Photo: Abigail Levine
Marina Abramović’s Time: The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art
Abigail Levine | New York University
Marina Abramović:The Artist is Present. Museum of Modern Art. New York City, NY, United States. March 14-May 31, 2010.
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (2010)
Video Still: Freeing the Memory, 1976.
Her gaze fixed, Marina recites, “vaporetto, value, bishop, humidity, Anastasia, euthanasia...” (Abramović 1976). On the corner of a gallery wall, under the persistent cries of “The Artist Must Be Beautiful” and sandwiched between the remains of the iconic “Rhythm 0” (72 objects for an audience to use to act on Abramović's body) and the two naked bodies of the reperformance of “Imponderabilia,” is the video documentation of “Freeing the Memory.” Abramović's face fills the video. She is almost completely still (a humorous challenge to video, which she often employs). Over the course of eight hours, she speaks every word she can think of, ostensibly until she has no more left in her mind. It is a simple yet mystical proposition—to empty the mind of words. Her mouth forms each word roundly, slowly. Her eyelids flicker up and down in pauses for thought. The subtitles snap into place on their own rhythm: “embroidery, hem, Blessing, Brenda Lee, bukalo, wasteland, thug, plagiarism...” The piece works on you, its various time signatures and plays with meaning evoking a disorientingly flexible experience of time. In many of her works, through the use of durational performance, practiced concentration, and simple, direct contact with her audience, Abramović is able to facilitate an experience of time that is like few we have in contemporary life. For brief moments, time seems malleable, moving with no clear speed or direction. Her new work for the New York Museum of Modern Art retrospective of her career, titled like the exhibition, The Artist is Present, is largely about experience in time. Abramović's goal was, essentially, to remain present, to remain “in the present” for the approximately 731 hours and 30 minutes that the performance lasted. The work invited audience members to both witness and join in this present. A teenage visitor to the show was reported as observing of those who sat with Abramović in the work, “'I think they lose all perception of time when they get up there'” (Dwyer 2010).
More than 750,000 viewers visited the exhibition and many more followed Abramović’s performance via a real-time webfeed. The show garnered a storm of critical and popular media coverage, including process pieces about inappropriate touching of the human art, and the New York Post’s coyly titled “Squeezy Does It.” This show played on a huge scale, and its organizers were obviously invested in “telling the story” of Abramović’s career clearly and dramatically. This required a simple narrative of her career that, in some ways, undermined the radical experience of Abramović's performed time. Abramović did not disavow the presentation of her work in this past-present-future organization. How her legacy will be established and preserved is, also, of considerable concern to her. She has set forward “reperformance” as a model for preserving her work, one which she extends problematically to the entire field of performance art. As one of the 39 reperformers who took part in the exhibition, I confronted the issues brought up by the retrospective and reperformance from a perspective deeply embedded in the experience of Abramović's performance works. I spent more than 120 hours in near stillness in the galleries, as others made their way through the experience of the show.1 As Marina reminded us in an email after the first month of the show, the only way to make it through our task was day by day, to remain (in the) present.
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (2010)
Photo: Abigail Levine
The architecture of the recently redesigned MoMA shepherds entering visitors towards the museum's sculpture garden and up a slate staircase into a six-story atrium. At the center of this space, from March 14 to May 31, one encountered the deceptively simple vision of Marina Abramović sitting quietly. As most of her works, the setup of Abramović's new work for the exhibition, “The Artist is Present,” contains few elements. The artist sits facing an empty chair (for two months of the show there was a table between the two seats). Everyone else in the museum (except the numerous security guards scattered through the space) is “encouraged to sit across from her for a duration of their choosing" ("The Artist is Present" 2010). Surrounding this ordinary intimacy is an expanse of (initially) empty space, cordoned off by a white tape on the floor and a Hollywood flood of lights from four stands at the corners of the box.
