Museums

MoMA’s Abramović Ends With a Bang

by Hrag Vartanian on June 1, 2010

A view of the last day of Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present” (2010) in the MoMA’s atrium. (via @manbartlett)

Everyone at MoMA and their social media mavens need to be given a raise. I don’t know of any show that has ever ended with such a big and dramatic IRL & online frenzy like the Marina Abramović three-ring circus (I know, I know, there was only one ring). The crew at MoMA has this social media thing totally under control and I suspect everyone will look to them from now on to set the pace.

I didn’t plan to watch the last day online — I had a whole list of other things to do — but alas I was sucked in. The Internet has a way of doing that.

There was so much action it was dizzying. If it wasn’t the tweets about the scene, photos of the crowd, tumblogs comparing Abramović to “Whistler’s Mother,’ then it was artist Jason Polan’s drawing of the MoMA line from the night before, or artist Nina Meledandri, who has been documenting the whole experience as a potential participant (she visited the museum over 36 times during the show) on a tumblog and she was even tweeting about her final sitting with Abramović on the last day.

Gawker reported that someone “ran up to the outer ropes stuck his fingers down his throat and threw up. He then stumbled back and tried to throw up again, but not much came out. The guards grabbed him and kicked him out. Marina didn't move the whole time.” What a pro. (via Gawker)

Then there were the more dramatic moments on the last day, like the person who vomited at the performance (a form of critique?), the woman who stripped down in front of the artist (and was removed), and the person who threw fliers critical of the performance from the balcony — all of these were reported by Gawker in excruciating detail. Hell, there was even the renegade twitterfeed @marinaschair, which kept things interesting and light — though things started to get surreal when Marina’s chair began to virtually chat with the MoMA itself. Let’s say this whole thing was social media’d up the fuckin’ wazoo. The only thing they didn’t do was create a real Foursquare badge or document her gastrointestinal functions — though one online pundit did propose a theory.

I’ve been dying to know how it would end and — as expected — it was a dramatic conclusion. The final sitter was chief curator Klaus Biesenbach, who sat with the veteran performance artist and then kissed her before leaving.

Abramović does her final twirl at the conclusion of “The Artist Is Present” (2010) … and curtain … (screenshots from MoMA’s online came) (click to enlarge)

After Biesenbach left, she fell to the floor and then got up, did a twirl (a little reminiscent of Wonder Woman a la 1970s TV show intro) and worked the crowd, just like a R-O-C-K-S-T-A-R. I really think Abramović and her performance tapped into something very deep and powerful in the consciousness of the public. The myth of the artist was an integral part of “The Artist is Present” (2010), and there is nothing more powerful than myth to ignite the public imagination.

There was also something pseudo-religious about seeing her in MoMA’s atrium surrounded by lights, crowds, cameras, and what felt like an unnatural hush — at least the time I was there. I went to the museum a few weeks ago hoping to sit with her one day but I got there late and after witnessing the scene I realized that I may not even had the nerve to do so. I somehow felt unprepared.

MoMA and Marina’s chair have a moment online (my screenshot)

New York Times reviewer Holland Cotter wrote that over 1,400 people sat with the artist (some of whom became micro-celebrities because of repeat sittings), the show’s website had 800,000 hits (whatever that means), and the Flickrstream of sitters has been viewed 600,000 times (not bad for a social media experiment). But then Cotter criticized restagings of “Imponderabilia” (1977/2010) and other famous early Abramović works for “falling flat,” and honestly, I don’t understand why. I found them powerful and moving. Other critics, like Art Fag City’s Paddy Johnson, seem as yet undecided about the whole affair.

While some of the video works in the retrospective were hard to emotionally connect with, others were stunning, including the Balkan series which lived on in my imagination for days and weeks afterwards. The Abramović retrospective proved to me that some of the works will easily transcend her life, the artist needn’t be alive to make them work and breathe.

Abramović works the crowd post-performance (click to enlarge)

Greg Allen of Greg.org was tweeting the last day as he watched it online. I asked him if he had any thoughts about the conclusion of the Abramović performance:

“The Artist Is Present” definitely caught me off guard with the ending. When Klaus sat down, I knew he’d be the last one. But I thought it’d end at 5:30 pm, then I’d catch Marina standing up in the few minutes when the museum was closed, and the Marinacam was still on.
When they kissed, and clapped and bowed, and all the performers in their labcoats filed in, suddenly the whole piece stopped being unreal and distanced, and it became this thing these people have done. Which, I admit, had kind of slipped my mind.

The performance appears to have marked a seismic shift for performance in general and rumors are that even longtime performance art historian and curator Rosalee Goldberg has called the whole affair, “the Abramović tsunami” — my email to Goldberg was unanswered by the time of this posting.

If arts writer Mira Schor first brought up the “pee” issue, New York Magazine illustrator Mark Nerys made it come to life (via nymag.com)

I asked Defne Ayas, director of Arthub Asia and a curator of the Performa performance art festival since 2005 , what she thought of the Abramović phenomenon:

A museological coup d’etat, especially for an elephant like MoMA. No doubt Marina Abramović is the eternal Goddess of the performance world, But the recent ceremonies she orchestrated at this temple were more of an homage to the history of performance. The tools she is using are absolutely from the Egyptian temple culture as if she is the daughter of Isis or something. Though, it didn’t do much to change the perception of what performance could be in the future.

Hello, micro-celebrity, “Day 65, Portrait 6” (copyright flickr.com/themuseumofmodernart)

She mentioned that people in Shanghai, where she lives part of the year, were discussing the piece as if it was taking place a few minutes away from the city. She confirmed that it became an international phenomenon.

On the last day, artist Meledandri sat with Abramović one final time. The show has consumed her life. Yesterday, she was tweeting in line and I asked her via Twitter to comment on the conclusion. She replied to my request just after stepping away from her final sitting with the artist. Her tweet read, “sat a little bit ago- honestly still overwhelmed with emotion that i cant yet qualify- strong ending” and then the following note ended up in my inbox, “Came to say thank you ended up having shortest yet most emotional sitting yet.”

New York — and the art world — seems divided into the Abramović believers and the “unbelievers,” to borrow Cotter’s term, yet the power of performance art to galvanize an audience is part of its appeal. One thing is certain, the Abramović cult is in full-swing and considering there is talk of her scripting a theatrical show with director Robert Wilson, we can be sure that we haven’t heard the last of her yet. I, for one, am elated.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

Previous post:

Next post: