Preserving Performance

After reading the compelling profile of performance artist Marina Abramovic in the New Yorker, I was delighted to hear that a good friend planned to visit her MOMA exhibit on opening day. You can watch Abramovic’s performance on the MOMA website. There’s also an audio slide show over at the NYer.

It is a kind of retrospective, so the show includes both documentary evidence of previous performances and re-enactments (re-performances?) of works. As the NYer article is at great pains to suggest, this is an odd impulse for a performance artist, whose domain is largely committed to the idea that works are ephemeral. However, if performance art wants to work its way into the pantheon of “great art” (and indeed it does, if it is staged at MOMA), then it needs to fill the preservation function associated with (indeed, they may define) “high art.”

There’s at least one new composition, and it involves Marina Abramovic, herself, sitting in a chair at a table. Her intention is to sit, unmoving, while the gallery is open, for the length of the show (some 40? 77 odd days). Here’s a first person account from said friend of what that was like:

the bit with her sitting and staring at people was interesting for a whole host of questions that it prompts about the person who sits down and the others who watch. some are clearly perched on the seat’s edge uncomfortably, some stay a looooooong time. and this seems to spark anger and thoughts of deep selfishness on the part of others waiting, especially toward the end of the day…boy and i watched initially when we first got there and then went back for the last 15 minutes of the day. we had considered waiting on line to go “sit” when we arrived, but were thankful we hadn’t when we came for the end: the woman who had been just before us in line was waiting to go next, but never made it because the woman in front of her sat for all of the remaining time. that woman (the one who closed the day) either started crying or had some sort of orgasmic experience while sitting there. she started shuddering in this odd way with about 5 minutes to go. and there was another woman who was lined up watching abramovic from the perimeter who was standing in a kind of evangelical christian arms raised in group prayer mode. this woman had with her a brown paper bag with something she wanted to give to abramovic (she passed it off to one of the assistants — the guy said it was very heavy. hhmmmm.). boy and i were wondering all sorts of things based on the question of whose performance is it: abramovic’s, the partner, or both. presumably it’s both, but it felt much more like abramovic’s. some of our questions: can you move the chair to where you want it? can you sit on or place things on the table? what about more obvious acts of controlling the scene like talking, shouting or — a la her earlier work — masturbating? nobody did anything other than mirror her. they all sat there, with as similar a catatonic stare as they could mimic.

I’m not terribly surprised at the passivity of the observers. We’ve all been pretty well trained to be passive and unemotional in museums. This makes us extremely different than, say, 18th century theater audiences who were not only throwing cabbage (or whatever–tomatoes?) but also calling out requests for soliloquies, shouting, and etc. Were it to have taken place at a Biennale, or in a gallery downtown, I’m guessing the responses would be different–with more empowered (is this the word? ennobled?) audience members. Is this, then, what the work is about?

In addition to this new work, there’s a large “preservation” component to the show, where old works are re-staged and documentary evidence is provided. Here’s what my friend said about that:

in the other more “preservation” part of the exhibit, there were members of her team performing old pieces of hers, as well as videos of her past performances, some of which were disturbing (like her violently brushing her hair until her scalp bled and others with her lover where they are clearly competing or he is controlling her). the ones where her team was performing old pieces really had the feeling or quality of looking at sculpture, of preserved art or at least of an artifact; i was thinking of your comment about the difficulty performance art has in being accepted as high art.  i also was shocked at myself at very nearly breaking down in sobs at the photo from the venice biennale — she was sitting perched atop an enormous heap of bloody, sinewy bones, cleaning them with this defeated, mournful expression. it reminded me exactly of the exhumation of the mass grave i attended in 2006, and i was emotionally right back there, standing at the top of the pit.

