Finding a seat in a crowded Miller Theater, Columbia University, the artist next to me is whispering about the difference between poetry and utility. This could have been an equally good title for this evening, which instead went under the heading ‘Refiguring the Spiritual.’ Then Anderson takes the stage, with the look of an inquisitive child, in an over-sized wrinkled shirt and red socks and shoes. She is alone; she will later be surrounded by three tall people, the art historian and critic Irving Sandler, the painter Gregory Amenoff—who is chair of the Visual Art department at Columbia University—and the philosopher Mark C. Taylor, who is chair of the Department of Religion. These esteemed interlocutors will spend the evening, like the audience, leaning slightly forward, focusing on her intently.
She starts by stating that art is not about making the world a better place. ‘If it was, for who? For you? For you?” I disagree. Art is for making the world a better place for me (this is less megalomaniacal than it sounds). I think of a quote which I, for decades, misascribed to Nietzsche but which is instead by Goethe:
“If the possible has become impossible I must allow myself to believe that the impossible must become possible.”
Art allows us to think the impossible. Art inelegantly, violently or tepidly, consciously or by haphazard, trips over the space between.
Anderson moves on to Herman Melville. I would have thought her affinities closer to the story-generating talents of Laurence Sterne, but then remember that a comedienne needs a straight man. She references what she sees as the central question in Moby Dick:
“What is a man if he outlives the lifetime of his God?”
He is a man who has picked a strange god, I think, or not watered him or her sufficiently (insert image of a dying Chia pet). My atheist upbringing shows.
She talks of important things. Overconsumption. The deadening influence of the art market. She came of age, oh not so very long ago, when the art world viewed money with suspicion, and financial success was equated with selling out. She talks of small electronic devices that steal people’s concentration. But this kind of direct talk is not what she excels at. She excels at telling small stories about the familiar with a twist—a what if.
A notable story about Jesus. How we are lucky, from an art-historical point of view, that Jesus was in the New Testament, which punished blasphemy through crucifixion, and not in the Old, which decreed death by stoning. She conjures, arms akimbo, the central image of the Passion—Jesus on an upright, centralized cross replaced by a prone figure surrounded by a chaotic array of stones—forever changing the history of art and architecture.
She tells of a formative year in her life where she decided not to get out of bed until she had an idea. I want this year. She addresses the students in the audience (we’re all students) telling us:
“Do not wait for someone to ask you to do something,”
This echoes more direct advice that experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer recently gave to my video students:
“Ask for what you want.”
Editing comedy, I learned that it’s all about timing. Making an edit a little too early or a little too late makes something funny. On the beat, it’s not. Anderson’s work is also about this timing— leaving an off-shaped space for the contingent, the invisible, the poignant—and there is something very poignant about her elf-like presence.
“We’re here to have a really, really, really good time. (Off beat). A good time.”
The audience inhales, Anderson looks up at us, then down at her hands, and we laugh.
What is the difference between poetry (little explosions in the brain) and utility (home improvement)?
*Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed are putting together a not-to-be-missed month of programming at the incredible music venue The Stone
Vulnerability – this word has followed me recently, triggered by several events and five women. I’ve been trying to write about this in a clear way for a while, and I suspect that my difficulty has to do with my own relationship to this charged word. I’ll try once again to retrace the path.
The first instance was during a talk by Yoko Ono as she recounted various performances of “CUT” where Ono offers herself up, seated and passive, to an audience that cuts off bits of her clothes. Ono says the work is about love. In the black and white documentation of the performances is the wrenching memory of Vietnamese monks immolating themselves, here less violent, it is the audience that sets the blaze.
A performance in London is polite, another in Paris is a male feeding frenzy. For a more recent performance Ono goes against the tenor of our times, declining the presence of guards or metal detector. In an act of irrational protectiveness her son, who never attends her performances or exhibitions flies in to be there. This famous family has known physical violence at close range. The distance between Ono’s performance as a woman in her 20′s and as a woman in her 70′s, both visually and in terms of her own changed position and experience, is vast. The earlier iterations of this performance are powerful, the later even more so.
At the talk, an astute member of the audience asks (unanswered) “Do you see vulnerability as a structuring principle?” (Do I see vulnerability as a structuring principle?) This surprise question leads me to think about the ‘use value’ (particularly for women) of putting ourselves into a fragile/dangerous situation. Ono’s precarious arrangement, bringing together a woman and a sharp object, is not an uncommon one. What is uncommon is that a woman puts herself into this situation freely and in public, and makes the audience/us complicit in testing the limits. How far will we go in this situation, how far will we allow others to go w/out interceding.
Yes, the performance is about vulnerability, and yes she offers herself up, but not only – it’s also a dare – a very free fuck-you in a nonviolent-resistance kind of way. This brings to mind Kimsooja‘s powerful “Needle Woman” performances where she locates herself unmoving in the street– a woman making her meditation a still point that everyone else has to negotiate.
