In this monthly series we will discuss a piece from the Schwartz Art Collection in the hopes of starting conversations about art on campus and beyond. We don’t claim to be experts, just fans of interesting art excited to talk about what we see.
RBN: For our first piece, we are going to talk about The Lovers by Marina Abramovic, a set of two photographs with drawings that currently hang side-by-side on the first floor of Aldrich. The two pieces depict a woman hiking along a rocky ledge—one in color, the other in shadow—with a whimsical doodle beneath each photograph. Not only are these works strikingly beautiful, they also have a bizarre and interesting story behind them. Right, Vicky?
VS: Yeah, these photographs capture mere seconds of a much larger piece—a three-month performance along the Great Wall of China in 1988. The performance represented the culmination of, as the saying goes, one of the great love stories of our time—that between Marina and fellow artist Ulay, who for thirteen years were lovers, friends, and fruitfully, artistic collaborators. After deciding to go their separate ways, the pair staged one last performance—for ninety days, they walked the length of the Great Wall, starting from opposite ends until they met in the middle to say one final goodbye.
RBN: Speaking of which, didn’t the two of us spend some quality time together on the Great Wall a few years back?
VS: How can I forget? Fortunately, we continue to talk to one another whereas Marina and Ulay didn’t see each other for decades.
RBN: You know, I actually read that Marina and Ulay initially intended the piece to culminate with their marriage, but after eight years of wrangling with the Chinese bureaucracy to get permission to execute the performance, they were ready to split up. Aside from being a case study on the risks of doing business in China, the transformation that this piece depicts—transformation over time, in space, and in the relationship between two individuals—draws our attention to the ways in which performance and performance art cannot be separated from the experience of life. This is true not just for the performers but also for the viewers. Walking by these works in the halls of Aldrich forces us to think about the relationships that we are endlessly walking away from or walking into.
VS: Well said. One of the things I find particularly interesting about performance art is the question of whether or not it should be recorded. Many performance artists of the twentieth century turned to this art form precisely because it was immaterial, because it defied the infatuation with the art object. Performances were supposed to be in the moment, a one-time-only type of affair, and their impact was to be felt only by those who were lucky enough to observe or directly participate in the experience. Here, you can see that Abramovic has captured her performance via film stills. Whether or not the magnitude of the work—the long, arduous, and bittersweet nature of the performance—is conveyed via these two snapshots is debatable, but one thing is certain: Abramovic has been a trailblazer in the way in which she has been able to capitalize on her performances. What do you think, Rob?
RBN: Definitely. Traditionally, performance art did not exactly pay the bills. Unlike painting or sculpture, which at least have the benefit of a physical object to sell, performance artists had no lasting product and limited traction in the global art market. Abramovic, by selling media relating to her performances (like these photographs, which were taken of Abramovic, not by her), has been a disruptive force in the art world. Far from her early, more alternative performances—like Lips of Thomas (1975), which involved using a razor to carve a pentagram into her stomach—Abramovic’s more recent works have helped to bring performance art into the mainstream, making her a major celebrity in the process. Abramovic has recently partnered with the likes of Jay-Z and Lady Gaga and even turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for the Marina Abramovic Institute, a Rem Koolhaas-designed megacenter to be built in Hudson, New York for the teaching and study of her distinctive methods and style. How would you describe the Abramovic Method?
VS: Abramovic’s style of performance has been called long durational performance, and this notion of time as a weight is a point of difference from the more spontaneous, ephemeral performances of the so-called Happenings of the 1960s. This type of performance encourages a heightened state of consciousness, an emphasis on the here and now, and seems to represent a silent plea to slow down the fast pace of our lives.
RN: Great point! The cosmic scale of the Great Wall—they say you can see it from space—and the duration of this performance totally brings that home.
VS: Abramovic is probably best known for her performance at MoMA, The Artist is Present (2010), when she sat in the museum atrium for three months—six days a week, eight to ten hours a day—and welcomed anyone to sit in front of her and look into her eyes. Three months! Imagine sitting still for one hour let alone 736 hours. I’m fidgeting just thinking about it. Through this piece Abramovic showed that performance is a state of mind, and in that moment, she became not The Artist as the title would suggest, but an almost invisible counterpart. She became a blank slate, a mirror reflection, and by merely opening her eyes and gazing at the person in front of her with curiosity, with sensitivity, with respect, she reduced many people to tears. What does this tell us? I think it sheds light on the fragility of human beings and our deep yearning for interpersonal connection. There are people who are hurting silently all around us who are looking to be recognized, understood, even confronted if need be. It is remarkable how someone who is willing to connect meaningfully with another person for just a few minutes can bring to the surface such sorrow. Of course, not everyone left MoMA in tears—some left with joy, anger, or indifference. As a participant, you were complicit in the making of the performance. You decided what you wanted to bring to the table.
RBN: That performance was also the subject of a spectacular HBO documentary “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” (2012), which chronicles Abramovic’s career and current projects. One consistent theme that emerges from the documentary and from each of Abramovic’s performances is her witch-like ability to tear her viewers’ insides open, revealing their most closely-held feelings and fears. She forces us to look inwards, to slow down, and to understand ourselves as artists, each performing in the ultimate long durational performance: the living of a life.
VS: Wow, what a note to end on. Thanks, Rob.
RBN: Always a pleasure, Vicky. Until next time!
We’ll be discussing 5 Stains / 10 Whites by Jaq Chartier (on the lower level of Spangler) in next month’s column. If you see something and want us to say something, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.