This past Wednesday, I experienced two seemingly incongruous events for the first time, belly dance and Abramovic. The experience of each informed the other, despite the bizarre disparity between the two.
That morning, I was the only person at the belly dance class, aside from my instructor, Mimi. It was just the two of us in a gymnasium with no mirrors. She asked whether it was my first time, since I didn’t look familiar. I admitted that it was. Mimi removed a traditional, jangling, turquoise skirt from her bag and tied it around her waist, and then rolled up her shirt so I could see her stomach. Next, she removed her shoes and socks, so I did too, and turned on the music. While she started to dance and explain the differing stomach isolations, I tried my hardest to emulate her. Although I had absolutely no way of knowing how I was doing, I didn’t feel the least bit self-conscious. Several minutes later, Mimi asked me to “make the movements in my stomach smaller,” so I did.
An attractive, muscular, creature with long locks and bangs interrupted us, wearing a large, cumbersome “Om” pedant around her neck, proclaiming her enlightened state of being to the world. This creature took off her shoes quickly and began dancing next to me. Mimi increased the tempo of the moves, and told me once more to make the movements smaller and subtler, even though I was certain that I had, I attempted correcting my mistake. Before I knew it, the three of us were undulating, twirling, thrusting, tilting, tiptoeing, and shimmying. I felt like I was in a trance while I concentrated intensely on keeping up with this onslaught of unfamiliar bodily movements. “Remember to BREATHE!” Mimi reminded me, encouragingly. I broke out laughing, realizing just then that I had not been breathing at all. Surprisingly enough, inhaling and exhaling did make these ancient, choreographed maneuvers easier to follow. Breathing did not however alleviate the pinching pains that were spreading through all the muscles in my abdomen and lower back.
Now that I had revealed myself as someone who could accept criticism and laugh at herself, Mimi did not hold back. “Make the moves more delicate!” “Breathe!” “The more bust you have, the smaller the movement!”
A new awareness came over me. Whenever I put myself in a new situation, I feel anonymous, like I’ve left my old self behind in trying something new. I had the naïve assumption that since I didn’t know anything about belly dance, I couldn’t express anything personal or revealing about myself. Unknowingly, I had approached this novel experience, the same way I approach most things, brazenly, conspicuously, with a pronounced tendency to over embellish and overdo. Even by laughing, I had revealed a typical, personal tendency to find humor in most situations. Whether I had wanted it to or not, my personality had oozed out of my pores, showing up in every gesticulation, shimmy, and burlesque-inspired arm movement.
At the end of class, Mimi like any good teacher complimented me on my efforts and strengths, downplaying my lack of delicacy. She encouraged me to continue, saying that eventually belly dance would become automatic and ingrained in my muscle memory. Walking home I thought about whether or not achieving subtlety and an understanding of the nuance in belly dance could potentially affect my approach to other parts of my life. That day I became hyper aware how every action each of us takes is indicative of who we are. Although the idea of self and who we are might seem like something we construct and have control over, it seems like very often the reverse is true, that who we are constructs us.
The story is told (by Kierkegaard) of the absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists, until one fine morning, he wakes up to find himself dead.
That afternoon I went to the MoMa, and I sat down in front of the Marina Abramovic performance, The Artist is Present. My last encounter with Abramovic, was in 2004, at the Chicago Lyric Opera, where she was my commencement speaker at my graduation from the Art Institute. She read from Sol Lewitt’s letter to Eva Hesse. Although I was largely preoccupied with the terror I felt towards my impending future, and the incredible anxiety I felt in graduating from a school I had grown to love, I still remember the haunting inflection in Abramovic’s Serbian accented voice traveling through the opera, as she read Sol Lewitt’s words.
This time, Marina was completely silent and immobilized, offering no encouraging and comforting words on the role of the artist and perseverance. She sat completely still, staring expressionlessly off into a distance, clad in a poorly fitting, incredibly uncomfortable looking and awkwardly shapeless, red polyester gown, which concealed her entire body. Since this is an interactive piece, she was faced by a docile, complacent audience member who sat politely in her purple blouse and skirt, with her hands folded self-consciously on her lap, staring back at Abramovic. I was immediately struck by the intensity of Abramovic’s presence compared to the little, purple lamb facing her. Together, they sat at a minimally designed, ugly yet sturdy, light-colored wooden table with two hideously, clunky wooden chairs, made of the same material. The furniture seemed to mock the Utopian ideals of mid-century design and its pathetic attempts to pretty up a world, which is far too complex and dirty to be decorated. Abramovic’s costume, along with the furniture, seemed to abrasively question the idea of beauty. Surrounding all of this was a rectangular border with stage lights, and the audience, which I was a part of, watching intently.
