"About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters." Ah, but they never knew the fine contours of suffering packed into twelve days.
Marina Abramovic plays, literally, the starving artist. For Abramovic, however, the play matters fully as much as the starving. Her drama, on three high wooden platforms, unfolded over those twelve days to a rapt gallery audience and the relentless tick of a metronome. She needed every element, the props and indeed the literalism, to create, she hoped, a space within the mind.
For weeks after her descent, the setting remains on view, a space between sculpture, set design, and memorial. She thus converts a real-time performance into a time of expectation and memory. She calls it The House with the Ocean View.
So how real in the end is any of it—the house, the mental state shared with hundreds of others, even the suffering? The performance raises some tricky questions about the gallery scene now. They include a lingering Romanticism, even after the supposed death of Modernism. They include, too, the responsibilities of artist and public in the busy, institutionalized, postmodern art scene.
W. H. Auden writes of the Old Masters, but his poem makes them entirely modern. They know suffering, to be sure, the first mark of the avant-garde. They know it, however, as a universal—"the human position." They anticipate Europe between world wars, with existentialism on the rise and the torturer so familiar that his "horse / Scratches its innocent behind." Jackson Pollock has Jung, but Jung has nothing on these guys.
They speak as well to a no-nonsense Modernism, immersed in the grit of urban realism or a drip of oil and enamel. For Auden, they are no longer "reverently, passionately waiting for the miraculous birth"—not even the miracle of fine art. With the fall of Icarus, his vision of Pieter Bruegel embraces failure "calmly," along with the play of children, the ploughman's labor, and the setting sun.
Marina Abramovic definitely believes in miracles. Born in Yugoslavia one year after World War II, she may well think that she sprung from them. At first glance, her faith in art predates not just Auden's Modernism, but the Old Masters as well. Her words by the entrance to her performance could sound almost at home in a medieval monastery. She has taken on "simple daily discipline, rules, and restrictions to purify myself." Unlike Chris Burden, who stuffed himself in a gallery's narrow, high compartment, or Bruce Nauman with Clown Torture, she jealously guards a precise, narrow distance from pain, desire, and self-mockery.
She is no stranger to renunciation or to human culture's deep past. Take perhaps the least graphic of her prior works, the only one I can face up to describing. For days on end, she walked the entire length of the Great Wall. Starting and ending at opposite ends from her partner, in life as in art, she created a ritual of mutual recognition and separation.
She still respects old walls, just as when she turned a former public school into a terrifying prison. Her Chelsea performance space takes up three platforms, a foot or two apart and perhaps five feet above the floor. One has a plain wooden bed, fresh water, and the ticking metronome. One has a toilet and shower, which she used three times each day, a further ritual of purification and self-exposure. Between them, a platform has a bare table and straight-backed chair. A white, stone carving takes the place of a headrest.
For those twelve days, in perfect silence, she ate nothing and drank only water. She had nothing with which to read or write. Nothing stood in the way of thought or sleep but lightheadedness and danger. She sought to "change my energy field." By the end, her flesh fed on muscle, just as in an earlier work, of incisions into her skin, muscle fed on flesh.
For all the medievalism, however, not unlike the pretend traditionalism of her Balkan Erotic Rituals, one should recognize something very modern. For all the talk of disembodied energy, one should see a public display as brutal and unnerving as any in Chelsea. For all the purity, one had better appreciate and distrust a commanding ego. Abramovic herself calls her stay in midair a "living installation."
For starters, she sees the past very much as Auden does, at a distance. Everything, from the headstone to the filtered water, serves as solemn metaphor for the present. Daily life goes on, but the living installation shapes it into twelve days and then leaves it for others to contemplate.
More obviously, she courts danger, big time. She may seek lightness, but she flaunts the height and weight of her body, as ready to fall as Icarus too near the sun. She tempts fate with the gaps between bed, table, and shower, especially as starvation makes it harder and harder to think straight. More strikingly still, to each platform runs a ladder with butcher knives as rungs, blades turned ominously upward. They did not really forbid her descent, since she could no doubt have clambered down the five feet on her own. They add an edge and make a point.
