For better or worse, no single artist has been more influential in shaping the current trend towards the institutionalisation of performance art than Marina Abramović. Starting with ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ (the 2005 performance series at the Guggenheim Museum for which she re-enacted historic works by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, VAL IE EXPORT, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, and herself), the artist has been on a self-appointed mission to establish a new paradigm for the preservation and representation of live art. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, her long awaited and widely publicised retrospective at MoMA, has been heralded as the crowning achievement of her efforts. Curated by Klaus Biesenbach, the exhibition covers the artist’s 40-year career, starting with a few rarely seen sketches for unrealised performances and sound pieces from the late 1960s, and ending with a new work that will be performed continuously.
Along with the new piece, the most conspicuous feature of the exhibition is the inclusion of five live re-enactments of Abramović’s historic works performed in shifts by a cohort of performers and dancers. Paradoxically, this is also the show’s most problematic component. In the words of the institution, the reenactments’ purpose is ‘to transmit the presence of the artist and make her historical performances accessible to a larger audience.’ The underlying assumption, which Abramović herself has explicitly spelled out in several interviews, is the inadequacy of traditional documentary media in providing viewers with a true experience of the original work. As a matter of fact, partly because all the pieces re-enacted are virtually static, the relations between the originals, their documentary record, and the re-enactments, turn out to be much more complicated than this assumption implies.
Take ‘Point of Contact’ from 1980. In this performance Abramović and Ulay (her partner in life and art between 1976 and 1988) stood staring into each other’s eyes and pointing at each other without touching. Performed for one hour at De Appel in Amsterdam, the piece is best known through a six-minute 16mm film shot in studio later the same year. The MoMA re-enactment, set inside a box vaguely reminiscent of a diorama, accurately recreates the film’s dramatic lighting and ends up looking, more than anything else, like a live version of the static film. Another case in point is ‘Relation in Time’, 1977, in which the artists sat back to back for 17 hours tied together by their hair. The new version is set inside a box with an opening that frames the performers in a close-up that exactly matches the framing of the black-and-white photographs documenting the original performance.
Disregarding the original duration of each piece, all re-enactments begin before the museum opens and end after it closes. This choice, aimed at allowing visitors ‘to experience the timelessness of the works,’ further emphasises the re-enactments’ correspondence to the original visual documents: unable to experience the works in their duration and ephemerality, we are left facing the timelessness of arrested images. In the end, rather than convincing us of the unique virtues of re-enactment as a vehicle of true experience of the past, the MoMA experiment (quite appropriately, in my opinion, but in marked contrast with Abramović’s stated goal) underscores the extraordinary suggestive power of the original documentary material.
The fundamental question raised by the model of re-enactment proposed by Abramović, is whether a performance can be radically recontextualised without changing to the extent that talking about it as a re-enactment of the same piece becomes meaningless. Take ‘Imponderabilia’, 1977, for example. In the original, Abramović and Ulay stood naked, facing each other, in the main entrance of Bologna’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, forcing the audience to decide either to desist from entering the museum, or to squeeze through the narrow passage between the artists’ naked bodies. At the MoMA exhibition, however, an alternative entrance is available adjacent to the one guarded by the two performers, radically changing the stakes involved in the decision, and degrading the momentous challenge presented by the original piece to the level of a titillating dare.
Abramović’s new performance highlights another set of tensions between the artist’s stated goals and the institutional context of the exhibition. For this piece, the artist will be sitting at a table through the entire duration of the show; across form her, audience members are invited to sit on an empty chair and lock eyes with her for as long as they can endure. In its reliance on notions of presence and immediacy, the purity of this concept dramatically clashes with the hypermediated environment in which the work is set. Surrounded by studio lights, and under the constant gaze of three video cameras, a webcam, and a photographer shooting close-ups of every participant, Abramović’s new piece has more interesting things to say about the ways in which mediation unsettles and complicates the notion of presence, than about the transformative power of presence itself. Being present, in this context, looks remarkably akin to being camera ready. It is a compelling notion, but one that Abramović’s work regrettably fails to address.
Francesco Gagliardi is an artist based in New York