The Artist is Present: Marina Abramović [online]


From: Michael Benson
Subject: [iDC] The Artist is Present
Date: May 24, 2010

To witness the exhibition “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art – the institution’s first major performance art retrospective – is to experience both the ultimate victory and the last gasp of Titoism. A 40-year retrospective look at Abramovic’s work, it couldn’t be anything other than the zenith of her career, a kind of ultimate, brilliantly-lit endorsement by the US art world’s inner-circle nomenklatura. And as a gilded platform for her work, in which videos and stills of her original events have here been interlarded with “reperformances” by younger collaborators, the show is a weird compound creation—a retrospective centering on a live event (the artist is in fact present); a look back staffed by naked young bodies; and all in all, a remarkable sight for those accustomed to MOMA’s usually more decorous halls.

It’s also, unmistakably, an Event. Because whatever you think about Abramovic’s gestures, which are as suffused with self-absorption (some would call it egotism) as Rembrandt’s canvases are with dark tones, they’re undeniably worthy of attention. Equally undeniably, there’s something undeniable about them, if I can put it that way.

How does this represent a victory for Titoism? Let’s set aside that Abramovic continues to identify herself as a Yugoslav, making her almost as rare a bird as the Dodo. Let’s set aside, also, the hagiolatry lurking behind the scale of the gigantic black and white photo of the artist which stands at least 8 meters high at the entrance of the show, looking astonishingly like a latter-day manifestation of communist-era personality cults. (Is it possible that Abramovic doesn’t recognize this?)

As this retrospective eventually makes clear, the Yugoslav regime reacted to the unrestful events of Europe in 1968 in a way diametrically opposite that of kindred regimes elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It’s difficult to imagine the authorities of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Romania reacting to the arrival of what could only be described as radical ideas among their young people (even if “only” within the context of art) with anything other than consternation, surveillance, intimidation, and sometimes, arrest and prison time. To take one of many examples, the rock band Plastic People of the Universe formed in Prague within months of the Soviet Invasion in 1968. But it didn’t take long for them to be forced into the underground and forbidden to perform, with some of their members sentenced to prison terms.

At first, and directly proximate to that gigantic portrait of a serenely self-suffused Abramovic, MOMA’s curators attempt with words on the wall to position her as belonging to a quasi-dissident tradition. After reading that she is a pioneer of performance art, which is indubitable, viewers are informed “In the 1970’s she introduced her body as the object, subject, and medium of her work, starting with a series of performances antithetical to the political climate of socialist Yugoslavia.”

While this is true as far as it goes, you could say the same thing about the radical art experiments taking place at more or less the same time in the United States, the UK, France, and other western countries, sometimes with more dire consequences than Abramovic ever had to contend with. In fact if you take even a cursory look at the history of New York City’s Living Theater, a radically experimental theater group founded in 1947 by actor Judith Malina and painter-poet Julian Beck, you will discover a history of arrests and harassment by the authorities, particularly in the 1960s and 1970’s, either on trumped-up charges of tax evasion or equally ludicrous accusations of “indecent exposure” – as though they were producing pornography, not art.

Contrast this with Abramovic’s work, which was also frequently conducted unclothed. By the time visitors to the show pass the text quoted above and enter the first gallery room, there’s no hiding that many of her most radical gestures took place unmolested and in full public view in Belgrade. Some, in fact, unfolded in a student cultural center converted for that purpose by the Titoist regime from a secret police barracks – talk about symbolism! – after student protests in 1968. Fast forward, then, to 2010 and New York City. What we have, for the next two and a half months, is an implicit continuity between that evaporated Yugoslavia and MOMA, in which a first stage provided and subsidized by a vanished regime extends – voila! – trans-Atlantic more than four decades later, having dissolved long since in its home country, now becoming part and parcel of MOMA’s polished floors. From nomenklatura to nomenklatura. Call it metempsychosis.

In Abramovic’s 1974 performance “Rhythm 5,” which unfolded on the ground of the courtyard behind the Student Cultural Center, the artist drenched a large wooden five-pointed star shape with 100 liters of auto gas. Here’s what followed, in her words:

“I set fire to the star. I walk around it. I cut my hair and throw the clumps into each point of the star. I cut my toe-nails and throw the clippings into each point of the star. I walk into the star and lie down on the empty surface. Lying down, I fail to notice that the flames have used up all the oxygen. I lose consciousness. The viewers do not notice, because I am supine. When a flame touches my leg and I still show no reaction, two viewers come into the star and carry me out of it. I am confronted with my physical limitations, the performance is cut short.”

