Marina Abramović, The Chamber of Silence, 2015, site-specific and interactive installation based on exercises from the Abramović Method, installation view, Private Archaeology, Museum of Old and New Art. Photo: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Marina Abramović: Mindful immateriality

Anne Marsh on method, meaning and meditation in the art of Marina Abramović

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Marina Abramović, Black Dragon, 1994, blue quartz, green quartz, hematite, obsidian, rose quartz, smoked quartz, snowflake obsidian, chrysocolia, installation view, Private Archaeology, Museum of Old and new Art. Photo: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

At the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Marina Abramović’s long-awaited exhibition Private Archaeology showcases video documentation of her early works alongside more recent projects. It is not a retrospective, as such, but charts the theme of consciousness – its expansion and contraction – in the artist’s work. Most people are familiar with the Abramović legend. Her early works involving pain and duration were quickly canonised into the history of the avant-garde, then her 2005 exhibition 7 Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which included her performance The Artist is Present, repositioned her as a formidable player in the current debates around performance art, its theory and criticism.

Towards the middle of Private Archaeology the tone of the exhibition changes from the extreme and durational works to the more recent preoccupation with group consciousness and public participation. There are deck chairs for the quiet contemplation of the outside world (The Chamber of Silence) and a room full of sculptures (Transitory Objects) incorporating healing stones and crystals that have been used in participatory performances. Viewers are encouraged to touch these, to sit or lie down on them, so as to experience the transmission of energy. In the final exhibit, I enter an antechamber room where I am asked to leave all my belongings in a locker, put on a white lab coat and wear noise-cancelling headphones. I read some instructions on the wall. I’m not allowed to speak. Now I’m listening to my heart beating, my breathing, in and out, my feet falling one after the other. I am escorted into a long white space and asked to sit down at a table with other people. A large mound of white rice and black lentils runs down the centre of the table. An assistant measures out a small shovel full of grain and pours it in front of me, she hands me a piece of paper and a pencil. I am to count the grains for as long as I like. I stay for about ten minutes, separating the white from the black and notating the numbers on the page. I take a sneaky look around, others are doing the same, some differently: they make pictures or notate abstract characters; some people have been at it for a long time. No one talks, our hearts beat, we breath in and out, we perform this meditative task together but alone. No one hears my heart beat as far as I can tell. I can’t hear anything but myself.

Counting the Rice (2015) is described as an exercise for public participation from a series of workshops titled Cleaning the House (from 1979). It is an example of the Abramović Method, which the artist has been developing for some time, and it is the pedagogy that drives her proposed school, the Marina Abramović Institute in Hudson, New York (conceived in 2007). Counting Rice demonstrates the way in which her work has started to concentrate more on participatory modes where the audience creates their own experience under the guidance of the artist. John Kaldor’s Project 30: Marina Abramović: In Residence at Pier2/3 in Sydney runs alongside Private Archaeology and is the showcase for The Method: it includes a working model of the Marina Abramović Institute. In the upstairs space twelve Australian artists lived at the venue for twelve days and worked with Abramović and her collaborator, Lynsey Peisinger, to develop their own performance works. Downstairs, with a team of trained assistants, Abramović introduced the public to the Method through a series of five meditative exercises designed to slow down time and ease the mind. The exercises were taken from an earlier exhibition 512 Hours held at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2014 where about 50,000 people engaged in the durational project. The Method is simple: Abramović states over and over that she wants to pare things back, to reduce things, to underline the immaterial, to make art out of nothing, to slow down time, to make people more aware of the here and now.

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Kaldor Public Art Project 30, Marina Abramović: In Residence, Pier 2/3, The Rocks, Sydney. Photo: Peter Greig

This philosophy of slowing down is quite something for an artist who has become an international celebrity since The Artist is Present where she sat immobile for three months – six days a week, seven hours a day – and 850,000 people came and sat opposite her. The performance is renowned – it is celebrated by the museum industry, applauded across social media, and embraced by popular culture, but the art critics and historians have mixed feelings. For many of them, the performance underlined the egocentricity of ‘the artist’ – people sat in the presence of a celebrity and many endowed her with spiritual powers – they sat silently as if in confession, sharing themselves with the artist, staring into her eyes. Abramović herself says she gave each person her unconditional love. People queued for hours, many came back time and again and some sat for 3–5 hours with the artist. In the upper gallery people looked on with binoculars getting a close-up view of the sadness, the tears and the joy expressed on people’s faces.

