After over 40 years of cheating death or risking permanent disfigurement in numerous Performance Art pieces, Serbian artist Marina Abramović exposed herself to the most daring feat of all: a retrospective. Unfortunately, the accumulation of so many highly theatrical Marina episodes simply collapsed under its own weight, becoming less about art and more about Houdini-esque spectacle. Although the Museum of Modern Art solo exhibition may be considered a landmark in Performance Art History, it also proved that an archival treatment of this art form fails to measure up to the real thing.
Oh, Marina, what have you done to your ethos? I have attended three of your performances. In Night-Sea Crossing (1981-87), when you and Ulay sat in the scruffy old New Museum on Broadway at Houston Street for two days, seven hours each day in 1986 without moving - stock still all the time. In House with an Ocean View (November 15-26, 2002), you lived at Sean Kelly Gallery and drank nothing but distilled water, sang (no talking allowed), sat (sometimes on the toilet) and showered in public. In your recreation of Vito Acconci';s performance piece Seedbed, at the Guggenheim during Seven Easy Pieces (November 9 through 15, 2005), you masturbated for seven hours under an enclosed wooden platform.
I loved your work then, always intimate and immediate. But that was then. This retrospective is Marina Abramović now.
Your retrospective was called Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, the namesake of your exhibition performance piece which required that you sit and stare at a partner who came to you voluntarily from the crowd. You sat and stared at each other in silence across a table or without the table at all times during the run of the show. You sat surrounded by floodlights, video cameras and a constant audience of one to three people deep in the enormous Atrium at the center of the museum's building which can be viewed from different floors and several different vantage points. You were at the center of your exhibition and the center of the museum itself. (Your co-sitters signed away their rights to any ownership of their participation.)
Some partners stayed for a few minutes, some stayed all day. Some wore their normal street clothes, some dressed especially for the occasion. One artist, Anya Liftig dressed just like you in a long flowing gown, her hair in a long braid arranged to fall alongside her neck (just like yours). Her piece was called The Anxiety of Influence (inspired by Harold Bloom's book). After she stayed with you all day, you slightly smiled and the guards told Anya to get up and leave.
Marina, you might aim at engaging your audience directly and completely, but do you really succeed? Or do you drive our brains literally to distraction? You do, Marina. You do. Your art taxes our attention spans as we struggle to focus on you, think away our boredom, and secretly wonder how you manage not to fall asleep or pee (you use a catheter).
Above the Atrium, the retrospective filled about seven rooms. In the first room we see your early work (1970s). You are dancing, screaming and combing your dark, thick hair and face with a metal brush while intoning repetitively "Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful" for hours and hours. You are often nude, testing your body's endurance and stamina. Always challenging the strength of the mind and body, you claim this work is about being completely present in the moment. (Milena Tomić claims that it’s a manifestation of Tito-era discipline "as a material product - an ideological reality.")
The second room displays your work with German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen (known as Ulay) from 1976 to 1988. Here numerous films document your two bodies colliding (Relation in Space, 1976), mouths yelling (AAA AAA, 1978), CO² exchanging (Breathing In/Breathing Out, 1977) and finally (and quite movingly) embracing as you ended your relationship (The Lovers, 1988), after your monumental separate walks along the Great Wall of China, starting at opposite ends and then meeting in the middle. It took each of you 90 days. This was your best work, because it fused the body with raw nature in a challenging landscape.
In the same room, hired performance artists reenacted a few of the Marina and Ulay "Relation" performances: the intertwined ponytails (Relation in Time, 1977), pointing fingers (Point of Contact, 1980), and standing nude in a doorway as visitors walked through (Imponderabilia, 1977). The bright lights on your acolytes' exceptionally beautiful bodies turned these vessels into waxwork-like simulations, worthy of Madame Tussaud's.
And then, Marina, you were alone.
On your own you seem to obsess about your past. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia (the culture that formed your first identity) may have mirrored the breakup of your former self with Ulay. In the third room, your father and your Serbian identity dominate the scene. In The Hero (2001), a black and white video, you are dressed in dark clothes, your long hair flowing as you sit astride a mighty white steed, white flag held on high waving in the breeze. Presumably, the setting is the countryside in Serbia.
You dedicated this vision to your mother's and father's memories. The Yugoslavian anthem Hej Sloveni sung by Marica Gojević accompanies this iconic tableau.
Who was your father? He was Vojo Abramović (1912-1999), a World War II hero with the Partisans, the Nazi resisters, who found your mother Danica Rosić, another soldier, on the battlefield, suffering from typhus. He carried her off on a white horse to a farmer's home to recover. When your mother returned to the front, she recognized Vojo in a makeshift army hospital, bleeding out from his wounds. She saved him with a transfusion of her own blood.