Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Artist is Present: Marina Abramovic and Relational Aesthetics

(cross-posted on Immanent Terrain)

It was nothing short of a profoundly unique experience to witness Marina Abramovic's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday, April 24th, 2010. I say this not just because of the profound impact that her work left on me for the days after witnessing the re-performances and re-presentations of her literal "body of work"; this experience was novel as it was the first time MoMA has curated a retrospective on the oeuvre of a performance artist.

I had an inclining of what to expect after having lunch with my artist friend on the Wednesday prior to visiting the museum. She explained the piece that Abramovic herself was to be performing on the second floor of the museum, The Artist is Present, as the artist's ultimate work. My artist friend's explanation served to be a far more modest, cursory description of the performance, as the experience is far more serene yet grand than she made it out to be. Upon entering the museum and ascending the stairs to the Marron Atrium that exists as a space traditionally in constant flux exhibiting temporary collections, large-scale pieces, and video installations, one encounters massive floodlights at each of the four corners of a large square marked off on the floor by tape, the square almost the size of the space itself. In the center of the square sits Abramovic on a chair at one end of a wooden table wearing a long, red gown that is simultaneously confining her body and yet somehow cascading around her legs and onto the floor, making herself at once separate from and one with the chair on which she is positioned. There is a chair positioned at the other end of the table facing the artist in which museum visitors are invited to sit and engage in an unspoken dialogue with the artist for an indeterminate amount of time. Her body appears in this same position every day for the length of museum hours until the retrospective closes on May 31, 2010.

Endurance is a large part of Marina Abramovic's presentation of her body/of work. Sitting or standing for hours at a time, subjecting her body to repeatedly to collisions with other objects, beatings, lashings or deprivation, Abramovic tests the limits of human comfort with acts of tedium, stress, and concentration. As she submits her body to these series of acts - examples can be drawn from her three parallel pieces from 1977 entitled Freeing the Memory, Freeing the Body, and Freeing the Voice in which she speaks, dances and screams until she has pushed her body to the point of failure - Abramovic seeks to push her body out of its comfort of stasis and stagnant, un-becoming being. In committing to performing these acts in front of a live audience (or at times the future audience implied in the act of filming the performance), the artist insists on creating a dialogue with herself and her audience, creating herself as both the subject and the object of her body/of work. Much like her piece The Artist is Present, Abramovic questions the notions of object and subject and of artistic and audience.

If, as Nicolas Bourriaud asserts in his text Relational Aesthetics, "each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world,"(i) then Abramovic's aim of blurring the line between artist as subject and audience as object (and vice versa) lies in her confrontation of her body with the spectator. Consistently appearing nude without engaging in sexual acts and subjecting her body to the will of her audience like she did with Rhythm O - asking the audience to use one of 70 or so different objects, some of them potentially lethal, on herself and taking full responsibility - the artist is confronting her audience's notions of the body and of the traditional work of art while at the same time dispelling concepts of sexuality and humanity.

" is no longer possible to regard the contemporary work as a space to be walked through...It is henceforth presented as a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussion." (ii)
- Nicolas Bourriaud
None of Marina Abramovic's works exemplify this quote from Bourriaud more literally than her piece The House with the Ocean View (2002), a space constructed for living out a minimalist existence in the hopes of purifying the artist's body and mind. Consisting of three rooms with nothing more than a shower, a toilet, 12 changes of clothes and gallons of purified water, Abramovic lived in this elevated space for 12 days with three ladders made of butcher knives offering her only chance for escape. While the artist was only present in the space via a filmed projection of one of her performances of this work, the stark space, beautiful in its modernist simplicity and austerity, the picture below offers one glimpse into her 12 day experience in the performance space.

"I didn't have verbal communication. It was only with the eyes. I became so sensitive that—it sounds almost religious—I had this amazing opening of the heart that hurt me. This is why I believe time is so necessary: the public needs time to get the point. When I spend 12 days in a gallery, its energy is changed. Artists have to serve as oxygen to society, and that is what I do." - Marina Abramovic, from an interview for ARTnews.

(i) Nicolas Bourriaud. Relational Aesthetics. France: Les presses du reel, 1998 (22).
(ii) Ibid, 15.

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