Marina Abramovic and The Politics of Experience

And it is Art or Not?

by Colin Swenson

Here She Is, Ave Maria

Marina Abramovic is aggressively frank. In much of her work, she invites audiences to break social norms and allows them to participate in simple gestures that are usually considered inappropriate or strange. In Rhythm 0, which is perhaps Abramovic’s most famous work, she simply sits and invites the audience to engage with her in whatever way they please. Timid at first, people eventually become bolder and sometimes they get aggressive and even violent. After 6 hours of this strange confrontation, she walks toward the audience. Most people run away. In Abramovic’s most recent work The Artist Is Present, she sits at a wooden table and invites viewers to sit across from her and share a silent moment. In this way, many of Abramovic’s works deal with reframing a seemingly unimportant, or simple interaction in a way that can cause the viewer to reconsider everyday moments.

Abramovic’s Untitled Performance (Fall 2013) is fascinating when compared to the rest of her work. Produced in conjunction with City Arts & Lectures, this was an event that I alone was invited to experience and was billed as a conversation between the moderator, Lawrence Rinder (Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive), and the artist, a critical, introspective look into her process. I was excited, and had intellectually prepared to engage with the new perspectives and ideas the artist was sure to present me with.

Here she is again, Ave Maria
Perhaps as a response to The Artist Is Present, Abramovic began this untitled performance in the exact opposite manner. But I was lost, and running late. I took BART, jogged to a bus, and finally walked the remaining half-mile to the location where the performance would take place.

I looked at the map on my phone. The drop pin representing the location of the performance was right there, next to the pulsing blue dot representing my location. I looked around and saw a pizza place, a few closed offices, and apartments. No grand theatre. No crowd of people. I was alone. It was 7:10, and the performance was supposed to start at 7. I thought only Abramovic would do this -- incredible.

I went into the pizza place to see if anyone knew where she was. They seemed confused by my question. I peeked into the dark offices, hoping to see a hidden back room performance space. I was distraught, faced with a problem for which I had no idea what could be the solution. For the next hour I walked around the quiet blocks, peering through windows. My senses were heightened. A dull anxiety was building in my chest. I was a relatively poor student and had splurged on a ticket to an event that was slowly getting further from my grasp.

Mom phone
I called my Mom and asked her to look on a map and make sure I was in the right place. She confirmed to me that I was, but eventually called back to say that I wasn’t, in the right place. She had found the real theater and I hopped on a bus, mom-aided, and was on my way to a mind-altering experience.

Abramovic’s performances are unexpected, sometimes almost unwanted. Yet, they make viewers curious, and reluctant engagement sometimes leads to an eye opening change in perspective. In his review of The Artist is Present for The Telegraph, Richard Dorment admits, “I hated every second but I can't deny its power.” Some version of this sentiment is a common reaction to Abramovic’s work. It is commonly disliked, and yet quite popular. Abramovic has an ability to do things that are silly and perhaps even clich├ęd, where one walks in skeptical but intrigued, and leaves equally as skeptical, but deeply touched, and perhaps confused.

As I made my way toward the theatre doors, I felt defeated. My excitement was gone, and my ambition waning. I carried on out of pure principle of finishing what I had started. I was exhausted. The door opened and the entire audience erupted into enthusiastic applause.“What an inspiring, eye opening experience. Thank you everyone, that will conclude tonight’s event.” The moderator rose from his chair.

Did She look at me, Ave Maria
Marina Abramovic’s piercing, somber eyes looked up at me from across the auditorium. She may have nodded slightly.

©Colin Swenson and the CCA Arts Review

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