Monday, 16 July 2012

Marina Abramović : The Artist is Present, Documentary at the ICA, London

The artist Marina Abramović has been working  since the early 1970s. Her work has been described as "body art", "sound art" and "conceptual art", producing installations and happenings, and she has lately been referring to herself as the "Grandmother of Performance Art". Her most famous work perhaps was with her partner, collaborator and fellow performance artist Ulay, with whom she worked and lived for over a decade. Much of their work together (see below pictures) was concerned with the problematic relationship of genders existing together, and the clashing of two artists' egos. This antagonism was acted out in space as physical friction: female and male bodies colliding, bumping and bashing, bodies that can't quite seem to coalesce and find sympathy or harmony. What typifies much of Abramović's work, both with Ulay and as a solo artist, is a testing out of bodily and mental limits and boundaries, using repetition, duration and endurance. These performances would often take place while fasting, allowing the mind to slow and produce trance like-states, reflecting the interest in Eastern mysticism of Abramović and other artists during the 70s.

So it had been a long time in coming, her first major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which took place on 14th March 2010 for three months ending on 31st May. Named after the exhibition, this documentary film, "Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present", details the run up to the performance and charts its duration. It starts with the usual talking heads, providing insights and opinions on the film's as yet unseen subject; these are then dispersed with quick flashing shots of press photographs of Abramović, and then of Abramović herself posing for various photoshoots, tossing her long glossy hair, pouting and fiercely staring into the camera's eye. For a moment I wondered what Monica Bellucci was doing in this documentary. It seems odd that in conveying Abramović at the ultimate peak of her career success, the film chooses to show us just how hot the artist still is. She is indeed a fiercely attractive woman, tall and muscular with her long prominent nose and strong face; yet we all know this. To foreground her image - particularly an image produced for a fashion/beauty shoot, which has more in common with the treatment of a model or actress rather than one of the most hardcore, staunch and tough performance artists perhaps of all time - seems hugely belittling.

The film follows Abramović finding young performance artists to take on and perform a piece from her archive for the MoMa exhibition. We see her telling them that they will be fasting, naked, and will do what she tells them for a period of a few days so that even if at first they hate her for it, "afterwards they will love me for it". She doesn't want to break them - well, not as such - but to prepare them for the physical and mental ordeal of performing her pieces to the public. During these sequences she unconsciously channels her mother, Danica, who during the course of the film Abramović explains was a strict disciplinarian, an army major in the former Yugoslavia. During her "artist boot camp", she collected up the young artists' confiscated mobile phones in a wicker basket: Abramović is both dictator and mother here. She says later that her mother drilled her to make sure her bedroom was army regulation tidy, even apparently waking her up in the middle of the night to check. During her performance art of the early 1970s, when Abramović was in her late twenties, she was still living at home under a curfew; which meant that during the day she was burning herself, driving a van in a circle for 16 hours, cutting a three point star with a razor blade onto her stomach in art galleries, but safely home before 10pm. The high level of discipline she experienced growing up and as a young women re-emerges as an influence in her art practice, provoking her treatment of her own body and  her strong will to transgress her own limits.

The most interesting parts of the film are the moments when Abramović is talking: her forceful personality, that at times seems aggressive then  turns to seriousness, shows that she is still extremely committed to her work. She is also very funny: at times her bullishness and dry sense of humour make her very captivating. The film is full of people commenting on the way she makes people fall in love with her - at one point Klaus Biesenbach, the chief curator at MoMa, says (perhaps revealing his anxieties about working with Abramović again) that she "seduces everybody, every one is seduced by Marina, she is in love with the world, it's nothing personal. But she cannot seduce me. We are divorced, so she cannot seduce me, that will not happen, because we are divorced". Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Nevertheless, her body of work, which is in a sense actually her real body, causes a confusion, mixing her persona as artist with a fantasy idea of Marina the person. The title of the show, "The Artist is Present" is a clue here: it is not really Marina that the public are sitting opposite a table from, but The Artist.

Forgive the sentimentality here, but one of the most moving aspects of the film for me was the account of the relationship between Abramović and Ulay. As part of the MoMa exhibition, some of the work they did together was to be re-staged, so the two ex-lovers/ex-colleagues met up for the first time in over a decade to talk about the show. As they both commented, the better their work got, the more of a toll it took on their relationship. During the 1980's piece from which The Artist is Present derives, Abramović and Ulay sat at opposite ends of a table from one another, for days and without food. As this went on for some time, Ulay began to lose weight and found it very difficult to continue with the piece. In the end Ulay quit the performance, but Abramović (thanks to her mother's training) did not quit: for her, giving in was totally out of the question. She carried on with the performance, sat alone at the table in front of an empty chair.

In 1988 they travelled to China for a piece called The Lovers, in which Ulay and Abramović each walked towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, ending together in the middle. This coming-together marked the end of the relationship - Abramović: “we needed a certain form of ending, after this huge distance walking towards each other. It is very human…Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do". Ulay had been having an affair with their Chinese translator, who had fallen pregnant; Abramović left and continued to work alone. After their romantic relationship ended, the two seem to have been unable to have any contact with one another. So when, in the film, Ulay comes to Abramović's apartment in New York, it is after years of bad feeling; yet they are pleased and even excited to see each other. Ulay is grey-haired and scruffy, albeit handsomely so, while Abramović is in full-on glam mode; he jokes that she looks so sophisticated and he looks like "a worker", when in fact (he says) the opposite is true: she has continued to work furiously after the separation, while he in fact, as he confesses, is "just lazy".

Anyway, the moving moment of the film comes during the performance at MoMA, when Ulay takes the seat opposite her in the gallery space and she opens her eyes and sees him. There is no speaking allowed during the performance, so they sit just facing each-other. Both Ulay's and Abramović's eyes start watering: it has been nearly thirty years since they last performed this piece together, over thirty years since he got up out of his seat and left Abramović to continue without him. Now they sit together for a performance that is celebrating her career, a retrospective of how far she has come on her own. They sit looking at each other in tears for a long time, until Abramović slides her arms across the table towards him, Ulay then does the same and takes her hand - extending and receiving a branch of friendship, a gesture which speaks of old love and forgiveness.

I do however, have misgivings about the film and with the way the piece was performed in the gallery environment, due to the fact that no one pointed out the problematic meanings of the piece itself. For The Artist is Present, Abramović sits at a table in front of an empty chair that the public are invited to take and sit opposite her for a period of time. This goes on for 7 hours a day, 6 days a week. On the part of Abramović this takes tremendous endurance, mental as well as physical strength to sit and not talk or move but to be open and vulnerable to the eyes and bodies of thousands of strangers. But, the uncomfortable issue here, was that no one mentioned the fact that many people today (and many of whom also queued for hours, even days to see Abramović's performance) also, in their day to day lives have to sit at a table for 7 hours a day, every day, with few toilet breaks thus having restricted mobility, whilst performing emotional labour, also requiring a high level of strength, tolerance, endurance and boredom: it is called minimum wage call centre/office work. The fact that Abramović was being paid $100,000 dollars to do it at MoMa, with no mention or apparent awareness of other peoples realities of  very similar work-related performances, does seem cruelly ironic.

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