No, the artist was not present at Film Forum for a screening of her documentary, The Artist Is Present, a couple of weeks ago. The artist is Marina Abramović, and though she wasn’t there — neither was the director of the film, Matthew Akers — I kept expecting her glamorous self to storm in as a last-minute surprise. But who was there was the reason I showed up for the screening: Mr. Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at large of the Museum of Modern Art and director of MoMA PS1. He’s a legendary dude that many of my friends have mentioned to me in hushed tones, or perhaps with the wistful desire that he would invite them to show their work. As a result, I was dying to meet him and see what this art world personality was all about. I’d heard he was bold, brave, iconoclastic and maybe a bit bitchy. He’d twice ignored my attempts to friend him on Facebook — absurd, since we share 78 friends in common. I suppose that’s better than Larry Gagosian, who confirmed our friendship and a week later had the effrontery to unfriend me.
Of course, I also wanted to see the film, an HBO production that was being held over for a few extra days at Film Forum, although it was ultimately going to be broadcast on the channel. For those of you living in a cocoon or who may only have arrived to New York City recently, Marina Abramović had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art from March to May 2010, which attracted 750,000 people, many of whom waited in line for hours to merely sit across from the artist and gaze into her soulful eyes while she sat silently, for 7 ½ hours a day, 6 days a week, not moving, eating, drinking or going to the little girl’s room for the whole time. The experience evoked tears and unbridled emotion in many of the MoMA participants — or at least, that’s what Akers’s documentary focuses on.
In fact, watching clips of hundreds of drab, depressed attendees weeping as they sat opposite Abramović became monotonous. The woman who pulled off her dress and was escorted out by the guards was more amusing. I myself would have laughed or at least smiled, but I’m ADHD and didn’t have the patience to wait in the interminable line to sit across from Abramović when I finally got to see the show. I just observed the devotees and trekked up to the sixth floor to check out the installation of her work created over the past 40 years. It was impressive, although I felt bad for the performers who had to remain stationary for the duration of the show. In “Luminosity,” a nude woman atop a bicycle seat mounted to the wall held her arms out like wings, and in “Imponderabilia,” two naked people stood in a doorway as embarrassed visitors were obliged to squeeze between them. But the performers were simply re-enacting what Abramović herself had done in the past, so no pity parties, dahling.
Although I missed the first 10 minutes of the film due to my habitual tardiness, I made sure to sit in the first row, and after the lights came on, Biesenbach was escorted to a spot just a few feet away from me, which allowed me to sneak in a few Instagram shots during the 14-minute talk. It was immediately apparent that Biesenbach never lets himself be limited by the inquiries of mere mortals, since he immediately side-stepped a question about the challenges of mounting The Artist Is Present as a live show at MoMA and put his own imprimatur on the talk, in his charming German accent: “First of all, as a curator, you have to clarify. We are not here looking at Marina’s art, we are not here watching a performance by Marina Abramović. We just watched a work of art by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre in a movie theater, we just watched a great movie, so it’s not, ‘let’s talk about Marina,’” he retorted, making clear that he was in charge.
Yes, he came to talk about the film, but let’s face facts: we were all interested in hearing about Marina, and in the end, we weren’t disappointed. “I was so annoyed by the filmmakers, but Marina loved it,” Biesenbach revealed. “It’s very intrusive to have a film team around you in an exhibition that’s already so challenging.” He described how he admired the filmmakers’ ability to trick you into thinking you’re witnessing Abramović’s performance. “I think that’s quite an achievement that the film accomplishes,” he said.
Based on a show of hands in the audience, over three quarters present had attended the MoMA exhibition. The curator said he found the artist’s tendency to exaggerate hilarious. “Marina says 750,000 people attended the show, but for her that’s nearly a million. The very funny thing about Marina is that she can’t spell and she can’t calculate. We both know each other so well. She’s my beloved enemy and beloved friend.” Hmmm. Friend? Or lover? Biesenbach alluded to a relationship that wasn’t purely professional. Comparing her to a Caravaggio painting, he called her beauty both seductive and subversive. “When I proposed the project to MoMA, I had to make a disclosure. I know her a little bit too well.” We never got to hear how well he knew the artist, but it was clear that something unexpected had happened. “It’s about that boundary she oversteps, whether it’s the curator, the plumber or the art critic from the New York Times. That’s what she does. Her art is about that,” he said, with a trace of afterglow. “With an artist like Marina, the product is about a seductive beauty.”
Biesenbach went on to discuss the controversial nature of the exhibition. “Everyone from Europe thinks people in the United States are so prudish and afraid of any bikini on the beach, and there it was — full frontal nudity.” Nobody at MoMA questioned the naked bodies, but half a year before the show, he invited Abramović to a MoMA trustees meeting. “There was Mr. Rockefeller and Mrs. Gund and all the trustees. Marina gives a presentation and she makes everyone look at the person to the left and the right, into their eyes for 10 minutes. I thought to myself, this was my last day at the museum. Then she made everyone shout as loud as they could. But somehow she did this with the guards, the staff, the curators, everybody.” Well, it was hardly Biesenbach’s last day at the museum; if anything, his renown has grown as a result of the Abramović exhibition.
