*The artist is in the building.
*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.