Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Marina Abramovic

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

February 24, 2010
Marina Abramović, photo by Reto Guntli

From the press release:

The Museum of Modern Art presents Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, the first U.S. large-scale museum retrospective of the artist’s groundbreaking performance work, from March 14 to May 31, 2010. Internationally recognized as a pioneer and key figure in performance art, Marina Abramović (Yugoslav, b. 1946) uses her own body as subject, object, and medium, exploring the physical and mental limits of her being by creating pieces that require her to withstand pain, exhaustion, and discomfort in the quest for artistic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual transformation….

Abramović, best known for her durational works, has created a new work for this retrospective—The Artist Is Present (2010)—that she will perform daily throughout the run of the exhibition. For her longest solo piece to date, Abramović will sit in silence at a table in the Museum’s Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium during public hours, passively inviting visitors to take the seat across from her for as long as they choose within the timeframe of the Museum’s hours of operation. Although she will not respond verbally, participation by Museum visitors completes the piece and allows them to have a personal experience with the artist and the artwork.

I wasn’t quick enough to get my bid in to write about Abramović for the art magazines; indeed, until I attended the press preview at MoMA last week, I didn’t realize how profoundly I related to her work. I’ve done many things in my life involving ritual, meditation, a certain amount of endurance (the only English phrase my Chinese t’ai chi master seemed to know was “hold for one minute”) and even danger (studying karate at a dojo with a policy of admitting everyone, even those with “problems,’ because that’s who’s out there on the street, in life)—experiences that offer me a glimpse into Abramović’s practice.

But just a glimpse. Because no matter how rigorous my practices have been, they don’t add up to anything like Abramović’s project. The press release doesn’t mention that Abramović is committed to also remaining silent during her “off” hours, but that would seem a necessary component, as she will be taking in a lot.

I think about an exercise I did once as part of a personal growth workshop which required standing just a little too close and silently staring into the eyes of another member of the group of 150, chosen at random, for ten minutes. During the workshop I’d been sitting next to a man in his 50s, whose conversation indicated that he was very much in love with his wife—who I’d only seen from afar, but seemed hardly the type to inspire such ardor. It turned out she was my partner, and after looking into her eyes for ten minutes, I was in love with her too. Following the exercise we went back to our seats, but my first thought upon leaving the room was that I wanted to give her a hug, an impulse that turned out to be mutual.

In the same vein I sat in on a workshop that Betty Edwards (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) gave, watching as adults went from drawing stick figures to lively, acutely representational portraits within just a few days. One of the exercises involved drawing another person, again chosen at random from the group. In the ladies room later I overheard a conversation where one participant was saying to another, “She’s not the sort of person I ever thought I’d be friends with, but after drawing her for so long, I found I really liked her and we made plans to have lunch.”

I think too of my friend Tim, a singer at the Met who, instructed by a doctor not to speak for three days, said he saw a lot of pain in people’s faces he hadn’t been aware of before.

What will Abramović see? Perhaps just a bunch of people taking pictures (I don’t yet know what MoMA’s policy will be). New Yorkers aren’t great at sitting still—or being quiet. Maybe they’ll come to confess. Whatever happens, Abramović will be changed by the experience, and it will have a profound influence on whatever she does next.

This would appear to be what Roberta Smith was calling for when she wrote (in her much-discussed article “Post Minimal to the Max”) that she wanted to see more “art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”--only in the case of Abramović it’s not the hand but the entire body.

This is art that comes from process, from doing, rather than thinking.

By contrast Tino Sehgal’s piece of interactive theater at the Guggenheim (see Holland Cotter’s favorable Times review) seems to spring from the head, an idea illustrated. The people who ask you questions as you ascend the ramp aren’t actors, but neither are they real people acting on their own impulses. Like the commenter on this blog, Kathy Hodge, who said, “I don’t want to be forced to interact with anyone for their own ‘social experiment,’” I don’t want to give thought to answers that will go nowhere—so I avoid as I do the television news people on the street corner who don’t really care about my opinion either. In both cases I feel as if I’m being used.

With Abramović, however, we meet on our own terms.
February 14, 2010
As a young artist, I thought for sure when I got older that new, unfamiliar art would come along to challenge my assumptions and beliefs. I even looked forward to it. But now that I’m old enough to be a fogey, I see stuff like Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim and instead I’m thinking, “OMG, this again? I have SO seen this, done that.”
I wonder how many more generations I will have to watch discover conceptual art, each time becoming more sterilized, more schooled.

The funniest is art that tries to shock. Sorry, but now things are reversed; it’s the younger generation that’s been coddled and the older one that has done more, seen more, and put more substances up their collective noses than the young ‘uns can imagine. Ours is the generation that produced Robert Mapplethorpe, for chrissake, who saw Nancy Spungen’s body carried out of the Chelsea Hotel, and needing to pee at Danceteria, found people fucking in the stalls--not to speak of having friends dying left and right from AIDS. So I’m going to quake inside when I see a (clothed) black man laying on top of a (clothed) white woman on the floor of the Guggenheim?

Roberta Smith, however, says it better, in “Post-Minimal to the Max” in Friday’s Times:

The current exhibition of Gabriel Orozco at the Museum of Modern Art along with the recent ones of Roni Horn at the Whitney Museum and of Urs Fischer at the New Museum have generated a lot of comment pro and con. So has the Tino Sehgal performance exhibition now on view in an otherwise emptied-out Guggenheim rotunda. But regardless of what you think about these artists individually, their shows share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand. More…

The artists Smith would choose to feature are not necessarily those that populate my curatorial fantasies (for instance I’d start with Terry Winters, whose last New York museum exhibition was in 1992) but not to quibble. Smith sums it up when she says, “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

Certain readers will take this as meaning that Smith is angling for a return to AbEx or somesuch, but I’ll interpret it my way. Readers of this blog know that I admire the work of Olafur Eliasson, who works with a team of collaborators and rarely executes anything himself, yet the aura of “intense personal necessity” surrounds everything he produces. It is also very highly developed. On the other hand, given how much art one sees that seems only half-realized, it’s important to recognize that process itself—the struggle to execute—can be an important path to new ideas. The stubborn development of technique (and by this I mean not facility, but the ideal vehicle for the concept) can provide the time required to take the art where it needs to go.

Also to say that while I find Tino Sehgal's work mannered and superficial, I'm inspired by that of Marina Abramovic (actually this is a prime example of the watering down process I was speaking of, where one generation adopts the look, but not the substance, of the previous one), and will expound on this in later posts.
Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002, oil on linen, 94 1/2" x 133 3/4" (courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery).