PRINT May 2010


A BILLBOARD-SIZE, BLACK-AND-WHITE Marina Abramović gazes out over the entrance to her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, echoing the valiant, faraway expression of Che Guevara in the iconic Korda photograph (and, by extension, Obama in Shepard Fairey’s posterized portrait). Looking at this visage, I want to believe. I want to believe that the photomural critically performs a collective desire for hope and heroics—our recurring dream that what the world of politics won’t give us, the art world will. I want to believe that its location at the beginning of this show, billed as MoMA’s first performance retrospective and titled “The Artist Is Present,” is an acknowledgment that the genre of “performance art” has always been compromised from within, producing spectacle and personality cult even as it generates authenticity and intersubjectivity. I want to believe that Abramović would not allow her self-aggrandizement to be made so glaringly literal. But I have some doubts.

There’s no question that Abramović deserves—and that art history has needed—a major museum survey of her work. It is simply impossible to imagine what the term “performance art” might designate if it weren’t for her tests of physical and mental endurance, her fearless self-exposure, her embodied poetics. If performance exists as an art form, Abramović is at its center and has been for forty years.

Organized by Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator of MoMA’s newly renamed Department of Media and Performance Art, the retrospective takes us chronologically through the artist’s career, beginning with a dim, cacophonous gallery of videos, photographs, and texts. We see the young artist submitting herself to grueling but precisely conceived tasks. She screams until her voice gives out (Freeing the Voice, 1975); renders herself spastic and then near catatonic with a sequence of psychiatric drugs (Rhythm 2, 1974). In Rhythm 4, 1974, a lesser-known work, she lowers her face toward an industrial fan whose blast of air both overwhelms her lungs and partially supports her body, so that she remains upright for several moments after having lost consciousness. Even more than such contemporaries as Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, and Stelarc, Abramović seems, in this early work, determined to trouble the notion of self-control. Her performances require extraordinary willpower, but many of them also render her unconscious or inert. As a vision of female subjectivity, this marks Abramović’s contribution to feminist art—a contribution that is interesting because of, not despite, its ambivalence—while the exhibition usefully stresses the work’s connection to its political context in postwar Yugoslavia.

The first gallery also sets the stage by being a veritable catalogue of the possibilities for museum display of performance documentation. There are photographs and videos, of course, but also framed photo-text hybrids and several small LCD screens, each showing sequences of digital slides of a given work. Another form of documentation beckons from the end of a darkened room, where an altar-like table, theatrically lit, bears the relics of one of Abramović’s most famous works: Rhythm 0, 1974, in which she invited an audience to apply to her entirely passive person any of seventy-two objects, including a whip and a gun. Finally, in one of two passageways from the first gallery to the second, a nude man and woman face each other, performing what must be one of the most simultaneously profound and funny works in postwar art. In Imponderabilia (by Abramović and Ulay), 1977, the viewer has to decide which nude body to face while wiggling sideways through the narrow doorway, making a quick calculus of gender identification and object choice. (This would be a simple test of heteronormativity, except that you also have to consider whose pubes you want your backside to brush against. And to Abramović’s credit, in Imponderabilia’s current incarnation you might have a chance to choose between two men or two women.)

Appropriately enough, this living threshold leads into the exhibition’s coverage of Abramović’s twelve-year collaboration with Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) following her departure from Yugoslavia in 1976. The couple’s intense personal relationship—and beautifully matched physical appearances—was the background for an extraordinary set of works between 1976 and 1988. Many of these are now classics of performance art, such as Rest Energy, 1980, the William Tell redux in which the two lean backward against the tension of a bow, a drawn arrow pointing at Abramović’s heart.

Such interpersonal tension gives way to personal narrative with the multimedia installation Balkan Baroque, 1997. Centered on a heap of cow bones scoured clean by the artist when the piece was installed at the ’97 Venice Biennale, it suggests both personal and national mourning during the years of war in the Balkans. Bones return in several meditative memento mori images (close-up shots of hands scrubbing a human skeleton comprise one of her most beautiful recent works). Much of her work since the 1990s deals with Abramović’s Balkan heritage, quoting ancient folklore on the one hand and revisiting her parents’ Communist partisanship on the other. One of the most unassuming works in the show is a simple photograph of the artist wearing her mother’s military cap—which bears the same five-pointed Communist star Abramović had ritualistically carved into her belly some twenty years before.

Needless to say, that performance, Lips of Thomas, 1975, isn’t one of the five enacted live in the exhibition. But the galleries are dotted with carefully selected and trained performers who enact her more tableaux-like pieces, often next to photographic documentation or film footage of the “original”: sitting with their hair knotted together just as Abramović and Ulay once did; coming as close as possible to touching without actually making contact; or hanging, martyrlike and auratically lit, high on a gallery wall. Much is being made of the decision to include what the artist calls “reperformances” in Abramović’s retrospective. To me, this debate is largely beside the point: If you believe in the sacred authenticity of the original, then by definition no redo could threaten it; if you think performance is always already mediated, then live bodies are as much a form of representation as any other. More interesting than whether reenactments are art-historically correct is what they are asked to do—whether they close down or open up the potentiality of performance.

