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He thought up the title and she adapted it into a long and exhausting performance. A “literal” interpretation of the title proposed by the curator of the exhibition, Klaus Biesenbach, for Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MoMA, seems to be the origin of the performance that the artist carried out expressly for the occasion. It bears the same name, and formally consists in being seated and immobile for the duration of the exhibition, the whole time that the museum was open to the public. That is 7 and a half hours, every day, during 2 and a half months, without moving, without eating and without talking.
Before going to watch the documentary, being familiar with the performance “The artist is present”, I thought that once again we would assist at the exaltation of the figure of the artist, the creator and transmitter of sublime experiences. Seeing the film hasn’t changed this idea, but has added other interesting reflections regarding the relation between art and emotion, artist and audience and at the same time between these two pairings.
In a certain way the response of Marina Abramovic to the curator’s title ends up being a provocation. It is the longest individual piece of her career, and even though it might seem the contrary, for being visually less violent, it is by far the most physically and emotionally demanding. The act of going and sitting there is interesting in this sense, because if the objective was to rend homage to the work of Abramovic, an artist who has always worked with her body, how to do it without her, without her body? It was the artist who had to find the answer, and the answer was no, it couldn’t be done without the body of Marina. The artist was indispensable she became indispensable.
“Performance becomes life, and life becomes art”. [[All the quotes are extracted from the official webpage: http://marinafilm.com/]]
“As long-time friend and MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach puts it: “Marina is never not performing”.” Marina confounds art and life, and maybe because of this reason, she can on the one hand “live” in the museum during three months, and on the other accept without any problem that the camera of Matthew Akers pokes into her life. Maintaining intact the old intention of documentary film, Akers wants to show “the truth” about the artist, forgetting in this way everything that we have learnt about the critique of representation. He also forgets that he is following a performer, while she tranquilly reveals herself, between botox, sessions of photography and biographical stories with all the charisma she can muster that is by no means inconsiderable.
“In a strategy meeting, she sets the stakes for what lies ahead: at 63, she has lost patience with being a fringe artist. What she wants now is for performance art to be legitimated. She is thinking of her legacy––and the MoMA show, as she well knows, can secure it once and for all.”
A touch of scandal, in the exaggerated voice of a TV news-reporter when she asks if it is or isn’t art, in front of pixelated images of the nude bodies that execute the performances in MoMA. Which is ‘beyond question’ because it’s in MoMA. At the same time something happens that perhaps disarticulates the characteristic potential of the work of Abramovic: the paraphernalia of cameras and the “fan” effect. It’s because the question is not the right one Abramovic is now art.
The problem is that in the end, everything, from the promotional photographs up until the three months of the performance, including the nerves of the set up and jovial training of the young performers, everything, becomes a media phenomenon worthy of a rock star diva. It is not that rock and contemporary art can’t come close to each other it is that in this specific case, the approximation turns the performance of Abramovic into a morass of people. At the end of the film, a reflection about the artist’s need to recognise herself in her audience gives a few clues about the why or how to endure, out of one’s own volition, being seated and silent for more than 700 hours. “The audience is fuel to her––in effect, a lover; she needs the audience, Biesenbach says, “like air to breathe”.”
This and the desire, once more, to excel herself and to overcome what surrounds her, what precedes her and what is yet to come. This performance is inspired in a previous one, ‘Nightsea Crossing’ of 1985, in which she sat face to face with Ulay, until they couldn’t stand it any longer. Yes, it was Ulay who gave up first. In ‘The artist is present’ seated, alone, immobile, in the centre of the square, she assaults her interlocutors with her gaze, and they cry…cry…cry…At least in the film, they all, male and female, cry. What is it that makes so many people cry? This is the right question? This isn’t the one Akers asks in the film.
“Her objective is to achieve a luminous state of being and then transmit it, to engage in what she calls “an energy dialogue” with the audience.” As Dan Fox says in an article in frieze in reference to the exhibition: “this is art made by someone who at some level still believes in the sacred aura of the secular white cube art space.” Using secular and sacred in the same sentence.
It is well known that art and emotion often go hand in hand. In heading towards the swampy terrain of emotion, I can do no more than bump into Eloy Fernández Porta and ask myself what type of emotions is constructed in the chair facing Marina. Maybe that is the right question: What type of emotions does ‘the artist is present’ construct? Because when all is said and done it is as much about emotion as the construction of this emotion. Why don’t we become emotional in the face of The Artist?
Fox ends his text with the question: “what really is the conversation about?” I don’t think that such a conversation exists, or perhaps it does, as she says, establishing an “energy dialog”, it’s about a discourse in which Marina Abramovic unleashes all her tools to achieve an aim. And it’s not a bad aim, as at 63 years old, it is understandable that she feels dignified when finally she can seat the art of performance (her art), at the altar of the institution. Now performance is neither radical nor alternative, Marina Abramovic has consecrated it. Now performance is everything, it is sitting down and it is the paraphernalia.