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.
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.
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.
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.