The museum is right to call Abramović a pioneer of performance as an art form. But her interest in reperformance suggests that she might be equally central for performance conceived otherwise. Rather than trying to define and refine performance, rather than seeking ways to institutionally protect or intellectually bolster it, this alternate conception sees performance as an operation that disallows the very consolidation of something like an “art form.” This is not to say that performance is essentially transgressive. It’s to say that performance functions differentially, relationally, centrifugally. Rather than celebrating liveness (or anything else) as performance art’s signal contribution, this model of performance is interested in multiple and changing temporalities. Physicality and embodiment remain important in this way of thinking about performance, but because of, and in their points of contact with, the ever-evolving forms of less material media. This is a view of performance as art’s way of reorganizing itself in the twenty-first century.

From Freeing the Voice to Nude with Skeleton, 2002/2005 (in which she lies prone with a human skeleton draped over her body, moving gently with each breath), Abramović has often worked in the hybrid mode of “performance for film” or “for video.” Such a category challenges the assumption that video is “merely” image as thoroughly as it does the notion that performance is essentially live. This suggests yet another alternative to the essentialist model of “performance art,” as does the artist’s commitment, over the past decade, to her category of reperformance, a reenactment practice that treats one performance as a score for others. Still, it’s telling that reperformances in the retrospective are all framed or contained: nudes in the doorway, on a platform, and perched on a bicycle seat–cum–picture hook high on the wall, clothed couples spotlighted within a specially built cabin in the center of a gallery.

The exhibition’s final space displays videos from Seven Easy Pieces, 2005, the landmark project at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in which Abramović herself reinterpreted famous ’70s works by Acconci, Gina Pane, and others. Seven Easy Pieces was enormously influential, making reenactment the characteristic performance modality of the first decade of the century. What was distressing, however, was the way it tried to constrict the idea of the redo. Seven Easy Pieces was explicitly framed as a normative protocol for reenactment. Abramović proposed that a proper reenactment requires study of extant documentation, enough reinterpretation or change to mark the new work as distinct, monetary payment to the original artist, and permission from the artist or her estate. Abramović recasts the performance as a score but shuts down the iterability that is the score’s most significant implication.

I can imagine how frustrating it would be, as an artist, to see versions of your work that miss the point or that make it into something other than what you intended. And it would be good manners for anyone who wants to use your work to let you know about it. But in 2010, the aspect of Abramović’s idea of reperformance that privileges ownership is preposterous. The twentieth-century model of artists’ rights was developed to protect artists from dealers and institutions. But setting standards for the reenactment of a performance protects artists from . . . what? From the free circulation of information, images, and ideas; from the techniques and ethos of sampling inherent to digital media; and from the models of cultural commons and open-source sharing that are the only brakes on corporate control of culture? It is to announce that not only art museums but artists are on the side of the record companies and the Hollywood studios.

To be clear, I have no problem with an artist making a living by doing performances or by selling his or her documents, artifacts, or even essences. (If you can get a museum to buy a performance, more power to you.) But Abramović’s proposed restrictions take away exactly what makes performance interesting—its propensity to spread—and emphasize exactly what makes “performance art” boring: its glorification of the artist.

“The Artist Is Present” would be a wonderful title if it weren’t literally true. In a generative view of performance, the relation of performer and viewer is something to be continually manipulated and multiplied, not restricted to the model of co-presence. But this is what the exhibition does with a vengeance, nowhere more so than in the new performance, also called The Artist Is Present, that Abramović is conducting in the museum atrium throughout the seven-hundred-hour run of the show.

The concept for this piece is both elegant and affecting. Abramović sits at a table and makes eye contact with anyone who wants to visit her. But in practice, this becomes a quasi-religious rite. Batteries of lights shine down on the artist from the four corners of a stagelike square around her table. A guard polices the queue of acolytes waiting their turn to be in her presence, allowing one person at a time into the sanctum sanctorum. I am perfectly willing to believe that gazing into Abramović’s eyes is a moving experience. But the cultural forms evoked by this scene are either grandiose (the pope) or absurd (shopping-mall Santa).

There’s always the possibility that what she’s doing is a send-up of the art star as saint and celebrity. But nothing suggests we should interpret this work in the key of camp. How did Abramović’s lovely, egalitarian idea of making eye contact—of simply being present together with her viewers—go so wrong? Practical and safety considerations surely had much to do with the presentation. But it’s revealing that the museum’s wall text, press releases, and website all stress what would seem to be a technical detail: that Abramović will be in place when the museum opens and won’t move until the last visitor has left. Why? Why would it matter if we saw her walk into the room and sit down at the table? All it could possibly do is make her seem like an ordinary human—but of course that conclusion is what the entire exhibition is organized to resist.

Abramović is a brilliant artist, an electrifying performer, and an art-historical legend. Must she be both martyr and superstar as well? I imagine that from the inside, there’s only a sincere interest in sharing the special mental and physical states made possible by intense concentration. But I know that from out here, it looks like performance art is entering the Museum of Modern Art in the form of unabashed celebrity worship.

The question is: Do you want to believe?

Carrie Lambert-Beatty is an art historian at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.