The spatial design of the piece reflected one of the ongoing debates about the work. Was it a work of humble generosity and sacrifice that opened a space for unique experience for an audience, or was it a literalization of a recent art world tendency to put star power center stage? Writing in Artforum, Carrie Lambert-Beatty notes this double reading: “I imagine from the inside, there's only a sincere interest in sharing the special mental and physical states made possible by intense concentration. But I know from out here, it looks like performance art is entering the Museum of Modern Art in the form of unabashed celebrity worship" (Lambert-Beatty 2010). These competing spheres of the art experience and the art world and the contradictions they create produced tensions throughout the exhibition and throughout Abramović's career, especially visible in the period since her separation from Frank Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay). The briefest ruffle through The New York Times coverage of the exhibit and its run-up confirm this: articles debate the merits of Abramović's vision of the future of performance art just before listing the top celebrities who have come to sit opposite her; in another, the history of Yugoslav communism is invoked in a spread about Abramović's SoHo loft and country home (Louie 2010).
Abramović approaches these contradictions as if they were complementary colors in a single palette. She does not see a call for a rigorous, often ascetic art practice—one that draws from spiritual and religious traditions—as incompatible with a successful (increasingly lucrative) career and the lifestyle it brings with it. This dichotomy of art and career practice can be understood as a substantial departure from her and Ulay's “Art Vital” declarations and lifestyle or, simply, as a humorous recontextualization of them.2 Or, perhaps, Art Vital, like her more recent statements on reperformance (“Reperformance is the new concept, the new idea! Otherwise it will be dead as an art form”) stand as usefully rigid markers to bounce life and art practices against (Kino 2010). As her biographer James Westcott makes evident, Abramović has never completely adhered to her proclamations, prioritizing, instead, the efficacy of her stories and performances.
My experiences of “The Artist is Present” were more quotidian. I, and many of the performers, “visited” Marina regularly, in part as a way to be reminded of the calm and singularity of focus from which to approach our own performances. As the weeks passed, I found it a humorous reassurance that I would, without fail, find Marina in her place, available anytime in some way. I would greet the security guards, the documentary film crew and, increasingly, some of the “regulars,” those who came daily to the museum during the run of the show. The atrium became a space of uncurated animation and community. Marina and her rotating partner would sit, unresponsive to the din, at the center. If one made the effort, it was possible to join the couple’s energetic exchange at a distance and drop into the their slower rhythms, as the museum and the city raced on.
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (2010)
Screenshot: Portraits on Flickr
Unexpectedly, one of the most charmed spaces in the exhibition was the line waiting to sit with Abramović. Writer and dramaturge Alisa Solomon devoted her critique of the exhibit to the line, having, herself, waited an entire day, unsuccessfully, to sit with Abramović. Solomon writes of “a calm, collaborative, meditative clarity I hadn't felt in an art museum in ages" (Solomon 2010). She suggests that, in the waiting, the effects produced within Abramović's work were flipped outwards onto the line—“relations among strangers were framed and magnified... Being radically present herself, the artist invited us to be present to each other.” Solomon's point was underlined on the last day of the exhibition, when it became clear that even some who had camped out all night to sit with Abramović were not going to get the chance. A woman set herself up on the periphery of the atrium with a sign to the effect of: “Another Artist is Present,” offering to sit and share a gaze with anyone willing. Many sat with this “other artist” throughout the day. Abramović managed to turn an act of waiting into a collective, creative experience. This vectoring of the experience of the piece and the multiplication of the artists present may or may not have been Abramović's initial intent with the work, but it was certainly an atmosphere that she fostered in this space, and has throughout her career.
Documentation of Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975).
Photo: Juri Onuki
It can seem a long way up to the sixth floor galleries, which contain the retrospective elements of the exhibit. As has been catalogued by numerous press accounts, the viewer proceeds through Abramović's career, divided into the surprisingly coherent periods of her work/life/philosophy: gallery one, her early solo works, which primarily challenge her own body and mind; gallery two: her twelve year-long “Art Vital” collaboration with Ulay, which tested the possibilities of one person in relation to another (specifically, a woman with a man); two more galleries cover Abramović's second solo period, during which a focus on her relation with her own body is exchanged for an engagement with her audience, and durational presence is prioritized over pain as mode of transcendence. This later work speaks of struggles to accept impermanence, to feel proximity to death with confrontation.
