Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, at MoMA through May 31, is a retrospective featuring photographs, videos, multimedia installations, and performance pieces by the Serbian artist, some of them created in collaboration with Ulay, formerly her partner in two senses. Abramovic only knows one big thing—faut souffrir pour être belle—but she knows it well. Her best pieces provoke tense meditations on masochism and the will to power and thrill with voluptuous danger. It helps that she has a talent for shooting muscular photographs, a knack for ripping off Joseph Beuys in an interesting way, and—useful to her sort of body art—both an Olympian figure and a profile like a bird of prey. Less than 25 percent of her work is bullshit—a remarkable rate of nonfailure for a contemporary conceptual artist. She easily sinks more shots than Bill Viola.
Much of the discussion around the exhibit—or at least much of the nattering about it—concerns reperformances of Abramovic’s works involving nudity, sometimes also known as nekkidness. (I don’t think that the links I provide here lead to anything unsafe to watch at work, the pieces being no more pornographic than “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2),” but maybe your cubicle neighbor is a Philistine, in which case I extend my condolences.) In “Luminosity,” one of Abramovic’s female models/collaborators hangs on a wall in a room by her lonesome, mounted by way of bicycle seat. Arms extended, face impassive, she forces the viewer to squirm through some fresh thoughts and charged feelings about concentration and consideration. Elsewhere, “Imponderabilia” invites patrons to squeeze between two nude humans facing each other at a distance of, oh, about a foot and a half, nipple to nipple. As a comment on thresholds, “Imponderabilia” is above average; in context, it seems worthwhile just for an amusing curator’s note on the wall: “Current requirements necessitate more distance between the performers than in the original 1977 performance.”
But amusement is somewhat scarce in The Artist Is Present, especially down in the museum’s second-floor atrium, where Abramovic, fully clothed, is reviving a participatory number titled “Night Sea Crossing.” This one involves her wearing an invariably dour expression while sitting very still at a table. Signage invites museumgoers to sit across from her in order to exchange vibes and create a space “where nothing—or possibly everything—happens.” As highbrow endurance tests go, it is intriguing—but also ridiculously solemn.
Thus, I intend this blog post to incite a riot of fun. Given the tradition that Abramovic is working in—that of Dada jokers and wise Fluxus fools—it seems totally legit to grin at the artist/models and even to be silly for them in a Buckingham Palace way or at the very least to say pardon me or hey, how’s it going when passing between the “Imponderablia” people. Further, since “Night Sea Crossing” streams online, MoMA patrons ought to be seating themselves at the edge of the performance space proper and making funny faces in a photo-bomb fashion and holding up “John 3:16” signs and such. What? You’re worried that the guards are going to scold you? If you buy into Abramovic’s ideas about “the transmission of pure energy,” then it would be intellectually consistent to make funny faces at them, too. Is there not more to beauty than somber contemplation? Can we get some sweetness and light up in this piece? Forget about “what is art?” The question is, “Why so serious?”