November 23, 2012

The artist is present. In love and forgiveness.

This is going to be a long one, folks. Hey, I was absent for awhile and need to make up for it, okay? You ready?


A few weeks back I saw The Artist Is Present, the documentary about the life and work of the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art,” the Belgrade-born and internationally [in]famous, now 65 years old Marina Abramović. The central feature of the film was Abramović’s 2010 MoMA retrospective and new piece called ”The Artist Is Present,” during which she sat at a table throughout MoMA’s opening hours, and any audience member that wished to do so could sit across from her for as long as they wanted. Needless to say, she drew quite the crowd. For over three months, she gazed into the eyes of some 700.000 strange and familiar faces without a single word and as little movement as possible. The multitude of human expressions recorded on camera during that time is an encyclopedia of Alexandrian caliber, too vast for words. If you are interested, you can watch the trailer here.


It is difficult for me to write about her, or explain why I appreciate her work. If you have heard of her, chances are you either love her or hate her. If you do not yet have a formed opinion, chances are you will either consider her incredibly bad taste, or be completely mesmerized. It is difficult to imagine a bland, meh, middle road with someone who has exposed and subjected her mind and body to shameless gaze, strain, exhaustion, immobility or just plain violence, and called it art. Personally, I have great reservations when it comes to performance art and this kind of extreme exhibitionism, because they seem to beg the question what are you trying to prove and to whom? Did Rhythm 0 really have to happen in order to prove that, deep down and dirty, humans are in fact despicable violators? Probably not, but that’s all academic because she did it and now we no longer have to wonder. I find her authenticity impossible to deny, because the pills, razor blades, fumes, unconsciousness, the hits, the falls, the blood, the plastic surgery, the marathon walks, the immovable stillness… they were, they are, all real. This woman doesn’t mess around.

Taken from

What she did for me personally was reminded me that the female body is so much more exciting when it incites discomfort and unease than the horizontal, prettified, complacent, eye-batting adornment it is so often made to be. And if, after thirty years of trying to chart a new direction in your career of choice, you are still misunderstood by the mainstream and only marginally accepted, that is no reason to stop doing what you are doing.


But tonight I want to talk about her and Ulay, her German-born former partner of twelve years, in life as well as in art. They met their match when they met each other, creating a flurry that dissolved the concepts of public and private. It is one of those love stories that leaves you gasping for air and makes you sick at the same time. It makes you want to be so lucky and scares the shit out of you. They took the stigma of voyeurism from their spectators by letting it all hang out. They roamed the world in a van and performed together. They hit and yelled at each other, sucked the air out of each other until they fainted, pointed arrows at each other’s hearts, drove around galleries in circles, and sat across a table from one another for hours and days on end without moving a muscle. When he had had enough and got up from the table, she remained seated and continued the performance by herself. They walked the Great Wall of China, starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle. It was their last piece together, because towards the end of the eight-year-long process of obtaining a permit for the walk from the Chinese authorities, Mr. Man managed to get their translator pregnant. When he asked her what he should do, she responded with What do you mean, what should you do? You go your way and I go mine. They walked the walk knowing that their meeting would be their goodbye.

Taken from

This is where The Artist Is Present picks up. Some twenty years after the break-up, they meet in her New York apartment with the exhibition preparations in full swing. He has come to see her triumph. After decades of radio silence, their first encounter is utterly trivial, a peck on the cheek and making zucchini in the kitchen. Is spicy OK? Then the camera has them commenting separately, Abramović saying that their relationship was never the perfect union everyone thought it was [nor did they pretend it to be, from what I gather], and Ulay claiming that she had had affairs of her own. She wonders whether forgiveness might be possible, and he says with a wistful smile that, since he does not hate her, he must love her. Pieces of their former life together are set up as integral parts of the exhibition, and both of them are overwhelmed with emotion as they roam the gallery on their own, he a visitor, she the artist. I watch with tears in my eyes and a giggly lump in my throat. I am an osmotically-minded partner myself, but mine is a different kind of osmosis.


Cut to the day of the performance. She alternates red, white, and blue dresses, and today she is wearing red. Between sitters, she closes her eyes and processes the energy as she prepares for the next participant. When she opens her eyes again, it is him that she sees sitting across from her as the audience looks on with baited breath.


It is unclear if she knew that he was next in line to take part in the performance, but she smiles a deep, knowing smile of recognition. She is warm. Childlike. Flirtatious. Dangerous. So much bigger than him and than their once-love. They reach across the table, hold hands and smile.


There is forgiveness.

