I happened to see “Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present” on HBO the other night and would highly recommend it to this crowd of readers. It is a documentary that follows the Serbian performance artist as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art inNew York. It is available on Netflixs.
The retrospective included either videos of or reenactments (using hired artists) of performances carried out by Abramovic over the course of her career. Photos of some of those early performance pieces are included below, along with some commentary.
“The main problem in this relationship was what to do with the two artists’ egos. I had to find out how to put my ego down, as did he, to create something like a hermaphroditic state of being that we called the death ” self”
Marina on her relationship with Ulay.
A large part of the MOMA retrospective consisted of videos or reenactments of these and many other past performances by Abramovic. However,the main attraction was the artist herself who sat motionless in a chair in the museum while gazing into the eyes of whoever wanted to sit across from her. Thus, the title of the exhibit (and the documentary), “The Artist is Present”, was based on the fact that Marina was in the museum during every moment that the Museum was open during the 3 month exhibit; 7 1/2 hours a day, 6 days a week.
The title seems to have a double meaning. Not only was she present in the sense that she was there at her show every hour of every day- something, I’m sure, no other artist has accomplished- but she was totally “present” with everyone who sat before her.
In the film, Klaus Bresanbach , the curator for the exhibit, said:
What is so beautiful about the MOMA performance, she’s treating actually every human being she is encountered with the same attention and the same respect.
As you can see from the photos, many of those who waited in long lines to be in Abromovic’s presence were profoundly affected. Many people openly wept and I found one person online who descibed herself as having an “out of body experience” while gazing into the artist’s eyes. In the film Marina says of those who sat with her:
Some of them are really open and you feel this incredible pain…….when they are sitting in the front of me, it’s not about me any more. It’s very soon, that I’m just mirror of their own self.
In other words,Marina was being “in the present” in the sense that I talked about this concept in the earlier post “What the ______was that Video About? In the film, Marina tells us: It doesn’t matter what kind of work you are doing as an artist. The most important is from which state of mind you are doing what you are doing, and performance is all about state of mind.
It is clear from the film and from other interviews with Marina that she sees her art as a means of transforming herself. By confronting challenges and fears, she is able to create, not a new art object but a new self. This reminds me of Suzuki’s statement as follows: The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in a mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation. (D.. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)
There is much about Abramovic’s art practice and her life that reminds me of serious Zen practioners. Consider this quote from the movie:
The hardest thing is to do something that is close to nothing. It’s demanding all of you because there is no story anymore to tell. There’s no objects to hide behind. You have to rely on your own pure energy and nothing else.
I am sure that any Zen student who has sat for hours in a prolonged meditation retreat can relate to her description.
Although it is clear that Abramovic is aware of and has practiced various meditiation
…as we speak about a reserve of energy, about our bodies, you might think Zen Buddhism is behind our work, or other philosophies, but we’re really interested only in experience.” (http://www.flashartonline.com/interno.php?pagina=articolo_det&id_art=197&det=ok&title=MARINA-ABRAMOVIC-AND-ULAY)
Whether or not Abramovic’s art is spiritual, it involves a practice that resembles what seems to be required in all genuine spiritual pursuits; the practice of raising ones awareness to the point where something new is a possible outcome. This is nicely summed up in the movie when Marina says:
This overlapping of spiritual and artistic practices is the central focus of this blog.