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Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2010, performance at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Marco Anelli. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives 

The documentation of the show is presented as close-up portraits taken by Marco Anelli, Abramović’s professional photographer for the duration of the performance – the images became an Internet sensation on Flickr and Facebook. It is a gallery of humanity but for the art critic it is problematic. Despite the good intentions of the artist and the willingness of the people to sit and have their photos taken, they are exposed in their vulnerability and later showcased as spectacle: as Art, capital A, capital commodity. The fact that Abramović lives in a five million dollar apartment in New York, wears designer clothes, appears on the front cover of fashion magazines, has a cosmetically rejuvenated body and face that makes her glamorous in her late 60s seems to underline the hypocrisy for some. But this does not stop the “general” public, the mums and dads, the teenagers, the youthful from wanting to participate. In fact, one could wager that the celebrity status – enhanced by Lady Gaga’s endorsement of Abramović (including a $100,000 donation to the Institute) – actually entices them. People want to get up close and personal with a celebrity, especially one who cries back at them, who exposes her vulnerability: Abramović acknowledges this in various interviews on YouTube. It gives her the status of a spiritual presence or a modern-day shaman but for the cynical the experience is tainted. Art historian, Amelia Jones, describes her encounter as follows:

I found the exchange to be anything but energizing, personal, or transformative. Though I felt aware that the person I have met and whom I respect as an artist and cultural force was sitting there before me, I primarily felt myself the object of myriad individual and photographic gazes (including hers), and the experience overall was very strongly one of participating in a spectacle – not an emotionally or energetically charged interpersonal relation, but a simulation of relational exchange with others (not just the artist, but the other spectators, the guards, the ‘managers’ of the event).[1]

Jones speaks from an academic and artworld perspective; she is an expert and has witnessed, experienced and critiqued a great deal of performance art.[2] Although her comments are pertinent in terms of the history of the medium and art criticism, they do not speak to a broad public, and, as such, are of little interest to Abramović who seems intent on reaching a large cross-section of people. When the artist speaks about the future she embraces the language of Zen Buddhism and Mindfulness, she talks about unconditional love and compassion both for others and for the self. In this respect she is in step with a quiet force that is sweeping the world in the form of Loving Kindness.[3]

In an era of relational aesthetics, where participatory practices are considered to be the experimental edge, Abramović occupies an interesting position. She has certainly moved with the times and engaged with the new. At the MoMA retrospective she had some of her early works re-performed by a troupe of younger artists. This notion of re-performance has often been anathema for the older avant-garde who believe that performance art actions should be ephemeral, experimental and only presented as one-off events. For them it is important that performance art maintain its distance from theatre and any re-performance smacks of a scripted event.[4] Abramović challenged this most vividly in her durational series 7 Easy Pieces where she re-performed seven iconic works from the canon of late 1960s and 1970s performance art. Past performances by Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Gina Pane, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci and VALIE EXPORT were brought to life by Abramović when she performed each work for seven hours regardless of its original length. The seventh piece was a re-performance of her own work Lips of Thomas (1975). In this way, she single-handedly put delegated performance on the agenda for the museum and she continues to do this by training younger artists to perform her earlier works.

Although some find the notion of delegated performance a conservative move away from experimentalism, it is a complex beast because it can be read as a critique of the one-off performance for its focus on the original (action and artist). There is an irony here as we see concepts back flipping: performance art in the 1970s was supposed to challenge the role of the artist as individual genius (often male and pale) and the notion of the original art object preferred by the market and museum. Now re-performance and delegated actions critique the originality of the one-off event by reproducing and restaging the once radical original. And, in a wonderful postmodern reverie, the museum (once the enemy of the avant-garde) embraces the re-performance now made safe because there are no surprises and all occupational health and safety measures can be checked before-hand. But this is not the only reason that Marina Abramović is ingenious, she also recognises, along with hordes of younger artists, that now is the time for performance art to be embraced by large numbers of people, not just the cognoscenti. Like John Kaldor and David Walsh (MONA) she is an extraordinarily inspired businessperson who embraces the experience economy.[5] She intends not simply to bring performance to the masses but to have the masses participate in ways that she hopes will transform them. She says, “we are all warriors”, “the planet is dying”, and she believes that every person can participate in changing destiny if they are shown the means, and the way is Zen-inspired Mindfulness.