The documentation in the show—largely a mix of photographs, video, and digital displays that fall somewhere in between—was itself an interesting experiment in how to bring digital media closer to the effectiveness of performance art. The most successful documentation of the show seemed to stand on their own as works of art. In their revisiting, they created something new. The most effecting was a room dedicated to the twelve day-long performance The House With the Ocean View. In the original work, Abramović lived, fasted and shared eye and energetic contact with her audience from three cube-rooms ten feet off the ground. The presentation at the MoMA placed the empty cubes up on one wall, while a three-channel video of the entire performance played on another. Heard throughout the space was a 20-plus hour soundtrack of Abramović reading a transcript of everything she did during the twelve days: “I let my arms hang down straight by my sides. My fingers curve towards my thighs and there is a gap between them and my thumbs. I stand straight and still and remain looking at the audience. I blink. I breathe" (Abramović 2010). The incantatory pace of Abramović's reading, the lack of synchronization between visual image and description, and the absence of a human presence in the set opened a space that invited the audience in, making it as much of an experiential work as those she had designed as participatory, such as the “Green Dragon” (a jade bench to lie on to absorb the mineral energy).
The last gallery was turned over to video of Abramović’s 2005 reperformances of seminal performance art works at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The Guggenheim program, entitled “Seven Easy Pieces,” embodied Abramović’s proposal for how to re-perform works of performance art.3 The model proposed study of the “original” work, some reinterpretation or change of the work, display of documentation of the original work and, most importantly and controversially, securing permission from the artist or their estate to perform the work and paying for it (Abramović 2010). (In the MoMA show, Abramović referred to “Seven Easy Pieces” as reperformances. However, the original exhibition text stated that Abramović was “reenacting” the works presented in the show) ("Seven Easy Pieces" 2005). The text went on to highlight the extent to which Abramović positioned these works as an answer to inadequate documentation, as well as locating performance art within the visual arts, rather than the performing arts world. This gallery, the exit point of the show, seemed to direct viewers towards a vision for the future of performance art within the linear, archival project of the art museum.
Maria S.H.M. (left) and Abigail Levine reperforming Imponderabilia, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (2010)
Photo: Scott Rudd
Imponderabilia performed by Marina Abramović/Ulay, 1977.
In between the galleries or cut out of their spaces, were the five “reperformances” that were a part of the MoMA retrospective. These works, taken from the two later periods of Abramović’s career, produced an ongoing conversation among the performers, as well as viewers and critics. What exactly constitutes a work of performance art? Is it necessarily anchored to a particular social, historical context? In her essay “Performance Remain”, Rebecca Schneider argues that “[i]n performance as memory, the pristine sameness of the ‘original’… is rendered impossible—or, if you will, mythic’” (Schneider 106). How would these reperformances stand next to the mythology of Marina and Ulay’s performances, as well as the material-documentary remains of the works? We struggled with these issues for their theoretical and historical interest, but more immediately in our commitment to create affecting experiences for our audience within the structures we were given. In the day-to-day work at the MoMA, the central question for the reperformances was: Do these performances, regardless of their historical referents, achieve relevance within their current context? Or, put another way, do these reinterpretations work?
Reperformance must, essentially, become performance, an exchange in the present. If the reperformances become effective only in relation to the “original” performance of the work, then they become a fragmentary form, another document. The curation of the MoMA show moved the reperformances, to an extent, towards reception as documentation. Of course, the very nature of a retrospective, a look back at an artist’s career, points to this historical, at times didactic, focus. Additionally, each performance was placed next to video documentation of Abramović performing the work, as well as explanations of the original context and, at times, the changes made to the work.4 This juxtaposition was often a disempowering one for the performers and, I would suggest, for the audience as well. How much more difficult to bring an audience member into an experience in the present when it is preceded and followed with the definitive example, already in the past, of what that experience should look like and mean. The most striking curatorial pull towards reperformance as document was the lack of space for audience to sit and observe the performances. Considering the emphasis on duration in Abramović's work and recognizing the importance of a community of observers to the success of the work The Artist is Present, it seemed a remarkable hamstringing of the works to rob them of the ability to effectively perform time in Abramović's model. Finally, the museum's management of risk in the performances, while unavoidable in such a setting, suggested that the uninterrupted image of the performers was paramount.
