Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Abramović- Like an Old Friend

It seems like a lifetime ago that Jamie and I took the bus through Greenpoint and on to PS1 in Queens, where a dozen or more old films of performance art, mostly by Marina Abramović and Ulay, echoed through the nearly empty halls. I couldn't stop talking about what we'd seen, especially this:

I can't think of a constructed situation that is simpler and more jolting. It exhilarates, while making me suppose that old suffering is being exorcized from the performers. It also suggests a deeply intimate relationship between them, which famously was the case, but I had no idea. (You should view it without the soundtrack, which shouldn't be there.)
Nearly a decade later, we trekked to MoMA for Abramović's big retrospective. The show was a success (an understatement) because its audience played such an important role in its realization; the live performances, all but one, had been done before, but never with hordes of Middle America streaming past. For me, the intensity came from the juxtaposition of the naked, frozen performers, vulnerable and seemingly yearning to make contact, and the anonymity of the crush of visitors. This was an event in itself, not just a look back at the work of an artist.

Of course, the new piece, "The Artist Is Present," performed by Abramović herself, involved the audience more directly. The description of the contact she sought to make with each visitor who sat across from her, and the place that experience held in the larger show, was probably the most valuable thing for me in the new documentary Maria Abramović: The Artist is Present. Jamie and I saw this film with out-of-town friends at the theater at the MFA, the Houston version of the Harvard Film Archives, where you can frequently hear a film scholar speak to introduce a film. (I especially liked a presentation I saw there once of Fellini's I Vitelloni that was preceded by a funny speaker whose explications clearly enhanced for us the humor in the film. Fellini can be hilarious, but it takes an informed viewer to translate his humor into English and understand it in its context. For proof of this, see Roma on video. If you're watching the older VHS release, you'll laugh twice as often as if you're watching the newer DVD, which is a different translation that completely misses some of the funniest lines.)

What were we talking about? The Abramović film: it is bittersweet, fascinating, and often distressing, but mostly because its subject is plainly all of those things. My main problem with the film is that it has actually two subjects: the artist and the show, and they are hardly synonymous, as becomes more apparent toward the end, when the show kind of spins out of control and becomes something bigger than Abramović herself. I don't question that getting to know the artist is essential to understanding the phenomenon of the show, but Marina's life and times are not presented as mere background material; she is the apparent subject of the film for most of its running time, and yet as the audience at the MoMA show make the piece their own through their participation, Marina herself recedes like a train, and the only intimacy with her we are afforded is through the sometimes moist eyes of the lucky museum patrons who got to sit across from her in the floodlit square, destined to become an icon in performance art and perhaps in the general history of museums. (My wife finished an art history survey course by showing her students images of the performance, and how the participating audience was affected- the perfect image of art being created in the moment it is beheld, by both artist and beholder.)

The film is an invaluable document, and it does a little bit more than simply bear witness; in particular, I value that it brings the show and all of its emotions back to vivid life, so that we can remember, or see for the first time, just what made people respond to it as they did. But as a whole feature, it might have had the kind of cohesive story that made other recent films about artists such knockout punches.

By the way, if you're going to the MFA and you haven't seen City Glow, Chiho Aoshima's short animation that stretches across several plasma screens, it's mounted permanently outside the cafe. I recommend having a seat and watching the entire film. This kind of experimentation with the experience of cinema is sadly a rare thing in these times.

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