While I sat, watching Abramovic, the purple lamb, and the audience, I thought about the value and limits of art. The artist despite being silent and still had taken the idea of the artist’s presence to its most direct and reductive form. I had two concurrent thoughts, while sitting there, what is Abramovic communicating and what can any art communicate? Although Abramovic’s work is usually direct and simple, it is also so ambiguous, that it’s difficult to decipher exactly what is being communicated. Even when her work becomes violent, Abramovic never seems moralizing or polemical. She presents the viewer with ideas and clues, and it is up to the viewer to interpret what she or he has been given. I couldn’t get away from interpreting this piece as an institutional critique, that called attention to the experience of interacting with an art object and its creator. Like with much of her work, Abramovic, draws attention to the distance and impossibility of direct communication that exists between humans. The artist is there, either across the table, or within the room you are sitting in, but she is still controlling every aspect of this encounter, and in her staunch determination, she will be unyielding to whatever you say or do. I wondered how sitting in front of Abramovic would change my interpretation of the piece, but that day the line was too long, and the line went well beyond closing time. I’m planning on coming back an hour before the museum opens, because I feel like I’m missing an important aspect of the piece.
After experiencing the retrospective, I thought about what Abramovic is communicating, an awareness of death and brutality and what that accomplishes, what defines consciousness, the old-fashioned and almost medieval quality her work seems to have despite her working in a relatively new medium, how Eastern European her approach and perspective seems to be, her presence and control within all the work, and how performance art has the capability to bridge the gap between the artifice of art and life.
The man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists, until he wakes up to find himself dead, is a tragic yet comedic character. The parable aims to shake the reader into consciousness, similarly to what Abramovic seems to want to accomplish. However bleak and nihilistic Abramovic’s work may come across as being, it also has an undeniably idealistic side to it. She is not offering another useless commodifiable object; she eliminates whatever is unnecessary, and pushes the viewer into a personal yet confrontational experience. Abramovic is the elephant in the room. She makes us aware of the skeleton each of us carries on our backs, pretending or denying that it isn’t there.
Abramovic’s work seems to simultaneously break away from the past in its impermanence, the precedents she has set, and with the importance of the role and interaction of the audience, while also being deeply entrenched in the past.The heavily existential, blunt, memento mori characteristic does hearken back to a time in European history when heretics were burned. I felt that the show was reflective of an Eastern European ethos, that as a Pole, I was continually reminded of. From the dismal sculptures and installations of Magdalena Abakanowicz to the aggressive performances of Katarzyna Kozyra, the Poles, like their art to be difficult, serious, existential, and confrontational. I couldn’t help but see a cultural parallel between the art and attitudes I grew up with and what I encountered in Abramovic.
Something that surprised me was the incredible amount of control that Abramovic held both over herself and the audience. Her presence was felt everywhere, in the reenacted performances of her and Ulay, to the documentation of Abramovic reenacting the famous performances of Beuys to Acconci, and even in how the audience looked to her for cues on how to interact with her pieces. The reenactments of hired performance artists of her earlier work seemed to fall short compared to the documentation of her collaborations with Ulay. These reenactments seemed to lose the drama and tension, which was seen in the documentation. Similarly, the intensity of her presence completely altered the famous performances of other artists that she recreated. When I squeezed passed the two nude performers in Imponderabilia, I still felt like I was being controlled by the artist, since no matter how I approached squeezing through this naked man and woman, either slowly or quickly, sensuously or prudishly, I could not escape the encounter of slipping passed these two silent bodies, which the artist had staged. This was so different from repeating the blithe, choreographed movements in the morning that had no author and a clear idea of how they should be approached.
It occurred to me for the first time, that art could go beyond the artifice, although not completely, because all of this was still staged and a representation of an idea. Although it is true that no other art comes as close to blurring the lines between the real and the imagined, as performance. Abramovic was particularly successful in obscuring the boundaries between the real and the created in two of her earlier performances, Rhythm 2 and Rhythm 0. During Rhythm 2, Abramovic took a pill prescribed for catatonia, which caused her to seizure and make uncontrollable movements. After the effects of this pill wore off, she took another pill prescribed to the aggressive and depressed. This pill caused her to become immobilized. Rhythm 0, is probably Abramovic’s most famous performance, where she placed 72 objects on a table that could either cause pleasure or pain, and allowed the audience to do whatever they wanted with her and these objects. Amid these objects were scissors, a knife, a whip, and a gun with one bullet. All of this took place within the span of six hours. The more time passed, the more aggressive and violent the audience became.
It is rare for me to feel impacted by a show, but the Abramovic retrospective managed to leave me brooding and questioning everything this past week. This seems to be the show everyone is talking about, and I get asked a lot whether or not I "liked" it. I wouldn't necessarily say that I liked being jolted into the pits of despair and existence, but I am glad that I was, and it did cause me to reevaluate my approach both to art and life. I like that there still exist art forms that can impact me or change the way I think. I admire the tenacity and strength of Marina Abramovic's vision, along with the courage that it took to create the unprecedented innovation found in her work.