My fellow Detroiters may recognize the nod to the old DIA commercial (sung to the tune of "Heart" from Danm Yankees). I was humming this catchy tune as I walked up to the MOMA last week to take in the exhibit of the work of Marina Abromovic. There is something really exciting about living in a city like New York where there is such a wealth of culture. We have theatre, museums, opera, the symphony, even street performers. The cultural riches are here for the taking. Sadly, I don't ever seem to take nearly enough time to explore this artistic Mecca. I must focus on fixing this, so as not to take this gift for granted. So,when the chance came for me to do a little extra credit work while visiting a museum, I jumped at it.
I always experience a rush when entering a museum. I love the promise that such places hold. You never know what you may find inside or how it may speak to you. That having been said, I must now whisper a confession. I totally don't get modern art. I don't understand what people see in some of these pieces. I have witnessed people crying emotional tears while gazing at what I can only describe as a dot on a canvas. Maybe I am shallow, I couldn't say. All I can say is that after several trips to the Guggenheim and the MOMA, I have yet to have that "Maria" moment of understanding. Each time I visit a modern art exhibit however, I try to do so with an open mind. So, ticket in hand, I climbed the stairs to the second floor to view the much talked about exhibit, "The Artist is Present".
How to describe this exhibit? Well, for starters the name basically says it all. The artist was sure present. For those who haven't heard anything about it, allow me to explain. The artist, Marina Abromovic, sits at a table in the center of a white square. She simply sits and stares in front of her. She doesn't speak, she doesn't get up to eat or use the restroom, she simply sits. For those who wish, there is an opportunity to sit opposite her at the table and look back at close quarters. I watched Abromovic for a bit, and then let my attention wander to the rest of the audience members. After all, part of the assignment was to observe the reactions of others. I saw a few others with notebooks, making observations. A few with laptops. Several people were gathered in groups, speaking quietly to each other. Based on the quizzical looks around the room, I couldn't help by think I was in a live action version of "The Emperor's New Clothes". I could feel the room aching to hold back the "The Emperor's naked" exclamation. As far as I could see, there was a woman sitting at a table. I am not one to judge what is or is not art, but I was having a hard time understanding this one. I was well behaved though, and managed to make my exit without pointing out the lack of royal robes.
The next stop on my trip through the world of Marina Abromovic was the 6th floor installations of the reproductions of her past performances. On the wall outside the exhibit halls was the following information, "In early performances, Abromovic made herself vulnerable to the will of the audience and to her own extreme actions (cutting, whipping, burning) in an attempt to find and transcend her physical and emotional limits." These words didn't begin to prepare me for what lay ahead.
There were a series of photos in the initial room with explanations. One such photo was of the artist sitting in the middle of a flaming pentagram cutting pieces of her hair and fingernails and throwing them into the fire. Another was of her now infamous exhibit where she lay naked in a room with 72 objects and allowed the audience to move her and use the objects with her in anyway they wished. This particular exhibit drew wide notice when an audience member took a loaded gun, cocked it, put it in her hands and aimed it at her head, not knowing it was real or loaded. I don't know about Abromovic, but these exhibits certainly pushed me beyond my physical and emotional limits.
In order to pass into the main exhibit hall, it was necessary to pass through what perhaps was the most talked about part of the exhibit. Two naked people, one male and one female, stood in the doorway, just inches apart. We, the audience, were encouraged to pass between them in order to enter the hall. In all of the press coverage, comments were made that the vast majority of visitors, both male and female, chose to enter facing female (I should mention that the two are standing so close that it is necessary to turn to one side or the other and even then you brush up against them upon passing through). I stood aside to observe the choices the other visitors were making. I watched approximately 30 people pass through the entry way and with 2 exceptions, they all faced the woman. I of course, took this as a challenge and promptly got in line with a strong resolve to enter facing the man. After all, I am an actor! I am secure in my sexuality! I scarcely worried about someone assuming I am gay (as countless have done since I was a young boy). Proud of myself, I moved forward in line (noting that nobody else had faced the man since I joined the line) until it was my turn to enter, at which point I turned and faced the woman and entered the exhibit. Why did I chicken out? I couldn't say. Perhaps it was because his eyes and mine were at the same level, perhaps there is some vestige of self conciseness, perhaps (and this is the most likely) I am just a great big prude and was thoroughly uncomfortable touching strange naked people. Suffice it to say that I almost got back in line and tried again.
Once inside the main exhibit, I became more and more disturbed with each passing display. Three in particular stuck out in my mind. The first was entitled, "Relation In Space". This was a video projection of the original in which Abromovic stood naked about 100 yards away from a wall. She ran into the wall making no effort to pad her collision and then fell to the floor. She then got up, returned to her starting point, paused, and then repeated this process. For hours at a time. Please refer to my earlier whispered confession; I don't get it!
The next installation, "Rhythm 4" shows Abromovic, once again naked, leaning face first into a wind blower with a video camera attached to it. The blower is so powerful, that after a moment of exposure, Abromovic will loose conciseness and simply float, passed out, for all to see. She left instructions for the assistants to leave her unconscious for three minutes and then revive her so that she can do it again. I was simply horrified by this. I want to live in a world where we avoid suffering and work against it. Abromovic seems to be living in a world where she revels in creating suffering.
The third installation, "Luminosity" featured an illuminated square projected onto a wall. On the wall, in the center of the square and approximately 8 feet from the ground, was a bicycle seat mounted into the wall upon which a naked woman sat. She was not seemingly holding on to anything, rather balanced there in a feat of great skill (and I would imagine great pain). Once again I couldn't begin to understand what the point was, but had to be impressed with the discipline of the artist recreating this instillation.
Needless to say, there were many more instillation. I spent a good 2 hours in the exhibit and could easily have spent more time observing. While I have not found any sort of new appreciation for modern art or I suppose in this case, performance art, I did have a strong reaction. Which, I suppose is ultimately the point. I am fairly certain the exhibit continues at the MOMA until the end of May, so if you are in NYC you should go check it out. I am interested to see what others thoughts are on the subject.
*He gets off his soapbox*