Marina Abramović: A Retrospective in Three Parts

abram scorp

1. The Artist is Present 2010

Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović is famous for her shows of self-inflicted pain. But her recent solo performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York titled, The Artist is Present 2010 moves away from earlier performances which define her 40-year career as a theatre of danger to say the least – playing “the knife game” with twenty different knives and falling unconscious in a burning star are just two examples.

The Artist is Present has the artist sitting for seven and half hours, every day, for three months in the museum’s atrium – staring into the eyes of her audience as they are invited, one by one, to sit opposite her in absolute silence. Abramović calls this performance an attempt to engage, “An energy dialogue,” with the person opposite; reinforcing her belief that life and art are not distinct entities – but one creates and necessitates the other.

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What is interesting about this show (aside from its obvious temporal scope and redefinition or even, ‘un-definition’ of performance) is its ability to document how the nature of suffering has fundamentally changed. Physical suffering is not a part of our daily existence in liberal and developed countries (at least for the majority). For our external ‘selves’ benefit from improved medical technology and human rights which deem torture and capital punishment to be immoral.

Now our daily fears focus more on internal aspects of being: perfecting our knowledge, being rational and needing to be understood by others through language. The brain is paramount to our success as humans – an idea that leads most of us to neglect the body entirely, or at least deem it as secondary to the brain.
The result of this can be seen in forms of modern suffering: loneliness, depression and loss.

The Artist is Present directly deals with these shared fears by using the ideals of stillness and non-attachment that are central to Eastern philosophy. Abramović by sitting opposite members of the audience in silence, shares a powerful moment with each of them: she is able to communicate through her body by expressing a brief passing of time – making a moment brief, but by no means inconsequential. Abramović reconnects her body and mind through stillness while connecting the audience to an intimate dialogue that is fleeting yet profound – the epitome of non-attachment.

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What people will remember from this performance is how Abramović opens her eyes to the next ‘stranger’ on the opening night, instead finding her former lover and collaborator of 13 years, Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen). They last met in 1988 at The Great Wall of China, each starting at opposite ends to meet in the middle for a final goodbye. “I fell in love with her when I saw her cut a pentagram in her stomach with a razor blade,” recalls Ulay. But what is truly beautiful about their meeting at MoMA in 2010, is how they sit in silence after all those years. Tears run from Abramović’s face, they hold hands over the table and when time is up, Ulay walks away like any other member of the audience.

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