Performance art can be difficult to understand, often leaving the audience questioning, “Why exactly is this art?” The “grandmother of performance art”, 66 year old artist Marina Abramovic, is aware of this. She defended her most important exhibition with her permanent presence, at the MoMa in New York. “The Artist is Present” was the self-explanatory name of the exhibition that inspired a 2012 documentary.
Marina Abramovic was born in the former Yugoslavia, in a family where the grandfather served the church and her parents the war. She studied art in Belgrade and one day, while painting the sky, she noticed 12 military airplanes invading her inspirational view – she came to the conclusion that the canvas is not enough to cover the multi-dimensional aspects of art. She soon started to use her own body as a medium to create. Her ways of expression often included forms of physical pain or torture.
The art performed by Abramovic can often be challenging, disturbing and sometimes hard to watch. The MoMa exhibition included a retrospective of the artists’ most important creations. Abramovic often positions the artist at the center of an exhibition, using the human body as an instrument to create. Given the essentiality of the artist as a tool of creation, unsurprisingly the body appears nude, unfettered in her art space. The MoMa exhibition forced the audience to be constantly aware of this: in order to get from one room to another, visitors had to pass between two naked performers facing each other. So close in fact that touching something intimate when passing was unavoidable. In another set-up, two artists sitting back-to-back, their long hair braided together into a single pony tail kept them immobile for hours. The live performances were accompanied by video installations, often of naked characters in uncomfortable, self-torturing situations.
By the time the exhibition was through, the visitors may well have asked themselves, “Who does something like this?” The answer was already there – in the atrium, sat for the duration of the exhibition, was Abramovic herself. She was seated at a table for two, where any visitor could sit opposite from her in a highly emotional “staring contest”. Visitor and artist, just looking into each other’s eyes, exchanging energies. Abramovic sat there each day for 8 hours, without food or water, counting a total of 750 hours by the end of the exhibition. Celebrities like Sharon Stone or Björk joined Abramovic´s table for the emotional experience.
While the marketing world has taken on the guise of performance art through flash mobs and pop-up installations, the identity of the creator is (by design) buried by the identity of the brand. It’s nice to see artist’s so boldly and unapologetically insisting their presence.