[New York Peasant by Wilfrid: March 15, 2010]
I planned to review the exhibit of photographs from the Fales Archive at Grey Art Gallery this week, but it seems more urgent to direct your kind attention to Marina Abramović who I caught in preview at MOMA yesterday.
I may have some more to say about her show in due course.
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The main thing to say is that you must go and see it. I believe this is the first retrospective on anything like this scale for someone who is really a pure performance artist. Such an undertaking presents some obvious hurdles. A museum can display documentation of past performances in the form of photographs and videos, scripts and props: a wealth of such material was offered as part of the Brooklyn Museum's Gilbert & George show - although, of course, performance is only part of their practice.
MoMA highlighted the dilemma by asking Abramović to re-create a number of her performances for this occasion, and Abramović has responded boldly by recruiting a troop of young artists to learn and reproduce the actions on which her reputation is built. This is no tea party. Abramović, for almost forty years, has been at the forefront of physically challenging - one might say extreme, and some might even say masochistic - artistic performance. Risk and astonishing endurance are the hallmarks of her work. If you have heard of nothing else, you might recall reading about a performance artist who lay still and naked for several hours while members of the audience were invited to invade her physical space with an array of tools, ranging from knives and scissors to lipstick and fruit.
Pain features prominently in her oeuvre, with matter-of-fact blood, bruises, burns and muscle strains. At the risk of banality, her suffering is offered as cathartic. It certainly challenges the audience - if not quite as much as it challenges the performer.
MoMA has devoted generous space to her career. Abramović herself is creating a new performance for the occasion. She sits in frozen stillness at a small table in the center of MoMA's vast atrium; a young man sits opposite. Their gazes are locked together. This is no simple stillness: Abramović and her partner seem sculpted, unreal. You might begin to wonder if they are waxworks, but look hard and you will see them blink.
If this seems a tough test for the performers, it's nothing compared with the rigors some of the artist's recruits are required to undergo in the continuation of the show upstairs. I was bewildered at the apparent impossibility of two individuals maintaining a position face to face, with their index fingers extended toward each other but not quite touching. Watch for five minutes, and you start to become dizzy. In a side room, a naked woman is mounted - I can find no better term - on what appears to be a bicycle seat and a couple of foot rests, halfway up the wall. Her arms are wearily outstretched - a naked, trembling angel. Less stressed, I am guessing, a young man lies perfectly still (naked also), a skeleton stretched out on top of him, gently rising and falling with his breath.
These are the startling flesh-and-blood intrusions in what is otherwise a superb archive of Abramović's work. You enter the first gallery to be confronted by a huge screen showing her wrestling violently to brush her hair. To the side, frantic performances illustrate "Freeing the Body" and "Freeing the Voice." Videos, photographs and recordings are amply available, and it's especially worth pausing to watch some of the joint actions she performed with her partner, Ulay. The bow and arrow affair is especially scary.
The endurance factor in her work can hardly avoid reminding modern audiences of David Blaine (he is a friend and a fan), but the actions have a deep semantic content - historical and political - to which Blaine hardly aspires. An obvious example is "Balkan Baroque," a set of footnotes to her early life in communist Yugoslavia; for the original work, she laboriously scrubbed flesh and blood from a stack of cattle bones. Happily the bones, present here, are scrubbed already - but they have an aroma which is going to become interesting as the weather grows warm.
I want to see the show again before drawing any conclusions. Apart from anything else, I want to see if any MoMA-goers are adventurous enough to squeeze between the nude male and female performers who bracket a narrow doorway - far enough apart for you to pass between them, but not without brushing against them. Only one person accepted the invitation to do so while I was there. Guess who. I hadn't thought of New York as so shy.
This is a remarkable show, and with the Kentridge retrospectively running concurrently makes MoMA an exciting place this spring. Tim Burton notwithstanding.
Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, through May 31: more here.
Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives 1961-1991
It might seem impertinent to describe the edgy aesthetic interventions of David Wojnarowicz or Jimmy de Sana as conventional, but in comparison to the Abramović show, another archival review of the nineteen seventies/eighties downtown art scene is bound to seem somewhat prosaic. Not that this show isn't worth some attention. I seem to have seen so many gallery tributes to the downtown scene over the last year, from Fluxus to "No Wave," that I am becoming inured to surprise that all that work was so fully and rigorously documented. This medium-sized show only underlines that fact: wildly experimental as some of these artists seemed at the time, one must simply accept that just about every move they made was filmed or photographed and annotated for future generations.
One strength of this show is the light curatorial hand. Unlike the two-part "Looking at Music" show, featured at MoMA in 2008 and 2009, Grey Art Gallery does not attempt to impose an overarching vision on the very mixed bag of visual artists, theater groups, musicians and dancers featured in this show. The artistic projects of Richard Foreman and Richard Hell, Andy Warhol and Merce Cunningham, Robert Mapplethorpe and Robert Alexander - to snatch a few examples - share some family resemblances. They have geography in common, to an extent. Bohemianism also, and the thread of gay sensibility embedded in that milieu. They have a time in common too, and it was a firmly post-hippy time of AIDs and embattlement. But the works produced are disparate, and this show largely leaves them alone in their diversity.
By no means all the creative activity recorded here survives those times. Some of it will seem silly, some of it long ago recuperated by mainstream pop fashions. But it's a history condemned to be told and re-told, and this is at least an unjaded presentation of some highlights.
At the Grey Art Gallery through April 3.