The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2010

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MAR 2010 Issue


“The longest period of fasting was fixed by his impresario at 40 days, beyond that term he was not allowed to go, not even in great cities, and there was good reason for it, too. Experience had proved that for about 40 days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of advertisement, but after that the town began to lose interest.”

—Franz Kafka, “The Hunger Artist”

Andy Warhol predicted that in the future, museums will become shopping malls and shopping malls museums. The future has happened. The museum has been a place where one moves seamlessly between buying and viewing for long enough that the gift shop has come to define the experience. It might have started when the MET put trinkets and overpriced hardcovers on every floor, but it is the MoMA which has perfected the model. You think a department store is disorienting? The MoMA causes physical vertigo— museum patrons have been known to vomit when confronted with the view from the fourth floor balcony.

Performance art has recently experienced a revival. The Whitney Biennial includes a live performance by Aki Sasamoto entitled Strange Attractors; the Guggenheim currently features a performance by Tino Seghal; The Artist is Present, a retrospective of Marina Abramovic’s work where the artist will actually be present, opens at the MoMA on March 13, 2010.

In “We Sit Like Hot Stones (the Performance of Grief)” (Rail, February 2010), Kristin Prevallet examines performance art in the context of public mourning. In a society both saturated in and protected from violence, performance art is an act of protest in which the body of the artist serves to connect individual “grief to a larger social suffering.” Performance art as protest is potentially radical, and this might be exactly why major museums have been so eager to bring it inside where they can keep an eye on it. Consumerism is driven by the desire to ignore this body that suffers—an unmediated confrontation with grief would be disastrous for sales. But its mediated form could be quite good for them. Anxiety makes people buy things.

The two people miming sex in the middle of the Guggenheim occasionally look up—a simple action that flips spectatorship on its head. In this moment of discomfort, when you have been positively identified as voyeur, a certain consideration of your position vis-à-vis art, looking is called into question. It is uncomfortable and this, one can easily argue, is good. Exiting the Guggenheim, however, requires that you walk through the gift shop.

One hopes that Abramovic is able to hijack the museum, but it is equally likely that she will end up like Sitting Bull—a lucrative curiosity in a variety show whose sole purpose is to sell tickets by taming what is wild about the west.

In 1975 Marina Abramovic was living in Belgrade—which was then part of socialist Yugoslavia—when she was invited to Amsterdam. There she performed Role Exchange, in which she exchanged roles with a prostitute in the red light district. Abramovic spent the duration of the performance in a brothel window, while her counterpart assumed the role of artist/art object and posed behind the gallery’s window.

Peggy Phelan, one of the doyens of Performance Studies, explains that American performance artists of the 70s, such as Chris Burden and Vito Acconci, were engaged in a practice that “defined itself in opposition to the commodity based art market…attempting to create art that had no object, no remaining trace to be sold.”

The resistance of a time based medium to commodification, especially at a time that predates the widespread use of video recording technology, posed a serious challenge to the capitalist art market. How do you sell Chris Burden nailed to a VW Bug or getting shot by a friend? Performance could not be bought or sold like a painting. Photography, lacking a temporal dimension, could not capture it. It could not be collected because its completion marked its disappearance. Thus it escaped the grasp of the great art institutions, or tried to.

Abramovic’s Amsterdam performance interrogated this by playing with the economic transactions that American performance artists took for granted, yet sought to reject. Role Exchange complicated their core proposition that performance was exempt from economic exchange and exploitation. After all, having sex for money is both a performance and an economic exchange—one of the oldest in fact.

Performance Art raised new questions about the relationship between art and the market, but it also expressed old anxieties about another, not unrelated relationship—that of artists and prostitutes. As everyone knows, bad artists who compromise their artistic values and sell out are whores.

The literal entrance of the prostitute into the gallery therefore constituted nothing less than the materialization of an art world nightmare. And it turned the entire logic of performance as anti-commodity on its head as well. If the intention of performance was to sidestep commodification by replacing the art object with a time-bound subject, then that subject is by definition not a prostitute (a commodity), or the whole project has been in vain. By assuming this role, Abramovic became an object but also a subject of sorts—the naked female body being the artistic subject par excellence and the painting of prostitutes a tradition in its own right.

It is the central role assumed by architecture in this performance of exploitation that becomes particularly problematic for performance art as it enters the museum. It is the window in Role Exchange that provides a frame of reference as well as the referent between the two spaces. Were the prostitute posing as an artist at an easel, enclosed in the space of a studio, rather than standing in the gallery window (more like the painting on the easel), the equation between the two women would not be nearly so resonant. It is the window that implicates both the artist and the viewer in “base” monetary transactions that effectively govern and produce the myriad transactions that occur through a pane of glass. And of course the two women can move from one space to another, but the spaces themselves don’t move or change.