Taken from

When he got up from the table and quit the performance years ago, she remained. She continued the performance in 2010, only this time with the audience as her lover and partner, and Ulay as merely one of many. She makes it no secret that one part of her persona is a once oppressed child with insatiable emotional needs. I wonder if 700.000 exchanges of energy can fill a void left by bad parenting. What twenty years of silence can do in terms of understanding one’s former self and one’s love[s?]. And if we really need to be so cruel with those that we once loved, as if unloving required nothing short of complete and utter annihilation in order to move on.


I wrote this once before: there is nothing pretty about “I would die for you.” Deep love is darkness. Perhaps the unease that Abramović and Ulay’s work causes is the fact that they are telling us something we already know but would rather not admit. That, in spite of ourselves, we can relate and know damn well what they are talking about. We all walk that Wall of China every day. And it is not uncommon that, just as we have reached that precious meeting-point of understanding in the middle, we realize it is time to part ways. Sometimes that mutual understanding is just the closure we need to call it off. We suck the air, and life, out of our partners, and inhale their toxicity back just to make up for it. We willingly place our hearts in front of their arrows and give up our worldly belongings just for a chance to tie our destinies with theirs. We get up from the table claiming fatigue, only to come back and hold hands, look into their eyes, forgive and be forgiven. If we could wear our emotional health on our bodies, we would all be walking around in casts and bandages, limping around with crutches, our noses broken and our limbs bruised; all that, and most probably a big happy smile on our face.
We were, we are, loved.


  1. My son watched a man die last year. It was a four-wheeler accident here in our neighborhood. The driver wasn't wearing a helmet. The four-wheeler flipped a couple of times, finally hitting a tree. The driver landed in the street, his head split open. My son was stunned. It took him a while to process what he was seeing. A few people in the neighborhood who saw it ran to the man. Someone called 911. My son watched as the blood started pooling around his head. He saw blood coming from the man's ears and eyes. He watched the blood coming from his mouth, he saw him gurgling and gasping. He watched the emergency responders load him up and drive away. And then he came home and told my husband and I about it. He is an aspiring writer, and so he also wrote about it. And one night, he came and sat down on the couch next to me and he said, "This is probably going to sound horrible, and you are the only person in the world I would say this to, because you are a writer and you will understand. But, I think that seeing that man dying is the best thing that has ever happened to my writing."

    It hit me like a ton of bricks recently. I've been writing. A lot. I've begun articulating some definitive goals for myself, working it all out in my head, how and when and where and what. I'm ready to make things happen. I am tired of floating aimlessly. But it hit me in the face, square in the jaw. Just recently. That having my heart broken was the best thing that has ever happened to my writing. I might even go so far as to say that having my heart broken is also the best thing to happen to my ability to recognize happiness. I realized, right in the middle of it breaking, that I had never had my heart broken before. It is stunning to me now, on the other side of it. How I could have lived so long believing that I knew what love was without ever having had it taken away. Life is funny like that sometimes.

    1. Hey Aimee,

      I remember you writing about the accident and how your son processed it. Whether it impacts his writing or not, that remark shows that he is a complex human being that doesn't just go through life unconsciously, but reflects on it and is able to distance himself from it in order to mentally transform it into something else. I also know someone who told me that the moment they realized they were a writer was when they were on a plane that plummeted a few hundred feet, and all they could think about was not survival, but how they would tell the story to their family afterwards.

      I agree that our life experiences help us become better writers. And I also agree that we write best about what we know. But I also disagree with people who take those statements too literally and just turn their lives into novels and think that's enough. Your parent dies, so you write a story about a funeral. You move to a new country so you write a romance about finding love outside of your culture. This is where I go full-on, rigid T.S. Eliot and "impersonality of poetry," according to which poets (when TSE talks about literature he means poetry but I will allow myself to extend this to all writing) are catalysts of words and emotions, and writing is almost a chemical reaction. He does not deny that personal experience goes into literature, just that the outcome need not be a direct translation/expression of the writer's experience into words but something transformed. You put all of your experiences in a vault, and take them out at will, re-molding them into something completely different from what they were when you lived them. That is art fodder IMHO. While this attitude is incredibly rigid, I like it because it allows me to poke fun at egomaniacs who think their writing is an expression of their person and that readers should care about that and that alone. It is also liberating, because it explains how you can have someone as un-worldly as the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, or Emily Dickinson, produce top-notch literary art.

      I am also going to go ahead and say that it seems to me that you are doing the same thing: realizing that your individual, raw, tender and precious personal experience has another dimension, and seeing it through the eyes of a writer. What can I do with this? How has it transformed the way I perceive the world? And I dare say, cliche though it is: nothing will do that for you like a broken heart. If we haven't had our hearts broken, we have not lived.

