Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Thoughts on the gaze, Marina Abramović and Tino Sehgal

February 24, 2010 - 7:24am -- Carol Diehl
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.


Your discussion of Abramovic's work in the context of Roberta's article brings up a slight discomfort I have with the phrase 'intense personal necessity.'

The way you talk about her work, it seems done out of an intense *spiritual* necessity, in that it is transpersonal. It expands beyond the boundaries of her singular mind; she is as influenced by her surroundings, particularly the minds of the people around her, as she influences them.

This is slightly different from the way most people conceive of intense *personal* necessity, which seems to imply a need to produce and broadcast one's particular stuff, regardless of the audience (or lack of one), surroundings, social and environmental climate, etc. Or perhaps 'personal' necessity takes these things into account, but still the influence is only intended to go one way.

Personal and spiritual necessity can certainly be present at the same time, but I'm not sure they're always synonymous.

Thank you, PL. I like how you expand the interpretation, and I agree with you. We've seen way too much solipsism in recent art, too much personal without the universal. However the way I took "intense personal necessity" was to indicate something the artist would do even if the art world didn't exist. Abramovic I'm sure, would be doing something similar to what she's doing with or without MoMA and its equivalents, we just wouldn't know about it.

A lot of this stuff seems to me to be mental illness (or more likely faux mental illness) masquerading as art. Maybe I'm not open minded enough to understand it, although I've tried. I don't think the parent of a "cutter" would think her work was profound.

And how does a performance artist support herself in this style?

It's a fuzzy line between what is acceptable in our world and what is not, and what is art and what is not.

I remember once reading about a man in a Swiss mental institution, who every day made beautiful drawings in sand, which he erased at night. For this he was labeled a nut. But, I always thought, if he'd just figured out how to SELL those things, he could be considered normal.

What about Jackass? Seriously. I couldn't help think about those guys when I was reading about Abramovic's work. I know there are great differences but the vehicle of self inflicted pain toward anything is strong and curious. Deeply personal and I imagine universal. I've understood it to be related to lack of feeling and a desire to connect back.
There are many paths toward transformation but why extreme and why pain? And what has her transformations yielded? I'm interested to understand more.

Yes. and thank you. I have enjoyed reading your thoughts and experience pertaining to Marina's Moma exhibit. This is a wonderful added read to follow a long night of reading the Jerry saltz thread conversation on the similar subject. now to calm my mind by choosing a very different activity than this reading has been for tonight. a painting meditation, then a before midnight walk in the dark light of a sliver beautiful crescent moon.

oh, yes, meaning, yes Carol, to your wonderful writing. I also appreciated Pretty Lady's comments on spiritual necessity and transpersonal, and your reply. Looking at the creative and even at times spiritual neccessities that are present in the artistic practice of an artist that continues to develop and begin again and again their work each day or week, even without success, recognition and material reward, because the work itself as process, study and practice, is rooted in transpersoanl, way of being, neccessity. Thank you Carol for writing about this exhibit and adding your own experiences that created the unique lens through which you had your open minded, reflective perspectives to share on your visit with abramovic's work. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and insights in the future.

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