New York

Marina Abramović and Ulay, Relation in Time, 1977. Performance view, Studio G7, Bologna, 1977. Original performance 17 hours. © 2010 Marina Abramović/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Marina Abramović and Ulay, Relation in Time, 1977. Performance view, Studio G7, Bologna, 1977. Original performance 17 hours. © 2010 Marina Abramović/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

New York

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
March 14–May 31, 2010

Curated by Klaus Biesenbach

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ in 1989. We had been asked to collaborate for a video art series produced by Spanish television. And I remember thinking at the time that if she was as brave as her performances indicated, then of course she would want to work with someone she didn’t know. We both happened to be in London, so we met for tea, and we each chose a cake: She picked a rectangular one, I picked a round one, and I thought, “This is perfect—we are opposites in so many ways; this could be interesting.”

The result was a six-minute video piece titled SSS. Marina said it was the most baroque thing she had ever made; her previous videos had been single shots with no internal edits. But for me, it was the most minimal thing I’d ever done.

OF ALL THE PERFORMERS I have worked with, Marina is the one who has always been most strongly part of the art world. Most of her performances have been shown in galleries and art spaces; likewise, her sculptures, videos, and photographs derive much of their power from their link to performance. And so it seems particularly appropriate that her upcoming retrospective [including about fifty of these pieces] would be in a museum.

Revisiting historical performances in museums is a tricky thing, of course. For me, the best performances come out of a particular artist’s need to perform at a particular time and in a particular context. I don’t think they can be performed again and have the same meaning and impact. On the other hand, I have always been interested in reconstructions of performances I’ve never seen, and I think experiencing these can have educational value.

I understand that in Marina’s upcoming show at the Museum of Modern Art there will be several “reperformances,” in which live actors (chosen by Marina) reenact pieces in a gallery. The choice of works does seem to have resulted from a process of discrimination, featuring those that are perhaps less dependent on the relationship between specific performers [such as Relation in Time, 1977, in which two people are connected by their long hair, tied together, and Point of Contact, 1980, where two people touch index fingers]. A work like Rest Energy, 1980, in which two people face each other, holding a bow with its arrow pointed directly at one performer’s heart, wouldn’t survive reperformance as well. (She originally performed this with her collaborator and partner at the time, Ulay.)

IF THE HALLMARK OF PERFORMANCE was once its evanescence, its inability to be captured, then we have gone from an age of almost no documentation to a moment when every performance is recorded in some way, and that documentation is often conceived of as part of the performance. Marina’s work represents a bridge between these periods.

Indeed, the next piece I worked on with Marina—The Biography, 1992—included her own reperformance of many of her previous works, a kind of live anthology. But after that we did Delusional together in 1994, which involved very little recapitulation. It was an elaborate multimedia solo performance for Marina; we constructed a large glass stage that was covered by fabric in the first part of the show, during which Marina danced and then laid on a bed of ice. In the second part, Marina (wearing a cumbersome costume designed by Leigh Bowery) slowly uncovered the stage, revealing four hundred live rats that had been hiding underneath. We also incorporated video—we’d gone to Serbia in the middle of the Bosnian war and shot video of her mother and her father, an amazing experience that injected some biographical and personal material into the piece. But there’s no real record of Delusional beyond a few photographs; I didn’t film it at the time because I considered it a work in progress. So it was a purely theatrical experience for me—and being a filmmaker, it was such a pleasure to be able to make immediate adjustments to the primary material. Unlike making a film, making a performance is intensely sculptural.

In many ways, our sculptural material was Marina herself, her body. During the process of making the work, Marina was absolutely open and willing to try anything. She floored me with her bravery and her appetite for the unknown. Every day we got up and had breakfast and went to the studio, just trying things and rehearsing them, building up endurance for the actual performance. Of course, she tried to train me, too: We would sit looking into a mirror for an hour, trying not to blink. “It’s just willpower,” she would say.

At MoMA, Marina will be premiering a work [The Artist Is Present] that will be a daily ritual: She’s going to be in the museum every day, all day, sitting at a table, and any visitor can come and sit there for as long as they want. And of course she wants to film the entire thing, all 586 hours. She has always been deeply interested in these extremes between simple actions and high drama, particularly opera: I’ve often thought she wanted to be Maria Callas. In many ways, she has succeeded.