May 23, 2010, 5:05 PM
Sitting With Marina
By ARTHUR C. DANTO
Performance art, as currently practiced, emerged as an avant garde movement in the 1960s and ’70s, and some of its features made it difficult to visualize how it might make the transition from galleries and public spaces to the more institutional environment of the museum.
For one thing, the medium of the artist is his or her own body, sometimes nude or engaged in highly dangerous circumstances. Pictures of nude bodies doing dangerous things raise no such obstacles in a museum space, but performance art itself is real in all dimensions. Before it can be translated and presented in a museum, a number of problems, both practical and philosophical, must be worked out.
One method would be to allow the pieces to be re-performed, which purists naturally disallow. For them, a performance is a one-time event, unlike a play, which is made to be re-performed; in theater, the distinction between character and actor is widely accepted. In the purist’s conception of performance art, there can be no such distinction; the artist and the performer are one, and must use his or her own body in the work. No one else, they argue, can do this, for reasons both moral and metaphysical.
With performance art, museums face a number of imponderable issues that do not arise with works like paintings and sculptures.
Marina Abramovic is one of the early performance artists whose works have the deep originality that justifies their inclusion in great museums. In recent years, she has not adhered to the purist approach; she has re-performed the work of other artists, when they have granted her permission, and of course has re-performed her own. She did both at the Guggenheim Museum in November 2005, in a one week show called “Seven Easy Pieces.” But knowing that she will not always be around, she has also trained other artists to re-perform some of her work.
Five of these re-performances are included in “The Artist Is Present,” the retrospective of Marina’s work currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, now in its final week.
One of those pieces, “Imponderabilia” — originally performed in 1977 by Marina and her former partner, Ulay — consists of two nude performers facing one another in a doorway. Visitors to the show may pass through to the next room by working their way through this living gate. (A few steps away, there is an alternate way into the next room; in the original performance, visitors to the Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna were required to pass through Marina and Ulay to enter.) At the MoMA show, visitors must be aware that in this case “don’t touch the art” is underwritten by considerations of privacy that go with works consisting of living, breathing bodies. And as MoMA and other museums seek to go beyond exhibiting and actually acquire such performances, they will also have to deal with a number of imponderable issues that do not normally arise with works of art like paintings and sculptures.
The live performers share the MoMA exhibition space with other more conventional works of art — photographs, videos and various props. All these are conceptually as well as aesthetically exciting, but in no respect have they aroused the sort of universal interest generated by Marina’s new performance piece, enacted daily by the artist since the show opened on March 14. It has captured the imagination of everyone interested in contemporary art.
Because of my role as critic and philosopher, and as a New Yorker associated with the arts, I am often asked for my opinion of what this new work, designed for this occasion, means. It consists of Marina seated in a chair on the floor of the atrium, one flight up from the museum’s entrance, across from an empty chair, in which anyone can sit for any length of time. (A table that had been placed between Marina and the sitter was removed a few weeks ago, as it was felt to be an unnecessary barrier.) The performance has brought MoMA itself to the cutting edge of contemporary artistic experiment, and has in every way proven to be a succès fou.
I was a sort of witness to the creative history of the work, since I had accepted the invitation to write the main essay for the show’s catalog. Part of my task was to establish the historical setting of Marina’s work, which was part archival and part interpretative. But it was another matter to describe the new piece; Marina was still uncertain what the atrium performance would be and on this point my essay was necessarily vague. Originally, she imagined a scaffold of seven platforms on one of the atrium walls, connected by ladders, which would have related to an earlier work, “The House With an Ocean View,” performed at the Sean Kelly Gallery in 2002. There she fasted through the 12 days the performance lasted, and did certain things acceptable in a gallery space that would be at least questionable in a public museum space: she urinated, for example, and sometimes stood nude, weeping on the scaffold.
For the MoMA show, which would be nearly three months long, fasting was out of the question, and nudity would have to be negotiated. Then, in a moment of high inspiration, she changed the program radically. On May 23, 2009, she wrote her curator, Klaus Biesenbach, as follows:
I decided that I want to have a work that connects me more with the public, that concentrates … on the interaction between me and the audience.
I want to have a simple table, installed in the center of the atrium, with two chairs on the sides. I will sit on one chair and a square of light from the ceiling will separate me from the public.
Anyone will be free to sit on the other side of the table, on the second chair, staying as long as he/she wants, being fully and uniquely part of the Performance.
I think this work [will] draw a line of continuity in my career.
Fortunately, the catalog had not gone to press, and I was able to revise my essay to take account of this decision. It was consistent with certain past performances, where, for example, she and Ulay would sit in silence at opposite ends of a table for a set period of time. What was new was the empty chair. No one, except perhaps Marina herself, knew what the effect of the empty chair would be.
