Over the last four decades, Marina Abramović (aka the “grandmother of performance art”) has developed a significant body of work that is both traumatic and inspirational. Abramović is widely known for the sadistic acts committed against her own self in the pursuit of artistic goals, which she justifies as a staging of fears in order to transcend them. She has screamed until she lost her voice, brushed her hair until her scalp bled, passed breaths back and forth with her partner until they both passed out, cut pentagrams onto her stomach, lied naked on a cross made of ice, hurled her body into solid walls, whipped herself, burned herself, and even induced a catatonic state after swallowing anti-psychotic drugs.
In 2010 the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a retrospective – the first such honor bestowed on a performance artist – in which Abramović presented a new piece that was something of a departure from her previous work. There was no evidence of knives or whips or flames in “The Artist is Present,” in fact, there was nothing violent or explicitly abusive about this work at all. What it entailed was Abramović (“The Artist”) sitting in a chair in the museum’s atrium for seven hours a day, six days a week, over the course of three months, which was the entirety of the show’s run. Members of the public were then invited to sit in a chair placed opposite her for as long as they desired. It was an historic event; people came in throngs, queuing for hours and some even camping overnight outside the museum doors for a chance to participate in this work. Abramović, all the while, sat perfectly silent and virtually immobile – unflinchingly focused and fixated on whoever was in front of her.
No longer pushing her body to the most extreme physical limits for the purpose of transcendence – although to describe the experience of sitting inert in a wooden chair for what amounted to about 700 hours over the course of 75 days as an entirely pain free endeavor would be simply untrue – this work involved a stripping away of all the objects, belongings, and identities that we hide behind, leaving nothing but a fully “present” being. By emptying herself of these gimmicks and bringing her attention to the moment, Abramović was laying bare a raw consciousness left entirely vulnerable to external vicissitudes. Museums are funny places when it comes to human behavior, they are spaces in which people conform and become (sometimes uncharacteristically) reverential about art. But what I saw that day in the MoMA were individuals who were engaging with this work on a truly deep and intense level – there was laughter, there was scowling, there were shy smiles and there were unabashed tears – not just in the eyes of the viewers but also in those of the ever stoic Abramović. Witnessing the fluctuations of emotion that resonated within her body spoke directly to me as a woman, especially within this specific context that seemed to ascribe to the myth of solitary perfection. In our postfeminist society women are living under an impossible combination of expectations by attempting to have the ephemeral “all” while maintaining some sublime level of independence. Yet here was Abramović, who herself had become something of a mythical superstar – a factor not lost on me or on anyone else, exposing her own moments of self-doubt, to an aura-deflating effect.
We all have our own coping mechanisms but it is empowering to be reminded that faltering from the paths of perfection imposed on us is not a demonstration of weakness but a very human reality inherent to the contemporary condition of women – even women who are superstars.
If you want to know more, HBO recently did a documentary about Marina Abramović and her work.