A number of her performances end this way – they are “cut short” for one reason or another, either due to “physical limitations” or to avoid violence. When I see a DVD of “Rhythm 5” at MOMA, I picture the Marshall chuckling to himself somewhere else in Belgrade; Dedinje, for example. Seated in a chair rife with gold braid, he has a Cuban cigar in one hand and snifter of cognac in the other. Perhaps he is informed, days later or even on that very evening, that this event by the daughter of two Partisan heroes centered on a five pointed star, the very symbol of Communism. His chuckle turns into open laughter. It isn’t malicious in the least, this laughter; rather it’s suffused with enjoyment at the skill with which he’s playing his own game.

Because in providing a sand-box for the kids to play in, in effect, he has achieved so much at one stroke. He’s exposed neighboring Socialist regimes as fraudulent and tremulous. He’s simultaneously co-opted and channeled a stream of energy on the part of “his” young people that, if overtly opposed by the state, could in fact have proven dangerous. And not least, he’s proven worthy of both Western open-society admiration (look, he doesn’t throw them in jail – he gives them a student cultural center!) and that of his own citizens (for the same reason). It’s brilliant, and five decades later, we have a “Yugoslav” artist endorsed and enshrined for all to see in the central crown jewel of all contemporary art museums.

A few years ago another major New York museum, this time the Guggenheim, got this dynamic precisely wrong at their Abramovic retrospective; you could say they bought the wrong party line. Under a photo of “Rhythm 5” on their website, we read to this day Nancy Spector discussing an artist who, as she may not have been entirely aware, came and went as she pleased, commuting from Belgrade to Paris, performing with equal ease in Yugoslavia or the rest of the world. “Though personal in origin,” writes Spector, “the explosive force of Abramovic’s art spoke to a generation in Yugoslavia undergoing the tightening control of Communist rule.”

If this is tightening, one is entitled to ask, bring on the straight jacket! None of which is to diminish the magnitude of Abramovic’s achievements. To walk through the many halls at MOMA representing her life’s work is to encounter a creative force both prolific and consistently provocative, even if the State felt no need to rise to the occasion. It can also be an experience of nostalgia, not of the Yugonostalgic kind – after all, most of her work was conducted abroad, despite the observations above – but rather for a vanished era of 1960’s and 1970’s experimentation. It was a highly fertile period long since buried under waves of subsequently defunct “-isms,” with even post-Modernism expiring on top of the heap well before the turn of the century.

There’s an eerie quality to the recreations of some of her work, which are staffed by a committed group of 36 people trained by Abramovic in what NY performance artist Laurie Anderson recently called “Marina boot camp” in the countryside north of New York City. While these restagings can’t recapture the social moment the original works were made within, they do possess their own power. Visitors seeking to move from the first gallery room to the second can chose to pass between a pair of closely positioned naked bodies, for example – a restaging of one of many pieces represented at MOMA that are taken from the decade-plus collaboration between Abramovic and the German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, or Ulay. Their 1977 piece “Imponderabilia,” staged in the Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna, is also best described in Abramovic’s words:

Naked we stand opposite each other in the museum entrance. The public entering the museum has to turn sideways to move through the limited space between us. Everyone wanting to get past has to choose one of us.

And there they are, at MOMA, not Abramovic and Ulay at the narrow doorway but two naked women (though at other times it’s a man and a woman, as in the original; shifts rotate throughout the day). Passing between them provides a frisson of reality—a radically opposite sensation from the cybernetic virtuality of so much contemporary art. Elsewhere in the show, a naked man lies under a human skeleton, with the (artificial, we’re told) skeleton “respirating” along with its still-living partner (originally in a 1995 video called “Cleaning the Mirror II,” it was restaged in 2005 as “Nude with Skeleton.” Both times Abramovic provided the living component of the macabre pair).