    2. Strange as it is, that concept is something I have only recently discovered, maybe in the past couple of years or so. That writing about what you know refers to all the dimensions of our senses and all the ways we experience the world around us, not merely the concrete things we see or hear or touch. I feel stupid to admit that I have not really understood that until recently. I was told that in school, which is where most people hear it first, I suppose. "Write about what you know." Probably an English teacher way back then. As soon as I heard it, I felt trapped. What I knew was only a drop in the ocean compared to what I didn't know. I struggled with constantly wanting to know more, but then told myself that merely knowing was not enough. If I was going to write about a musician, knowing how to play an instrument wasn't enough, I was going to have to go to Julliard. If I was going to write about the paranormal, I needed to have real experiences, which I knew did not exist, therefore I was in a quandary as to how Lovecraft or King or any of those fellas made any money. It's a kind of concrete thinking that has followed everywhere. It's the kind of thinking that would cause me to look at someone like your Marina Abramovic and be rendered absolutely dumbstruck as to the point of it all. There would have been no explaining it to me. I think the phrase "write about what you know" needs to be revisited and reconsidered for future generations.

    3. Agreed. We have an equally worn-out and pointless phrase over here, used for guiding students in book reports, that says "what did the poet mean?" It's the stupidest thing in the world because no one in the freaking world could possibly know what the poet "meant" by their poem, very probably not even themselves. "Write about what you know" is an equally silly attempt at guidance that ends up meaning everything and nothing. Excitement, grief, disappointment, courage, accomplishment, enamoredness... that is what we know. As for the "real experiences," apart from life there is always research. For instance, Melville did not only sail the world on a bunch of different ships, he also read pretty much anything and everything available on sea voyages and exploration, and his writing is as much informed by his own experience as by other people's texts.

  2. I have always had mixed feelings about Performance Art...originally hating and "not getting" it until in a rather short period of time while in College I saw a performance of and subsequently met, Marcel Marceau. A week or so later I attended an exhibit of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.

    Marceau actually performed at Mershon Auditorium on the campus of The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio where I grew up and Mapplethorp's work was on exhibit at a small gallery in Downtown Chicago. We just walked in one afternoon and they had several rooms displaying photographs from several different periods of his work. It was extremely controversial at that time.

    Interestingly I always found such work or ART, including the performance of clowns at the Circus to be somewhat sadistic and sick. I was always less offended by RM's photos then I was of Clown performances.

    It was somewhat natural for me to give Robert M a pass because I was and am a HUGE admirer of Patti Smith, who had an amazing relationship with Mapplethorp while they were both finding their artistic feet in the Village in the late 60's/early 70's.

    Smiths fantastic book "Just Kids" documents that period and their love affair brilliantly...I highly recommend it.

    Not sure where I am going with this but I always had a weird relationship with "Fringe Art" or the exotic performance stuff particularly that which involved sex and violence.

    I often wondered what if one of the 3 men who were present when I was raped (I've never been entirely sure if 2 or all 3 actually participated in the act though all 3 did beat me, of that I am sure)filmed it as some form of performance art...that, I think is when I became very uncomfortable with the whole genre only to have that change with these two events I just mentioned, which took place probably some time in late 1981 or 1982 sometime.

    Yoko Ono recently did her SMILE Internet Exhibit where anyone could post a photo of them smiling to have it then displayed with millions of others shown in a continuous loop from now until the end of time...I quite enjoyed is brilliant and makes one truly feel connected. But hers was somewhat of an exception as far as I am concerned.

    I guess I can think of better ways to connect, push away, shock or provoke those I want to. I have always sensed something less then authentic in work in which the artist themselves is the main subject. It's like a form of social masturbation I think...I find it too self-congratulating and commercialized. But I do admire anyone who gives themselves a shot...

    Now will you look at this MESS...I just took a lovely, thought provoking and interesting post by you my friend and turned it on it's ear with all of my babbling. I guess I just wanted the attention tonight!

    CHEERS and Peace to you...Always!

    1. Thormoo,

      Before I even begin, I have to ask you to please, please, please never think of what happened to you as even remotely connected with art or anything connected with it. 'Footage' of that kind is plain and simple snuff, in my opinion disgusting and completely unacceptable. I had a friend in Scotland who was the victim of a gay bashing, filmed by the perpetrators and colloquially referred to as 'happy slapping.' Yes, there is a name for these things and it makes me sick to even write it. It's just wrong.

