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Analysis & Opinion
11.10.11 The Artists Are Present
By Andrew Roth

You don’t walk into famed performance artist Marina Abramovich’s new retrospective at Moscow’s trendy Garage Center for Contemporary Art – you squeeze between two naked bodies, one male and one female, and emerge into a collection of Abramovich’s diverse creations from the past 40 years. While Abramovich’s work has become well-known in the west for pushing the boundaries of performance art, her work is on display in Russia for the first time. On Friday, she and New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Chief Curator at Large Klaus Biesenbach held a special press tour of the exhibit before its opening in Moscow.

On Friday, 40 young performers dressed identically in green jumpsuits sat behind Abramovich, who spoke at a press conference about the importance of audiences in performance art. “This work is all about the audience, about sharing the energy between themselves and the performer,” she said.

From the very first steps into the retrospective, suspended, contorted and frozen bodies, often naked, assault the viewer and set him on edge. “I still remember when I saw Marina Abramovich’s piece Luminosity for the first time,” said Biesenbach, in the first room of the exhibition. In Luminosity, which was first presented in 1997, Abramovich (played by an apprentice at Garage) is suspended on a white wall in a square spotlight. Her naked body is splayed out, arms held horizontal and legs separated by a small seat that the performer sits on.

“At first I thought it was a slide projection, but then I saw the body move,” continued Biesenbach during the tour. “Then I had thought that it was a movie protection. But it was only when I came up to the wall itself and saw that the body had depth that I said ‘Oh my God, that’s a person there.’”

One of the basic difficulties of presenting a retrospective of the artist’s work is that each piece is physically tiring for the performer. “Of course it’s not the same as seeing these pieces in the original,” Biesenbach told Russia Profile. “In the end it’s a different experience. But this is the standard right now and we thought it was the best way to give a look at Marina’s work.”

Some of the pieces were too extreme for the team to recreate. In Rythym 0, which Abramovich performed in 1974, she gave herself up to the audience for a period of six hours, providing them with chains, roses, nail polish, scissors, and even a gun and a single bullet. The crowd responded enthusiastically, and one man even placed the loaded gun to Abramovich’s temple before she finally “woke up.” In place of the piece, Garage exhibits a slideshow of the original and a table, covered with the objects that she used in the original showing.

Much of the retrospective focuses on Abramovich’s relationship and joint work with Ulay, her partner of 12 years who played an integral role in many of her most iconic pieces. In the third room of the exhibition, the couple’s van, where they lived for several years, is parked in the center, as video pieces by the artists play on the walls surrounding it. Among them is a video of each of them walking half the length of the Great Wall of China to meet in the center, when they split.

The culmination of the exhibition is a recreation of Abramovich’s piece “The Artist is Present.” In its debut at MoMA in New York in 2010, Abramovich sat for eight hours a day (ten hours a day on Fridays she’ll remind you) across from anyone with a desire to do join her. In the exhibition’s final room, a table and two chairs are placed between the walls, covered with slides of the artist and her visitors during the piece’s first showing. This is Abramovich’s sole performing role in the event. In 2010, one man with dark features and a mustache returned seven times to sit across from Abramovich, and the event spawned a Facebook group called “Marina Abramovic made me cry” complete with pictures of different visitors tearing up in front of the famed performance artist. Even Ulay, who hadn’t seen Abramovich for more than 20 years after they broke up, came on the first day to sit with Abramovich.

“At that moment, Marina broke her rules a little,” said Biesenbach. “She reached her arms across the table for the reunion.”

While both the artist and curator were positive, whether Russians will also be happy to squeeze between naked bodies and sit for hours across from the artist remains to be seen. “America is a more prudish society,” said Biesenbach “and the reaction that we saw from the visitors there was incredible. We think that the reaction to this exhibit in Russia will be even more incredible.”
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