4.30.2010

Seeing Red, Part 2: The Dress

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Marina Abramovic in The Artist is Present at MoMA
My photograph above; from Zimbio.com below
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Continuing with color, we come to Marina Abramovic’s red dress. She’s wearing it as she performs in the atrium at MoMA. There she is, sitting at a table, enveloped by noise, silently looking at people who sit on the other side of the table looking at her. While there must be a Zen lesson in there for her audience, I can’t quite wrap my head around the idea of spending eight hours a day, six days a week, staring at strangers for two-and-a-half months. So I do the next best thing. I look at the dress.
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Abramovic is living inside a high-necked, long-sleeved garment that flows over her and pools at her feet. The metaphor: She's giving every drop of blood for this performance. The visual comparison: If a Beverly Semmes dress sculpture were shrunk in the wash, Abramovic's performance dress is what it might look like. .
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Beverly Semmes sculpture, left; image from the Internet; Abramovic's fluid garment via Zimbio
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Upstairs on the sixth floor of The Artist is Present, the show goes on with numerous performers who are not Abramovic in pieces that the artist had once performed. First I squeeze between a naked woman and man to get from one room to another; I face the woman and say "Excuse me," as I press against both of them to get past. It's not unlike the subway at rush hour, except that they don't push back. (I see later that there's another entrance.) Then there are the two dressed people, a woman and man, standing and facing each other in frozen poses; both seem poised to speak. The woman, I notice, is blinking an inordinate amount. It’s the only part of her body that moves. Around the corner from them are two white-shirted people sitting back to back; they are joined at the hair. Probably because I’ve seen pictures of these performances dozens of time, I am oddly unmoved.
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There are videos—Super 8 films originally, I’d guess—of Abramovic and her then partner, Ulay, slamming into each other. Or leaning against each other separated by a sheet of glass. I wonder if Elizabeth Streb, the choreographer who puts her dancers through the most athletic and dangerous of paces, was influenced by this work. I love Streb’s troup, but again I’m oddly unmoved by the Abramovic performances.

There’s more, including a recreation of the raised living quarters built for Abramovic in the Sean Kelly Gallery some years back. You know--the one with knife blades for ladder rungs? The one Carrie goes to see in Sex and the City? Abramovic lived in/on it for a month. There’s a video of the performance. And you think your studio apartment is cramped? At least you have privacy. I walked into the gallery when she was performing the piece, but I was seized with the urge to bolt, which I did.

When I walk into the room with the woman pinned to the wall about 20 feet off the floor, I stop. My heartrate increases. OK, phew, she’s supported by a bicycle seat and there are pegs for her feet. What? I’m relieved? She's high on a wall, arms outstretched like the Vitruvian man in a tense tango with gravity. She’s caught in a headlight of massive proportions, but if you look at her, she makes eye contact with you. This has to be excruciating and I’m party to it? I bolt.

Back in the atrium Abramovic is still sitting in that dress. It’s the perfect color. What she and her performers are doing is bloody hard work. Masochistic, perhaps. Introspective, perhaps. But bloody hard nonetheless.
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You can see performance pics of the pieces described here, on the MoMA website, and on a You Tube bootleg. .A look at the performances from the performers' point of view is here.
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12 comments:

Bea Modisett said...

Joanne - The first time I saw an image of this performance I thought she looked liked "Whistler's Mother" which of course we all know is really titled "Arrangement in Grey and Black." Thanks for the post, I have been reading a lot of different reviews of the exhibit...and some really disturbing ones as well.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/arts/design/16public.html

Lady Xoc said...

Joanne, I'm not going to comment on the Abramovic opus because I am largely offended by it and I'm not interested in raising anyone's hackles, but you are one damn fine writer: "arms outstretched like the Vitruvian man in a tense tango with gravity."

Joanne Mattera said...

Xoc, comment away. You won't raise my hackles. I had my problems with it too. Thanks for the kind words about my writing.

Bea, thanks for the NYT link. Yes, Whistler's Mother. You're absolutely right. This one is "Arrangement with Red and Video Camera."

Anonymous said...

Yuck. I think her "work" is the emperor's new clothes.

donna said...

My understanding is that the red dress is engineered to conceal a -um- means of elimination. I notice that she does have a bottle of water next to her. Thanks, Joanne, I have mixed feelings about Abramovic but your post made me chuckle with recognition.

Lady Xoc said...

Sorry, my links were bad, I'm reposting this comment.

Well, you’re tempting me and I don’t want to run off immoderately, but my chief reaction is one of annoyance. Sorry I’m late in responding, but I had a small commission with a deadline to get out. Now(with a glass of wine in my hand), I feel at liberty to spout my invective.

I’ve not read but one or two reviews and those focused mainly on the groping & feeling aspect (which in my mind is precisely the sensation MoMA was hoping to elicit in order to stay up there with the Tim Burton show in terms of box office). The whole spectacle has a holier-than-thou quality which is immediately off-putting. Are we to be discomfited or shocked by public nakedness? Sorry, been there, done that. Who of us has not stood with an unclothed artist/performer—some of whom actually deigned to converse with us—in a gallery at some point since the sixties? As for self-mutilation, or the threat thereof, Chris Burden did it a good deal more elegantly & convincingly (well, for the genre, that is). I realize this is a retrospective of her oeuvre and so “re-creators” are required to perform the dated stuff. But really, “The artist is present” is a bit too smug and self-important for my taste. And, may I say schoolmarmish.

I feel preached at, and I’m not sure what for. I have always responded to art which despite its ineffability & genius carries a sense of deep humility. And in this, Marina Abramovic seems lacking. Particularly since she was recently featured posing as a hot babe in one of her fabulous homes for the NYT home & garden section. Maybe it’s wrong of me to juxtapose a snippet from her personal life, but really, it smacks of clever marketing. And clever is sometimes galling in a context which cries out for complete soul-baring honesty.

Yes, she’s a hard worker. But so am I. And once in a while, a smile actually crosses my face.

Donna, you are very funny. That is precisely the issue the astronauts had to deal with whilst performing the role of America's heroes. Bodily functions are certainly a common denominator for us all, ask any nurse's aide or ordinary person caring for aged parents or small children. What exactly is Marina preaching?

Nancy Natale said...

Don't care. Don't want to see it. Like the dress but prefer it on the wall. The work seems designed to hook in journalists and/or people who want Deep Thought, like being manipulated for no explainable reason or are impressed by nudity in a museum and a video camera. Thanks for posting, Joanne. I was ready to bolt just reading about it all.

Hylla said...

Seems excruciating.

Harry Hilders said...

Great post, as Lady Xoc posted your writing style is great.

'I can’t quite wrap my head around the idea of spending eight hours a day, six days a week, staring at strangers for two-and-a-half months.'

As if that is not hard enough, how can she do this with that much people, camera's, light, movement etcetera around her.....

Philip Koch said...

And where do ordinary people get the idea that art is not for them? Hmmm....

neene said...

firat i would like to say that you make beautiful work.
i do also want to offer your readers another way of looking at abramovic's work.
i have been blogging about it since it opened, this is a link to the posts that recount my visits: http://bit.ly/bfNPX6
the full blog is here: http://bit.ly/floweraday

gomaar said...

Nice post Joanne. I liked that show a lot, and wrote about it on ubihaus. I'd love it if you'd read it and let me know what you think.
-gomaar