Abramovic writes that she was “interested in the idea of the windows and the brothel spaces themselves as well as the moral aspects of the architectural space.” The window in particular indicates architecture’s complicity in the production of consumerist space and the appropriate roles assumed within it. Architecture provided the only distinction between artist and prostitute. The moral aspect of architecture identified by Abramovic lies in its accommodation and reproduction of received ideas of public and private, male and female, consumer and producer that all come into play in the shop/gallery window.

While time-based performance may have dislodged art from the economy of commercial galleries and collectors, it in no way threatened the predominance of the masculine economy of desire that dictated the politics of viewing, defining, producing and consuming art. Capitalist appropriation of the artist’s production was being challenged, but the ordering principal of viewing practices, the male gaze, was not. The very insistence that one could not become a commodity/prostitute was proof of its presence. As the brothel suggests, space arranged to serve the interests of this gaze necessarily produces the economic transactions that performance artists, in contradistinction to whores, were rejecting. What does performance hope to achieve in the museum, a space where these practices are literally built in?

For The Artist is Present, Abramovic will be sitting at a table in the atrium for the entire run of the show (600 hours) and visitors will be able to sit in an identical chair across from her and stay as long as they like. I don’t know if she plans on speaking or what she might say. There is no telling how people will behave. Will they be quick out of courtesy to others? Or greedily gobble up as much celebrity time as possible for their $20.00 admission? At the very least, live performance offers a lack of predictability and this is something. “The ethical,” writes Phelan, “is fundamentally related to live art because both are arenas for the unpredictable force of the social event.”

The Artist is Present presents the potential to refigure the museum as a space where looking is more than a precursor to buying. If performance, as Role Exchange indicated, was inextricable from the commercial transactions of the gallery system, then how is performance, now very much a part of institutional archives and practices if not museum collections, going to function inside of a museum? It’s not exactly an unpredictable place.

Artwork that depends on actual time and physical space is, by default, a disruption of current viewing practices. Performance art might have come back into its own almost accidentally—the duration of Abramovic’s performances finds a new relevance in an era characterized by instant gratification and a level of documentation capable of turning anything into an object that can be owned, bought, and sold. Streaming technology even allows the real-time experience of a performance from the safety of the home. The performance might not change but if the ethical nature of performance arises from “the unpredictable force of the social event,” then its meaning is lost in broadcast and arguably in the museum as well.

Sitting in a real place for 600 real hours and demanding that people show up is, sadly, a radical act in an age marked by Facebook and a level of reproduction that makes postcards look like unique objects. Though there is arguably something humble about it, it’s also obnoxious and the celebrity/priestess aspect of her presence is problematic. Is Abramovic challenging the space or merely consecrating it as the self-titled “grandmother of performance art?”

And this sitting, why is she so special? Most of us sit at a desk for ten hours a day performing alienated labor so we can pay rent? Everyone works. But this may well be her point. Abramovic’s work is always about work and it is important to recognize that art does not appear fully formed in a museum—artists make it.

The artist has carefully considered the democratic aspect of this piece. She remarked that in House With an Ocean View, she immediately regretted the raised platform that placed her above the audience like an icon. This time the table will be small, the chairs the same, the artist and the visitor eye to eye. It is in the most active and crowded parts of the museum. She called it a “tornado of activity.” The visitor will wait in line and then sit down. Everybody works. Everybody waits. Everybody sits.

Will everybody be performing?

After all, going to the museum is such a well-scripted act that we could call it a performance—just not a very self-conscious one. The visitors will wait in line, but isn’t this just a re-enactment of the ritual entrance into the museum itself? A critical consideration of this act is interesting. But this line is also just another line, and museum visitors love lines—they add to the sense of accomplishment that the museum offers its diligent shoppers. A second longer, slower line does not necessarily refigure the museum experience but it does run the risk of repeating it.

Abramovic’s intentions might be good, the curator’s intentions might even be radical, but the museum as an institution does not want to criticize itself. It wants to remain a viable institution and it wants people to pay the $20.00 admission. Naked bodies might be the only way to get the Internet generation through the door. Over thirty years later, Role Exchange looks far more like a prediction than a critique.

It is, after all, a once in a lifetime deal. For $20 you get a real Abramovic as opposed to a fake Monet. All in a day’s work for culture.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2010

All Issues