Another gallery presents a startling sight: a young woman, entirely naked, arms outstretched in a cruciform shape, essentially mounted on the wall like an enlarged butterfly specimen. On closer look, it’s apparent that she’s seated on an almost invisible bicycle seat, but because her legs descend on either side of it she seems suspended in mid-air, staring straight forward, her arms unsupported in what clearly must take an enormous effort. (When I described her as being in a “crucifix position” to MOMA press representative Daniela Stigh, who I had called to find out the title of the piece, I was told that “she didn’t mean it to be explicitly a crucifix, though of course many interpretations exist.” Well, ok! Glad we sorted that out. Called “Luminosity,” the piece was first staged in 1997, with Abramovic, of course, in the starring role.)

As one may expect, not just from the name of the show and the gigantic personality-cult photo at the entrance (titled “Portrait with Flowers,” 2009), the centerpiece of “The Artist is Present” is in fact the Artist, indubitably Present. Clad in a bright red gown, at least on the day I went, illuminated by four vast film lights shining through diffusion gels, Abramovic is seated at a table across from a chair in which any visitor is invited to sit for as long as he or she wishes—during which time the Artist will gaze serenely into their eyes. And she will be so seated for every day of the show’s 10-week run; seated, in fact, for what we are told will be 700 hours, in what’s being billed the longest-running performance piece ever staged. (See it, live, at

Despite featuring the Artist in present tense, this center-piece is also a restaging or reinterpretation of a collaborative work first performed with Ulay in 22 cities between 1981-1987, under the title “Night Sea Crossing.” In the original, which was performed about 90 times, it was Ulay and his lover Abramovic who gazed into each other’s eyes, for hour after hour—until pain or exhaustion forced them to stop. In 1988, evidently for much the same reason, the couple broke up after twelve years of intense collaboration. Their final performance involved walking towards each other from opposite end of the Great Wall of China, he starting from the Gobi Desert and she from the Yellow Sea. Three months after starting this bipolar journey, they met for the last time and parted ways. Since then, her career has prospered, while he has largely vanished from the scene – though he did, of course, have a recent retrospective at SKUC, in Ljubljana, curated by Tevz Logar.

When I arrived for the preview of “The Artist is Present” in March, Abramovic had already been sitting at her table for several hours, and a line had formed of people intent on pulling up a chair across from her. But three hours previously the crowd had been much sparser. As New York-based Bosnian-American artist Soba Seric described it, around that time a tall man with a frazzled beard and dark clothing entered the vast atrium space in which Abramovic will sit for the next two and a half months. Striding over on long legs, he eased himself down in the chair opposite the Artist. It was Frank Uwe Laysiepen, a.k.a. Ulay. After a moment of recognition, Abramovic began to weep. Reaching across the table, she grasped his hands. He soon rose and vanished into the growing crowd. Her 700 hours of sitting had begun.

From: Brian Holmes
Subject: Re: The Artist is Present
Date: May 26, 2010

Michael, it’s brilliant to get such an article out of the blue, to read the unexpected tale in the unfiltered text, to be astonished. The images lingered with me all day, thank you.

For sure, the US needs its mythic image of formerly repressive regimes and heroic dissidents from the exotic past to distract from the fact that anyone who tries to do anything spontaneously on American streets today will immediately face the police — and if your gesture is not yet illegal according to hundreds of meticulously written laws new and old, then the blue-suited audience will stand and stare just to let you know that yes, your wretched presence can be tolerated for the moment, pending further orders. But in this land of integral transcendent freedom there is no political puppetmaster with snifter and cigar to reflect on the genius of the ruling myth. Instead an entire ruling priesthood of politicians, lawyers, mediacrats, pop stars, governators, corporados and financeers keeps the bouncing ball of implicit and unwavering belief up in the air before the cameras.

Anti-communism by any other name will do just fine for an ideology. America is a thousand-year Reich as long as Hitler moustaches can be painted on the others, Saddam, the Taliban, Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-il and why not Tito? Whoever he was or might have been.

Curiously it was just the other day that I watched Predictions of Fire once again, and I was left reflecting on the galaxies of inchoate signifiers of existence that are ceaselessly recombined by the pros, to form that elusive sparkle in the monumental eye of power.

What interests a human being on the ground is the other’s gaze, the lover’s gaze, the arrow that has been held taught in the string and pierced not the flesh by its release but the heart by its withdrawal. In art and love we keep the possibility of true action and true speech alive, it’s the ascesis of passion amidst the sludge of Gulf Coast news and the infinite consumerist maul of undesired satiety. The current impossibility of changing political scenarios should send everyone on a collective Night Sea Crossing, seeking clues in millions of faces that can give meaning to each last look and found a secret language: the uncrackable cypher of resistance to symbolic entropy.

Who is your Ulay? Where is your Great Wall? The real question is whether it is still possible to be in the first person, singular and plural. I love the work that I remember from the museums but I flee the eight-meter effigies and the re-performances of pasts that obliterate the present.

best from a late Paris night,

Brian Holmes

Michael Benson wrote:

Hi Brian:

Yes, it’s true that we have our dispersed nexus of multiple power centers, all in aggregate enforcing the ruling ideology, or is it even an ideology rather than the rule of financial capital itself? When you remove the locks and walls, the restraining channels of legislation, and witness the power of capital unleashed in destructive floods as far as the horizon, can we call that ideology or something else? The toxic black crude pumping ceaselessly into the Gulf of Mexico being only the latest manifestation. And nature has been transported into virtual recreations as a kind of consolation prize, a la Pandora, where its destruction is again rehearsed. The endlessly yammering cable shows and repetitive blog posts bring to mind Yugoslavia again, specifically the way media was used to manipulate the masses into conformity with behaviors rather, shall we say, _convenient_ to the ruling elite. (Manipulations, of course, all about keeping those elites in power above all, what else?)

Obviously in the US you have the countervailing media, the left as well as right represented, true, but what’s lost in the endless face-off is any semblance of objectivity, not to mention nuance. It’s all confrontation, with each side needing the other, Punch and Judy as bread and circuses, and while outside positions are allowed, they are either given almost no voice or relegated to the academy, which is much the same thing in the end.

As for the US needing the toothbrush moustache to paste on the latest bogeyman, you are right. I’ve done a bit of that myself, with the last regime, at least, richly deserving the comparison. But let’s not go there! (Or rather, just an idea, let’s all be Groucho Marxists, simultaneously recalling Charlie at the mike when contemplating toothbrush moustaches!)

I remember returning from visits to Moscow in the late 1970’s to the vast skyscrapers of New York, and noticing that the graffiti of protest at the figurative base of all those vast columns pushed into the sky by capital may have been interpretable as a symptom of a society unafraid of free speech, sure, but the supreme indifference of those faceless towers to the scrawled words and pictures was also indicative of how irrelevant such paltry protest was to the invincible monuments of capitalism. And so it is today — though yes, increasingly with all manner of new laws removing rights supposedly guaranteed in the constitution. And that in turn revealed the hollowness of Soviet ideology, which cared enough about protest to jail those protesting. In other words, the indifference of those towers to the graffiti at their base indicated their strength, while the furrowed brow of the secret policeman weakness. Now there’s a more secure totalitarianism for you… And here we are, living inside it, at the End of History, or to quote David Thomas (of Pere Ubu and the Pedestrians), “around the bend there came no end…”

Be well, in Paris and elsewhere. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

Michael Benson, NYC

From Marx After Duchamp, or The Artist’s Two Bodies by Boris Groys, e-flux journal:

“[…] Indeed, in performance art, video, photography, and so forth, the artist’s body increasingly became the focus of contemporary art in recent decades. And one can say that the artist today has become increasingly concerned with the exposure of his or her body as a working body — through the gaze of a spectator or a camera that recreates the panoptic exposure to which working bodies in a factory or office are submitted. An example of the exposure of such a working body can be found in Marina Abramović’s exhibition “The Artist Is Present” at MoMA in New York in 2010. Each day of the exhibition, Abramović sat throughout the working hours of the museum in MoMA’s atrium, maintaining the same pose. In this way, Abramović recreated the situation of an office worker whose primary occupation is to sit at the same place each day to be observed by his or her superiors, regardless of what is done beyond that. And we can say that Abramović’s performance was a perfect illustration of Foucault’s notion that the production of the working body is the main effect of modernized, alienated work. Precisely by not actively performing any tasks throughout the time she was present, Abramović thematized the incredible discipline, endurance, and physical effort required to simply remain present at a workplace from the beginning of the working day to its end. At the same time, Abramović’s body was subjected to the same regime of exposure as all of MoMA’s artworks — hanging on the walls or staying in their places throughout the working hours of the museum. And just as we generally assume that these paintings and sculptures do not change places or disappear when they are not exposed to the visitor’s gaze or when the museum is closed, we tend to imagine that Abramović’s immobilized body will remain forever in the museum, immortalized alongside the museum’s other works. In this sense, “The Artist Is Present” creates an image of a living corpse as the only perspective on immortality that our civilization is capable of offering its citizens.

