New York

View of “Marina Abramović,” 2014.

View of “Marina Abramović,” 2014.

Marina Abramović

View of “Marina Abramović,” 2014.

The two trajectories that perhaps best describe the last half decade or so of Marina Abramović’s career converged almost too tidily in Generator, the artist’s recent installation/performance at Sean Kelly and her first solo show in the city since her blockbuster 2010 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. There’s no question that that exhibition transformed the estimable performance pioneer into arguably the art world’s biggest pop-culture celebrity. Yet the emergence of her new identity as crossover diva/consciousness-raising guru—complete with an OMA-designed “institute” and an often trite and tin-eared manifesto (“An artist should look deep inside himself for inspiration”; “An artist should not make himself into an idol”)—has also made the long-formidable artist an increasingly soft target for caricature. Tellingly, Abramović’s materialization into full-blown personage has been accompanied by a concomitant dematerialization, namely her gradual elimination of the tangible effects of her practice—the various props and tools she sometimes incorporated into earlier productions—and increasingly even her own function within it. Generator, an experiment in sensory deprivation and authorial evacuation, distilled this ongoing disappearing act to its fully ambivalent essence.

Borrowing strategies from Artaud and the Living Theatre, from Klein and Cage, from Kaprow and Fluxus—and sweetening the mix with a dash of new age hokum—Generator represented the ultimate apotheosis of Abramović’s current way of working. The conceit of the work, offered as “an opportunity for forced introspection,” was dead simple: After stuffing bags and phones into a bank of lockers, visitors were blindfolded and fitted with noise-canceling headphones. They were then led by facilitators into a room occupied by somewhere between zero and sixty-seven other wanderers and left to their own devices. Sightless and enfolded in silence, the participants could stand still or try their hand at navigating the space; they could choose to sit or kneel or lie down, to seek the comfort of the corners or set out into the indeterminate emptiness that unfurled before their outstretched arms. When you’d had enough of bumping into walls and other people, you simply raised your hand and were guided back into the waiting area and returned to the world of noise and light.

Generator would seem to be the inevitable destination of the path laid down by works such as 2010’s The Artist Is Present at MoMA and 512 Hours, 2014, Abramović’s recent foray into “nothingness” in London. (Visited by more than 100,000 people who queued for hours for their chance to have the outré superstar and her minions arrange them in various scenarios, the sixty-four-day event was a spectacle that, depending on your perspective, reflected either enlightened submission or gullish obedience.) Despite—or perhaps just as correctly, because of—its overwhelming popularity with the public, 512 Hours seemed to greatly vex that city’s famously astringent culture writers. But it’s more than just Abramović’s fame that confounds critics. Just as did 512 Hours, Generator completely gums up most efforts at critical distance or analysis; the unmitigated subjectivity of the new project drives any attempt to articulate its effects back onto the pure acontextual sense-experience of the participant. The work proposed that all who submitted to it had only themselves to praise or blame for the character of their experience.

Not that it much matters, but my own there was fairly meh: Wet and impatient after a long crosstown walk in a driving rain, I lacked the susceptibility I might otherwise have had. No matter how I adjusted it, I could still sort of see out of the bottom of my blindfold, and a fair number of frequencies seemed able to elude the acoustic dampening. I closed my eyes for a while to try to get into the spirit of the thing; at one slightly embarrassing point, I actually bumped into someone on purpose after catching a sense of their presence just because it somehow seemed ungenerous of me not to. In the end, I am not quite sure whether my thirty-minute encounter with Abramović’s “full-emptiness” failed because it was empty or because I myself wasn’t empty enough. Did my experience have nothing or everything to do with Abramović? Probably a bit of each, as usual. I do know that it did leave me considering a not insignificant question: not so much how an artwork is different when the artist is no longer present, but how I encounter the world in situations in which she was never there in the first place.

Jeffrey Kastner