It’s natural to associate MoMA with cutting-edge. But a visit to Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present retrospective on view through May 31 is a reminder of just how staid the institution is, nominally ignoring performance art. Here are actual live people doing re-performances of the artist’s original works, which have nearly always involved herself and her ex-partner, Ulay. So wherever you look there’s an often naked person, usually a woman, pinned to the middle of a wall, lying under a skeleton, wedged in a doorway. And in between are many small, medium, and large video screens showing recordings of the original performances. Although in an understandable, if toothless gesture, the museum has added an alternative passageway to Imponderabilia (1977/2010), in which a naked woman and man line a narrow doorway, causing viewers to brush against one or the other.
Despite all the live elements, the most powerful artifacts in the show, curated by Klaus Biesenbach, are the wall labels. Without them, we most likely wouldn’t get the point of all the action. Besides provocation and shock, this is one consequence of conceptual/performance art, and a testament to the power of language—the ideas are so powerful that the re-enactments can be secondary. It was curious how unaffecting the re-performances of Point of Contact (1980) and Relation in Time (1977) were; perhaps it was the sterile enclosed white cube setting, the inherent stillness, or the necessity for the audience members to spend more time. And I only felt sympathy for the naked woman in Luminosity (1997)—straddling a bicycle seat, suspended high in the middle of a wall, she engaged viewers’ attention, only to have them hurry away in embarrassment. And yes, part of the point is to make people confront their own limitations, so mission: accomplished.
Abramović endures as one of the most compelling performance artists of her generation, which induced (or incited) viewers to complete the works by participating. She has created high-strung tension with viewers by daring them to manipulate her body with dangerous implements lying near her; the caveat being that she—in theory—took full responsibility for their actions, no matter how dire (Rhythm 0, 1974). Performances that tested her and Ulay’s physical limits and capacity for pain remain vivid in the many videos in the exhibition. She has created quieter, haunting works such as The House with the Ocean View (2002), which entailed living for twelve days in a suspended habitat in Sean Kelly Gallery, with the only ostensible egress down a ladder whose rungs were knives.
In the last decade or so, Abramović has undertaken re-performing well-known performances by other artists, including Joseph Beuys and Vito Acconci, arguing that they need to be kept alive. But these performances are the result of an individual in a moment in time. They are otherwise documented by what fellow performance artist Chris Burden calls “relics”—artifacts from the performance—and the standard video and photography. “Individual” can’t be emphasized enough, since the artist’s persona, mythology, and ego are essential to the action at hand. And that is another perhaps unintentional byproduct of the MoMA show—Abramović lingers in the mind’s eye as a narcissist, afraid of disappearing from view for a single minute. To that end, during the show’s run, she will sit at a table in the giant atrium, silently inviting visitors to sit with her. Never out of sight, never out of mind.
Image: Marina Abramović. Holding Milk (The Kitchen Series). 2009. Still from video (color, sound). 12:43 min. © 2010 Marina Abramović. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York