Okay, I'll admit it, it was the titillating newspaper and magazine accounts of stark naked male and female performers that lured me to MoMA last week! The acclaimed show "The Artist is Present" featured pioneer performance artist Marina Abramovic herself in an audience participation piece in the lobby, but the main draw was the retrospective on view on the sixth floor. I went not knowing exactly what to expect and left with an intense and unsettling but ultimately positive art experience.
Let's begin at the beginning. Yugoslavian born Marina Abramovic began her innovative career of conceptual performance based art about 40 years ago when the repression of the former Soviet Block was in full swing. Working alone and in collaboration with her partner Ulay, Abramovic produced videos, sound pieces, installations, photographs and live action works that were challenging and unforgettable to those fortunate enough to witness them.
Now, for the first time, her performances are being re-created using other artists so that a wider audience can be stunned by her visions. Added to this repertoire is a brand new piece featuring Ms Abramovic in a daily "stare down" with members of the public entitled "The Artist is Present". Presented in the museum's atrium and broadcast live over the internet, the artist sits motionless in a chair across the table from a seated volunteer. Not a word or even a blink passes between them, just the constant gaze, un-relenting, un-changing, and un-nerving.
Upstairs in the exhibition, approximately fifty works spanning Ms Abramovic's professional œuvre are on display. The videos with their accompanying illustrations and documentation are fascinating, but it is without a doubt the live performers who get the most attention. A man and a woman, both dressed, watch each other while pointing a finger. Neither moves, neither smiles. A man and a woman, totally undressed, stand facing each other on either side of a narrow passageway forming a doorway through which the intrepid visitor can pass. That was too much of a challenge for me - I opted for the non-human portal! A man lying naked on a platform with skeleton draped over him, touching his hand, the skeleton moving with the breath of the living being underneath him. And probably the most controversial, a woman, again naked, with her arms spread apart and positioned on a cross, high on a wall looking down at the viewers.
Several recent articles have reported on a few unruly visitors who got "a little too friendly" with the performers, and the male model who could not keep his mind off the nude person in front of him and also had to be removed. But far from an erotic or sensual experience, this was an exercise in tension, in self-examination and in our relationship with other humans. The Artist Will Be Present until May 31st.