Monday, March 15, 2010

(Re)performing performance

Marina Abramović's retrospective at MoMA shows about 50 works that span the four-decade prolific career of the performance art goddess. The intensity in the galleries is mind-blowing. As you walk through, you see distorted faces, screaming mouths, bones, blood, and (real) flesh. I'm awestruck by the fact that many of these pieces were actually performed originally in the 1970s. Now we are in a new millennium, and they still seem pretty radical to many people, especially in a museum setting.

The major "oddballs" are the live naked people. They are there to reperform Abramović's works as "an endeavor to transmit the presence of the artist and make her historical performances accessible to a larger audience." I see no problem in nudity. The one thing that makes me wonder is whether the idea of "recreating performance art" can really preserve the authenticity of the original work. I think a good way to figure this out is to look back and see what Abramović was trying to say with her original performances.

A prevailing theme of her performances is the body. The vulnerability of it. The best-known example is Rhythm 0 (1971). She stood there passively for six hours, allowing the audience to do whatever they want to do to her body with the 72 objects she selected on the table. They could tear off her clothes, tickle her with the feather, cut her with the knife, and even point a loaded pistol at her head. Admittedly, the presence of the original performer was powerful. But would the performance lose its meanings if it were someone else's body? It was not about her. The horror could have applied to any body, really. At the MoMA show, Luminosity (1997) has been recreated. The young female sitting on the bicycle seat up on the wall is so lonely and exposed. So helplessly vulnerable although there's no immediate threat in sight. What you see here is not Abramović at Sean Kelly Gallery, but you can still feel the strong sensational quality of the work in this reperformance.

Rhythm 0, 1971

Luminosity, 1997

After Abramović met Ulay in 1976, the couple started to perform together. Relation became an apparent strong subject. Relation in Space (1976), Relation in Time (1977), Relation in Movement (1977)... Relation can be interdependence, like in Balance Proof (1977) where they were holding a double-sided mirror, taller than themselves, between their naked bodies. They couldn't see each other but they were both responsible for keeping the mirror upright. Relation can be combative, like in AAA-AAA (1978), in which the two keep yelling and screaming at each other. Or it may be both - a more thrilling version of complex relation in Rest Energy (1980). This time Abramović and Ulay drew a large bow and arrow, one holding each side. The arrowhead was pointing at Abramović's heart. The slightest imbalance could be fatal. This required the ultimate complete trust.

Relation in Time, 1977

Balance Proof, 1977

AAA-AAA, 1978

Rest Energy, 1980

Abramović and Ulay's interest in relation also included the relation with the audience. In Imponderabilia (1977), Abramović and Ulay stood naked inside the door frame at the entrance of Galleria Communale d'Arte Moderna in Bologna, face to face. The space between them was so narrow that people were forced to squeeze sideways between them, facing either one of them. This piece has also been reenacted at the show. Live nudity certainly intensifies the awkward intimacy. It is interesting to see the reaction in this country where people wear such a big bubble around themselves that they rarely touch each other. After passing through, some people would raise their arms, as if to celebrate surviving the biggest challenge in their lives. To my surprise, among the many shifts, there is a couple of females reperforming the piece. Isn't this supposed to be a male-female duo? On second thought, it becomes clear that the relation Abramović and Ulay tried to address was not necessarily gender-related. In fact, Abramović repeatedly disavowed any interest in the feminist movement. For them, the body is just "a unit of an individual." Although they talked about male energy and female energy, they were more interested in a third existence - something they called "That Self." It carries the combined "Vital Energy" that is caused by but not dependent on the two performers. I can see this third existence being successfully reconjured by the younger performers at MoMA.

Imponderabilia, 1977

Heraclitus said, you could not step twice into the same river, because it would be at a different time and the waters would be at a different place. Theoretically, time and place is crucial to a event. Reoccurrences would never be the same. But for Abramović, the concept of time and space was not really about the particular moment and location. (Maybe the only exception is The Great Wall Walk.) Rather, it's about the abstract notions of passage and orientation. The 17 straight hours of Relation in Time during which Abramović and Ulay sat back to back with their hair tied together (like the Na'vi people) could have been another 17-hour period of any day, including the days of the MoMA reperformaces. The entrance way in Imponderabilia was in Bologna. But it could have been any other door, including the one between the MoMA galleries. The only new work at the show, The Artist Is Present, is also a good example of Abramović's abstraction of time and space. She sits there motionless whenever the museum is open, throughout the entire duration of the exhibition. Visitors take turns to sit across the table and exchange stares with the artist as long as they want. When I was there, the guy was sitting there all day long for 7 straight hours. I saw a new Ulay, together with Abramović, flattening past, present, and future. Time became timeless, form no longer existed, material slipped into immaterial, and the MoMA atrium became a mere void.

The Artist Is Present, 2010

So can performance art be recreated? I don't have a general conclusive answer. But in the case of Marina Abramović, whose messages were mostly abstract and conceptual, it works.

(A NYTimes slide show shows how the reperformances look.)

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