Just off the phone with my friend, I can report that this emotional response (especially in comparison with the relatively placid response of viewers to the new work) sparked the most interesting discussion about the role of memory and art. While some would argue that the artist’s ability to evoke a viewer’s memory of a mass grave is exactly the goal of such art (at least, to provoke a meaningful, authentic, emotional experience), some would claim this kind of associative memory work violates the singularity of experience. As Susan Sontag has forcefully argued, the repeated exposure to symbols or representations of (especially horrific) historical events can produce a kind of numbing sensation, just in the emotional places where you (one) should be morally compelled into severe distress or at least emotional sharpness. (As a side note, reading the introductory chapter of Ellison’s Invisible Man last night, even for the Nth time, was wretched.) For examples, we ran through the photographs of Mai Lai, and the “world’s worst wallpaper” (the DC Holocaust Museum’s installation of family photographs collected from death camps during WW2). For us, these are so familiar, or so massive, that our emotions were blunted.

This discussion then led me into my rant against people who insist the only way to “truly” appreciate music is to play it yourself. But these are often the same people who view “non-ingidenous” adoption of culture as a kind of violation (think of your yoga boyfriend’s year spent learning the didgeridoo). I spent part of my day reading and writing about the Chilean musicians who, in the 1960s under a folklorist’s impulse (and as part of an agrarian political movement), documented folk songs and obtained instruments used by the country’s Amerindian groups (nueva cancion is the music). On the one hand, the work of these artists (Jara, Parra) helped many Chileans learn about their country in ways previously made impossible by the attitudes and actions of elites. On the other hand, their “re-invigoration” and popularization of the music and instruments can easily been seen as a kind of cultural colonialism, or at least, as paternalistic.

So, what’s the story? What is the relationship of experience and memory to art?

Post Script

I don’t usually radically update posts once they’re…posted…but this seemed like a really stupid “comment” and more like an “extension of the post:”

I got off on a little bit of a tangent there at the end. The thing I wanted to say about “performance art” and “retrospective/ion” is this:

Performance art is in this impossible position: constrained by its genre ideal to locate the work’s meaning in the HERE and NOW, but compelled by its institutional location within an art world to establish a canon of works that can be contained with museums and other spaces (syllabi, for example) that confer (a certain kind of) legitimacy. These are exactly not displaying works in their Here and Now but rather in the Elsewhere and Later.

Well, Abramovic choose to include three specie of things in her MOMA retrospective: (1) re-staging works shown in the past and composing a rather exhausting and exhaustive training for those (art students, mostly) who will “act” (perform?) the “roles” (positions?) she did, previously. (2) presenting documentary evidence from previous works, including video and audio tapes of the events, photographs, and materials that used or resemble those used in previous works (e.g., the cow bones). (3) presenting a new work, modeled after one from the past.

The last one I’ll give a let. One and two are harder. In re-staging works, one could easily argue that they become new works, in the sense that the works have a new Here and Now. Moreover, since much of her work produces experiences that are contingent upon the reactions of the people “in the room”, anytime those people change–at least, any time there’s a big break in continuity, as when, for example, two decades pass–the work could be said to be “over” and a new one “begun.” Thus, it is unfair to call the re-staging of works a “retrospective,” since we’re not really looking back at something unchanging, but creating a new draft (at best) of a work.

On to the second one. Presenting documentary evidence of previous works completed is retrospective, but not performance art. Again, this is the Here and Now problem. When you look at documentary evidence, you’re not viewing the work, but works about the work. We certainly don’t confuse or conflate Van Gogh’s letters to Theo with the painting “Starry Night.” The one is empirically and conceptually distinct from the other, and the same is true of Abramovic’s performance art and her documentation of it.

And so, the event as a whole is neither performance art (or, it is a new kind that deserves its own genre name, to follow upon the new genre ideal), nor is it a retrospective.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Preserving Performance

  1. denise

    Interesting! I just went to see Marina Abramovic on Friday, and I must say, what she does, at least the works that draw on Serbian folklore, is so different from what the Chileans were doing. She is deeply and disturbingly critical, and not unlike (to draw on another Chilean) Roberto Bolaño in his effort to overturn magical realism. I would also add that the people who sit across from her struck me as oddly defiant, to the point where I felt that they were somehow doing her violence, and that she was deliberately opening herself up to the abuse. That is not unlike an earlier performance piece where she asked the audience to do things to her with a set of implements including knives, a gun, etc., and the people participating automatically split between those who wanted to hurt her and those who wanted to protect her.

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