Present and Past
Present and Past
For her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Marina Abramovic has decided to sit at a table in the museum’s atrium every single day of the exhibition, with an open chair positioned across from her where any museum visitor is invited to sit. This generous invitation comes with a dare, welcoming any person — from respectful admirers to depraved fans — to dominate her vision, her time, and her psyche. At the show’s opening last night, the full range of these possibilities played out before a watching mass of museum patrons, press, and various art-world notables.
On a squared-off stage in the atrium that was surrounded by a quartet of Klieg lights — as if it were a movie set, or a wrestling ring — the artist sat at the sturdy wooden table, wearing a long crimson dress that resembled a regal Snuggie. The first person to sit across from her was Tehching Hsieh, the performance artist who famously locked himself in a cage for 365 days and whose exhibition at MoMA last year signaled the scope of the museum's new commitment to performance art under Klaus Biesenbach, who curated Abramovic's retrospective.
Then, providing the dramatic high point of the evening as well as a sense of art-historical frisson, the second person to take the seat was Ulay, Abramovic’s former collaborator and longtime lover. Performing together for 13 years — during which they staged such pieces as Night Sea Crossing, in which they sat on either side of a table and gazed at each other for seven-hour periods — the pair famously parted in 1988 after walking 1,550 miles from either side of the Great Wall of China to meet at the middle and say goodbye. Last night, when Ulay sat across from her, Abramovic was visibly moved, a tear streaming down her cheek. He reached his hands across the table, and she clasped them. The moment seemed — almost too precisely — to be a continuation, or perhaps coda, to the Great Wall performance. Her gown was even appeared to be the same color red she wore during their farewell encounter on the Great Wall.
After Ulay got up from the table, Abramovic welcomed a stream of guests to sit with her amid a crowd of art-world onlookers that included an impressive contingent of artists who work with performance, including Matthew Barney, Terence Koh, Kalup Linzy, Megan Palaima, Dara Friedman, and Damaris Drummond. Magician David Blaine, a performer of another sort (and a fan of Abramovic's), was there as well, along with Björk, Michael Stipe, P.S.1's Kate McNamara and Christopher Lew, Whitney Biennial curator Gary Carrion-Murayari, curator Clarissa Dalrymple, Chuck Close, P.S.1 chairwoman Agnes Gund, and critic Jerry Saltz.Abramovic’s dealer Sean Kelly, clad in black, was monitoring the line of people waiting to take their seat.
Upstairs, on the sixth floor, MoMA has turned its galleries into something of a reliquary devoted to Abramovic. The hundreds of bones she cleaned at the 1997 Venice Biennale have been stacked in a mountain, the humble van with which she toured Europe with Ulay is parked out front, and performers — some naked — restage her works throughout the space. Seeing it all together was a reminder of the remarkable degree to which Abramovic’s performances have served, over the past four decades, to demarcate the various boundaries of the medium she pioneered. Forcing herself to endure beatings, starvation, and psychological violence, she has defined the role of the performance artist as that of the daredevil performer, the one who risks death and emerges intact for the benefit of her viewers.
But down in the atrium, Abramovic seems to be working to repudiate such easy hagiography, favoring unmediated presence and pure silence over drama and theatrics. There will be no props to marvel at following this performance; all that will remain will be photographs, a video, and memories. Though her strain is less overt than in her more physical pieces, she is clearly suffering as she sits for long hours in her chair, with the towering lights striping away the glamour her flowing red gown might normally connote. On Tuesday night, the minimalistic grandeur of her performance was emotionally heightened by the appearance of Ulay, melodramatic as it may have been. At the coatroom at the end of the opening, a couple was speaking excitedly about what they had seen. “That was amazing,” the woman said to her boyfriend. “But then, this is New York. There must be things like this every night.” Not hardly.