EssaysWeekend

The End of Performance Art as We Know It

by Thomas Micchelli on May 12, 2012

Abramovic wearing museum model

Marina Abramović wearing the model for her eponymous Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art (all images courtesy OMA)

So I clicked on Jillian Steinhauer’s post — “Is Marina Abramović Trying to Create a Performance Art Utopia?” — and the first thing that popped into my head was, “Why does it look like a suburban public library, circa 1962?”

What I’m talking about is the architectural rendering from none other than OMA’s leading lights, Shohei Shigematsu and Rem Koolhaas, gracing the head of Steinhauer’s article, which was published by Hyperallergic on Monday.

The rendering depicts the proposed Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art, revealed to the world by the artist and curator Klaus Biesenbach at MoMA PS1 that very morning.

Rendering of the institute's southwest façade (click to enlarge)

Reading further, the reason for the Institute’s retro façade became apparent: the building is “an old community theater-turned-tennis-court” which Abramović acquired in the gracious (and notably artist-friendly) upstate town of Hudson, which is around a two-hour drive from Manhattan, with Dia:Beacon as the designated halfway point.

Leaving aside personal qualms over the ripple effect that such an industrial-strength art institution might have on Hudson’s artistic gentility, not to mention its economic and racial diversity, it is heartening that the architects plan to allow a degree of harmony with the building’s context.

But in a case of unintended signifiers, don’t those Doric columns and keystone arches — the emblems of fusty historicism — imply something very different from what we understand of the history of Performance Art?

And that history goes way back — Tristan Tzara, Dada and the Café Voltaire; George Maciunas, Yoko Ono and Fluxus; Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg and the Happenings; Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, Billy Klüver, John Cage and the Experiments in Art and Technology — a century‘s worth of bad manners, gibberish and indiscriminate anarchy.

And each movement was steeped in a specific social, political and cultural soup, from World War I for Tzara’s Café Voltaire to Vietnam, Civil Rights and Feminism for 1970s-vintage body-based Performance. And each cohered out of a desire to subvert the preciousness of the object and to redefine art in terms of the experiential and the ephemeral.

What Abramović proposes is outside that historical strain (dare we call it a tradition?), seeking to create (according to an article from Architectural Record) “a school for the public” and “a training ground for the variety of demanding, durational, and often grueling performance work that she has pioneered throughout her four-­decade career.”

In her Hyperallergic post, Steinhauer writes:

Visitors will be schooled in the Abramović Method, which blurs the line between audience and artist by turning spectators into performers themselves. Upon arriving at the institute, visitors will don white lab coats, check their belongings, sign a contract — “Give me your word of honor that you’ll spend two and a half hours in the exhibit,” is how Abramović explained the current version, at an exhibition at PAC in Milan — and then move through the different experiences and rooms, receiving a certificate of completion at the end.

Performance space rendering

The central performance space

But that’s not all. To my mind, Steinhauer nails it in her description of the interior’s architectural program:

The architects used three guiding principles in their planning, the first of which is the idea that everyone and every space should stay connected. So a circuit of rooms devoted to the Abramović Method will ring the main performance space, and wherever a visitor is in the institute, even eating a sandwich in the cafe, she will have a view of that central space. It’s hard not to find this constant ability to watch and be watched a bit creepy, rather than a utopia it even has the makings of some kind of performance-art police state …

Once upon a time, Performance Art was synonymous with shock and danger. In contrast, the control, pedagogy and research embedded in those contracts and white lab coats come off as, to say the least, the tools of predictability.

By creating a safe environment for a notoriously unsafe art (whose perilous reputation is due in no small part to Abramović herself), these measures seem designed to clamp down on the raging id of Performance Art like an equally monstrous superego.

What Abramović has in mind — a theater, bleachers and viewing platforms for watching performances as well as watching audiences watch performances — not only threatens to transport Performance Art out of the wild and into a petting zoo, but the Institute’s other attractions — a Crystal Chamber and a Levitation Room are two of its novelties — smack of the relational aesthetic shenanigans recently visited upon the New York scene by the echt-shallow Carsten Höller show at the New Museum.

Rendering of the Crystal Room

The Crystal Room

The emphasis of the Institute will be long-form performance, potentially lasting for days on end, which is a subspecialty of Abramović’s but would seem, even to the casual observer, to be tangential to both ’70s-style performance and its practice today.

And then there’s the preservation side of it. As noted above, Performance’s raison d’être is historically anti-object, if not anti-art. Its importance rests on its experiential paradigm, a here today/gone tomorrow aesthetic that thumbs its nose at museum culture.

Whether documented or not, a performance’s existence in space and time is a deliberate one-shot deal. If you missed it, well, too bad for you.

Abramović’s countervailing perspective has been held up for scrutiny in such outings as Seven Easy Pieces (2005) at the Guggenheim Museum, in which she reenacted performances by other artists (Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, VALIE EXPORT, Bruce Nauman and Gina Pane), and her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present).

Abramović, "The Artist Is Present"

Abramović’s marathon performance at MoMA, "The Artist Is Present" (image via flickr.com/dlprager, click to enlarge)

For the latter exhibition, Abramović enlisted a team of (often perfectly sculpted) men and women to recreate the works she originated as a solo performer or with her longtime partner, the singly named Ulay.

This action — much more than Abramović’s embodiment of her fellow radical experimenters at the Guggenheim — fundamentally changed the character of the performances, turning them from body-centered expressionism to museological spectacle.

And they felt as embalmed as a natural history diorama, especially when experienced against the magnetism of the artist’s concurrent marathon performance in MoMA’s atrium, where she sat all day and stared into the eyes of visitors occupying a seat opposite her, and the frisson of the black-and-white video documents of Abramović and Ulay in full flower, despite the ratty quality of the visuals.

The disconnect between form and context in The Artist Is Present and, by extension, what is slated for presentation in Hudson, results from a failure to take into account the uncontainable nature of Performance Art.

As practiced by Abramović and her peers (those mentioned above, along with Chris Burden, Linda Montano, Lorraine O’Grady, Carolee Schneemann and Ana Mendieta among many others), Performance was born of ideas unbound by traditional media, that could be expressed only through the human body.

Taken to its logical extreme, that art would live and die with the body of the artist who made it. This is essentially the step that choreographer Merce Cunningham embraced when he planned that his company would disband two years after his death: it was a decision that understood the fatality, and the beauty, of the irretrievable moment.

Abramović Method classroom

A classroom for teaching the Abramović Method

Instead, Abramović’s cultural tourism destination, designed by the requisite team of starchitects, refuses to accept that finality, and proposes to recycle a fleeting mode of experience, however ersatz, into infinity.

In this regard, the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art, with its attempt to mummify the renegade artists from one era for the enlightenment of audiences from another, is not all that different from Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — where street kids with guitars and drums are encased forever inside I.M. Pei’s steel-and-glass pyramid, when all they wanted was to dance the night away.

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  • http://vaneeesa.com/ Vaneeesa Blaylock

    Is there a female performance artist alive who doesn’t cite Marina Abramovic as a “major influence”?

  • randymoe

    Obviously the reviewer does not understand and never will. I am a male PA with nothing to say about 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1147580846 Jacquie Tellalian

    great concept, of course, but how many the fuck among us are going to want to schlepp up there beyond the initial curiosity visit?  I’m sure the notables and trust-fund artists will flock there in droves.  and yes, the stately building is lovely and historical, but really, with all of her money, clout and supporters, I see this as nothing more than a gigantic vanity project.  somehow the whole idea of training performance artists is pretty absurd…    

  • John Browne

    The “return to Forever” of “Be Here Now”?  ^..^

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