All of us are in some way responsible for and benefit from the vulnerability of others – our society feeds off of this vulnerablity. And like it or not, choosing or not, we all currently share a high level of vulnerability ourselves – economically, physically, environmentally. After September 11th, the American response to vulnerability was both obvious – the initiation of several wars, the buying of Humvees, and counter intuitive – people flocking to live in New York City. In the art world we have seen a proliferation of monumental, extravagantly expensive projects, both permanent as in Serra’s proliferation of arcs, Koon’s entombing of ribbons, balloons and other fleeting objects in stainless steel, and ephemeral, Eliasson’s waterfalls on the East River, his sun at the Tate. Does this art which is magical in its spectacle and mastery speak to this vulnerability, or is it a symptom? (I think of my own choice to work in video, the most immaterial of materials.)
The next encounter – the naked people taking part in the MoMA Marina Abramovic exhibition. Warm and well-guarded, they are vulnerable above all to the looks of others. Still their young perfect bodies offer a protection absent from the constant presence/exposure of Abramovic’s exhausted face.
Next comes the scene from Avatar where Sigourney Weaver, pale, curled, naked, is surrounded by oddly colored avatars with the flesh of inflated Lycra. [[I couldn't find the film still, I add below as a placeholder]] This image and the relationship between live action and character generated characters in this film, go far in summing up the dreams, nightmares and zeitgeist of our times.
The most recent moment this word arrived unbidden in my brain (for the sake of blog brevity anyway) was during the Nancy Spero memorial, held in the Great Hall of Cooper Union.
Death, by definition, brings up thoughts of vulnerability but this was not the trigger for me. It was a particular image that brought this word back into my mind.
The image – a close-up of a figure from Spero’s clothesline. This clothesline is a true anti-monument in which, amidst a small red bra, a large black bra, a variety of different underwear, are strung a repeating figure, printed on thin paper which moves with the wind. The material is fragile. The figure is female, she has her eyes open wide. And she is gleefully, knowingly spreading apart her vaginal lips.
This repeating female figure has incredible power. She is open; she is in no way vulnerable.
Spero’s take on vulnerability is a good one I think, an honest, actual one that moves us forward. Made of flimsy material, as we all are, this repeating figure, occupies and gives power, takes place in our quotidian. Through this character’s repeated, gesture, Spero achieves a direct, celebratory and matter of fact (not flirtatious, with no hint of victimhood) exposing/revealing of, what our (male) society refuses to look at (because it makes us/them feel vulnerable?
I write this from a sunny place where ‘the dark times’ are spoken about often. Last week in Buenos Aires I watched as the cats recuperated their space after closing time at the botanical gardens. Tonight I spent time watching the dogs sleeping in front of my hotel in Mar del Plata. It is easier to look at and photograph vulnerability in animals.
Movie lights surround Abramovic as MoMA’s atrium is turned into a film set (MoMA is slowly figuring out how to use this vast, cold space which is its center). Three HD cameras record Abramovic’s performance at all times and a man with a still camera stands behind Abramovic, taking extreme close-ups of each person who sits across from her. There are signs alerting the public that whoever enters acknowledges consent to being videotaped and photographed, giving up all rights to these images.
There are other signs stating that no photographs can be taken in the atrium, and there are guards set up at either ends to insure that this doesn’t occur. Luck only for those with a long lens.
There is no photography allowed in any part of the Abramovic show, there was no photography allowed in the recent Tino Seghal show at the Guggenheim or of any other Seghal piece for that matter, there was no photography and even more egregious, no note taking(!) allowed in the Urs Fischer show at the New Museum. I’ve spent the last few years fighting with everyone and anyone who has challenged my right to shoot in public spaces. Granted, a museum is a private form of public space and we’re surrounded by ever more of these hybrid spaces as true public space shrinks.
I understand that museums have the ‘right’ to forbid any activity on their premises. But by denying viewers’ rights while invoking their own, what kind of controlling (precious) atmosphere do these museums and artists want to promote? It seems to put us back several decades in terms of the positioning and passivity of the viewer. These tactics also mimic those of large information-gathering corporations as well as our own government’s Department of Homeland Security. What is up here?
*A woman artist is in the building – joining Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler, Elizabeth Murray and Lee Bontecou (different building) as the only women in the 81-year history of MoMA to have had retrospectives (pathetic, sad, amazing, infuriating).
*Naked people are in the building.
*A medium shot of the artist pushing her breasts towards the sky; a wide shot of women, the artist among them, lifting their dark skirts and squatting so their bare vaginas come into contact with the wet earth; an aerial shot of men humping a hill of green grass, resembling a swarm of fleshy insects – the video, Balkan Erotic Epic, is on display in the building.
I grew up in NYC. Like many New Yorkers, I think of the Met, the Brooklyn Museum and MoMA as ‘my’ museums. New Yorkers are provincial; we’re possessive.
