Friday, May 7, 2010

I know what The Artist is getting for Christmas: I have felt her presence

By Paul Edmunds

MoMA is currently recovering from a 'perfect storm', I'm told. My Inside Source tells me that such a storm is taking place for a number of reasons.

First and foremost amongst these was the Tim Burton show, which closed a week ago. So popular was this that visitors had to book entrance times once they had entered MoMA, and the show ran for 5 months, a very rare occurrence at the museum.

At the same time, the museum has been staging a major Marina Abramovic retrospective entitled 'The Artist is Present'. This includes a performance she has been staging since March 14, and some re-enactments of earlier pieces by ersatz Marina Abramovic's.

There is also a major Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective, and of most relevance to us, William Kentridge's 'Five Themes'.

And did I mention Picasso?

So, as my Inside Source states it, between the Tim Burton show, Picasso, one of the giants of 20th century photography, Kentridge, all the 'naked people upstairs' performing Abramovic's earlier works (including Imponderabilia where one is forced to squeeze between two naked strangers), and the artist's current performance which invites participation from visitors, the museum has seen upwards of 17 000 people passing through its doors daily. Of these, up to 6 000 have been visiting the Kentridge show.

The latter includes the wonderful model theatre playing Learning the Flute and the quite extraordinary, completely automated theatre and animated projection Black Box. I'm ashamed to say that I had previously seen neither of these works.

Getting back to Marina Abramovic, let me be upfront and say that I generally circle cautiously around performance work before approaching. I must be honest again and say that is largely due to my fear of 'audience participation' which is well founded. In one performance I found myself tied up by a topless woman (whom I knew, but not that well), and once I found myself with a Brazilian standing on my shoulder juggling burning torches.

Abramovic has completely changed me in that respect. However, I'm afraid she has taken the polish off any other performance I will ever see. The documentation of past works of hers, particularly the series she produced with Ulay, has been nothing short of illuminating. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that even such a hardened, non-romantic like myself was nearly reduced to a jibbering wreck when viewing the final work they produced together. It seemed, as I took it in, that the story of their collaboration was a love story wrought in a furnace the heat of which I have never encountered.

'The Artist is Present' (which you can view live here) is surprisingly powerful. This is in no small part due to Abramovic's presence, which is obviously an integral part of the work. A large portion of her performance hinges on her particular brand of presence, one which is both cerebrally and physically remarkable. She really does seem to occupy time and space in a particularly impressive and assertive fashion.

In this piece she sits on what seems to be a slightly over-sized chair facing, across a similarly scaled table, another such chair. It is here that visitors are invited to sit and engage her. She wore a long red dress on the day I visited, which dropped onto the floor and spread out, hiding her feet and contact with the ground completely.

It is in part a re-enactment of a work she did with Ulay, where the two sat opposite one another and looked into each other's eyes for some interminable period. Here, the interaction is something other than a staring match, but something more than a friendly engagement across a table. Abramovic has been there since March 14.

You can understand that a visitor, fears of audience participation aside, may want to engage with the artist whose presence is so tangible. You can probably understand too the desire that we each secretly harbour to be the one whose presence is such, the penetration of whose gaze is so powerful, that we break the artist's stride. This would really make us special.

Only one person has so far achieved this. Amir Baradaran engaged Abramovic in a work of his own entitled The Other Artist is Present. Even then, it was only when he proposed marriage that she reacted, and then it was with a smile.

My own visit to MoMA met with a little less success. My Inside Source offered us a ride in the Staff Elevator, which we accepted. The doors opened to reveal an elevator the size of a Gauteng garage. I stepped in to find only one other person there, and he was wearing the same shirt as me.

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