Why Does MoMA Hate My Body?

Aug 13 2014 | 05:20 AM

    The line twisted along the East 53rd Street sidewalk outside of MoMA and included its own assemblage of bodies and props: sleeping bags, bug spray, notebooks, flowers. Most in line had arrived by 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 30, to sleep overnight for a chance to participate in [“The Artist is Present,”] a performance piece in which Marina Abramovic looks into an audience member’s eyes for as long as the audience member desires.

    It was the final day of the MoMA retrospective of Abramovic’s work, and the line was a testament to the enormous impact of the world-famous performance artist. But it was also testament to the extraordinary relationships forged in waiting. Many of those in line stayed overnight because new friends they had met in line encouraged them to. The conversations and relationships that emerged were a degree of audience participation in the work that surprised even Abramovic. “How the people actually started meeting each other around the work, how this circulated and how they continue to get into kind of a friendship situation—that was a really new thing to me,” she was quoted as saying. Abramovic often pushes the boundaries of audience participation, and on that final day, I guess I did too.

    After waiting for 31 hours, I was the first to be seated with Abramovic on Monday morning. I thought hard about what I wanted to bring to that experience. Seeing her retrospective had been a turning point for me. As a filmmaker, I spend a lot of time alone in a room writing and editing—and fearing failure. All of Abramovic’s work is about failing: It’s about discovering when her body will fail, when her mind will fail, when her voice will fail, when her relationship will fail. When she knows and understands this failure, however, she has nothing to fear. By failing, she doesn’t fail; she learns. She uses and pushes her body in ways many find masochistic, but, in exploring the spaces where she is weak, where her body and her mind break down, she reveals her incredible strength. The incredible strength of a human being.

    I wanted to thank her. I wanted to tell her, before she even looked all the way up into my face, that I was awed, inspired, terrified and opened by her work. I wonder now if I was misguided—if I could have said and shared everything I wanted to with my eyes—since I didn’t get to sit with her at all.

    All because I tried to sit naked. ------

    When I first saw “The Artist is Present,” I wondered: Why isn’t anyone smiling? It seemed, on the surface, the way that performance art sounds: It’s boring; it’s serious; it’s completely incomprehensible. I couldn’t find any of the same thrill I had found in the pieces in her retrospective, where she and Ulay scream into each other’s mouths until sweat, spit and snot sputter out. Where she presses her face into a fan and breathes in the air until she passes out. Where she takes on the delightful and strange in Balkan folklore by having 20 women run around in the rain presenting their vaginas to the sky.

    The artist is present—but so what?

    In any case, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I looked through the photos on the Web and guessed at the experience of those who sat across from her. I also guessed at her experience: She must be exhausted; she must get very thirsty. Does she ever sneeze?

    Then I [saw a photograph] of a female audience member whose expression of elation, sorrow and love defy description, and I realized: “The Artist is Present” isn’t a work you can understand in passing, or even in sitting with it for 30 minutes. It’s a durational piece, and it can take an entire day (or month) of watching to get inside of it and fully comprehend the intensity, the hard work and the intimacy being witnessed. What is present in “The Artist is Present” is a relationship between strangers. One of those strangers is a performer, and one is an audience member. But for the audience members not sitting in the chair, both of those people are the performance, and the audience member in the chair defines the entire experience. ------

    [SIDEBAR: We ask Abramovic regulars to explain their motives]

    ------

    Performance art has a unique history with audience participation. In Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” Ono set herself onstage with a pair of scissors and invited audience members to use them however they liked. In her 1964 London performance, the audience cut most of her clothes off, and the piece ends with Ono covering her breasts.

    With Allan Kaprow’s 1960s “Happenings,” audience participation was the performance piece. In one Happening, audience members were presented with a room full of ice cubes, which they were encouraged to touch and therefore melt. The melting of all the ice concluded the piece. This past fall, Kaprow’s “YARD”—which included rubber tires and tarpaper for people to play in—was re-imagined at the Hauser & Wirth gallery by contemporary artists.

    In Abramovic’s now-infamous 1974 piece “Rhythm 0,” 72 objects—from lipstick to honey to knives—were laid out on a table, and she invited the audience to use these on her in any way they chose. A sign nearby noted, “I am the object. During this period, I take full responsibility.” The audience became more and more aggressive, cutting her and drinking her blood. When someone pointed a loaded gun at her head, a scuffle broke out, but the gallery let the piece continue.

    Audience participation in performance art, however, isn’t just a thing of the ’70s. Last summer, Abramovic created an event for the Manchester International Festival in which “the public can be—not just the voyeur—but experimenters themselves… We will meet the public and make a contract with them; they can’t just leave, they have to stay the entire time. We demand the kind of commitment that we think now in viewing art—it’s never been done.”

    Meanwhile, Paul Ramirez Jonas’ current exhibition in Times Square, Key to the City, invites audiences to come pick up a key, bestow it on a friend and then go a-unlocking: to explore “social contracts as they pertain to trust, access, and belonging.”