The effect of immortality is only strengthened by the fact that this performance is a recreation/ repetition of a performance Abramović did with Ulay in her younger years, in which they sat opposite each other throughout the working hours of an exhibition space. In “The Artist Is Present,” Ulay’s place opposite Abramović could be taken by any visitor. This substitution demonstrated how the working body of the artist disconnects — through the alienated, “abstract” character of modern work—from his or her own natural, mortal body. The working body of the artist can be substituted with any other body that is ready and able to perform the same work of self-exposure. Thus, in the main, retrospective part of the exhibition, the earlier performances by Marina and Ulay were repeated/reproduced in two different forms: through video documentation and through the naked bodies of hired actors. Here again the nakedness of these bodies was more important than their particular shape, or even their gender (in one instance, due to practical considerations, Ulay was represented by a woman). There are many who speak about the spectacular nature of contemporary art. But in a certain sense, contemporary art effectuates the reversal of the spectacle found in theater or cinema, among other examples. In the theater, the actor’s body also presents itself as immortal as it passes through various metamorphic processes, transforming itself into the bodies of others as it plays different roles. In contemporary art, the working body of the artist, on the contrary, accumulates different roles (as in the case of Cindy Sherman), or, as with Abramović, different living bodies. The artist’s working body is simultaneously self-identical and interchangeable because it is a body of alienated, abstract labor. In his famous book The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Ernst Kantorowicz illustrates the historical problem posed by the figure of the king assuming two bodies simultaneously: one natural, mortal body, and another official, institutional, exchangeable, immortal body. Analogously, one can say that when the artist exposes his or her body, it is the second, working body that becomes exposed. And at the moment of this exposure, this working body also reveals the value of labor accumulated in the art institution (according to Kantorowicz, medieval historians have spoken of “corporations”).3 In general, when visiting a museum, we do not realize the amount of work necessary to keep paintings hanging on walls or statues in their places. But this effort becomes immediately visible when a visitor is confronted with Abramović’s body; the invisible physical effort of keeping the human body in the same position for a long time produces a “thing” — a readymade — that arrests the attention of visitors and allows them to contemplate Abramović’s body for hours.

One may think that only the working bodies of contemporary celebrities are exposed to the public gaze. However, even the most average, “normal” everyday people now permanently document their own working bodies by means of photography, video, websites, and so forth. And on top of that, contemporary everyday life is exposed not only to institutional surveillance, but also to a constantly expanding sphere of media coverage. Innumerable sitcoms inundating television screens around the world expose us to the working bodies of doctors, peasants, fishermen, presidents, movie stars, factory workers, mafia killers, gravediggers, and even to zombies and vampires. It is precisely this ubiquity and universality of the working body and its representation that makes it especially interesting for art. Even if the primary, natural bodies of our contemporaries are different, and their secondary working bodies are interchangeable. And it is precisely this interchangeability that unites the artist with his or her audience. The artist today shares art with the public just as he or she once shared it with religion or politics. To be an artist has ceased to be an exclusive fate; instead, it has become characteristic of society as a whole on its most intimate, everyday, bodily level. And here the artist finds another opportunity to advance a universalist claim — as an insight into the duplicity and ambiguity of the artist’s own two bodies.”

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May 29, 13:42
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3 Responses

  1. Nia Hill:

    Marina is breathtaking at the MoMA- it is really interesting to see how her work engages the public. The day I visited, a local artist, Amir Baradaran, payed tribute to her by subverting the performance and making it his as well. His website is if you’d like to see what I mean.


    […] Dialog between Michael Benson and Brian Holmes, Networked_Performance, 5/31/10 […]

  3. Performance Review : Imaginations:

    […] Brian Holmes, “The Artist is Present.” May 26, 2010:; and Arthur Danto, et. al. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present. exh. cat. New York: The Museum […]

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