Articles

Seeing Performance the Marina Abramović Way

by Jen Ortiz on November 28, 2012

Marina Abramović’s MoMA PS1 workshop (all photos courtesy Charles Roussel unless otherwise noted)

“Your mind is not here,” she explains. Standing in the center of the room clad in a floor-length black dress, she is a sharp contrast to the stark white walls. The sweeping space feels anything but, packed as it is with onlookers — some seemingly starstruck, others bewildered — sitting closely together on the gallery floor. “We have to figure out how we can put your minds right here.”

Stop what you’re doing, she might implore before letting you read on. Stand up.

Put your hands together and lift your arms. Inhale into your ribcage. Focus on your breathing.

Repeat.

Rub your hands together. Feel the heat and energy created; massage it onto the top of your head. Across your forehead. Over your eyes. Blink quickly. Exhale. Massage your ears. Massage your nose. Massage your mouth.

Stick your tongue out and say, Ahhh.

Hands together. Tap your chest lightly. Rub the area around your heart. Grab a partner. Exchange shoulder massages. Now shake the energy out of your body.

Shake hard.

Balance. Close your eyes. Relax your body. Soften your face, your eyes, your mouth. Lean forward and touch your toes. Hum. Open your eyes.

Turn back to your partner. Gaze at him. Don’t talk. Try not to blink. Do this for 10 minutes.

Abramović’s MoMA PS1 workshop (click to enlarge)

“It’s not important what are we doing,” she says, in her Eastern European–accented speech, quoting the sculptor Brancusi to the audience at a MoMA PS1 Summer School presentation in early September. “What is most important is from which state of mind you’re doing what you’re doing. State of mind is everything.”

This is the Abramović Method. And now your mind is here.

Marina Abramović is likely the most well-known performance artist in the world. Her art is physical, it is present, and it is often durational. The same is true of her next project: the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art in Hudson, New York, a mammoth new endeavor that will provide a space to think about and experience her chosen medium.

Abramović’s Institute will be centered on the Abramović Method, a set of theory and practices about performance art — defined by Abramović as: “A mental and physical construction that you make in front of the public in a certain time and place. And then an energy happens” — developed over the course of her 40-year artistic career.

A rendering of one of the rooms at the Marina Abramović Institute, designed by Rem Koolhaas/OMA

“It’s a lot of internal meditation and breathing,” explains Levi Mandel. “It involves some chanting and humming and whatnot. Lots of physical exercises that heighten awareness.” The 27-year-old photographer and video artist is one of 12 students who just completed a five-day workshop with Abramović at MoMA PS1.

The method’s objective, for both performer and spectator, is to achieve a clear state of mind and focus on the present. To free the mind from distraction and insecurities, open it to creativity, and alert it to the action being done or experienced. These goals are attempted through a series of focused breathing, meditation, and physical exercises.

“If you don’t have the education or willpower, than it doesn’t make any sense at all,” says Abramović. “You just give up. Your mind is a very tricky thing. Instead of doing what you’re doing in the performance, it just leaves.”

The same goes for the audience.

“One important thing that’s never been done until now is to prepare the public how to see performance,” she says.

But Alaina Claire Feldman, exhibitions assistant at Independent Curators International and another Summer School participant, thinks differently. “I don’t think it’s necessary, because I don’t think there’s one way to prepare yourself for a performance or for art,” argues Feldman. “Every performance is subjective, based on the person who is experiencing it. And sometimes, yeah, you need to clear your head to experience something, but sometimes you also need your head to be full of things and full of your own personal history so that when you experience something it can be more full,” Feldman says, rather than less.

Abramović’s MoMA PS1 workshop

“It’s a very specific set of rules,” says Anya Liftig, a New York–based performance artist. Liftig describes performance art as “the most lawless. Even basic principles are meant to be sort of broken.” On her own approach to performance, she says, “Trust what you’re doing. Trust the action. Trust what you’re doing is interesting. Just trust yourself.”

“You have to push out your insecurities in order to clear the passageway to do,” she adds.

But Liftig isn’t convinced preparation is essential for the spectator experience. “Sometimes I think it’s worthwhile when people see something that comes into their day and they’re like, ‘That was weird,’ and they pass by or they don’t even notice it,” she says.

For Mandel, however, Abramović Method–style focus is necessary, even as a viewer: “You’re obviously there for a reason, yet you’re obviously not paying attention. Not only is that disrespectful, but you’re cheating yourself from a possibly moving experience,” he argues. “It’s a performance, and it’s important that it’s a two-way street.”

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