    If you visited Tino Sehgal’s “This Progress” at the Guggenheim this spring, you followed and spoke to a series of “actors” as you ascended the atrium. You may have been asked by an 8-year-old what you thought of progress. The 8-year-old’s favorite answer: “Progress is a myth.”

    The audience may be invited to participate, but up to what point?

    “Keep it moving. You can’t stand in this area,” a sixth-floor MoMA guard barks seconds after audience members pass through two nude bodies in the re-performance of Abramovic’s “Imponderabilia.” Some performers have been groped by patrons, and efforts to keep them safe are important. But not allowing a guest even half a minute to pause and digest an extraordinary performance affects the work. Negatively.

    So, at what point does an audience member cross a line? And who decides when that line is crossed? When is it appropriate for a gallery or museum to intervene in an artist’s performance? To save her life?

    When Marina performed “Lips of Thomas,” in which she cut a star into her belly and then laid on a block of ice, the audience intervened when it became clear that Marina had lost consciousness. This delicate and unusual line is one very specific to performance art. In most art, the artist is on one side of the art and the viewer is on the other. The viewer is watching, not participating. ------

    When I took off my dress at MoMA, seven guards surrounded me, forced me to put the dress back on and escorted me from the building with the promise that I would be arrested if I returned.

    I was surprised when one of the guards, hustling me out of the museum, commented: “You should have told us.” His implication was that, had I checked with the guards, they could have checked with the museum, who could have checked with Abramovic’s people, who could have decided if it would be OK for me to remove my dress and sit across from Marina Abramovic naked on the last day of her show.

    His comment made me realize that me sitting naked across from Abramovic wasn’t a case of an audience member sitting across from an artist. It was a case of an audience member sitting down naked inside of an institution. And an institution can’t improvise the way an artist can. MoMA guards don’t have the jurisdiction to decide if I was sketchy or dangerous. A man later the same day tried to vomit onto the exhibit and was also removed from the museum. Was he dangerous? Was my naked body? It didn’t matter: We were both doing something abnormal.

    The guards weren’t empowered with the guise of the curator, the power of artistic perception. The guards had to follow directions from an enormous institution that, precisely because of its enormity, was able to promote, publicize and enable an exhibition of the scope and wonder of Abramovic’s retrospective. And that institution’s rules—while not explicitly stated—did not allow for spontaneity. It just so happens that Klaus Biesenbach, the organizer of this exhibit and the Director of P.S.1 (as well as MoMA’s Chief Curator at Large)—ostensibly the man anointed with such a keen eye—has shown that he’s skittish about such interaction. He was responsible for the electricity being cut while Ann Liv Young performed her “confrontational” character “Sherry” at P.S.1 this past February, ending the show.

    But what if an institution—because it’s curating an artist whose work is based on spontaneity and unpredictability—adjusted its policies to accommodate the work and taught its security to participate in and enable the art, and not just protect it? What if guards gave viewers the space to evaluate their experience of passing through two nude bodies instead of shuffling them along seconds after the intense experience? What if museum employees were trained to observe, discern and then react? Perhaps we should ask the question that many have raised: If a performance requires a degree of spontaneity and interaction, why put it in an institution at all? Is it possible for an institution to improvise?

    When I took off my clothes at MoMA, I hoped so. I hoped that the guards—whom I had come to know and laugh with in my experience of waiting for all those hours—would have the freedom to recognize my intentions and observe my interaction with Abramovic before jumping to action. I hoped that I would be allowed sit before her peacefully, even if that meant putting my clothes back on. I hoped that my interaction with security would merge naturally with what Abramovic explores in staring into her audience’s eyes: We would look into each other and trust.

    I realized only later that I was being idealistic, that what I intended as a pure and loving act could have come across as the actions of a crazy person. “Who knew what she could have done next?” one audience member noted in regards to my nakedness. “She might have had a gun in her vagina!”

    Although I didn’t get to sit across from Marina Abramovic, she did give me a huge gift. During the 31 hours I spent waiting to sit with her, I developed a host of new friends: friends who are passionate, creative and clearly committed to Abramovic’s art.

    One woman flew in from Los Angeles with nothing but a book and a purple skeleton suit to wear for the exhibit. She even extended her plane ticket to return a day later when she found that arriving by red-eye at 6 in the morning on Monday was already too late to sit with Abramovic.

    I do have doubts about that day. If I had known that I would be ejected from the museum, would I have taken off my clothes? Probably not. My intention was to pay tribute to the art, not to disrupt it. But maybe I’ll still get to pay homage to Marina. My new friends and I are already talking about developing a performance art piece together, inspired by her work.

    It may or may not involve clothes.

    ------

    Josephine Decker is a filmmaker. Read more about her work at [www.josephinedecker.com](http://www.josephinedecker.com/Director.html).