If you were one of the lucky ones who sat face to face with Marina Abramovic during her marathon sittings—some 10 hours long—at New York’s MoMA in 2010, you might now find yourself in The Artist Is Present, a documentary by Matthew Akers which opens in the UK this week. People smiled and cried and stared; so did Abramovic. “The hardest thing is to do something which is close to nothing,” says the film poster, quoting the artist.
I have had my own encounters with Abramovic in the past, and once took part in a workshop she directed. We all wore white coats. There were slow walks, breathing lessons and therapeutic exercises. At the end, I wondered if a light colonic cleansing might be afoot. Last year, at the Manchester International Festival, I watched her life retold in Robert Wilson’s epic theatrical extravaganza, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, starring the artist herself, and now set to go on a European tour. Marina suffers at the hands of her mother, and seems to die not once but three times.
Whatever extremes Abramovic has gone to in her art, sometimes whipping and cutting herself, others have travelled further. There have been the extremes of 1960s Viennese Actionism, with its blood orgies and dead cows and sexual excess; and the silliness and self-indulgences of 1970s California performance art. Both movements predated and inspired Abramovic’s outre, alarming and sometimes gruelling performances. In 1971, the US artist Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm by a friend; the following year, in Deadman, he lay under a tarpaulin on the highway, illuminated by flares, as the night-time traffic roared by. Artists have had themselves suspended from the ceiling by fish hooks and stood naked in the filthiest of Chinese public toilets. They have cut, burned and excoriated themselves with no less vigour than medieval saints and penitents.
Suffering for your art is one thing; suffering as your art is another. When artist Ryan McNamara and collaborator Sam Roeck buried themselves up to the neck in the grounds of Robert Wilson’s Watermill Performance Center in upstate New York last year, and sang love duets to one another (“Tonight” from West Side Story and Dolly Parton numbers featured on the playlist), they were both accidentally trodden on and kicked in the head by a clumsy audience member. This much-reported incident became an inadvertent part of the performance (performed as part of Wilson’s 70th birthday bash), and it is difficult to see their pain as anything other than comedy. Samuel Beckett would have laughed.
Performance art no longer looks like a gallery sideshow, an add-on to the museum experience. In two weeks’ time, Tate Modern will launch its new Tanks space with a 15-week festival of live performance, installation and film and video works; meanwhile British-German artist Tino Sehgal, who has worked with singing gallery attendants and performing children, is the next to take on the gallery’s Turbine Hall. Tate describes the Tanks as “the world’s first museum galleries permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film works;” but the institution is only catching up with what artists have been doing for a very long time. Performance, in fact, is now where it’s at; it’s hard to think of much recent art that isn’t, at some level, performative.