Abramović clearly situates herself amidst the most important critical dialogues concerning performance art in the twenty-first century and she popularises these ideas for a vast amount of people. Peggy Phelan, writing about The House with an Ocean View (2002), emphasises the intersubjectivity at the core of Abramović’s later works saying it “is the belief that live performance might illuminate the mutual and repeated attempt to grasp, if not fully apprehend, consciousness as simultaneously intensely personal and immensely vast and impersonal.”[6] As already noted, this is a lot like Zen Buddhism but Phelan reminds us that: “Abramović’s art is fundamentally theatrical”. It is the artist’s presence and her personal encounters with her viewers and participants that encourage such an understanding and/or transformation. For some people this reliance on personal charisma is closely aligned to the notion of the artist as shaman and by association the artist as trickster.[7] Others worry about the artist taking on a quasi-spiritual role and question the authenticity of this amidst the machinery of the art museum and market.

The cynics among us may say that there is nothing original in Marina Abramović bringing Mindfulness, meditation and Zen Buddhist techniques into the art context. In many respects she admits this – the support lectures in Sydney included a host of Zen philosophers, spiritual leaders and psychologists of wellbeing who filled in the history – but she does claim these techniques for the Abramović Method and uses them in performance training. Those concerned with experimental art may find mindfulness-as-art too close to the New Age but, if the attendance figures are anything to go by, the public does not share this concern. In terms of art, it may be better to consider Abramović’s large-scale events as part of the wave of relational works that embrace participatory practice.[8]

Finally, the compassion that the artist claims to express can only be judged by those individuals who receive it. Compassion is directed at those that suffer and in An Artist’s Life Manifesto, which was amplified at the entrance to Private Archaeology, Abramović said, with some irony perhaps, that:

An artist should suffer
From the suffering comes the best work
Suffering brings transformation
Through the suffering an artist transcends their spirit ...

When I watched a YouTube clip of Abramović reading the entire text at a public event, she started by saying that there was a lot of humour in this manifesto and people should not be afraid to laugh out loud. This suggests that the artist may not take herself as seriously as we may think.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Amelia Jones, ‘The Artist is Present: Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence’, TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 55, no. 1, Spring 2011, p. 18. 
  2. ^ See, especially, Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
  3. ^ The term gets 3.5 million entries on the Internet, it is used by various religious faiths, including Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism and has become a driving force across New Age practices and in various forms of psychology. See for example: spl.stanford.edu/pdfs/2008/Hutcherson%20Emotion.pdf.  
  4. ^ There is a considerable amount of critical literature on this debate, for a synopsis see Anne Marsh, ‘The Problem of Presence: Liveness and Performativity’ in Performance_Ritual_Document, South Yarra: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2014, pp. 23–50.
  5. ^ A term used to describe our current first-world economy. It is based on the trade in experience where memory becomes the product. See B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999. In the humanities the concept was introduced by Alvin Toffler in Future Shock, New York: Random House, 1970, where he wrote about a new economy geared towards our ‘psychic gratification’. 
  6. ^ Peggy Phelan, ‘Marina Abramović: Witnessing Shadows’, Theatre Journal, vol. 56, no. 4, December 2004, p. 574.
  7. ^ For a fascinating critique of the shamanistic belief system and its veracity, see Claude Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of the Kwakiutl Indian shaman, Quesalid, who entered the profession as a sceptic but became a famous shaman, in ‘The Sorcerer and his Magic’, Structural Anthropology, (trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf), Ringwood (AUS): Penguin Books, 1972, pp. 175–182. 
  8. ^ For a critique, see Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London and New York: Verso, 2012.  

Marina Abramović: Private Archeology is on exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, 13 June – 5 October 2015.

The 30th Kaldor Public Art Project, Marina Abramović: In Residence took place at Pier2/3, The Rocks, Sydney, 24 June – 5 July 2015, with resident artists occupying the top floor live-in space designed by Harry Seidler & Associates Architects. The artists were Natalie Abbott (Melbourne); Frances Barrett (Sydney); Clark Beaumont, Sarah Clark and Nicole Beaumont (Brisbane); Lottie Consalvo (Newcastle); Nicola Gunn (Melbourne); George (Poonkhin) Khut (Sydney); Sarah-Jane Norman (Berlin & the Blue Mountains); Sarah Rodigari (Sydney); Christian Thompson (London); and zin, Harriet Gillies and Roslyn Helper (Sydney).

Anne Marsh is a professorial research fellow at the Victorian College of the Arts, the University of Melbourne. Her most recent publication, Performance_Ritual_Document, was published by Macmillan in 2014.