New York

Marina Abramovic

It takes two to tango, but not if you’re Marina Abramovic. Art rarely embodies so intense a solitude as hers can, yet even rarer than its inwardness is its intimate engagement with its viewer—or better, its witness. In “Spirit House,” an exhibition of projected videos all distinguished by concise, emotionally loaded, indelible imagery, it’s the one work that initially seems least consistent with the others that encapsulates Abramovic’s themes. A single bright beam creates a dramatic chevron of light through a darkened room; in and out of this light a seductively dressed woman dances the tango with an absent partner to the nostalgic strains of an old record. This is Insomnia (all works 1997), the only work in the exhibit in which there is theatrical movement, in which the artist’s body is enhanced by costume, and in which music cloaks her own sounds. It is also the only one not frontally directed toward an audience but executed at an angle to the camera, apparently in isolation. Yet Insomnia makes explicit the role of the viewer as the artist’s spectral companion, her silent partner, even the object of her longing.

The video Luminosity, complementarily, concerns the disappearance of the artist into the memory of her public. It records a performance that took place the first night of the exhibition: the artist, naked but for her shoes, her arms outstretched, spent two hours perched on a bicycle seat. I don’t know if Abramovic was thinking of Alfred Jarry’s play The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race, but this certainly was a passion in the etymological sense: something endured, something suffered. Unable to attend the performance, I was struck by the remark of one witness I spoke to, who mentioned that when she first entered the gallery she took the living artist, motionless in that untenable position, for a slide projection. Photographs of the event, with Abramovic framed in a rectangle of concentrated light, show that the error is hardly surprising. But perhaps the way that misapprehension underlines the idea of projection is revealing. For all that Abramovic’s work includes an expressionist emphasis on manifest suffering—think of the sobbing artist scrubbing bloody bones in Balkan Baroque, the work that earned her the Golden Lion at Venice last summer, not to mention Dissolution in this show, in which the artist repeatedly whips herself across the back to the soft accompaniment of her own moans—the impassive figure in Luminosity, live or on tape, reminds us of the degree to which this suffering body we call the artist is a screen for our own projections, our own fantasies of inwardness.

Because Luminosity explicitly concerns the notion of projection, the video is not after all a fill-in for the performance but its fulfillment. A blinding glare finally engulfs the figure of the artist as the light being projected onto her gradually intensifies. But in another sense that light does not consume the image but sustains it, like the slow fade-out implying that a piece of music might have no true end.

In Lost Souls (projected, on a smaller scale, above the main entrance), the glacial movements of the artist’s hands conceal and reveal her face in a kind of peekaboo; in Dozing Consciousness, a tiny projection on a ledge near the exit, her face, buried in quartz crystals, slowly comes into view as her breathing gradually displaces the crystals. These two pieces serve as codas or envois; by virtue of the fact that we only notice them as we start to leave the exhibition, they remind us that all this has been addressed to us, whoever we are, that this exhibition has been a cunningly contrived sequence of stations or positions, a dance through which the artist has led us.

Sean Kelly