During the talk, we learned firsthand how the artist was able to carry on for two non-stop, grueling months. Within the first five days, she thought she couldn’t continue due to the brightness in the museum. So it was “eye doctor, eye doctor, eye doctor — someone who had a magic something to enable her to continue.”
According to Biesenbach, she was in pain from the second week onwards but had a regimen to maintain her performance. “She drank every full hour at night so she wouldn’t have to drink during the day. She had to reverse the rhythm of drinking and going to the bathroom. She didn’t have to eat, drink or go the bathroom a single time, but she had to maintain discipline at night. She had a trainer and massages. On Tuesdays she would run up and down the Hudson to get her system to work. The last month she was literally collapsing. Marina is a character that wouldn’t give up. She would never give up; she would die in a performance.”
As a performance artist myself, I found the film absorbing and inspiring. I was surprised how much it moved me considering how often I’d seen Abramović characterized in the press as a gorgon. I even shed a few tears when it showed the meeting, during the exhibition, of the artist and her former lover and collaborator of 13 years, Ulay (aka Uwe Laysiepen), whom she hadn’t seen in the flesh for several years. A friend who came with me compared the film to a reality show, and yes, the reconnection of these symbiotic partners did seem a little staged, but their dramatic meeting was in keeping with the nature of their relationship, which is a kind of art piece itself. The documentary becomes repetitive when it focuses on a series of earnest, boring fans, but we do get a few notables, including the adorable James Franco. Why didn’t the filmmakers get a quote from Lady Gaga? You can check out her rambling but admiring reaction in this YouTube video.
After the film and Biesenbach’s presentation, while standing in a crowd of people surrounding the curator, I bumped into artist Conrad Ventur. He’s a friend of Biesenbach and also had an exhibition that ran at PS1 concurrently with Abramović’s show at MoMA. In fact, he was present at the last day of her show and was one of 30 people who attended the private closing party upstairs. I asked Ventur what he thought about seeing the documentary. “I was struck by how much work Marina’s accomplished, and it made me want to work even harder,” he said.
But not everyone has been inspired. Many in the New York City performance art scene have been quick to criticize Abramović, and I’d say it has a lot to do with the amazing productivity of the woman — her ability to get major projects off the ground, earn a decent living and wear fabulous couture clothing.
One notable local performance artist posted a link on her Facebook wall to an interview Abramović did with the New York Times and added this damning line: “In case you didn’t hate her before … the artist as fascist collaborator.” The piece refers to Abramović being paid an honorarium of $100,000, but the artist explains that it covered an entire year of work, office rent and what she paid her assistants. Compared to some of the prices paid for paintings in the museum, this is a modest sum.
Some of the reactions on the aforementioned Facebook wall include: “Douche nozzle fame whore … People do get rich being this kind of whore. And it helps if your parents were high ranking fascists. I think she should work at Mickey D’s.”
Another comment criticizes her disavowal of feminism: “I wanna know why a supposedly powerful, successful and influential woman would deny being a feminist. That disgusts me and settles the matter, this woman has no balls, she’s just a trussed up masochist.”
Another person posted, “As I’ve said before, I hope she and her fake tits are very happy.”
In the documentary, Abramović explains that she became more image conscious when, at the age of 40, she was dumped by Ulay, who was having an affair with the Chinese guide during their performance at the Great Wall of China. She immediately went to Paris, bought couture clothing and had her breasts augmented. Traditionally, performance art is supposed to be resistant to capitalist values and therefore anti-commercial, anti-product, anti-object and against societal standards of beauty. Having been dumped and hitting the big 4-0 myself, I don’t see why she should be criticized for becoming more glamorous. It’s a completely justifiable personal decision, and she shouldn’t be criticized for wanting to look good. In fact, why can’t performance artists be beautiful? They may not have to conform to the Hollywood celebrity aesthetic, but looking one’s best is important for morale.
There was a huge outcry (artcry?) by American performance artists during Abramović’s controversial MOCA installation for the museum’s fall gala last year. For the event, some performers spent three hours with their heads protruding through the gala’s tabletops, kneeling on Lazy Susans while maintaining eye contact with the rich donors, while others laid semi-nude on the tables as centerpieces, with fake skeletons on top of them. Dancer Sara Wookey went on an audition, was told she would only be paid $150 and refused the job, then wrote a letter decrying the work as “unfairly remunerated.” Dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer sent an outraged letter to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch indicting Abramović’s plans for the event, which she called “grotesque” and “verging on economic exploitation.” I agree that the performers should have been paid more, but almost every revered institution in the United States is equally guilty of underpaying their performance artists and often having numerous, grueling, uncompensated rehearsals. That’s the nature of the field. Wookey was right to complain about the pay, but if anything, national cultural institutions and the entire salary structure for artists and performers need to be revised.
My overall response to The Artist Is Present, both live at MoMA and in the film, is that Abramović has helped legitimize performance art in the US. Seeing the documentary, followed by Biesenbach’s Q&A, made it clear that his collaboration with Abramović was an intriguing collision of two cults of personality. Both the artist and curator are tough, demanding and probably narcissistic, but that’s what it seems to take to mount a major exhibit at a museum in New York City — and they accomplished something amazing.
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present played at Film Forum last month. Look for it at venues across the country and around the world.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!