25 May 2010

Here's Looking at You Kid ~ Marina Abramović

The other day The New York Times ran this report on this exhibition at MOMA written by philosopher and critic Arthur Danto. The show is actually a "performance" entitled The Artist is Present by Marina Abramović; the piece, which is part of a retrospective of Abramović's work consists in the artist sitting in a chair (generally clad in red white or blue) across from an empty chair. Visitors line up for the opportunity to sit across from Abramović for as long as they like. (One morning a woman apparently showed up dressed like Abramović and sat virtually all day.) The sitters are being photographed and their "portraits" are being posted on this Flickr page; my rough guess is that somewhere just shy of 1200 sittings have taken place so far. From what I can tell the entire ordeal is being filmed for posterity as well.

I actually have learned a lot from Danto's writings over the years. But my colleague and friend Rachel, who teaches in the Rochester VCS program recently referred to him as a "dork." Given that he seems to really, really like this whole exercise, I have begun to wonder myself. Of the current performance Danto writes that the "performance has brought MOMA itself to the cutting edge of contemporary artistic experiment" and that "It has captured the imagination of everyone interested in contemporary art." I guess I am just not all that interested.

I will come back to some "interesting" aspects of The Artist is Present in a companion post. Here I just want to pose some questions that Danto tacitly raises. Here he is:
"Performance art, as currently practiced, emerged as an avant garde movement in the 1960s and ’70s, and some of its features made it difficult to visualize how it might make the transition from galleries and public spaces to the more institutional environment of the museum.

For one thing, the medium of the artist is his or her own body, sometimes nude or engaged in highly dangerous circumstances. Pictures of nude bodies doing dangerous things raise no such obstacles in a museum space, but performance art itself is real in all dimensions. Before it can be translated and presented in a museum, a number of problems, both practical and philosophical, must be worked out.

One method would be to allow the pieces to be re-performed, which purists naturally disallow. For them, a performance is a one-time event, unlike a play, which is made to be re-performed; in theater, the distinction between character and actor is widely accepted. In the purist’s conception of performance art, there can be no such distinction; the artist and the performer are one, and must use his or her own body in the work. No one else, they argue, can do this, for reasons both moral and metaphysical.

Marina Abramovic is one of the early performance artists whose works have the deep originality that justifies their inclusion in great museums.

[. . .]

What is clear is that the possibility of sitting with Marina has ignited in the public imagination the idea that one can do more than passively experience works of art, that one can be part of a work of art for as long as one is willing or able."
I am sure that there are theorists of art who will think my puzzlement is naive, but do we define art by what can make it into a museum? And isn't the shift into "the more institutional environment of the museum" pretty much an invitation to passivity? In the current instance Abramović seeks to control the terms of the entire "experience"; that she is not quite able to do so does nothing to mitigate the fact that any creative participation by the folks who line up to sit with her is at the margins of her plan. I wonder if anyone has walked up to the sitters and spoken to them or offered to purchase the place of the person sitting with Abramović - a novel way to cut line. I'll bet not. (Maybe said purchaser would then insist that the chair remain vacant while she perused the other parts of the retrospective. Imagine the ire of the MOMA security, to say nothing of the artist, in such a circumstance.) Everyone surely is polite and well-behaved. Passive. Compliant. Proper. They all know how to comport themselves in a museum. They are indeed a "part" of the work, playing a role that has been engineered for them.

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Blogger Joe Zammit-Lucia said...

The reality is that art, like almost all other aspects of human endeavor, has been captured by today's celebrity culture. Abramovic is a celebrity artist so anything she produces or does has 'artistic merit' because it is produced by a celebrity. Curators, critics and audience alike are mesmerized by celebrities. That is not to say that she did not reach her celebrity status by producing anything other than great art (however you choose to judge that). But now she is in a different phase of her career.

25 May, 2010 13:53  
Blogger joaoh said...

Hi Jim,

I'm João, from Portugal, longtime reader and fan of your blog and very pleased to comment here for the first time.

I tend to agree on the main lines of your article about Marina's performance. I have to mention that i didn't go there to see it having just read some articles about it and Anello's photographs of the people that sat with the artist.

You're saying that art can't be defined exclusively by what goes on at the museums. Most people will agree with that and also with the fact that nowadays museums (for good or bad) are some sort of strong contenders on legitimating the art world. But that's another story. I agree with you on this one.

I tend to agree also with the fact that Marina tries to control the terms of the experience. Certainly i'm not prepared to know what's on her mind when she does it. I might guess only. You seem to suggest some sort of manipulation that ends in a sheep-behaviour. Besides being a photographer, i have a counselling background. In therapy with the client you must have some sort of boundaries, in life you have them too, even at your blog you have them for the comments. You just don't allow everyone to enter your field or get too close without some rules, mainly if it is a total stranger. What i am trying to say is this, are the rules just personal and performance boundaries (perhaps acceptable) or some sort of manipulation to put the perfomance in a "known" road or just to prevent it from ending on some crazy shit?