What is clear is that the possibility of sitting with Marina has ignited in the public imagination the idea that one can do more than passively experience works of art, that one can be part of a work of art for as long as one is willing or able.
I have been told that museum visitors in general stand in front of art works for an average of 30 seconds. At MoMA, some have chosen to sit across from Marina for hours; one young woman sat for the entire length of a day’s performance, frustrating many others waiting their turn in line. Others have returned to sit multiple times. By rough estimate, visitors sit for an average of 20 minutes.
I had the opportunity to sit with Marina on April 15. My wife and I were permitted to arrive before the museum opened and were first in line. We watched Marina sweep into the atrium surrounded by some others, and then take her seat.
There were only two chairs in the atrium. Everyone else was waiting or working. Marina was sitting in a sort of space within the space of the atrium. The space was defined by tape laid in a square on the floor and lit from above. Just outside the square was a film crew; visitors waiting to sit with Marina stood in line in a sort of L. It reminded me of a portrait by Giacometti, in which the subject is placed within a space suggested by a few lines. Giacometti was after all a sculptor; he used the lines to suggest a space, thus giving the subject a presence. I noticed a similar effect in the atrium. The inner space was the artist’s own. It was charged with palpable feeling.
Since I now use a wheelchair to get around, someone wheeled me opposite Marina and the chair was removed. My session as part of the work had begun.
Marina looked beautiful in an intense red garment whose hem formed a circle on the floor, and her black hair was braided to one side. I was unclear as to what I was to do in the charmed space across from her other than to maintain a silence. She is in fact a wonderful talker, full of wit and a kind of Balkan humor. But this performance is very much a dialog des sourds — a dialog of the deaf . Communication is on another plane. I ventured to signal “hi” with a wave, which aroused in Marina a weak smile.
At this point, something striking took place. Marina leaned her head back at a slight angle, and to one side. She fixed her eyes on me without — so it seemed — any longer seeing me. It was as if she had entered another state. I was outside her gaze. Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain. She was luminous without being incandescent. She had gone into what she had often spoken of as a “performance mode.” For me at least, it was a shamanic trance — her ability to enter such a state is one of her gifts as a performer. It is what enables her to go through the physical ordeals of some of her famous performances. I felt indeed as if this was the essence of performance in her case, often with the added element of physical danger.
The question was how long to sit. On the one hand, I thought I could sit there interminably. For a wild moment I thought my physical ailments would fade away, as if I were at Lourdes. I don’t really believe in miracles, but I do believe in courtesy. After 10 minutes I decided that it would have been inconsiderate to take much more time away from the other visitors, who had waited their turns so patiently. I held out my arm as a signal, and someone wheeled me away.
I stayed long enough in the area to be interviewed by the film crew. In the interview I speculated on the Marina phenomenon. I wondered if others had experienced the translucence. Was it, I wondered, part of the experience for them as well? I searched the Web later that day to see what others who sat with Marina had written. Of course their experiences were different from mine.
The entire collection of more than 1000 portraits can be found on MoMA’s Flickr feed.
I had put three months into the catalog essay for the MoMA show, reading about her performances and about her life. I had spent some time in Yugoslavia the 1970s teaching philosophical seminars as a Fulbright professor at the Inter-University Center of Postgraduate Studies in Dubrovnik. It was around then that Marina was doing her first performances in Belgrade. I recalled that, years before she was born, I had, as a young soldier in Italy, sailed one dark night to the Dalmatian coast with some partisans I had fallen in with, to bring some of their wounded comrades back to Bari for treatment. One’s experience of art draws on one’s total experience in life.
One of my art world pals, Domenica, who works in a gallery in California, wrote how lucky I was to have sat with Marina. I thought that the many people now longing to sit with Marina would also say I was lucky to have had that chance. What I know now is that she and MoMA have brought some magic back into art — the sort of magic that all of our courses in art history and appreciation had encouraged us to hope for. James Turrell, the light artist, once told me that after seeing the slides of paintings in the courses he had taken, he was disappointed by the actual paintings. What he had really loved was the light, and in a sense then vowed to make sure his art, consisting of light, would never lose its magic. Those who do get lucky enough to sit with Marina will not be disappointed, because the light I noticed will be there, even if they are not ready to see it.
Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University, and was the art critic for The Nation from 1984 to 2009. He is the author of several books on analytical philosophy and the philosophy of art; and winner of the the National Book Critics Prize for Criticism in 1990, as well as Le Prix Philosophie for “The Madonna of the Future.”