Performance artist Marina Abramovic’s retrospective, entitled “The Artist is Present,” appeared at the MoMA in the Spring of 2010. In addition to a re-staging of many of her older works, Abramovic debuted what the museum called a new solo performance—though the term “solo” fails to encompass the breadth of the work, and “performance” also does little justice to the nature of what took place over the course of this 736-hour-long creation. In this piece, Abramovic, clad in a dress of long and heavy material, sat immobile in a simple wooden chair at a simple wooden table in the museum’s central atrium. Visitors were invited to sit in the opposite chair for an undetermined amount of time, during which the artist raised her head and met the eyes of each person. She sat in the museum from open till close for the duration of the installation. This work may not be considered strictly improvisatory by many; the piece was staged within prescribed circumstances with firm rules as to what kind of behavior was allowed or prohibited within its context. However, an element of improvisation arose in the fragile, extemporaneous, and profoundly emotional reactions that the piece evoked in both the spectators and the artist, which were then complicated by the artist’s role as the object on display and the piece’s museum setting.
“Spectator,” however, is not quite an accurate word to describe the role the public played in this performance piece. As each person took his or her place on the wooden chair and stared into the eyes of the artist, the passive observer of the traditional museum was transformed into an active participant in the work itself. Abramovic’s scene partner became the Public, a capital-lettered entity that out of many people ￼became one being, confronting in a variety of very human ways the visceral experience of staring directly into the eyes of a stranger. Abramovic’s own role in the piece confounded the traditional relationship of artist to museum; instead of merely acting as the creator of the artistic work, she was the work itself. The title of the piece, “The Artist is Present,” evokes a sense of that actuality—that presence—which is further intensified by Abramovic’s rich history, body of work, and artistic reputation.
Abramovic has always valued an element of uncertainty in her work. In her article Marina Abramovic Presents: Architectural Experience as Critical, Self-reflective Practice, Betty Nigianni quotes Abramovic saying, “‘in performances…it is very important not to rehearse, not to repeat, and not to have a predicted end’” (Art & Education). Many of Abramovic’s pieces play with the vulnerability of the human body and the precariousness of death. For instance, in a past work, she placed many items on a table (a candle, a pin, a rose, a scalpel, a gun) and allowed the audience to apply the objects to her naked body in any way they chose. Her work is essentially an improvisation around a fixed set of concepts, and what is most important seems not to be the final result but the ways in which the public is involved in the process. As Nigianni writes, “She intended to encourage and enable audiences to get involved in a highly specific way with the work. . . . which would enable them to turn from passive spectators to constituting active participants: interacting with the work in an experimental and improvised manner. . . . Such unpredictable conditions allow audiences to participate in the event in a performative and improvisatory manner, as “actors” themselves: neither as “spectators”, as passive viewers, nor as “agents”, acting in a preconceived or instrumental way (Art & Education).
Improvisatory moments such as those that arise in “The Artist is Present” are fundamentally at odds with conceptions of the traditional museum. Historically, museums have existed in order to house and showcase articles of interest to science, history, culture, and visual art. Performance—and especially art of an improvisatory nature—challenges this notion by complicating the object on display; instead of still artifacts removed from their original contexts, the museum-goer is faced with some iteration of the breathing human body and all of its emotional and political implications.
This challenge forces the development of a new definition and set of expectations for the museum as teaching tool and bearer of cultural knowledge. People like consistency; most enjoy the certainty of objects and the solidity of reliable fact that material culture provides. Emotions and movements are more slippery and easier to lose. Additionally, their elusiveness serves as a reminder of the body’s own eventual ends. Ephemerality is more difficult to negotiate than objects are, and proves far more complicated to approach with certainty. For this reason, improvisatory performance challenges the safety of the museum; the audience can no longer rely on preconceived expectations. And instead of a clear-cut view of the past through objects, performance art forces an encounter with history in the making.
However, one could also argue the similarities between the two disciplines. Both material culture and movement require a kind of visual literacy. Words, which for so long have dictated the reading of history, no longer carry the same weight. And museums, those archives of history, while occasionally relying on the written and spoken word, also hold a different kind of legibility. According to Leora Auslander in AHR Conversation: Historians and the Study of Material Culture, “Sometimes words ￼and things come together; things are written about in diaries, inventories, letters, or songs, but the ‘truth’ of the object is not more to be found in the words than in the thing itself” (1356). So, too, improvisation demands the deciphering of its own object by its own means; there is no wall text, no explanation of possible methods of interpretation. There is only a physical, emotional and sensory experience in the moment that requires a different kind of literacy than most of history necessitates.