Any of these possibilities might be true. Also i'm not saying that what she is trying to do is some sort of therapy. But i draw some similarities from one particular experience i had when studying counselling. It was defined by the american Psychologist Carl Rogers and it was named "Encounter Group": it had a facilitator and a number of participants. Mainly non-directive it had some basic rules but there wasn't a clear direction about what to do and most of the time it was silence that could be heard. The faces and emotions could be very similar to the ones found on Marina's performance, going from amazement to boredom. the most upset persons were the ones doing it for the first time, why wasn´t there any direction, any theme? What was people doing there? What was the meaning and purpose of it? Mostly people didn't say anything and you could sense the discomfort, some even cried too.

That time was part of the pratice of personal development, to be with the other, to accept it inconditionally, to be congruent, to be emphatic, etc. Was it sucessfull? I can speak for myself and i really think it was.

(end of part1)

25 May, 2010 15:47  
Blogger joaoh said...

(part 2)
Somehow i sense Marina's perfomance as something a bit different from manipulation but... perhaps it is not. Also it appears to be based on some sort of pratice that is commonly know between praticioners as being an eucounter that facilitates personal development. Again, i don't know if she means it, but i can easily see art as a facilitator of personal development.

Also focusing on something that Mr Danto said and i quote "It was as if she had entered another state. I was outside her gaze. Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain. She was luminous without being incandescent. She had gone into what she had often spoken of as a “performance mode.” For me at least, it was a shamanic trance". This part might be a bit difficult to undestand, but it's interesting that an academic adresses this type of mystic experience. Many people would discard this as BS babble, after all what's that "luminosity and shamanic trance, etc".

I can see (or sense) a lot of people in highly emotional states, derived from being still, not talking, by being in presence with someone that is affecting them in some way. Even if i don't understand the full meaning of it i think there is something more than just some passive and compliant people, or at least some of them are having a more rich experience than that. Those characteristics might better define the ones seeing from the outside but what is going on at the inside of those people? I really would like to know.

Thanks Jim. Keep your great work.

25 May, 2010 15:47  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Ironically, Danto claims: "All these are conceptually as well as aesthetically exciting, but in no respect have they aroused the sort of universal interest generated by Marina’s new performance piece." SP the retrospective aspect of the show seems to being swamped by what one critic has referred to as "the circus". I do not know the artist's earlier work. It seems to me, though, that this new performance is not terribly interesting. Then again, I am in Rochester!

I trust you are gearing up for a good summer! JJ

25 May, 2010 15:50  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

hello all ... I received this email from my long distance friend Beth. She is pretty smart about these things. I'll respond separately.

Hi Jim,

(I'm sending this via regular email as I can't figure out how to sign in via Google, since I almost never use it! Feel free to post to the comments on the blog if you like, or consider it a personal note if you don't.)

I will have to respectfully disagree with you here. It's tough to ultimately make a critical call on the relative quality/value of a performance work like the one that Abramovic is doing at MoMA without actually engaging it in person. The twitter feed, etc. are part of it, yes, but will only speak to those who can reconstruct the personal dimension of the encounter imaginatively. What she's foregrounding here, ultimately, is the immediacy of a personal encounter. That what the 'is present' part of the title deals with.

For another, interesting perspective, have a look at this article from NYmag, an account by one of the people hired to perform the 'retrospective' works in the show:


Debra was a student at New Paltz, and I worked with her to install her MFA thesis show a few years ago. She's incredibly thoughtful, deliberate, and quite serious--and I think worth taking seriously, as well.

I have my own issues with Danto as an art critic--he tends to trot out the same 'these things seem identical but they're not' arguments too often--but on the whole he's usually worth the read, IMHO.

Just a few thoughts from the artsy end of things....


25 May, 2010 18:01  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I agree that experiencing this vicariously is troublesome. that said nearly everyone is experiencing it vicariously. The show is up 3 months and on most days fewer than a dozen folks actually "sit" with Marina. And many of the repeat extras she has attracted to the performance take up even the few slots that are available. Moreover, to hear Danto tell it she is in something of a trance the entire time. Fine. Maybe I don't relate well to the semi-or-otherly-conscious. But what sort of personal interaction is that? Count me as (still) dubious.

On the other hand, I actually find the notion of commissioning others to perform one's performances intriguing.

Thanks for writing. Hope all is well!


25 May, 2010 18:05  
Blogger Tom White said...

I am engaging in a performance piece entitled 'life' wherin I go out in public and invite others to engage (or not - as they so please) in an interaction with me. My favourite part of the performance is a section I have tentatively called 'subway'. It is a work in progress where I sit on the subway and look around at the fellow passengers to see if I can catch the eye of any of them and then how long I can hold their gaze. I believe this piece is dealing with metaphysical concepts on the nature of self and the society but there is not enough space to go into that here. I am currently working on a proposal to take this public performance into the institutional world of the museum setting but so far the high admission fees for most museum shows are presenting an obstacle. However, I had a highly successful performance at the Guggenheim last year when my son and I performed a 3 hour long piece entitled 'Visiting the Kandinsky show' and I would certainly like to continue with more of these performances in future.

28 May, 2010 22:41  

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