Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: Marina Abramovic @ MoMA

Went to go see Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present at MoMA today. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that this might be the show of the year. The whole art world (by which I mean everyone in the 5 boroughs) is atwitter. And, since the reviews have been rather mixed, I feel like I need to add to the chatter. And because you probably won't learn much from them that you don't already know if you know anything about Abramovic or her art. That is, of course, that Holland Cotter doesn't exactly like some of the work (really useful information) and that someone, either Jerry Saltz or his editors, thinks it's ok to write a three paragraph review about the first major retrospective by one of the most fundamentally important artists of the past 50 years. Seriously? Only Arthur Danto got it somewhat right, but, in his usual Arthur Danto way, he offers a plethora (Forgive me, El Guapo) of amazing ruminations without much of a sense of whether or not the exhibition is going to be satisfying or not.

I'm going to do a lot of the same, mainly because you'd be an idiot to think that the exhibition wouldn't be satisfying. What I'm not going to do is offer much information on Abramovic or her work. Go read a book. Or, God forbid, take an art history class. That's where that happens. This is criticism. I'm here to criticize. I mean critique.

So, let's start with the obvious. I have personal space issues. This makes for an exceedingly rewarding experience in a Marina Abramovic retrospective on its last day, on Memorial Day. MoMA deserves kudos for being open on Memorial Day. We don't all like parades. But, for those of you keeping score, going to MoMA on Memorial Day is really stupid. Really stupid.

But, within the context of this show, it was almost ideal. My wife told me to keep an eye on the crowds, so she deserves the credit for this, but there is much truth to my saying that Abramovic's work is best experienced with too many of your closest friends, bashing bodies with strangers and being constantly forced to jostle for space in and around the crowds. It wasn't simply that Impoderabilia was one of the centerpieces of the show. For all of you who don't know, this was a 1977 work in which Abramovic, with her then art-making partner Ulay, stood, as they say, butt-ass nekkid, in one of the doorways of the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Bologna. It was recreated, as were a handful of other works, by Abramovic-trained performers at MoMA.

And, yes, I squoze (not a proper conjunction, but an in-joke with my parents) myself through two naked bodies. I faced the woman, mostly because all the other people in line in front of me did and I thought they must be onto something. To be honest, it was an amazing experience. Firstly, the tangible smooshing of three bodies together is unbelievably tectonic. And, no, juveniles, it wasn't sexual. But it was one of the most tangible bodily experiences I've ever had. The performers were standing really close together and even my skinny ass had some trouble getting through. I felt everything. The closest comparison I can imagine would be blindness, and the way that blind people report having a heightened sense of touch because of their lack of vision. All of a sudden my torso, arms, legs, everything became hypersensitive and aware of every smashing, rolling, pushing that it took to get through two naked bodies. It was perhaps the most fantastic reminder that all art, even the optical Greenbergian stuff, is supposed to hit you everywhere. Art, dear friends, is a visceral experience. All of this Cartesian bullshit that we've been forced to believe for centuries is exactly that. Bullshit.

Op. Cit. Susan Sontag. Art, dear friends, is best when it is erotic, not hermeneutical. Look it up. It's the titular essay in Against Interpretation. If you haven't read it, you haven't lived.

Those of you that know me know I have this thing about being too close to people I don't want to be too close to. Watch my students corner me after class and watch me back up until I'm melting into the wall. This was totally different. The anticipation was, to quote a cliche, palpable. The only thing I can compare it to is the rush of adrenaline one gets before performing on stage, an apropos sensation. But I have to say that the rush kept going for quite some time after. Shaky legs, dilated pupils. I'm anything but an adrenaline junkie, but it was pretty cool.

Angular narrative turn here.

One of the best things about this exhibition was its way of navigating the impossibility of showing performative works, a dilemma that Abramovic herself attacked head on at the Guggenheim in 2005. I'm not interested in the ideologies of recreating performance pieces, or debating the necessity of ephemerality for the credibility of performative art. That's for the artist to decide, the critic to pontificate upon, and noone to decide.

But, MoMA really got it right today. They placed the script (that's what I'm going to call it) next to a single still from the performance. Then, next to it, there was one of those fancy digital picture frames that rotated through a series of still images from the original performance. It was actually a pretty successful way to give a sense of the works that weren't recorded to video. Those, to my great enjoyment, were on huge screens at grotesque volumes, just the kind of multi-sensory assault that made sense for the work.

And, of course, I must offer this caveat. Whoever decided to put the performers in the free-standing boxes might have dropped the ball. It was simply too detached from the communal space of the viewers' bodies, our bodies, all of which are implicated in any of Abramovic's works. Her body becomes ours, her fragility and mortality ours. Separating the performers in these oddly Turrellian spaces didn't make any sense. It was too pictorial, which doesn't make any sense to me for an exhibition focused on performative art.

Before I go, I need to make a point of something remarkably obvious.

Marina Abramovic is beautiful. She has been stunningly beautiful her whole career and is even moreso today, as I saw her, seated in the atrium of the museum, draped in heavy gown that framed her face against the space, the crowd, and her entire career.

This shouldn't be such a big deal, except that we, as an art culture, have been deeply and overly ashamed of beauty for far too long, at least since Caravaggio or Goya or Courbet or something so obvious I'm forgetting it. Perhaps, pace Laura Mulvey, this is because we've all been party to centuries of patriarchy and the exploitation of the bodies of infinite women for the purely genital pleasure of mostly white, upper-class, heterosexual males. That is, looking at beautiful women has been a guilty pleasure for centuries, laden with the baggage of misogyny, intentional or otherwise. Abramovic herself made this unbeliveably apparent and complex in her 1975 work "Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful."

And it got even moreso today. There is something particularly spellbinding about Abramovic's beauty, perhaps because we all know such a beautiful body was subjected to such dangers and damage. Perhaps because we all know that her beauty is not ephemeral, as we have all been convinced that beauty must be. Perhaps because we all know that this beauty hides the fact that she is the strongest among us, both in body and will.

I'm not sure that I can put my finger on it exactly, but I am sure that I have seen no more compelling argument for the necessity and value of beauty than I did today.