At the same time, she imposes a decidedly upscale sense of beauty. For Auden,
even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot. . . .
Then again, he named his poem after an elegant art institution, "Musée des Beaux Arts." At Sean Kelly, the hardwood furniture, high ceiling, gabled wood beams, and broad skylight could easily make a color spread in the Times. 3 rms, metaphoric ocean view. In a previous work she had refurbished a Dream House in the country and welcomed visitors, but who would not want to move into a Chelsea gallery?
Abramovic wants all this as center stage. Icarus may fall in the distance with a "forsaken cry," but the starving artist demands attention. With a high-power telescope directly across from her, one can see every hair in her eyebrows. Instead of a medieval monk, I thought of a portrait also on view in New York, by an arch Romantic, Théodore Chassériau. He detaches his religious brother from a ghostly convent in the background. For Romantic and modern alike, one recalls a proud, grim figure, with intense shadows playing against strong cheekbones.
Above all, her performance involves its viewers as a proscenium stage or the Old Masters cannot. Abramovic needs them to "establish an energy dialogue with the artist." She needs them to place her at the head of the table of her barren last supper. She needs to confront them across the space of a gallery, face to face, in telescopic detail. She needs their complicity in actions that ordinarily they might not countenance. She needs them to continue her dream.
But what does that say about the viewer and art in the face of suffering? Do she and the gallery-goer conspire to trivialize bestiality—like all art, in Theodor Adorno's view, after the Holocaust—or allow it a shared, living memory? Has she turned art into an interactive version of Tartuffe, the comic hypocrite? Perhaps each visitor must tighten her hair shirt and pray that heaven will bring illumination. Perhaps each needs the scourge of art (in Molière's French, ma discipline) to create an ocean view. To grapple with an answer, I must place myself, too, into her living installation.
I dreaded so much as entering this show, more even than this last year's encounters with schlock art about the actual Holocaust, the Irish potato famine, or 9/11 and the city to come. I forced myself to make it my first stop in Chelsea, I thought about it every second as I crossed town, and I have been thinking about her reach every time I have encountered Abramovic's work since. I almost turned away at the door. Inside, I dawdled over text by the gallery desk. I thought about the promise of every gallery visitor not to interfere with the danger—and whether I could take it back.
Turning the corner at last, I saw first not just the artist, but the crowd of some three dozen others. I needed a place to stand without standing out, not too near the center or too far forward along a wall. I took in the knife blades and the set's surprising beauty. Like early modernists from Edouard Manet to Pablo Picasso and even Diane Arbus, Abramovic confronted me directly where past art had let me watch and judge. Like Minimalists, she turned setting into site and made it my site as well. Like plenty of self-reflexive art now, she made me above it all and half ashamed of myself for thinking so.
People stayed a long time by gallery standards, hardly daring to smile, to talk, or to move. Some returned over and over. Some never had the stomach to return. Some could not resist the telescope, while others shied away. One understands the tightly mixed motives—guilt at treating starvation as just one more gallery exhibition, morbid fascination, belief, and appreciation.
Only slowly did she herself grab attention, and she absorbed it. She spent much of the time dead center, almost expressionless. Erect despite all odds or kneeling forward precariously above the ladder, she brought the audience and danger that much closer—to her and to each other. Through the telescope, with its startling precision, her grim expression almost vanished into eyes and skin too soft for all that she has undergone. Then again, I hear a low-calorie diet keeps one young.
Abramovic takes the mix of imagination and sheer exploitation in shock art these days and ups the ante, and people do respond. She makes them party to her suffering and, along with her, above it. She makes one fear the gap between performance and installation. She gets overblown, over-hyped, self-contradictory, and self-involved, caught up at once in Romanticism, nostalgia, Modernism, and their refusal. In other words, it sounds a lot like art today. Its strength lies in raising the question of that entanglement and giving it life.
Marina Abramovic's performance in The House with the Ocean View ran at Sean Kelly through November 26, 2002. The exhibition continued through December 21. Later reviews return to her "Balkan Erotic Rituals" and "The Artist is Present."