Saturday, December 10, 2005

Art is: interaction, communication, dialogue / Marina Abramovic in context

Harold Rosenberg had said that art was "a space open for the individual to realize himself in knowing himself." Today, after decades of narcissistic and exhibitionistic spectacles, when it's possible to grasp the limits of Rosenberg's libertarian ethos, we can see that he should have said art was not only a space for the individual to realize himself in knowing himself, but also a space to enable others to know themselves, as well as a space to evoke the bonds that exist between artist and spectator in their common self-awareness, which is to say in their common humanity. It's a definition that understands art is necessarily a social interaction, communication between people, dialogue, not merely the unfettered expression of the boundless ego as has been the case with so much work over the past few decades. But what does such dialogic art look like?

Marina Abramovic has often been linked to Chris Burden, and with reason. She has staged extreme masochistic spectacles that shock and repel. In "Lips of Thomas," she carved a pentagram in her abdomen and whipped herself senseless. (She recently recreated this piece, and as she brought a razor blade toward her bloodied stomach for a second time, one woman among the spectators cried out, "You don't have to do that again!") But her best work is a dramatization of human vulnerability and personal responsibility. It involves the viewer as much as the artist.

Last month Abramovic completed an enormously ambitious one-week series of performance works in the rotunda of the Guggenheim museum called "Seven Easy Pieces," but her most famous work is probably "The House With the Ocean View," performed in New York in 2002 (and featured in an episode of "Sex and the City"). For 12 days, the artist lived on three platforms in a Chelsea gallery. She had a bed, a shower and a toilet, but denied herself any nourishment except for mineral water, and any distraction; she could neither read nor write nor speak. Her life was reduced to a minimum, less than the bare essentials. "This piece will be about living in the moment," she said, "in the absolute here and now." But if the piece made demands on Abramovic, it also made demands on the spectators. Upon entering the gallery, a viewer was immediately confronted with a moral choice: did one take a quick look at Abramovic up on her platforms and then depart, treating her like some kind of animal in a zoo, or did one linger and absorb the experience? For those who lingered - and there were many, including Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie and Bjork - the effect was magical (or perhaps metaphysical). The entire outside world slipped away, as did time itself - one hour, two hours, three passed imperceptibly. A sense of the immediate present, with its suggestion of the infinite, became palpable in the room. Abramovic was offering her viewers a gift of spirituality without the doctrines, rituals or consolations of religion. On the final day, the gallery was packed, and when Abramovic was helped down - she had lost 21 pounds - she told the audience, "This work is as much you as it is me."

State of the Art
Published: December 11, 2005

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