Abramović's selection and training of performers, however, pointed the works much more in the direction of reinterpretation, of creating performances, than faithful display. Many of the reperformers are practicing artists, more involved in creating their own work than performing in the work of other artists. Marina's instructions were minimal, leaving much more room for us to make choices and formulate our own understanding of the works than is characteristic of most directors. Imponderabilia, for instance, was explained in the following manner: “You stand in the doorway, looking at the eyes of your partner. When someone passes through the door, you may look at them.”5 Our four-day training by Abramović, detailed by Judith Thurman in The New Yorker, focused not on imparting the details of her works, but on exercises that gave us the opportunity to find our interest and strength in durational activities, meditations, and pared-down existence. In an email to the reperformers (that also serves to illustrate her flair for the dramatic in the same breath as she distances her work from theatre), Marina wrote, “My position about rehearsal is the following: Rehearsal is the enemy of performance art. In my entire life, I never rehearsed any performance I made. The preparation will be more focused on your state of mind than on your physical body. Long durational work is the most demanding type of performance, but it's also the most transforming.”17 And, then, we were left to do our work. Although there were many “official eyes” on the reperformance, Abramovic never came to the galleries to assess our work.
In performance art, discovering what is being done and why it is happening has, logically, always been an important part of the audience's experience: What is Vito Acconci doing under that ramp? Why is Carolee Schneemann pulling that scroll out of her vagina? What will happen to Marina in that flaming star? In reperformance, because the work has already been performed, the question of what will happen has largely been answered. It may be additionally foreclosed by a presenting institution's need for things to go as planned. The “why” gets fractured when the performance is divorced from the artist's initial impulse and context and, additionally, when the creating artist and performer were once, but are no longer, the same person.
What remains is the how of the work, the experiencing of the way the work is unfolding in time, the way the structure of the work is in dialogue with its context and the way it is being performed. Duration makes the how, the moment-to-moment experience of the work, as potent as the why or what. Duration was an issue often raised in regard to The Artist is Present, but never in relation to the reperformances. This, however, was arguably the greatest transformation of the works from their originals and, certainly, where the presence of risk, singularity, and transformation reemerges. It was also over time that the what and why of the performance were re-opened as questions. As the performers became attuned to the subtleties of crossings through the Imponderabilia doorway, contact with each passerby became a singular event, each with its own reasons and consequences. It was in the weeks of proximity and exchange that the security staff became active collaborators in the fulfillment of the works.6 It was over the course of the exhibit that these reperformances became works in their own right, for those performing and for many who viewed them.
In The Body as Archive, André Lepecki opens up another way to consider reperformance. Writing on recent reenactments of twentieth century dance works, he conceives “the dancer’s body as an endlessly creative, transformational archive” (Lepecki 2010, 46). This notion offers an understanding of Abramovic's interest in reperformance that is consistent with her teaching work with younger artists, and casts the MoMA show as a success in a manner not considered by most critics. From this perspective, reperformance becomes less about enlivening the image of the original work and more about continuing to activate and develop its meanings in and through artists’ bodies. Marina’s body is the ultimate archive of her performances; through our work at the MoMA, there are now forty additional bodies that carry and create from a particular understanding of her performance works and principles.
The future of performance art remains, happily, an open question. Reperformance may or may not become a definitive model in the future of performance art. However, it is clear that the 731 hours of these (re)performances—the practiced and concentrated energy of 39 performing artists in combination with Abramović's own formidable performance—had a literally exciting effect on the expansive space of the museum and those who worked in and visited it. No matter the ability of new media to keep works effectively animated, this exhibit was a strong case for keeping conversations about these works, about the art form, and about the issues they raise active between bodies.
Abigail Levine is a dance and performance artist from New York. She has performed most recently with Marina Abramović at the New York MoMA, with Carolee Schneemann, and with Cuban choreographer Marianela Boán. Her own performance works bring together the rigors and resources of dance's bodily specificity with performance art's experiments with time and human action. They have been shown in the US, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil and Taiwan. Abigail lived in Havana, Cuba from 2001-2004. She is completing a Masters at NYU in Dance and Performance Studies.
1 I performed each of the five works, although I spent most of my time in Imponderabilia (two naked performers in a doorway with space for audience to pass through) and Luminosity (a woman, by self-definition, nude and perched on a bicycle seat above the heads of the public), more than 50 hours occupying each piece during the ten weeks of the exhibition.
2 “Art Vital—no fixed living-place, permanent movement, direct contact, local relation, self-selection, passing limitations, taking risks, mobile energy, no rehearsal, no predicted end, no repetition.” From her bio in Media Kunst Netz.
