Thursday, April 26, 2012
The Artist is Present. Are We?
Performance art. The phrase conjures some pretty horrific imagery, doesn't it? An audience peppered with black sweaters and berets, gasping at such oddities as a crucifix submerged in urine, a naked woman chained to a 10 foot tall ironing board, or a dancer dressed as a chicken reciting Ginsberg's "Howl" in German while Nazi propaganda films play in the background, set to polka music.
OK, I made those last two up, but I think they've really got a shot if I can find a space in Little Five Points.
Performance art always reminds me of that classic scene from "Manhattan", where - after Diane Keaton and Woody Allen take in a day's worth of impressive paintings and sculptures - Diane's only fixation is a simple steel cube. Woody is puzzled.
Isaac Davis: The steel cube was brilliant?
Mary Wilke: Yes. To me it was very textual, you know what I mean? It was perfectly integrated, and it had a marvelous kind of negative capability. The rest of the stuff downstairs was bullshit.
The steel cube syndrome comes up a lot with performance art. But one man's Karen Finley covered in chocolate as a gender-driven political statement is another man's Hershey's-laden horndog heaven. Who can say what moves us? I always found Spalding Gray compelling, but a friend once told me if she wanted to listen to a gray-haired guy ramble on about himself for 90 non-stop minutes, she'd ask her granddad how he was feeling.
Which leads me to Marina Abramovic, a woman I'd never heard of until this week. NPR interviewed Abramovic about her new HBO documentary, "The Artist is Present", named after a 2010 interactive exhibit she performed for three months at MOMA. As you'll see in the clip, once you get past myriad examples of some of her polarizing earlier work (Nudity! Whips! Military symbolism!) - if any of these bother you, skip right to around :40 in the clip here, by the way - you'll see the project that is the topic of this documentary.
I find this particular exhibit to be, both, pretentious and powerful. It's artistic narcissism and altruistic compassion all rolled into one. For the better part of three months, Abramovic sat in a chair. Just sat. Visitors were encouraged to silently sit in a chair across from her and become a part of the experience, for however long they desired. The radio interview indicated that the practice of Zen Buddhism played a big part in her preparation to be present for every guest who sat with her. She gave them her full attention. The results are what confound me.
It's easy to write this off as another one of those "Please don't tell me people - or my tax dollars - paid for this" scenarios. As a fan of bebop and Jackson Pollock, I know this argument. I understand it, to an extent. However, people's reaction to the experience included levees of tears streaming forth, genuine smiles of gratitude for someone who paid attention to them, and even fits of laughter forged not of mockery, but mirth. Those who took part in the event experienced someone who was truly present for them, and perhaps, opened them up to being present as well, some obviously for the first time in a very long time.
In a world where we are so distracted by the overwhelm of media available to us, where we seek escape at every turn, this simple performance reminds us what a profound connection we can make with others, and the manner in which we can affect humanity, even in moments of simple solitude. Imagine gazing into a stranger's eyes with such presence that you weep, or a loved one's face until your wayward thoughts are eclipsed by a genuine, sustaining smile. These are gifts we've largely forgotten how to give ourselves.
Performance art is hit or miss, and it misses most. It misses me much of the time. Something about this exhibit struck me, though. The ultimate message outshines the David Blaine sideshowness of it all. I'm compelled to watch, despite my inner cynic. Maybe because this exhibit purports to offer what I - and many of us - long for most: the elusive power of presence, in moments strung together, one after another.