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One Dancer's Vision

Faye Driscoll blends mind and body in performance art.

Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By NATALIE AXTON
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All day, every day, from the middle of March through the end of May, performance artist Marina Abramovic sat at the Museum of Modern Art in her performance piece, The Artist is Present. This appearance was Abramovic’s contribution to the eponymous MoMA retrospective running in the gallery space four flights above. Clothed in a full-length gown, her brown hair braided to one side, she sat in a wooden straight-back chair in a demarcated performance space within the museum’s Marron Atrium and allowed museum-goers, one at a time, to sit opposite her for as long as they chose. One sitter, philosopher, art critic, and contributor to the exhibition catalogue, Arthur Danto, described his participation. After taking his place and contacting her with a shy wave, artist and audience-participant reached a kind of communion, which he described in the New York Times:

At this point, something striking took place. Marina leaned her head back at a slight angle, and to one side. She fixed her eyes on me without—so it seemed—any longer seeing me. It was as if she had entered another state. I was outside her gaze. Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain. She was luminous without being incandescent. She had gone into what she had often spoken of as a “performance mode.” For me at least, it was a shamanic trance—her ability to enter such a state is one her gifts as a performer. It is what enables her to go through the physical ordeals of some of her famous performances. I felt indeed as if this was the essence of performance in her case, often with the added element of physical danger.

The 63-year-old Abramovic emerged from Eastern Europe’s art scene in the early 1970s, one of many “ordeal art” performance artists who became famous for taking ideas of the body as performance subject and art object (or vice versa) to an extreme. In Rhythm 10, Abramovic spread her hand palm-down on the floor and rapidly jabbed a knife between (and occasionally into) her fingers. In the followup Rhythm 0 she stood passively in a gallery surrounded by objects, including a loaded gun, a rose, a bunch of grapes, and a knife and invited onlookers to do whatever they wanted to her. “I use my body for an experiment,” she told one audience in 1974 before taking pills that sent her into convulsions. 

This time, despite one participant’s attempt to vomit on her, Abramovic was hardly in danger. On the contrary, the MoMA under director Glenn Lowry is moving in the direction of “interactive” exhibits—Yoko Ono’s Voice Piece for Soprano was in the atrium this past July—as part of a broader curatorial effort to create a repertory of the performance art movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Many of Abramovic’s former colleagues do not agree with this attempt at re-creation: Their performances were meant to happen once, and once only. But art goes on. What began in New York as a playful (and naïve) art-for-art’s-sake movement has become, thanks in part to political controversy, canon. With this show, a new biography, and an appearance at the Whitney, Abramovic is the movement’s reigning queen.  

The “danger” Abramovic has sought for her creative work is this state of emotional exhaustion and physical pain: It might yield personal fulfillment, but it does not create theater. Sitting all day in the MoMA—no food, no potty breaks—was, no doubt, exhausting; but there is remarkably little artistry in The Artist is Present. It’s pure manipulation in a room full of people watching one person watch an art star. This is the kind of work for which the German term ein Stück is apt: a kind of secular David Blaine magic act, an artful semi-retirement. And yet, regardless of its fatuousness, performance art can be enjoyed as live action, as metaphysical riddle: Was it Abramovic’s physical suffering that made this performance art and not celebrity worship? Is the suffering an act? Is the audience complicit?  

These are the kinds of questions that keep university art and theater departments in business. And the university is the place where the young avant-garde is reared. If, as Danto has written, the end (or the limit) of art is philosophy, the limit of dance is history. Art is concept; dance is action. And at the beginning of the 21st century we see dances about dances about dances. This exaggerated determination can have the ironic effect of removing the dance movement from the dance. As dance has become more experimental, performance art has moved into more formalized settings. The two disciplines have created an uncomfortable overlap, and it’s hard to know who’s doing what—especially from the funding, presenting, and reviewing perspectives.

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