3 It is important here to note that this discussion is limited to performance art works that were not envisioned as structures to be repeated. There is also a tradition of works within the discipline of performance art that are open to repeat performance, many of them taking the form of “instruction pieces,” works that the creating artist may never have intended to perform.
4 A particularly baffling sign just before the entrance to Imponderabilia read: “the doorway has been widened due to museum regulations.” Daily, there were questions to the guards and to the silent performers as to what regulation governed such a situation. I know there were many negotiations that went into the allowing of nude performers in the exhibit, but none of us could figure how the wider doorway figured into the compromise.
5 This raises the issue of whether we were figuring them out to make the performance work or to make it what Marina would want. In an article in New York Magazine, Deborah Wing-Sproul suggests that it was the latter that drove her performances. While the originals were evoked often in conversation, my experience was that it was only one of many reference points in making performance choices.
6 It is, perhaps, the subject of another piece, but I think every discussion of this exhibit must acknowledge the remarkable role that the MoMA security staff played in its realization. From a starting place of seeming insurmountable incongruity of our “jobs” to the development of a creative and practical collaboration, this piece of the performance experience was one of the most unexpected and transformative. Marina set an important tone for these relationships. She was the only artist in memory who has met with the entire MoMA security staff to discuss the meaning of her work and their role in it. As oppressive a notion as security has become in our societies and daily life, this performance period drew out the expressions of security tied more to mutually responsibility and care.
Abramović, Marina. Audio: Seven Easy Pieces. MoMA Multimedia. 2010.
---. Email, January 15, 2010.
---. Video documentation of “Freeing the Memory.” Museum of Modern Art, New York.
“Marina Abramović: Seven Easy Pieces" exhibition text. Guggenheim Museum. November 5-12, 2005, 5pm-12 am.
“Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present” exhibition text. Klaus Biesenbach, curator. Museum of Modern Art, Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium.
Abramović, Marina and Klaus Peter Biesenbach. “The Room with an Ocean View.” Marina Abramović: The Artist in Present. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010.
Dwyer, Jim. “Confronting a Stranger for Art.” The New York Times. April 4, 2010.
Lambert-Beatty, Carrie. “Against Performance Art.”Art Forum. May 2010.
Lepecki, André. "The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dances." Dance Research Journal, Vol 42, No 2. Winter 2010: 28-48.
Louie, Elaine. “Sets for the Artist Marina Abramović’s Dramatic Life.”THe New York Times. March 3, 2010.
Kino, Carol. “A Rebel Gains Favor. Fights Ensue.”The New York Times. March 10, 2010.
Solomon, Alisa. “The Artist's Present.”Killing the Buddha.
Schneider, Rebecca. “Performance Remains.” Performance Research 6(2), 2001. pp. 100-108.
The Artist Is Present and the Emotions Are Real: Time, Vulnerability, and Gender in Marina Abramovic’s Performance Art
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If you were to stare into the eyes of a complete stranger for a long time, would you expect to be emotionally broken? Performance artist Marina Abramovic creates this scenario in her piece “The Artist Is Present,” which takes place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One at a time, she invites strangers to sit across from her and stare into her eyes for as long as they please. Often times, people start to cry and become overwhelmed. How could performing such a simple act elicit such a strong emotional response? Anne Bogart, Artistic Director of SITI Company, provides a useful voice to answer this question. She offers two pieces that examine the aspects of theatrical performance: “Time” and “Magnetism.” “Time” examines how altering the time frame of a performance can produce different results. Taking this into consideration, Abramovic stares at strangers for seven hours a day for three months, and the audience often participates for long periods at a time. The minuscule action involved in her performance contrasts with its lengthy time span, and I hypothesize that this long time span contributes to the audiences’ emotional response. Additionally, “Magnetism” examines the effects of the performer and audiences’ shared empathy for one another. This “human heartbeat”—in other words, shared humanity—creates vulnerability, allowing for a more “personal and intimate” experience of the performance (Bogart 65). Moreover, the vulnerability created by Abramovic in her audience allows her to reveal suppressed sadness within the participant. Although Bogart’s pieces involve theatre rather than performance art, they share a “performing” aspect; thus, their sources are useful for examining Abramovic’s performance. Lastly, American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler offers an essay written in 1988 called “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” explaining that gender is an ever-changing social construction of the way we act (Butler 531). According to Butler, a woman (in this case Abramovic) is seen by society as having maternal characteristics: to what extent does this affect the way people react to her presence? The goal of this essay is to examine these aspects—vulnerability, time, and gender—and consider which elements of Abramovic’s performance contribute most directly to the audience’s emotional response.