This partially explains the uncanny feeling I had walking through the exhibition Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, seeing actual naked people on display. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for MoMA despite my feeling that it was historically ‘modern,’ a bit stodgy and from my Grandfather’s time. I never located it as an institution that courted controversy, particularly when related to issues of gender or sex.
My view of MoMA, much to my surprise and pleasure, has now shifted and this shift cannot be underestimated. Something has changed here.
First I want to say that I am really pleased that there are naked people, male and female, inhabiting the public space in the Museum of Modern Art. Inhale. Exhale.
Ok. The show. The first performance I encounter walking through the first room of the show, with its heady mix of projections, photographs, grimaces and screams, is Imponderabilia. Historically a favorite of mine, this iteration is the most functioning ‘live’ piece in the exhibition, aside from Abramovic’s presence in the atrium. That said, it’s not nearly as strong as the original, performed in Bologna in 1977 (click on the photo above). This is in part due to the performers lack of intensity compared to Ulay and Abramovic; it is also severely architecturally challenged.
MoMA, not quite ready to make it a prerequisite to walk between two naked people to enter an exhibition, puts the piece in the back, arranging a much larger, unencumbered pathway up front. Thus placed, Imponderabilia becomes a spectator sport, with many watching and few daring to pass in between. When I walked through, the piece was performed by a short woman with a tattoo on her back reading ‘remember to remember’ and a tall man with a notably long penis – perhaps slightly erect (what is known in the industry as ‘a chubby’). These details, particular to the performers, made the performance better (remember this thought).
Have I told you that I love the idea of naked people in MoMA? That said, some of the other performances, naked or clothed (Point of Contact, Nude with Skeleton) function more like living illustrations or documentation surrounded by other forms of documentation. They are less vibrant than some of the flickering videos or grainy b&w photographs.
A disturbing piece, Luminosity, did have, and benefited from its own room. A brightly lit person naked, hanging from a bicycle seat, is seemingly impaled onto the wall. The first time I saw it, the performer was a perfectly coiffed perfectly bodied woman (possible candidate for a Vanessa Beecroft piece). Her expression stricken and blank; she was clearly uncomfortable, not so much physically as from finding herself exposed like this. The piece felt exploitative. (I must confess I spent time checking out the various modes of wearing or eradicating body hair). The second time I entered it was performed by another woman with a more particular body and a stronger presence. She looked out into the horizon, then down at me, then to the man behind me, and then up again, readjusting, suffering, processing, thinking. The return of my/our gaze was crucial in establishing that she was other than an object. Abramovic says this piece is about spirituality; the first performer did hit and hold the Jesus on the cross position at one point, for what it’s worth.
There is much controversy around the issue of ‘reperformance’. And the works here do suffer from the deviation from the initial impulse of ‘no predicted end, no repetition’ as they lose vibrancy and present-tenseness. We know that they are scripted and repeated, as opposed to when they were first performed when they were question marks waiting to unfold. An interesting thing about working with the body as subject/object/material, is that part of the body’s functioning is involuntary. Rumor has it a male performer was removed because of his errant hard-on – a real pity – but didn’t Freud say that the weather is always bad in the land of sexuality?
There can be strength in reperforming when the specific performer (preferably one that is fabulous) truly makes the piece their own. Abramovic did just that during her week in 2005 at the Guggenheim and the results were riveting. Vito Acconci, another consummate alas lapsed performer, said that by reperforming the work becomes theater. Ok, I like theater, but then it better be good theater. And if it’s going to be good theater then a major principle must be adhered to: CASTING, CASTING, CASTING. In the case of the MoMA show, it might have been better to pick from actors or non-performers, as opposed to uniformly young, attractive dancer or model types trained in having their bodies do as they are told. I longed for particularity and diversity in age, race, shape, muscle tone, etc. Or howsabout if the actors/performers had been given the chance to interpret/truly become the performance. Well this would have been a different show.
Abramovic’s performance The Artist is Present is in the main atrium; the person, the artist, the woman has arrived. Queen-like in her red dress, she is otherwise sweaty and exhausted, her expression turned in on itself. When a person stands up, Abramovic allows herself a few minutes of pause, putting her head down, readjusting her limbs, wiping her face. We, the audience, witness her struggle.
Here’s an impromptu video sketch I shot at Yaddo one rainy night last summer of the wonderously shape-shifting performance artist John Kelly improvising to Intermezzo in A minor Opus 76 by Brahms. Inspired by a dance party a few nights earlier, the pool table, with its single minimalist fluorescent, seemed a perfect stage for John’s mix of humor and drama.
Other details: the mosquitoes were biting, the darkened pool house felt like a horror movie waiting to happen, the green felt proved surprisingly rough. We did not go for a swim afterwards, just scurried back to our rooms to bed. Now, aside for the video tape evidence, it’s as if it never happened, like the memory of a short vivid dream
Many thanks to Yaddo for providing the setting, the time and the mix of comrades that make such unlikely collaborations possible.