Abramovic and Kentridge exhibition in New York

Marina Abramović. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly

This video says about itself:

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present

March 14–May 31, 2010

Images courtesy of Marina Abramović and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

By Clare Hurley in the USA:

The “Modern” experience of art: Abramovic and Kentridge at MoMA

15 September 2010

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City is one of the most powerful institutions in the international art establishment, mounting “blockbuster” exhibits each year that draw huge crowds. Of the 16 exhibits worldwide with the largest attendance last year, seven of them were at MoMA. Arts reviewer Clare Hurley visited the museum earlier this year when three such exhibits were concurrently on display—retrospectives of Marina Abramovic, William Kentridge and Tim Burton. The following review examines the work of two of these artists.

Marina Abramovic has, for good reason, called herself the grandmother of performance art. She has been using her own body as “the subject, object, and medium of her work” since the early 1970s.

Much of William Kentridge’s work deals with apartheid in his native South Africa. This past year, at the same time as the exhibit at MoMA, he was also directing the Shostakovich opera The Nose, from the story of the same name by the early Russian realist Nikolai Gogol, at the Metropolitan Opera. (See “Shostakovich’s The Nose finds its way to the opera stage”)

And Tim Burton? Considered a talented film director and designer, especially by his fans, his extravagant and quirky films—Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, and most recently Alice in Wonderland, to name just a few—inspire a cultish following. Why Burton deserves a retrospective in an art museum is not altogether clear, but the show appears to have been included to draw crowds, and it was successful in that respect.

What did these exhibits have in common, if indeed they had been intended as a group? Not surprisingly, the work of all three is multi-media, with a predominance of performance and video; exclusively, in the case of Abramovic, and combined with drawing, printmaking and film/set design, in the instances of Kentridge and Burton. …

The real value of the retrospective was that it gave one a sense of what such performances were like in an earlier period, through the original video recordings from the 1970s of her work with partner Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay). These were projected on monitors, as well as simultaneously recreated by live actors/artists in the galleries.

Abramovic and Ulay met in Amsterdam in 1976 and formed an intense personal and professional collaboration. Much of the strength of their work resides in the physical magnetism of the pair—Abramovic at 64 remains strikingly beautiful—and their ability to withstand pain (and probably boredom) without flinching.

Pioneered by such artists as Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys and Vito Acconci, as well as Abramovic, who were born or came of age in a Europe still shattered by World War II, performance art arose in a period of mass movements—for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the United States, the May-June 1968 strikes in Paris, the revolutions against the military juntas in Greece and Portugal, and the struggle against the Franco dictatorship in Spain in the early 1970s.

Like Dada and the bohemian artists of Montparnasse in earlier periods, these figures sought to express the anti-establishment mood of youth and intellectuals intent on challenging bourgeois norms of behavior, exposing what emerged when the usual constraints of civility were removed.

In Rhythm 0 (1974), a piece that remains disturbing in the video, Abramovic stood for six hours while spectators were invited to do anything they wanted to her body, using objects from lipstick to flowers to knives, whips and a gun (all the props were reproduced at MoMA but without a live re-enactment). They cut off Abramovic’s clothes, wrote on her body and sliced her with razors, while she remained impassive. One visitor held the loaded gun to her head until another wrestled it away.

But performance art evolved alongside the political and social history of the period. If the mass struggles of the working class had taken a different path, they would surely have affected the development of avant-garde artistic trends. The betrayals of the struggles of the 1970s led to a period of disillusionment that had its impact on the performance artists and the radical milieu of which they were a part. To the extent they still saw themselves as challenging the existing order, they did so increasingly through displays of passive resistance, provocative sexuality and other gender issues—the image of the male/female nude body was emblematic of Abramovic/Ulay’s work.

Ultimately the pair became interested in Tibetan Buddhism, traveled widely through Europe, Australia and Asia (their van was also on display at MoMA), and ended their partnership in 1988 by each walking half of the Great Wall of China—she from the Yellow Sea and he from the Gobi Desert—to meet in the middle and say goodbye.

Since its heyday, performance art has lost much of its impact, even as its legacy continues to shape the parameters of what is considered art. Abramovic has complained that her work, and performance art in general, is misunderstood, which is why she wants to recreate it for a new generation of audiences and train a new generation of performers.

But the problem is not simply a lack of understanding on the audience’s part, or of insufficiently provocative acts by the performers. In MoMA’s re-creations, there was little that seemed to move the relatively prosperous and complacent audience one way or another. …

Her response has become an increasingly ascetic one as her outlook has become increasingly pessimistic. Her self-punishing rituals more and more explicitly resemble the flagellations of the early Christian saints. In one of the last videos in the exhibit, she spreads herself out naked on a crucifix made of ice, flinching only slightly at what must be incredible pain.

This increasing resort to spectacle—a kind of one-woman gladiator arena —is bound up with a turn away from earlier attempts to reveal something about the world, which, however imperfectly, Abramovic had sought to do in her earlier work.

A similar trajectory is found in the work of William Kentridge. Five Themes, the retrospective of the South African artist’s work, was on display at MoMA concurrently with that of Marina Abramovic.

Kentridge first gained international attention in the early 1990s with his unique animated drawings—he has called them “stone-age animation”—depicting the uprisings against apartheid in South Africa. He drew and erased his charcoal drawings, recording the development with stop action film to create videos that are literally “moving pictures.” Some of the videos also include black-paper silhouettes, figures drawn in white chalk, as well as black and white news footage and documentary sound.

Kentridge’s videos preserve the feeling of wonder that can still be evoked by a hand-made flip-book. The sooty traces of the charcoal and the somewhat crude method come together to convey powerful images of the social explosion that convulsed South Africa in the last decade of the brutal racist regime.

Born in 1955 in Johannesburg, Kentridge came from a family that was part of the small liberal elite in a country where the dominant section of the ruling class had embraced the reactionary doctrine of apartheid. Both sides of his family had emigrated from Russia in the late 19th century to escape the anti-Jewish pogroms, and had risen over several generations from being tradesmen to professionals. Three of his grandparents and both of his parents were lawyers prominent in the anti-apartheid intelligentsia.

Did you love Marina Abramovic’s epic “The Artist is Present” performance at the Museum of Modern Art last year? Well, now viewers can experience it all over again — virtually. Copenhagen-based game creator and scholar Pippin Barr has transformed “The Artist is Present” into a browser-based video game in which players control a tiny, 8-bit avatar of themselves wandering around MoMA: here.Performance artist Marina Abramović: ‘I was ready to die’: here.

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