Abramovic’s Use of Time Contrast
According to Bogart, time is a tool used to control how an audience perceives a performance, which exposes Abramovic’s use of time to affect her subjects. Bogart uses an anecdote in which a Swiss geologist examined the mental states of several people who had experienced near-death falls in the Alps. She notes that “mental activity became enormous, rising to hundred-fold velocity. Time became greatly expanded” (128). In the context of a near-death experience, peoples’ thoughts race because of a natural human reaction to the situation. Normally, people fail to think at this pace; however, the context of the situation causes time to be perceived as expanded because an abundance of thought takes place relative to a short time span. Taking this into consideration, the opposite is true: the performer can use time to change the context of a situation. This scenario can be true in non-near-death experiences, but on an intentional artistic level. Abramovic does so in “The Artist Is Present” when she slows down time by incorporating very little interaction into a long time span. Director Robert Wilson can relate: “In my pieces everything is slowed down. If it’s going to take me five minutes to pick up a spoon, first of all it’s going to be painful just to control it. But what happens to with my awareness of my body as I do it?” (qtd. in Bogart 133). According to Wilson, your body naturally analyzes actions in “real” time; when you slow down your regular actions to a much longer time scale, you have more time to analyze everything that occurs in that moment, including your own thought process. Picking up a spoon normally takes a short moment, but stretching this action out to five minutes exponentially increases your awareness of the action. Further, when the audience member participates in Abramovic’s long performance, she has time to metacognitively reflect on her actions and environment, enabling an altered perception of the act. Abramovic controls her audience in this manner by contrasting time length with size of interaction. Later on, we will directly examine to what extent this time scale elicits an emotional response in the participant.
Returning to the aspect of time, Abramovic’s lengthy performance allows the audience member enough time to “sink in” to the performance and become vulnerable to Abramovic’s silent examination. Let us first examine the length of the performance. The audience members ultimately decide how long to stay, because they can walk away whenever they please; however, more people decide to sit for a long time. One audience member commented, “she slows everybody’s brain down, she asks us to stay there for quite a length of time . . . she transforms us as a result” (“The Artist Is Present”). Abramovic never asks anyone to stay for any length of time, but we can see that this audience member believes so; because of this, we see an established connection between Abramovic and her audience. During this length of time, she “slows down” the brain by creating a contrast between time and interaction. Remember Robert Wilson’s comment about spending five minutes to pick up a spoon? Bogart would argue that this contrast between time span and interaction allows for one’s thoughts to race at said “ten-fold velocity.” An eleven year-old boy described his experience with mysterious nostalgia: “It’s like some other world . . . and time flies quicker” (“The Artist Is Present”). Judging by this, the “other world” must be a state of consciousness created by the performance’s length of time. After a while, the audience enters this state of mind where thoughts at ten-fold velocity occur. Due to Abramovic’s silent examinations and eye contact, the audience becomes vulnerable.
Empathy and Vulnerability
Additionally, the empathy shared between the performer and audience reveals how Abramovic’s audience is left vulnerable by her stare. In “Magnetism,” Bogart explains that a performance becomes attractive when it exhibits characteristics with which the audience can identify. Commenting on how the audience identifies with a performance, Bogart writes, “the human heartbeat serves as the red thread through any theatrical labyrinth and will lead to the vulnerability at center of the event” (65). In other words, even the most complicated performance—the “theatrical labyrinth”—exhibits the characteristic of human nature (i.e. the human heartbeat) to which the audience can relate. According to Bogart, because of the shared humanity between performer and audience, vulnerability surrounds the performance; the audience member begins to carry out self-reflection when she sees this commonality in the performance. In the case of “The Artist Is Present,” because the audience member can only think in the given situation, she may be wondering about Abramovic’s thoughts too, which leaves her subject to Abramovic’s silent examination. We will later examine the extent to which this “silent examination,” combined with the observer’s vulnerability, emotionally affects the audience.