      My second point would be that, whether we admit it or not, all art is a kind of social masturbation. Every single work of art [good art or bad art] screams 'ego' by virtue of its inherent exhibitionism. "Here, this is what I made, look at it, admire it and hopefully worship me!" At the same time, there are forms of art, and artists, that take it to the next level and make it all about themselves. If you read my reply to Aimee above, you can see why I like T.S. Eliot so much. If a work of art is 'impersonal,' that actually allows for the audience to participate in it by interpreting it, internalizing it, agreeing or disagreeing with it, or simply thinking about it. Authors who cloy artistic space with their own persona seem to deny the audience its role, and perhaps this is what chafes us and makes us call it "self-congratulating and commercialized."

      On a different note, there is a reason why Stephen King's It is so scary :) I tend to agree with you on the general creepiness of clowns, as well as finding nothing personally offensive in the work of Mapplethorpe. In fact, one of the most disturbing pieces of art I have ever seen was Bruce Nauman's 'Double No' [], which I saw at the Tate Modern Gallery in London, and I cannot even tell you what it is that disturbs me. It was like a car crash, I could not unsee it.

      I have a very high tolerance for sex and violence in art, but I want to see it justified. Sex for sex's sake and violence for violence's sake just doesn't cut it. I guess that might be the requirement for 'authenticity' you talk about. If I feel any of it is gratuitous, my shit detector goes off and I write it off. Of course, you see the problem here: the criteria for what is gratuitous and what not are purely my own, and do not necessarily agree with those of the people around me :)

    2. I think you realize what I was describing above were the thoughts of a traumatized teenager trying to get his own head around ART (and real life where my friends were dying all around me, mostly in violent car accidents...5 in my 18th year alone)that pushed the limits sexually as well as violently. I never have or would have honestly considered that art. But that was a very real thought I had and this was the first time I have ever mentioned it to anyone...all therapists included so it was an exclusive....

    3. Absolutely. I understand, only the expression of that understanding was missing from my first reply because I was too rash to type. Thank you for sharing this, I hope you know your candor and honesty are not lost on me.

    4. I'll be honest...I'm more then a little surprised that I actually admitted to even thinking about such things...there has to be a reason that needed to work it's way out of me at this time. Those were the kind of thoughts that, tormented me for years. They are real honest to God: "dirty little secrets"...Heaven forbid I ever admitted to such sick thinking before but one couldn't help thinking or feeling it after that experience.

      It is like that was a moral place that normally I would never EVER Go, PERIOD. But being subjected to the act of rape took me unwillingly to that very place I never wanted to go. And once that moral door was smashed to smithereens...well it was open season on my innocence, my sanity...whatever moral compass there was that used to guide me was no longer functional and I was in serious trouble for the next 30 odd years.

      That was just one more thing that I later in recovery had to first realize, admit, then work to re-gain what morality I could cobble back together from the scattered pieces.

      When talking about my addiction (my parents do not know about the least specifically) my mother always says that she failed to prepare me, to raise me right...that somehow she is responsible which is ludicrous. What she cannot possibly understand is that she truly did prepare me morally, she raised me the right way because if she hadn't, I never would have held onto what sliver of decency that I did. I was then able to build off that little bit that was preserved and start a whole new moral guidance system that serves me well to this day.

      Man, this shit gets complex, eh?!!

    5. ...I just sent you an e-mail in lieu of a comment, hope you got it. Have a peaceful day, my friend.

  3. Delicious. Again the writing and the process behind your work astounds me. I find it awe inspiring and so totally connected to you, that you have chosen to write about "performance art" and "intimacy". This is what YOU do with this silly medium we call "blog". Much like the artist you write about, you expose yourself, sit across the zeros and ones, and look deep into our souls and conscious, never passing judgement, but always making us think.

    A heavy wind has drawn up across the sound outside my windows, lifting white caps on the incoming tide in the winters familiar but uneasy cold. The little cottage trembles and shakes against the gale and I am left here thinking as the lights flicker on and off, as the lone power lines in to this island spread and slap against one another, rubbing off protective insulation and then arcing and sending off showers of green and white sparks.

    "Deep love is darkness". There is no doubt of this. But true, great, deep love, is the flash in the darkness outside the window, the arc and shower of spark, that awakes you from sleep and leaves you to thinking. You and your work are inspiration.

