Marina Abramović and Ulay

“Modus Vivendi” is the title of a performance work by Marina Abramović and Ulay, taken as the tide of an exhibition documenting certain of their performances and videotapes from 1980 to 1985. The show also constituted a performance, a travelogue, in effect, of two artists for whom travel is an integral part of their collaborative work. Organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Eindhoven, the exhibition was dominated quantitatively and qualitatively by lifesize-format Polaroid photographs that not only documented the couple’s performance pieces and videotapes but also asserted their own particular artistic integrity. Two videotape installations, City of Angels, 1983, and Terra degli Dea Madre (Land of the mother goddess, 1984), framed the Polaroids and filled the show as a whole with the sense of movement, musicality, semiotic poetry and timeless meditation that is so characteristic of Abramović’s and Ulay’s work. Their performances compress energy and aggression. into the absence of human communication suggested by an atmosphere of absolute silence. The almost architectonic, static quality of the staging and the placement of color and sign create a cool, emotionally distanced atmosphere. By contrast, the photographic work is characterized by a much more emotional sense of ceremony.

Throughout, this mixed-media exhibition remained a tightly woven net of half concealed strands of comedy, mystery, and fairy tale, embedded in a climate of Baroque ceremoniousness that embraced nature and humanity, life and art, the ethical and the esthetic, and transcended all cultural boundaries. Clearly stated in the installation was the decision not to create the illusion of a documented reality but rather to expose the artifice at the core of Abramović’s and Ulay’s “modus vivendi.” The stepping-stones to this realization are easily recognized cultural stations, from a mountain in Australia sacred to the aborigines, to the pieta image and a multitude of vanitas symbols. Many of the images are imbued with brilliant color, a ceremonial red here, a fairy-tale gold there; or, where color is absent, there is an ornamental or geometric structure. Dominating everything is pose, style, or, better still, a particular mode of arresting the world in a moment of absolute, celebratory, or even comic silence.

This outstanding installation exploited photography, the most up-to-date documentary medium—so absolutely contemporary in its speed and falsity—to assert the magic of art. Abramović’s and Ulay’s use of photography has developed within the context of growing debate about this technical medium, but that does not diminish the originality of their use of Polaroid film in the overall context of their work. The strict stylization of these transcultural images; the forceful, artful staging of content-laden signs (the human figure, nature, regional artifacts); and the crystalline quality of chance actions frozen by the camera—all combine in a celebration of artistic creation.

“Modus Vivendi” was an artificially/artistically filtered quintessence of an encounter with life in its ethical dimension. Whereas in the earlier works the relationship between Abramović and Ulay was reduced to private encounters based on mutual attraction, dependency, and latent aggression, the ethical aspect of their relationship has now diversified into a network of relationships that embrace the world and its cultures, existing for each of the partners individually and also affecting how they interact. All this was presented not as an anecdotal pointing of the ethical finger but as an esthetically formed and re-formed construct that can present their “modus vivendi” only as art.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.