Abramovic’s use of time sets the stage for vulnerability, resulting in pain within the audience members. The contrast between time span and interaction creates the “mental zone” in which thoughts at ten-fold velocities occur. In addition, Bogart would argue that the humanity shared between Abramovic and the audience creates an unspoken empathy “which leads to vulnerability at the center of the event” (65). The act is so simple that the audience has the time to analyze its simplicity: we are both here, and we are both human; we share that with each other. The performance creates vulnerability because hiding behind anything is impossible, especially physically. In fact, set design removed the table that was originally present between Abramovic and her audience to increase this vulnerability factor. The curator of “The Artist is Present,” Klaus Biesenbach, commented that the lack of the table makes Abramovic much more vulnerable and “makes her very unprotected . . . but it heightens the seriousness…and the severe nature of the piece” (“The Artist Is Present”). The woeful reactions of sobbing audience members elucidate this seriousness and severe nature. These reactions almost always consist of the audience beginning to shed tears, while maintaining the stare with Abramovic the entire time (“The Artist Is Present”). Further, prolonged eye contact causes vulnerability; one audience member commented that eye contact is strange because “most of us are afraid of it and Marina is offering it infinitely” (“The Artist is Present”). Humans avoid eye contact, but this performance is based around it, thus causing the audience to become vulnerable. The audience as well as Abramovic accept this vulnerability. The unavoidable silent examination then creates the window for an emotional response to occur. Abramovic offers another point of view: “they’re sitting there; I’m just a mirror of their own self” (“The Artist Is Present”). The audience members subconsciously analyze their own thoughts and feelings (the metacognitive process that Bogart mentions, expressed earlier) all while having to maintain the stare of vulnerability. As a result, people often become overwhelmed by their own painful feelings. Abramovic sympathizes, “Some of them are really open to feel incredible pain. Some of them have so much pain” (“The Artist Is Present”). She consequently tries to stay open to feel incredible pain because openness comes from the willingness of the participant, thus creating vulnerability within the scenario. Bogart believes that this ability consequently allows one to identify and understand another person’s emotions (65). The vulnerability of the participant proves integral in the emotional response of the participant, but could not exist without Abramovic’s creative use of contrasting time span with minimal interaction.
Does Gender Affect an Audience’s Perception?
Aside from the performance’s direct components of time manipulation and vulnerability, the factor of gender is another debatable force that affects the performance’s effect on its audience. Gender theorist Judith Butler argues that gender is a social construction, which sheds light on how Abramovic’s womanhood affects her audiences’ perception of “The Artist Is Present.” In “Performative Acts and Gender Construction,” Butler explains that we construct gender through a “stylized repetition of acts” that conforms to how society views those acts with respect to the male or female category (519). She further begins to explain that the body is the stylized medium, and that “the body is not self-identical or merely factic materiality; it is a materiality that bears meaning . . . and the manner of this bearing is fundamentally dramatic” (521). The manner of the body’s materiality being fundamentally “dramatic” expresses that what we put on socially, mentally, and physically constructs a gender. In other words, the way we present ourselves externally points to our constructed genders. Simply put, we construct gender through expression and do not create this characteristic at birth. As Simone de Beauvoir claims, “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman” (qtd. in Butler 519). People become women through the stylized repetition of “womanly” acts. We can easily categorize “womanly acts” because we construct them as a society. Using gender as a lens through which to examine “The Artist Is Present” proves especially useful because Abramovic uses the body as a medium for her performance act, and Butler depends on the body as a central aspect of her argument. Later, we will analyze how Abramovic’s gender contributes to how the audience receives her performance.
In addition, the extent that Abramovic’s womanliness affects the audience and elicits an emotional response must be determined. When you put yourself in the position of the audience, you are sitting across from a woman, and that is the extent of the sexuality you encounter throughout the piece. Does sitting across from what society views as a maternal figure cause people to seek compassion for their inner pain? I ask this because oftentimes, society regards women as more caring and compassionate than men. In addition to arguing that gender is a social construction, gender theorist Judith Butler argues, “To be female is[…] a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman,’ to induce the body to become a cultural sign” (522). What Butler means is that to be a woman, one must externally display womanly characteristics and act like a woman in society would act. In “The Artist Is Present,” Abramovic is better characterized as a female than a woman because she does not act in any womanly way that abides by womanly social constructs. Staring and sitting in a chair—the only action taken by Abramovic—can be performed by both men and women. Although audience members can see Abramovic’s womanly stylization of the body, they cannot fully regard her as a woman due to the lack of stylized repetition of acts that constitute her womanhood (Butler 519). Even then, her stylization of the body involves dressing in a robe much like a monk would, which makes her seem even less “womanly” (“The Artist Is Present”). Because the audience cannot identify womanhood with Abramovic directly with respect to her actions, the audience is likely to not seek compassion in the performer and emotionally respond directly due to gender. Therefore, with regards to causing an emotional response in the audience, gender does not affect the audience in comparison to time and vulnerability, which work together.
