May 14, 2010 11:41 pm

Art makes its presence felt

The retrospective exhibition of the performance artist Marina Abramovic is transfixing

I used to have a girlfriend who had worked as an artist’s model. One of her more memorable assignments had been to pose for a sculptor who made a plaster cast of her body. She thought nothing of his intentions until she was telephoned one morning by her local newspaper. What had she made of the previous evening’s furore, at the opening of the artist’s show? “What furore?” she asked. Surely she had heard, said the journalist, that the artist had cut himself and smeared blood all over the cast of her body? No, she hadn’t. Her reaction to the news was almost certainly unprintable.

But it was the 1970s, a time when no self-respecting gallery opening would pass without the unseemly passing of some bodily fluid. This was the golden era of performance art, and the more outrageous the performance, the better. The stirring of bourgeois complacency became an artistic end in itself. The traditional art forms were dead, and galleries everywhere became playgrounds for the assorted exhibitionists who would change the way we looked at the world forever.

They failed, of course. Performance art duly went the way of Marxism-Leninism and literate singer-songwriters, and we all moved on. Today, with art more commodified than ever, we are at the polar opposite end of the scale of artistic expression. The new playgrounds are the salons of the super-rich, where polka-dot paintings vie with balloon puppies as icons of new wealth. No novelty there. There has always been a mutually seductive rapport between great art and serious money.

But this spring in New York – the global centre of art-as-commodity – the Museum of Modern Art has thrillingly turned the clock back. Its retrospective exhibition of the pioneering performance artist Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, is transfixing.

At the centre of it is the 63-year-old Serbian artist herself, performing a new piece. She sits alone on a chair in the middle of one of the galleries, inviting visitors to sit opposite her, taking part in a succession of what seem like staring matches. Abramovic has been performing the piece since the exhibition opened in March, and will do so until the end of this month. It has doubtless been exhausting, yet stamina and discipline have always played a vital role in her work. Without them, there is no art in the performance; it would be plain narcissism.

It is hard to convey the flavour of the work (you can get the merest sense of
it from the live stream on the MoMA website): tension builds almost unbearably as each newcomer takes the seat opposite the artist, who leans slightly forward and looks straight into his or her eyes. Reactions have been varied: there have been tears, giggles, no end of discomfited shuffles. I happened to arrive last weekend when British actress Miranda Richardson, no stranger to intensity of performance, occupied the chair. As she left her post, she looked shattered. The ritual has been described by many as religious, and people queue for hours to experience it.

Upstairs is a retrospective survey of Abramovic’s extraordinary body of work. Where to start? With the two naked women forming a corridor through which you have to squeeze to move from one gallery to the other? With the early black-and-white videos in which the artist screams continuously until she is hoarse? With the twin video screens, showing her and her lover/collaborator Ulay walking the length of the Great Wall of China from opposite ends, meeting in the middle to end, by pre-agreement, their association forever?

These are masterpieces of contemporary art, profoundly unsettling, acts of fierce deconstruction in an artistic universe that too easily tolerates the easy tease and the act of whimsy. Is Abramovic’s work self-indulgent? Anything but. In her 1997 Venice Biennale installation “Balkan Baroque”, partly evoked here, she set about scrubbing the meat off 6,000lbs of blood-stained cow-bones in a four-day performance: a potent commentary on the tragic events in her homeland.

Although a forbidding presence in the gallery, Abramovic is generous in her dealings outside it. I experienced this myself, when she appeared on a panel that I chaired at the Miami Basel art fair, on feminism in art. The topic was a minefield, and the discussion leaden – until Abramovic took the microphone.

She told the story of her girlhood dream of looking like Brigitte Bardot, and how it had been stymied by the size of her nose. She resolved to break the offending feature in a staged “accident” so that it could be reshaped, but she miscalculated and cut her face instead. Her mother, finding the pictures of the French starlet in her pocket, slapped her face. And Abramovic never got to look like Bardot.

She told the story with the verve and timing of a born comedian, proving that a performance artist knows, above all else, how to work a crowd. At present, she has the New York public hanging on her every gesture, and crucially reminds us that great art need not hang on a moneyed wall to achieve significance.

Marina Abramovic: ‘The Artist is Present’, MoMA, New York, until May 31

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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