Like an object, a movement carries its own logic, and thus may not always be deciphered using the familiar tools of scholarship. Dance critic and author Jane Desmond calls for “an increase in attention to movement as a primary, not secondary, social text, one of immense importance and tremendous challenge” (50). However, one might also argue that movement work such as Abramovic’s would be reduced by such a determined mode of interpretation, and instead requires something more akin to an exchange. To suggest a “reading” of movement work implies that the object and its experience exists apart from the reader; “The Artist is Present” confuses the artist, the audience, and the object so that any such distinction is difficult to impose.
Perhaps these similarities contribute to the current fashion of placing performance and movement art within the walls of museums. Increasingly, dance companies and performance artists are being temporarily housed in gallery spaces. This somewhat newfound obsession may be due in part to a preoccupation with the idea of impermanence and ephemera—the unique knowledge that one has been privy to a moment of exclusivity that is unlikely to occur in the same way again. Additionally, movement may invite into museums the city-dwellers who engage in a daily negotiatory dance around urban forms. In his Practices of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes, “Memory ￼is a sort of anti-museum; it is not localizable. Fragments of it come out in legends. Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps, as in the everyday acts of walking, eating, going to bed, in which ancient revolutions slumber” (108). He goes on to quote Rilke, who wrote that the figures of pedestrian movements are like “trees of gestures.” De Certeau elaborates: “If it is true that forests of gestures are manifest in the streets, their movement cannot be captured in a picture, nor can the meaning of their movements be circumscribed in a text” (102).
The elusiveness of performance may appeal to the urban inhabitant who seeks a moment of clarity amid the tangle of figures that life knits around her. The conscious mind might take pleasure in the relatively objective viewing of such figures in a museum setting, while the unconscious may be able to breathe into the intensely personal nature of movement for its own sake, rather than as the means to an end. This has long been one of the reasons people care about art—not only can its beauty elevate the mind past the monotony of these seemingly uninteresting quotidian activities, but it can also raise awareness of the everyday actions that serve as internal and involuntary keys to innermost memories and dreams, unlocking secrets of the deep unconscious.
Marina Abramovic is passionate about the theory, practice and conservation of performance art, the latter of which may seem at odds with the nature of the discipline. Her most recent project is the Marina Abramovic Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art, an interactive space in Hudson, New York that will seek to create new ways for the public to experience and create performance art, in addition to finding alternate methods of documentation for the work produced. Abramovic has long been concerned with human endurance; her work most often explores the theme of psychological limits, testing the body’s and mind’s tolerance for physical and existential suffering. Additionally, Abramovic is concerned with the notion of time in art. As journalist Melena Ryzik quotes Abramovic, “Performance art is time-based art. . . . [it] occurs in a span of time . . .I believe we need to reclaim time. Long-duration art has the power to change your mind.” And finally, with this new performance art center, Abramovic seeks to challenge the role of the museum-goer, the appraiser, and the observer of art. Ryzik continues: “Ms. Abramovic said she hopes to use the center to train others in what she calls the ‘Abramovic method,’ in which audience members become performers and vice versa” (New York Times). Again, her objective is not just the creation of challenging works, but the challenging of the people whom art is meant to feed, provoke, and inspire.
An improvisational act has untold political implications, many of which are magnified in a museum setting. The act of improvisation is often one of protest—a subtle deviation from established structural norms and expectations. The museum is generally considered to be a quiet, reverent, and secure space, in which appropriate and inappropriate actions are clearly defined and enforced. So, in the context of this static structure, any room allowed for improvisation shifts the way we think about spectatorship, and brings the act of being a bystander into consideration as an active or passive practice. “The Artist is Present” transforms the idle observer into a functioning organ of the artistic body, allowing fora shift in expectations and removing the safety net from the traditional museum experience.
As Peggy Phelan writes in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, “There is a dismaying similarity in the beliefs generated about the political efficacy of visible representation. The dangerous complicity between progressives dedicated to visibility politics and conservatives patroling the borders of museums . . . is based on their mutual belief that representations can be treated as “real truths” and guarded or championed accordingly” (2). Some of the most exciting and challenging performance art places less interpretational value on the visual and representational, relying more heavily upon a subjective, sensory evaluation of the artistic object. When there is freedom of representation, and when the spectator creates the artistic experience with the artist, the notion of an objective truth may no longer be applicable.
“The Artist is Present” inspired extremely profound emotional reactions in many people. The raw, human experience of deep connection that the piece provided seemed for most to be enhanced by its presentational nature. The inwardness and intimacy of the visual transaction with the artist took place in a highly public setting. It appeared that what many people were receiving from participating in the work was a kind of recognition—a much-needed acknowledgement of their own small but crucial part in the great, horrible, beautiful melancholy of the world. The fact that Abramovic was able to inspire this kind of extraordinary emotional response just by sitting and looking says a great deal about the way human beings seek connection with the world. It seems that these improvisatory moments may house some essential part of the human spirit that, even through an experimental performance art installation, can suddenly find emotional, spiritual and artistic release.