"Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present"

The artist transforms performance art into entertainment.

  • The Artist is Present

  • The Artist is Present

  • Breathing in/Breathing out

  • Point of Contact

  • Exhibition entrance

  • Holding Milk (The Kitchen Series)

  • Imponderabilia

  • Installation view of Marina Abramovi's Balkan Baroque

  • Portrait with Firewood

  • Portrait with Flowers

The Artist is Present

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

What do you do if you smack an artwork in the balls? Apologize to the piece? To the artist who made it? Or to the curators who put it on display? The question crossed my mind encountering Marina Abramovic’s Imponderabilia, part of the Yugoslavian-born performance pioneer’s four-decade survey at the Museum of Modern Art. The work—a restaging of the 1977 original executed by the artist and her then-partner Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen, whose 17-year-long collaboration with Abramovic takes up the middle third of this retrospective)—requires viewers to squeeze past two nude models facing each other in a narrow doorway. For this occasion, performers are selected from a rotating cast of young men and women paired randomly by gender, and in my particular case, a couple of dudes took up position in front of me like a Scylla and Charybdis of homosexual panic. Pushing through, my messenger bag swinging behind me, I heard a strangled grunt of agony as I made my way past, suggesting that contact had inadvertently been made.

Abramovic, 63, is the master of this sort of performance art, which could be best described as a spectacle of anxiety. A product of her country’s elite (her parents were heroes of the struggle against the Nazis; her great uncle, a patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church), she initially found her footing as an artist in 1968 when campus protests compelled Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito to open a student cultural center in a former secret police building, thus giving Abramovic and her peers a place to create. Over the next several years, she busied herself with her “Rhythm” series—most notably Rhythm 0, in which audience members were invited to choose from a selection of items (including axes, saws, chains, razors and a loaded pistol) to do as they willed to her.

In 1975, she met Ulay in Amsterdam and embarked on a romantic and artistic liaison that saw them traveling around Europe in a hippie van—wandering troubadours, as it were, of the era’s dominant Postminimalism. That vehicle is on view here as the central document of 2,023 Revolutions (1976), in which Ulay drove in a circle the titular number of times while Abramovic announced the laps using a bullhorn. Looking inside the beat-up conveyance, you can see a grainy black-and-white video of Revolutions, as well as photos of the couple’s Edenic life on the road; one shows them sacked out, spooning naked on the van’s floor.

Not all was peaches and cream, however. Works like Rest Energy, in which Abramovic grasps a bow while Ulay draws back an arrow pointed at her heart, indicate the tensions that underlay their symbiosis. They broke up in 1988, in a poignant piece on China’s Great Wall that was supposed to culminate in their marriage; instead, it wound up signaling the dissolution of their relationship. Starting at opposite ends of the monumental divide, they each walked a thousand miles to meet in the middle for one last goodbye.

Abramovic spent the 1990s meditating on the madness that engulfed Yugoslavia, as it descended into civil war. At the 1997 Venice Biennale, for example, she treated an audience to the sight of her in a lab coat, scrubbing clean some 6,000 pounds of bloody cow bones. Since then, she’s evolved into a professional diva, a superstar transforming her genre into mass entertainment.

Certainly, that’s one takeaway from this show, which is studded with recreations like Imponderabilia. Besides eliding the site specificity and of-the-moment quality that once gave the piece an ephemeral aura, its restaging reduces its effect to pure divertissement, offering museumgoers a NSFW frisson on a high-cultural plane. Similarly, the exhibition’s centerpiece, also titled The Artist Is Present, is little more than an interactive one-ring circus. Here, Abramovic—dressed in an ecclesiastical robe and lit by movie lights—“reinterprets” a staring contest she used to do with Ulay. Viewers have a chance to stand in line for a turn to lock retinas with her. This can entail hours of waiting, as a number of self-styled performance artists have taken on Abramovic like young gunslingers looking to make their mark. Indeed, the whole thing reminded me a little of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi schlockfest Westworld, in which Yul Brynner plays a robot quick-draw artist in a futuristic Western theme park, where rich patrons can safely slap leather—until, that is, the robot malfunctions and starts using live ammo.

Nothing like that happens here, thankfully, and the piece is not without a certain gloomy solipsistic humor. A nearby wall is marked with prison-style crosshatches, marking the days of Abramovic’s celebrity purgatory. But if her career has become a cage, it’s certainly a gilded one—and a long way from the back of a van.

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Museum of Modern Art, through May 31