Although we have deduced that both time and vulnerability contribute more exactly to emotional response than gender, we must consider how gender is perhaps a directly contributing factor. For example, what if Abramovic were a man? To understand the significance of this question, let’s turn to Judith Butler and her notion of gender. By man, I mean holding the external characteristics of what society views as a “manly” man: for example, a chiseled jaw or rugged beard. I deduce that one is less likely to break down in front of a man because society sees this as a sign of weakness. People in general are more likely to become vulnerable in the presence of a woman because of the “historical idea” that women are caring and motherly figures in society. So what if a “manly” male is the performer? Anthropologist Victor Turner argues that gender is a “social action [that] requires a performance which is repeated” (qtd. in Butler 526). While this is agreeable with Butler’s argument, there is no gendered “act” that takes place in “The Artist Is Present” because the act is not associated with a repeated social norm with respect to a certain gender. In fact, Abramovic’s ex-lover, Ulay, (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) sits across from Abramovic, and they both begin to sob and reach for each other’s hands after some time (“The Artist Is Present”). We have both genders present in this situation that emotionally react to the performance; therefore, there is little possibility of gender having a substantial effect on the vulnerability and thus emotional response of the audience because the act itself is not gendered. However, if the act were to be changed, perhaps if Abramovic were nude for the performance, one would be more aware of her womanly “stylization of the body” that Butler argues constitutes genderization. Even then, the maximum effects of gender are only yielded when the act itself has characteristics of a historically constructed gender; therefore, in the case of “The Artist Is Present,” gender’s effects are incomparable to vulnerability and time contrast. With regards to this, one cannot argue that vulnerability causes these responses, as throughout “The Artist Is Present,” people break down during longer performances, and the time contrast is what causes the metacognitive thought process leading to vulnerability, allowing for a self-reflective thought process in the presence of Abramovic.
We have concluded that out of three aspects of Abramovic’s performance—time contrast, vulnerability, and gender—time contrast and vulnerability contribute most directly to the emotional responses that occur during “The Artist Is Present.” The fact that such a simple act of observing one another in silence can elucidate deep emotional reaction is shocking, but is logically explained when one examines the contrast of how long the actual performance can be and how little physically occurs; self-reflection occurs rapidly, empathy shared between performer and audience causes vulnerability, and Abramovic acts as a “mirror” of the subject’s pain to him or her self. One may consider that the audience may be more inclined to seek compassion in Abramovic due to her gender; however, Butler’s argument about how we construct gender counters the fact, because Abramovic’s act is gender-neutral. What if we consider Abramovic’s previous performances and her use of stylization of the body? Abramovic would often appear nude in her performances, using her body as a medium for self-inflicted pain; however, “The Artist Is Present” is different because although she uses her body as a medium for the act, the act is relatively “genderless,” whereas in previous performances, the nudity would have clear implications that surrounded gender as the body is exposed in its purest form. What could Abramovic be saying about gender by straying from her usual gendered appearance in her performance art? Perhaps she is denying the importance of gender in performance art and in life by constructing a gender-neutral act. Regardless of her intentions, we cannot completely discard gender as a contributing factor of human interaction. For example, men often hold the door for women as a sign of gender courtesy. How could one ignore Abramovic’s beautiful womanly face, her long black hair? Perhaps our perceptions are a bit altered despite our ignorance. Nevertheless, Abramovic’s strong use of time and vulnerability as tools in performance art overshadow gender, evoking a powerful response in her audience during “The Artist Is Present.”
Bogart, Anne. “Magnetism.” And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World. New York: Routledge, 2007. 65. Print.
Bogart, Anne. “Time.” And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World. New York: Routledge, 2007. 128–33. Print.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519–22. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
Marina Abramovic: “The Artist Is Present.” Dir. Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre. Perf. Marina Abramovic. HBO, 2012. DVD.