I love the museums in this city (who doesn’t…?), and while I try to get to them as often as possible, it’s not terribly common for an individual exhibit to thrill me enough for a repeat visit. Three years ago, the Met’s Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall exhibit won me over to the point that I bought the exhibit book, but I left the city for summer vacay too soon to see it again. Other exhibits have sounded like great ideas – the Museum of Natural History’s Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids exhibit in the spring of 2008; the Marc Jacobs-sponsored Model as Muse exhibit at the Met in spring 2009 – but somehow came up short of expectations. The MoMA’s most recent exhibit, however, was so intriguing, so different, so straight up weird, that I was compelled to see it four times. And I was there on Monday at 5pm when it finally closed for good.
The Artist is Present was a retrospective of Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramovic’s work spanning the last 40 years. Obviously an exhibit of performance art sounds like a trickier endeavor than your typical exhibit of paintings or sculptures: how does one show pieces that only existed in the moment that the artist was performing them? Abramovic hand-picked and specially trained the 39 “reperformers” who made up the bulk of the exhibit, taking them on a retreat in upstate New York, where they were made to fast, meditate, and perform acts of endurance, all in complete silence. It was this group of people who took turns recreating the pieces that Abramovic originally performed by herself, or with her long-time partner, fellow artist Ulay. Many of the pieces required nudity, strength, and endurance, and many of the chosen performers were yoga instructors, current or former dancers, and actors. But the real draw of the exhibit was Abramovic herself, seated in the atrium of the MoMA for the duration of the exhibit — all 700+ hours of it – and with an empty chair across from her, reserved for any patron brave enough to sit in silence with her and become a part of the art. By the end of the exhibit, over 1400 people had sat across from Abramovic, some for 5 minutes, others for an entire day; one man, artist Paco Blancas, sat across from her 21 times over the course of the exhibit.
When I arrived at the museum for the end of the exhibit, there was an hour to go before Abramovic would finally be done, and the atrium was packed with people waiting to catch a glimpse of her final moments in the chair. The crowd was already six people deep, and I struggled to wedge myself in as close to the artist as possible. I’d figured that the final hours of the exhibit would feature a string of special or famous guests sitting in the empty chair, as famous faces had punctuated the whole exhibit – Isabella Rossellini, Sharon Stone, Lady Gaga, and Columbia’s own most famous face, James Franco had all checked out Abramovic’s work. The last hour saw a lama and the MoMA’s Chief Curator at Large Klaus Biesenbach sit across from Abramovic, and Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr stood in the audience directly across the stage from where I was. Around 4:30, a group of people in white labcoats emerged at the front of the audience; the reperformers had arrived, finished with their work, and eager to support their leader as she approached the end of her own. As the final moments neared, the atrium became more and more full, with people five deep pushing in behind me, and the balconies above the performance space crowding with people desperate to see the end.
Finally, at ten minutes to 5, Biesenback stood, walked over to Abramovic’s chair, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and the whole atrium erupted in applause. Abramovic rose from the chair she had occupied for every moment that the museum had been open for nearly three months, kneeled on the floor, and bowed her head. When she stood, people cheering and yelling for her, she began hugging and thanking everyone who supported her, first her team of reperformers, and then people she knew in the audience. It was like watching a rock star emerge after a show to a swarm of groupies – cameras flashed, people screamed and struggled to touch her as she walked by, and Abramovic milked every minute of it. After 20 minutes, she finally led her team of reperformers off the stage, and into a back gallery, and that was that. As the velvet ropes separating the performance space came down, and the crowd thinned, audience members began stepping, one by one, into the space Abramovic had occupied for so long. They moved slowly, almost reverently, posing for pictures, wishing to participate in the show in any way they could, even after it was over. Finally, as the reality of the show’s end became clearer and clearer, groups of people began filing into the space, reclaiming it as a public sphere, and reinforcing Abramovic’s departure. The artist was no longer present.
BONUS! Here’s a video of James Franco and Marina Abramovic (who are friends, apparently….) talking with curator Klaus Biesenbach about the differences, or lack thereof, between performance art and acting.
Emily Mousseau, GS’10