossible for the audience to consider anything but body hair, perspiration, and odors. “Form an image of yourself,” she commanded again and again, a phrase that for me would come to stand for the entire week’s events.

Returning to the Guggenheim for night two, I was filled with even more questions than I had been the day before. As moving (if strangely banal) a primer as last night’s performance had been, I wondered if it were really a “reenactment” at all, since Nauman’s original never quite insisted on enactment in the first place. And might not tonight’s rendition of Acconci’s infamous 1972 Seedbed read simply as pastiche, or, worse, might it just reiterate its, well, “seminal” status without complicating any of its terms? While visitors had once been rendered uncomfortable, intrigued, and infuriated by Acconci’s masturbation under the raised floorboards at Sonnabend Gallery, such reactions were hardly guaranteed, or even likely, today. Indeed, whereas the previous night’s performance had found an audience of note takers politely whispering their apologies when going to the bathroom, exhibition cocurator Nancy Spector later joked in a public conversation with the artist that the raucous response to the following evening had felt something like a cocktail party. Not only were people chatting loudly but, having ascended the cylindrical platform under which Abramovic lay moaning, they pounded on it to variously cheer and jeer her in the enterprise of orgasm.

Perhaps most striking of all was the audience’s newfound interest in itself, a condition that only escalated during the subsequent performances. From the various nooks and tiers of the museum, lines of sight were consistently put into play. As much as people looked toward the platform concealing the artist, they also looked past it to survey each other surveying (à la Mary Cassatt’s At the Opera), an activity encouraged by the presence of a high-power telescope placed on the second floor. While Seedbed appeared to produce some debate (whether the artists—past or present—were “faking it” was the prevailing question), its most intriguing function seemed to be the mirror it became for an audience suddenly come out of its shell.

The shell continued to crack over the next few days, as the public—many of whose members showed up night after night to form a sort of ad-hoc community of students, cynics, and worshipers, old regime and new—established its own performative relationship to Abramovic’s project. In the midst of Valie Export’s 1969 Action Pants: Genital Panic, in which Abramovic stood or sat wielding a machine gun, those present were held captive by a nearly hour-long, wordless exchange between the artist and a young woman brave enough to inch up to the closely guarded platform. After both parties succumbed to tears, Abramovic released her gaze, the girl departed, and soon after, a young man attempted to vault onto the stage. Though the man was escorted away, Spector and the artist later speculated that he wasn’t aggressive but simply wanted to determine how best to participate in the piece.

During Abramovic’s reprise of The Conditioning (the first of a three-part performance executed by Gina Pane in Paris in 1973), audience members swooned and brought flowers to the stage as the artist lay on an iron bed, her body only inches above burning candles. On night five, her resurrection of Joseph Beuys’s 1965 How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare didn’t introduce bodily danger, excitement, or endurance as the previous events had, and it didn’t seem to elicit them either. While a good number of audience members could be seen quite literally kneeling at the altar, hoping to catch the stray gaze of the artist—who sported not only khaki Beuysware but a full mask of honey and gold leaf—others milled about, encountering old friends and speaking about the performance as though it were no more than a picture hung on a wall.

I say this not to suggest callousness on the part of these viewers but rather because Abramovic’s actions, somewhat counterintuitively, did come to work like images. Live images, no doubt, but images just the same. Perhaps this has something to do with the fundamental premise behind Seven Easy Pieces: Abramovic chose performances that she considered essential to her own thinking yet, importantly, that she had never attended. Like most of us in the audience, her knowledge of these works came largely from shaky oral histories and skimpy photographic documentation. Genital Panic, for example, was originally performed by Export in an art cinema, where she circulated through the audience wearing crotchless pants, demanding that each person interact with reality rather than representation. But Abramovic’s take was based not so much on the performance she never saw as on the iconic photographs that now stand in its place. They show Export seated, legs splayed and vulva exposed, a cantankerous look on her face and a hefty machine gun in her arms—the latter detail likely not present during the initial exploit but only included in photos taken for publicity. That the dubious gun served as Abramovic’s main prop only heightened the complicated triangulation of the original event, its record, and its reprise. This goes some way toward explaining why the “reenactments,” particularly in retrospect, cemented themselves in my mind as sophisticated holograms, both present and past, fact and fiction.

Over the last fifteen years or so, the most probing analyses of performance art have come to regard its inherent ephemerality as its greatest strength. In her decisive 1993 essay “The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproduction,” Peggy Phelan pointed to the radicality of live art, with its complicated relationship to representation and its capacity for effecting change in both performer and spectator. For Phelan, while documentation of a performance can be experienced powerfully, it is necessarily other than the performance itself, unmoored from its intersubjective pole and proximity to an unknown future.

Yet, for Abramovic, who considered Seven Easy Pieces to be answering the question of whether “performance can be live again” by rendering it thus, documentation became less a supplement than a source. Based largely on images, the artist’s performances were also quite consciously staged in order to become images—representation, that is (a quality Abramovic emphasized each night by showing footage of the previous evenings’ procedings on flat-screen monitors behind the stage). The filming of Pieces was itself a performance, with Babette Mangolte deftly choreographing a fleet of cameras and crew. Indeed, Abramovic effusively claims that her purpose in hiring the famous documentary filmmaker to record every minute of the total forty-nine hours was to avoid “repeating the mistakes of the ’70s” in failing to attend to such details. It was as if she meant to test (even while reaffirming) Phelan’s assertion that “performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: Once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.” But what, then, is to be made of performance based on images of that which has already disappeared, that which is in fact defined by its very disappearance? Further, how do we consider the function of representation-based performance (an ostensible oxymoron) within the confines of one of the foremost cultural institutions in the world? (This question, on the lips of many during Pieces’ run, also points to the complicated—and here unanswered—question of how yesterday’s “alternative” practices find themselves cast as today’s main events.)

Night six. Abramovic performs her own 1975 work Lips of Thomas, its original two hours of eating, drinking, self-mutilation, and endurance stretched to fill the requisite seven. The artist stands naked, cutting a five-pointed star into her exposed belly. This image conjures the black-and-white one I know well, and for a moment the older and younger Abramovic stand side by side in my mind. In this strange space where an image becomes live only to become another image, it seems that Abramovic acknowledges at once Phelan’s truth and also the condition of attempting to experience histories as they disappear. This is a complicated version of the “live,” fully evincing the terrors and pleasures of performance while remaining strangely distanced from them.

On the final night, Abramovic is done up in the largest couture dress known to man: Covering the entire stage with its folds and equipped with an invisible scaffold, it hoists her more than a dozen feet into the air. Abramovic performs a seven-hour “living installation,” described in the brochure only by the words “The artist is present, here and now.” Yet she looks, for all the world, like a picture.

Johanna Burton is a New York–based art historian and critic.