Wednesday, February 18, 2015

BOOK REVIEW ~ When Marina Abramovic Dies

by James Westcott

As biographies go this is a one off much as Marina Abramovic is herself.  It opens with a run through of what she decided the performance of her funeral should be like. She's as determined to leave this world with the same attention grabbing flourish she's become known for through her work. One might be forgiven for thinking that Marina Abramovic and Laurie Anderson invented performance art on some jokey drug fueled evening, way back before anyone can remember. That this is certainly not the case, only serves to demonstrate how completely these two women have come to dominate how performance art is popularly perceived.

As an art form, it is frequently women who have often stamped their presence upon it ,at least in the general public's consciousness. It's an area that comes with a less overtly male interpretive precedence and baggage. Performance art itself has either been ignored or ridiculed, even by the traditional art establishment. This has left the field wide open for women to explore and make of it what they will.. That performance art has recently started to garner serious attention is down in some degree to Abramovic's determination to create an enduring legacy for her work. Far less accommodating and accessible than Anderson's work, Abramovic takes you on a journey with her endurance, a place you'd not always want to go, let alone watch happen before your eyes. Her work is compelling, large scale in ambition and time scale, attracting a certain type of voyeuristic tendency similar to being present at an execution, observing an horrific event or watching paint dry. Abramovic is possessed of an attractive and charismatic presence, that is frequently spiritually and physically quite naked.

Balkan Baroque

Abramovic's reputation built slowly and entered an iconic phase once she started her personal and working relationship with Ulay. The work they did together, appears to have mutually egged each other on to further extremes, just how far can you go and for how long could you simultaneously throw yourself at a wall? This exploration of testing physical resilience and suffering always had an existential pulse to it. They come to  symbolise something about the human condition. These works later morph into a more meditative series of works such as sitting still on a chair whilst facing one another across a table. For this work 'Night Sea Crossing' they both committed to performing on 91 occasions in 91 different locations over several years. Each time brought its own physical, emotional and relational challenges. By the end Marina and Ulay's relationship was itself at breaking point through personal infidelities and creative resentments. Their famous simultaneous walk from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle, proved to be the swansong for both their working and personal relationship.

Night Sea Crossing

Since then her work has gone further in exploring face to face human contexts. From her involvement with Tibetan Buddhism and meditation practice. developed elements of stillness, identity, presence and being truly seen by another, that have attained an almost spiritually transcendent aura that people flock to be a part of . This culminated in The Artist is Present at MOMA a few years ago, where she sat for nine hours a day for three months, alone on a chair staring at a succession of people who sat down in front of her. These people often moved to tears by this encounter. Its well worth looking out the DVD of this work.

The Artist is Present

The Artist is Present was accompanied by fifty of her performances, this time performed by her students. This retrospective element further confirmed her status as the Godmother of Performance. The urge to establish a legacy for her work began during the writing of this biography, when her desire to see her works re-performed was already set in motion. Performance work has generally been viewed as a happening of one particular moment, and being of their time, Abramovic is now establishing a body of work that may have a life and relevance beyond her own performance of them. Painters leave behind paintings, performers can leave performance ideas that can be re performed. Each time they are re-performed they are re-contextualised, by the different time, place, personnel and mood. Similar to how an orchestra replays music from previous centuries.

After reading this biography I am left even more impressed by the single-mindedness of her vision and purpose. On paper any description of what she does can seem utterly unhinged, if not verging on self-abuse. However, all performance work needs to be intimately experienced in person, imagining it will never be enough. Quite often it is unimaginable what a performance artist does, but the effect of seeing, feeling and being with it can be a challenging,cathartic and trans-formative experience.  Abramovic's work explores the dangerous edges of the human condition, our endurance, resilience and ultimately our own desire for self-transcendence.

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