It is 2010 and a woman sits in the atrium of The Museum of Modern Art. She wears a white robe and across from her sits someone else, a museum patron, or more generally a human being. The woman sits motionless, staring straight into the face of the person facing her, not looking away or breaking eye contact for any reason. When the patron in front of her feels like they have had the experience they wanted, they get up and walk away. The woman looks down with eyes shut, preparing herself for the next person. She does this continuously, seven to ten hours a day for three months straight. People sit in front of her, some look at her with trepidation, others blankly, still others openly weep. She is able to tap into something, something powerful. For some, it is extraordinary pain. In the end, she acts a mirror to whoever is in front of her. She allows the person, by removing any kind of filter of thought, conversation, or pretense, to see deep inside themselves and to pull out something profound. Some people break down as they walk away, but many appear to be deeply affected by it in some way, at least momentarily.
The Artist is Present, 2010:
The piece is called The Artist is Present and is part of a retrospective of the performance work of artist Marina Abramović at MoMA by the same name. This is a new piece and upwards of one million people have seen the show, while over fifteen-hundred sat in front of the artist. She puts herself through tremendous physical abuse, merely by sitting for so long. This is in line with her entire body of work. Her performances are all about pushing the body and mind to and past the limits of endurance and in so doing allow artist and audience to find some form of transcendence. It directly challenges viewers and is incredibly visceral, dealing with extremes of physical experiences, especially pain. She wants no mediation between herself and the audience and many of her works involve participation from them.
Examples of some of her most famous performance pieces include two naked people, a man and a woman (herself and her lover and partner Ulay in the original performance), standing at the narrow entrance of an art gallery, and therefore necessitating gallery-goers to squeeze in between the two naked bodies, facing either the man or the woman (Imponderabilia, 1977). In another performance (Rhythm 0, 1974), she set up a scenario where she stood with a bunch of objects in front of her and allowed anyone to use the objects on her in whatever way they wished without her interfering. One patron had to be stopped from killing her with a loaded revolver that was one of the objects on the table. Ulay and Abramović would often perform works together having to do with the difficulties of female and male relationships. Some examples include pieces where they screamed at each other (AAA AAA, 1978), careened into each other with great force (Relation in Space, 1977), or even one where they held a bow and arrow in such a way that if Ulay let go the arrow would fly into Abramović’s stomach (Rest Energy, 1980). Although she has worked with the genre of theater and many of her works, such as these, could be considered quite theatrical, she sees theater as merely illusionism. Within it, blood is fake, pain is acted. Everything is real and pushed towards its extreme in performance art. Ultimately she sees her work as a kind of search for meaning, a journey to find who and what a person is at their very core, something that may be found by standing on the knife edge of experience.
Examples of Abramović performances from the 1970’s-1980’s :
Abramović states that art changed her, not the other way around. It took her forty years for her work to be taken seriously and she wants performance art to be seen as just as valid a form of art as painting or sculpture. She used to be starving, living out of a van with Ulay. They were barely paid for any of their work. (Ulay and Abramović eventually separated symbolically and in reality in The Great Wall Walk in 1988, where they walked to each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to say goodbye). Now, with her constant appearances at art events, her speaking and interview appearances, and her predilection for wearing glamorous designer outfits she has become an art world darling and is more popular than ever. She is revered by pop stars like Lady Gaga and recently appeared in Jay-Z’s “art film” music video Picasso Baby. For some amazing reason, she has succeeded in doing all of this without giving up an inch of artistic credibility. Her work continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in performance art and somehow she has been able to marry her extreme popularity and fame with her groundbreaking art. She has commented on how destructive success can be to creativity, but that it also can push you to move in different directions and to create something wholly new. The Artist is Present is just as controversial as any of her pieces and still performing into her late sixties, she has in no way softened with age.
Abramović gives 100% in her performances. They take over her life. She eliminates all communication with the outside world. No cell phones, meetings, or interviews. She only speaks with those museum personnel necessary for the set-up and maintenance of The Artist is Present, her assistant and photographer, and the guards who were there for her protection. It takes a lot of physical training and conditioning as well as a rigid regimen of nocturnal fluid intake to prepare for the show. She begins the process three months before the show is to open. Her routine consists of going to sleep around 10:00 at night and waking every 45 minutes to drink her daily allotment of water. She then awakens at 6:30 in the morning, takes a bath, and drinks the last water for the day. After eating lentils (she is a vegetarian), she, her assistant, and a photographer go to the museum. After going to the bathroom for the last time before she sits for the day, Abramović puts a mark the wall used to reflect how many days had passed. She sits alone and prepare herself for fifteen minutes before the museum opens for visitors. After sitting for the entire length of museum hours of operation she goes home, eats dinner, and goes to sleep. Her routine is very rigid when she is creating a work of art, but she says she has no discipline when she is not working. She remarks at how much work goes into being an artist nowadays and that so much of her time must go into planning and administration.
Some of the more powerful emotional reactions while sitting with Abramović:
She has the same philosophy when it comes to training the thirty young performance artists who would perform the five historical pieces in the show. She instructs her performers to fast for three days and give up all forms of communication with the outside world. She puts them through many rigorous exercises that will train their bodies and minds for three months performance. She explains that the state of mind the performers are in would be the most important element of the performance itself. They need to be like warriors. Emphasis is put on being in the here and now and putting all their energy into the stamina that it will take to do the pieces. She explains that the hardest thing to do in life is to do nothing with intention as it takes the most out of you as a person mentally and physically. She believes that an artist must be uncompromising and must be honest with themselves and others and in delving into the darkness of doubt and failure because you will eventually come out with new insights into yourself and your own creativity.
One of several re-performances of earlier Abramović pieces from the MoMA show:
Abramović pushes herself to the limit during The Artist is Present. She has incredible pain and at one point museum security begins getting very concerned. The museum’s performance curator, Klaus Biesenbach, who had also warned Marina before the performance of its dangers, gives her an out, stating that she can stop the performance if she wishes. She outright refuses, replying that she could never even consider doing such a thing. However, alterations are made during the course of the show. The table dividing the artist from the audience is removed after the first two months. At first, she wants to maintain a structure between the two to allow for the artist to settle into the piece. But eventually Abramović decides there should be no division between herself and whoever is sitting in front of her. Ultimately it is the right decision, adding an element of intimacy between artist and visitor. The show is a great success, for the museum, financially, critically, and for Marina herself. There are some powerful moments, including opening night when Ulay sits in front of her and Abramović brakes down. It is deeply emotional for her because it was the first time the two have performed together since their symbolic separation on the Great Wall. It is the extreme raw nakedness of emotion that works like The Artist Is Present allow for and that makes them so powerful and so successful. It is what attracts people to them.
The emotional moment when Ulay and Abramović performed together for the first time in almost 25 years:
What is ultimately important about Marina Abramović is her unwavering and principled stand towards art as well as what the artist’s place and purpose is within the dynamic of the performative space. She believes in being uncompromising and doing everything to its fullest. In this way, even though she puts her mind and body through incredible stresses, she is able to use creativity as a form of therapy and spiritual practice and to allow others to participate in that with her. This makes her a very unique and significant artist and unlike many in the performance art genre, one who’s art stays with you long after you have experienced it directly.
Portraits of MoMA visitors who participated in the artist is present
The website for HBO’s documentary film on Abramović’s MoMA retrospective