    1. You know I live and breathe for those flickers, flashes and sparks that travel over land and water and are seen from light years away, for explosions that occur at the intersection of spirals, for phone calls that make it through cold, dark nights of exile and isolation. I also make do, like everybody else, when power lines break and fall into the wrong person's front yard, then have to be replaced or reconnected. The smallest cottages sometimes house the biggest, most precious hearts.

      And look at you, aligning with the 'us' on the receiving end of this writing, disliking performance art yet totally getting me on this one. Your ability to understand things you do not agree with and accept them on their own terms puts me to shame. Though I pass judgment in 3-D as much as the next person, I try to keep this little corner of cyberspace sacred and judgment-free.

      If I met an inspiring author, and person, over the past two years of blogging, it is you, Murdoc. I write about things that move me. She moved me by making me wonder what I would do for art, and how far I would go for love. The art question is debatable; how far I would go for love, I already know.

  4. Wow! What a powerful post. This is absolutely fascinating.

    1. Thank you! It was bubbling in me cauldron for awhile. Glad you like it :)

  5. I'm not sure how I feel about performance art. There are things I relate to in the comments between you and Thormoo. I haven't seen much of it. My upbringing was highly moral. Sex was dirty. Sexuality was wrong. For heavens sake, I was so disconnected from being a woman that I was embarrassed to buy tampons. Still am. But I force myself to walk up to the register and tell myself "every other person in America does this." Isn't that ridiculous? Anyway, to get to the point, I did see an exhibition of a photographers work, where she herself was the subject. She took full body shots of her nude body from age 20 to 60 I think. They were life-sized. It felt wrong to look. And yet....I was fascinated that someone could expose themselves in such a way that HELPED me. I understood then what had happened to my body and what was to come. I was less afraid, less unique. "Every other person in America" would decay in this way. A few years ago I bought a book that I wish someone had given to me as a teenager. The book had hundreds of pictures of breasts and show that everyone was different. I could find photos similar to mine and feel like my body was not an alien. I suppose there are some people that would frown on such intimate photos, but again, that vulnerable display helped me understand. My bullshit meter is pretty seriously broken, but I'm working on it. I agree with the authentic guidelines you mentioned, while also realizing they are very individual. In any case, we learn something about ourselves, our tolerance, levels of discomfort, and maybe we're inspired :)

    1. You should try buying condoms, or lube :)

      I love hearing stories like these, thank you so much for sharing. We all do something every day that our parents taught us not to, that the media told us was bad, that our friends are scared to try. And still we do it, because deep down we know what we need to grow. It's that weird factor, other than our genetics and our upbringing, that makes us individuals. Some of the things that feel most natural to me might be huge leaps for you, and vice-versa. How beautiful is that?

      Accordingly, I also agree on the individuality of authenticity. I recently read an article against Facebook censoring women's empowerment pages, and was actually proud of myself when I realized it took me five whole minutes to figure out why a certain photograph was banned from FB: amidst all the sexism, misogyny and rape jokes going on without anyone batting an eye, FB banned a photo of a naked woman who had undergone a mastectomy. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with it, and then it dawned on me. Like with Ms. Abramovic, the female body seems to provoke extreme discomfort when not in the explicit service of aesthetics or pornography. Politics is simply not allowed. Too bad, because the world is missing out on so much.

      That being said, I'm pretty uptight about there being the right place and time for everything and the necessity of the possibility of choice. But other than that, if you don't like it, you don't have to look. I try to keep my writing both as objective and as personal as possible, so that my thoughts get the expression they deserve, but also with the explicit aim of reaching out and rattling people's cage.

      Thanks for commenting, hope things are going well :)

    2. "the female body when it is not in the explicit service of..."

      That in itself is provoking. FB. Seriously? A mastectomy? And you wonder why I get so weirded out about my body. If scars are "bad" then I'm in serious trouble.

      I have never bought condoms, but I have bought lube. I hide it under other grocery items in my cart and then head for a female checker. Ridiculous...and yet I do it. Sheesh, I really need to grow a pair, or a devil-may-care attitude. It's a goal. Among many :)

    3. It honestly took me ages to understand what was "wrong" (insert big qualifying air quotes here) with the photo. The woman in question was laughing at something in the distance, and looking very confident. I noticed the expression on her face first and failed to even see she was naked, or "different"... It isn't scars, it's female scars. If she ain't barely legal and airbrushed, she's scary.

      OK I'm getting a little extreme here so I'll move on...

      Last time I bought lube was hilarious. I had five other items in my basket, but the checker (female) picked up the lube, completely unaware, and waived it in my face with every syllable: "I. Think. You. Might be. Due. For. A discount! Let's check your loyalty card!"

      Or just go to stores that have self-check-out :)


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