Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Art of Endurance

When her brother was born, Marina Abramovic almost drowned him. Her mother slapped her. Another time, she caught her arm in an electric washing machine, one of the first in Belgrade.  Being an old-world personality, her grandmother didn’t think to pull the plug. After Abramovic’s mangled arm was removed, she again was slapped. “I was punished for whatever I did,” she says now.  She lived under a strict curfew until she was 29 years old, and one night when she came home from one of her  performances, in which she appeared naked in front of an audience, her mother, a partisan fighter during the second world war who was married to a Yugoslavian national hero, threw an ashtray at her head, saying, “I give you life and I am taking it from you.” 

In some artists’ work there is the equivalent of sublimation, in which cruel and painful experiences are turned into art. On one level, Abramovic’s work avoids that kind of transformation. She describes playing Russian roulette with a friend when she was young. There was one bullet in the gun; they kept taking turns and nothing happened. Finally, the bullet went off, hitting a copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Should this anecdote be taken symbolically as well as literally? Abramovic’s art is nothing short of a re-enactment of her painful past. In one early performance piece, she allowed her mostly beneficent audience to do anything they wanted to her. She has cut herself with knives. She has produced convulsive muscle contractions by administering anti-psychotic medications to herself, and followed that with medication normally administered to schizophrenics. She has done pieces in which the whole work consisted of being slapped. In another, she and her performance partner and former lover Ulay were tied to each other by the braids in their hair. Before she ever became a performance artist, she once intentionally tried to break her nose so she could get a nose job. Is this the beginning of her ars poetica?  Abramovic’s work is the art of endurance. She and Ulay each walked l000 miles along the Great Wall of China to say good-bye to each other after they’d decided to split up. The finale of the current MOMA exhibition is a work called The Artist is Present, in which Abramovic sits all day without moving as varying spectators line up to face her in a chair, while she looks on impassively. In this work the audience—like those journalists embedded for short periods of time with soldiers in hotspots like Iraq and Afghanistan—tastes what it’s like to be part of an Abramovic piece.

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