Marina Abramovic sits in a hardback chair in the MoMA atrium. She is wearing a long navy dress and her glossy black hair, loosely braided, rests on her left shoulder. Her palms are open, hands resting on her lower thigh. An older woman with soft blonde hair sits across from her, blinking at random intervals. Abramovic seems nervous. Unsettled. She takes slow, deep breaths as her eyes begin to well up with tears. The din from the audience is overwhelming—every cough, comment, and snort reverberates throughout the open atrium, creating a cacophony of plodding questions from curious bystanders and squeaks from countless tennis shoes. Abramovic will sit silently in this chair for the next 77 days, holding court from open until close.
Though the atrium contains only a single performance, the rest of Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (through May 31) on the sixth floor is teeming with her previous work. One is "Art Vital," the boxy black car that she and her former partner, Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), traveled around (and lived) in for five years. Klaus Biesenbach, the Chief Curator at MoMA, said, "Every single piece is very dear to her… when the car arrived she started crying."
The controversial "reperformances" are staged in the back rooms of the exhibition space on the sixth floor. Abramovic explained in an artist talk on March 1 at MoMA that "To reperform I have to let it go, to put my ego on the side." Thirty-eight participants will restage some of Abramovic's and Ulay's signature past work, as well as her more recent pieces like "Luminosity" (1997), in which a naked woman stands on two foot-holds a few feet above the ground with her back against the wall, her arms resting near her hips. At different moments, she will raise her arms slowly upward, her chest heaving with the effort, and seemingly embrace the light that shines on her throughout the performance. According to Abramovic this piece is meant to transmit "pure energy between performer and audience," and although it's probably better to eschew words like "pure" and "energy" (especially in the same sentence), I really did feel something as I gazed upon this Christ-like figure elegantly framed in the white rectangle above me. It makes palpable Abramovic's sentiment that art is a matter of life and death. She left Belgrade at 29 for Amsterdam, where she met Ulay. They parted ways with a performance in which they each walked a different side of China's Great Wall and, weeks later, met in the middle. From this experience, Abramovic says, she learned that "in the end you are really alone, whatever you do." But instead of giving up, she became stronger.
Her work is not only about suffering and endurance; it's about the relationship we have to ourselves and each other and the limits we impose on both. In an Abramovic performance there is nail-biting tension and, mercifully, some form of release; however, up to this point, the release has not been lethal (though it definitely could have been in many of her performances during the seventies and eighties). Whether it is a flexed bow with an arrow pointed at her heart or a game of five-finger fillet, Abramovic enjoins us to observe an artist as she finds her boundaries and surpasses them. In an interview with Judith Thurman in the New Yorker, Abramovic says, "A knife in my work is always real." For this reason, her audience is constantly aware that it is witnessing a performance as opposed to a piece of theatrical illusion. At one point in "Rhythm 5" (1974), for instance, she lost consciousness from smoke inhalation and people had to pull her from the burning five-point star.
The "reperformances" at MoMA are tame in comparison. No one gets slapped, burned, or cut, and they perform in two-hour shifts. However, the immediacy is still there, as audience members interact with live artists throughout the exhibition. As I approached a very pale gentleman performing "Nude with Skeleton" (2002), I realized his gaze was momentarily locked on the wall across from him, which featured a video of Abramović massaging her naked breasts in a piece called "Balkan Erotic Epic" (2005). When he noticed me approaching, he quickly shut his eyes, perhaps out of embarrassment. This interaction, though brief, allowed two strangers to connect in a formidable space. Concomitant to this is the fact that anyone can sit across from Abramovic and attempt to connect with her, as both the performer and the participant strive to mutually acknowledge each other in the presence of others. James Westcott, Abramovic's former assistant and author of the newly released biography When Marina Abramovic Dies, had the opportunity to face her in the atrium last week during a press preview. After some time, tears began streaming down her face. He said, "I was thinking, 'thank you' and 'sorry'." Abramovic is known for performances based on trust and vulnerability, and, at MoMA, these two themes are most assuredly present.
(photo credit: Marina Abramovic, MoMA, Sean Kelly Gallery)