From the moment that details about Marina Abramovics MoMA retrospective, The Artist Is Present, were announced, it was clear the exhibition would be one for the history books. Live performers — many of them naked — would recreate iconic works by the artist, while the artist would herself sat motionless in the museum’s atrium for every moment the show was open, a total of more than 700 hours.
But then, on the show’s opening night last Tuesday, an event even more sensational for Abramovic fans occurred. The artist's former lover and collaborator of 13 years, Ulay, arrived and sat across from her, clasping her hands as the crowd looked on. The storied couple was united again, if only in a performance, if only for a moment. It appeared to be a masterful scene of pure drama, but it also looked suspiciously well choreographed — a danger inherent in recreating any performance piece.
ARTINFO asked the show’s curator, Klaus Biesenbach, a few questions about how the emotional reunion came about.
Did anyone know that Ulay was going to show up? Marina seemed genuinely moved and surprised.
Ulay was our guest of honor at the opening and we knew he would attend, though we didn’t know when he would be in the Atrium or if he would have the opportunity to sit.
When was the last time the two saw each other?
Marina and Ulay have been in contact sporadically over the years. This past summer, they saw each other for the first time in several years on the occasion of an interview. They met and talked the morning of the opening. Two of the pieces that Marina and Ulay staged together seem to have prefigured their reunion in a way: their series of Nightsea Crossing performances, in which they sat across from each other in museums for hours, and their parting journey on the Great Wall of China, where she wore a similar shade of red. Do you see their reunion last night as a continuation of those works? Is this now going to be absorbed into the famous narrative of the Great Wall performance?
The Atrium performance is in part a reinterpretation — or yes, a continuation — of Nightsea Crossing, but since it depends on the public to complete the work it is a very different piece. Nightsea Crossing in part depended on the presence of an audience, and the Great Wall walk was the only piece by Marina and Ulay that didn’t have an audience. But The Artist Is Present exists by nature of visitors’ direct participation.
How did Marina feel about seeing Ulay?
They were pleased to see each other and in this context.