BY ALEKSANDRA LIFSHITS
Marina Abramović is a Serbian performance artist known for testing the boundaries of performance art and human endurance. During her performances, she tends to endanger her body by inflicting pain on herself to feel spiritual transcendence, which she describes as a state bordering life and death. Her retrospective “The Artist is Present” was first held at the MOMA in 2010 and it featured, amongst other things, the artist sitting in a chair for months facing different changing visitors. This same exhibition was recreated with many changes a year later at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow.
There is a preconception that as something is repeated it could ultimately lose its value and meaning. Within this context, I find interesting how Marina Abramović chose to re-perform most of her lifetime performances at the MOMA with the help of volunteers and then decided to re-perform the MOMA exhibition once again at Garage in Moscow. These re-performances allow for more individuals to interact with Abramović’s art. Does it matter that the performer is no longer the artist herself? Does Abramović’s main success depend on an element of surprise, which is lost in this re-performance?
Even though I did not encounter Abramović, the element of surprise was definitely part of my experience at the Moscow venue. That day, my friends and I wandered around the city looking for something to do. After a couple hours, we stumbled into Garage with almost no previous knowledge of the artist or her style of work. We were taken aback when the attendants asked to see our IDs, explaining that the exhibit contained nudity and that access was only acceptable for those who were 18+ years old. As we showed our documents, an attendant instructed us to turn off our phones and form a single-file line. All of this reminded me more of an entrance to a Broadway show rather than that of an exhibition. Which makes me wonder, why is Abramović’s art displayed in museums rather than on stages? Did Abramović choose not to perform on stage because theatre inherently suggests something staged and, therefore, fake? As I encountered different pieces, I understood that an exhibition setting has different things to offer, since spectators get a personal interaction with no time limit. Here, the viewer has power to move freely through the exhibition, creating an individualized experience. Yet, I kept on asking myself, would my personal experience have changed radically if I have had interacted with the original artist rather than the volunteers?
At the very entrance, the audience is given the opportunity to make their first individual choice with the piece called “Imponderabilia”. As I pulled the black curtains that marked the entry to the exhibition, I encountered a naked man and woman standing in the entranceway facing each other. To enter I had to turn sideways to walk in-between the two naked performers. I also had to choose either to face the woman or the man. Awkwardly, and avoiding eye contact, I slid past choosing to face the woman. I can still recall how uncomfortable I felt at that moment, while contrastingly the people who were naked seemed completely at ease. My piercing discomfort was arduous to ignore. I was forced to ask myself, “Why does this make me feel so uncomfortable?” and “why did I choose to face the woman rather than the man?” My experience made me look critically at myself, at social norms and at the concept of sexuality in general.
“Imponderabilia,” like all of Abramović’s pieces at Garage, was previously performed by other volunteers at the MOMA, but even earlier, it was first performed by the artist herself and her ex-lover, Ulay, in 1977. The artistic audience as a whole has definitely matured since the original performance; unlike the 70’s, the police did not close down the show. Nonetheless, Abramović was not part of Moscow’s exhibition, like she was in the MOMA, but she did travel there to hold a five day workshop for the volunteers. These passed a series of filters until the most passionate and dedicated “artists” were left, most of which were between the ages of 24-26. They interacted with Abramović during the workshops and many pointed out that their participation in the show has changed their relationship with art. Curiously, the volunteers told a local Russian magazine that the most difficult part of the training process was learning to be still and keeping eye contact for extended periods of time (humans naturally never look into each other’s eyes for longer than nine seconds). Unlike the volunteers, the spectators miss out on the interaction with the artist. It is unclear how much of Abramović’s ideas the volunteers really embody after a five-day workshop, in order to make sure that no meaning is lost in this transaction.
Even though the artist loses some control by ironically not being present in “The Artist is Present”, Abramović has the power to make greater decisions about training, as well as location. She describes Moscow as being similar to her home, Serbia, as everything is gray and the people´s cynical and blunt character is similar to that of her city’s inhabitants. Moreover, an exhibition such as this one is considered to be radical in Russia, since generally, society is poorly educated in contemporary styles of art. Most of the art schools as well as theatre and ballet schools focus on classical methods of teaching. Consequently, I saw elderly women and men turning around and heading towards the exit. One woman around the of age 40 yelled, “Despicable, this isn’t art! This is perversion!” Another woman demanded a refund. Conversely, most of the younger people visiting Abramović’s exhibition not only stayed for the full show, but also got the opportunity to experience art that is rarely displayed in Russia. They had an extraordinary chance to re-interpret issues of sexuality, politics, and violence.
Therefore, even though the volunteers cannot be Abramović herself, and even though minor changes may be made to the pieces to accommodate these volunteers, re-performance has to be better than the alternative: no performance. The artist’s opportunity to train other individuals to embody her ideas allows for a quicker and wider spread of beliefs that the artist would never be able to accomplish herself. Re-performance gives Abramović a chance to influence different types of cultures around the world as well as ensures that her work does not disappear. Abramović, 67 years old already, is able to guarantee that her performance art will live on, not only in media form on the Internet, but also through re-performance. Countless future spectators will too be able to experience the same emotions of shock, self-reflection and evaluation that I experienced as I encountered and interacted with “The Artist is Present”.