The first day, March 10, of member previews of the Marina Abromovic retrospective at MoMA, Steve Cannon asked me to take him up there to say hello to her. He remembered interviewing her by email eight years ago when she spent 6 weeks living in three exposed, spartan rooms at Sean Kelly gallery for House with an Ocean View. In "The Artist Is Present", on MoMA's second floor, he understood she would be present, and therefore wanted to present himself to her and mention he'd interviewed her.
"The Artist Is Present" consists of Marina sitting at a table, for three months of MoMA open hours, in the middle of a large open space under massive lights from four corners. Museum attendees are invited to individually sit across from her. She does not speak. She barely emotes. She sometimes rests and shifts when she needs to.
When we got there, there was a line to sit with the artist. We didn't notice the line, and when the middle-aged tourist who had been placidly staring Marina down got up, I tried to guide Steve out there. Naturally the next person in line moved faster and we retreated. It would have been very curious to have heard and seen Steve trying to engage the Present Marina: the perfect communication of the blind with the mute.
The power of many of her works does derive from her visual impact as a tall, very striking, seemingly ageless woman, and the long dress she wears during The Artist Is Present emphasizes that. Yet performance art is a field whose aesthetics derive very little from visuality itself and can primarily consist of description. Some of Marina's best works are rejected proposals. Many are explicitly self-destructive or masochistic to the point of the audience having to call 911 to revive the artist. The best, indeed, rely on trust games with the audience. Documentation is the form in which performance art becomes present and possessable by museums. This means it's more perceptible to the blind than almost anything else that has grown from the Visual Art field (touchable sculptures and sound installations still cling to a certain visual-spatial approach), at the expense of reliance on the verbal.
The rest of the retrospective fills the sixth floor. MoMA makes a point of announcing that this is their first performance art retrospective. It's also a great deal of attention given to a female artist, one who is, as she puts it, the "grandmother" of performance art. In the seventies her work was done in collaboration with German partner Ulay, and the documentation makes it seem that she was the more passionate and dedicated to the interventions they staged, higher profile, the brains of the operation. My favorites are those done with no props, or few, like AAA AAA AAAA (in which they scream louder and louder at each other) or one in which they slap each other. Perhaps the best-known is "Rest Energy"(video), consisting of Marina holding a bow with Ulay holding an arrow cocked in it towards her heart. The best of these were videos - only the less dangerous are reperformed in the retrospective, prompting accusations of a declawing by historical institution. Marina and Ulay's relationship was their work and vice versa, and their collaboration ended through hiking along the Great Wall of China towards each other and then separating. In her maturity, Marina's performances and films tap her Slavic roots and often include dedications and reperformances of other artists' work.
Marina's own work is reperformed in shifts by an army of the body-aware. One of the best is that in which she and Ulay stood naked in a narrow doorway facing each other, while everyone who entered the gallery pushed past them. In the reperformance the gap between them was made large enough to pass by without turning sideways, which Marina was uncomfortable about, but arguably the average body passing through in 2000s America is larger than that in 1970s Europe - a suggestion that, when I brought it up, was considered a bit taboo. When Steve passed through between his two dates, we suggested he face the woman and we the man. He gently stepped on the man's feet and rubbed noses with the woman. The most interesting part of this was peoples' expressions as they came through. A camera crew shooting a feature film documentary on Marina noticed us, and later interviewed Steve and the female performer about experiencing art after losing his sight. "Do you smell them?" were among the stranger questions. My co-date Hilary Maslon answered: "He smokes, he can't smell anything."
In his usual humor, Steve claims that he writes about art easily by just saying what the artist says. One element of this show was that the art itself could potentially react to how I was describing it - although the performative discipline is not to do so.
The performer enjoyed, as I would too, the occasional jostling and scratches that provided some relief from standing in one place for two hours or more. After all, when you've set yourself up to break down your physical boundaries with strangers, violation is the best possible thing that could happen, and yet distance reasserts itself as it must. The prescriptiveness of the verbal documentation and proposals convey far better than any warm analysis the numinosity, zen or shamanistic qualities of Marina's art.