Marina Abramovic is one of the early pioneers of performance art, and history has shown her to be one of its most influential . This show covers almost four decades of her very ambitious, and frequently controversial career. Also quite ambitious is the prospect of putting on a retrospective of a performance artists work. The medium doesn't really lend itself to a large museum show that covers an artists output over many years. Performance art in its pure form is a unique, one time only event. It happens, and then it's done. It can be documented through film and photographs, but the documentation isn't really the art. Is it? Also, the artist can only be in one place at a time, so how do you have room after room of her work all taking place at once? Pretty challenging eh? The Modern does about as good a job with this daunting assignment as possible. What they do is they have filmed and photographed documentation of her work next to a number of "reperfomances" of some of her most seminal pieces using other people/performers/artists/whatever they're called. There is a lot of text on the walls explaining the work, which kind of annoys me, but what are ya gonna do.
This all takes place in the sixth floor galleries. Downstairs in the atrium, the artist is engaged in what appears to be a marathon staring contest across a table with whomever visitor to the museum wishes to take her on. Apparently the visitor chooses the time limit, and once that runs out, gets replaced by the next in line. Abramovic has committed to do this every day, from opening to closing of the museum for the duration of her retrospective. If completed it will be the longest single performance piece she's ever created. Good luck with that. What happens if she has to go to the bathroom?
Back on the sixth floor the show starts with some of her work from around 1970 where she used audio recordings of metronomes and other sounds that aim to replace the visual with the auditory, and the element of space with that of time. From this she began live performances using her body as the medium. At the time this was a really radical, visionary thing to do. She later hooked up with her partner and lover Ulay with whom she collaborated on some very provocative pieces for about twelve years, until they broke up. One of the things that struck me when walking through the galleries is how differently I felt about the live performances from the recorded ones. There's something about a live body as a work of art that makes you more aware of your own body in relation to it. The fact that these live bodies are frequently nude makes you feel even more self conscious. Oh, did I mention that there was nudity? In one case a nude man and woman stand in a relatively small doorway, and the viewers are encouraged (or challenged) to walk between them. After hesitating, I decided to walk through, but had to stop myself from saying "excuse me" as I did. In the text the artist talks about energy fields passing between the viewer and the performer. This may sound like some pretentious hippy art speak, but anyone with anything resembling a nervous system should be able feel exactly that. Also, having the live performance taking place right next to the recorded ones seems to highlight this difference between the two.
The other thing I was aware of was how passive most of the recorded, and all of the live performances were relative to what I think of as performance art today. They were basically just standing, or sitting, or lying in one place, not really "performing" in the conventional sense at all. It's easy to forget that performance art is really the natural decedent of minimalism, where the artist engages the relationship of the viewers body and the surrounding space with the object. Minimalism is the descendant of abstract expressionism, one branch of which is action painting, where the hand and body of the artist and his/her physical interaction with the materials becomes an essential element of the art. Today performance art is seen as a kind of avant guard branch of theater (Blueman, Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian) where the viewer sits safely in the dark side by side with other audience members, staring at the artist on stage talking, or singing, or running around. In truth, theater has a very different, and obviously much longer history than performance art. The similarities between the two mediums are really more incidental. Abramovic's work could not be confused with theater. The passivity of her performers make the viewer feel less passive. This, and the fact that they're standing in front of, and on the same ground as the viewer makes them seem more vulnerable, challenging, and paradoxically confrontational.
The work is pretty highbrow, and even though a lot of it was made in the 70s it is by even todays standards pretty edgy. Like I said, there is a lot of nudity. There's also a fair amount of sexual and somewhat threatening, borderline violent content. Parents may really want to hire a sitter. I think it's a really interesting, and thought provoking show, but it is challenging, and clearly not for everyone. If you don't feel up for it, you can always see the Tim Burton show downstairs. And then afterwards your mommy might take you out for ice-cream! Pussies.