Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present at the MoMA


For more than four decades now, the legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic has submitted her body–and her psyche–to countless indignities, and numbing feats of endurance, and out-and-out, nearly torturous levels of physical pain. But perhaps the most astonishing performance of her path-breaking career is going on right now in midtown Manhattan, at the Museum of Modern Art. As the centerpiece to the MoMA's outstanding retrospective and recreation of Marina Abramovic's classic works, the artist has taken up residence in the museum's soaring second-floor atrium, where she sits at a plain wooden table, silent, unmoving, staring at whomever's next on the long line of patrons eager to take part in the piece and sit across from her, for every minute the MoMA is open, between now and May 31. If Marina Abramovic's performance art is completed as scheduled, the artist will have indeed been present, for 716 hours and 30 minutes.  


The on-going Marina Abramovic performance of The Artist is Present at the MoMA is remarkably dynamic for a piece that's all about stillness, and fills the atrium with a bizarre kind of energy, and even tension. The wait to sit at the table with Marina Abamovic was too long for our patience meter, but we were heartened to see just how many New Yorkers (as well as, of course, visitors to our fair city) were inside the Museum of Modern Art on a beautiful spring day, willing to participate in something, that, let's face it, is not exactly the most on-its-surface exciting activity this town has to offer. 


Then again, perhaps we are just underestimating Marina Abramovic's fan base, or the general enthusiasm for performance art in this town. On this sunny weekday afternoon, in which the rest of the MoMA seemed almost quiet, the galleries on the sixth floor, where the bulk of the Marina Abramovic performance art exhibition is on display, were packed with people. And it's at the MoMA that the full measure of Abramovic's remarkable career can be taken. Even if you're familiar with the artist's more famous pieces, and have already seen the pictures and movies and videos, the effect of having them all in one place, both on display and reenacted by Marina Abramovic's current crop of students/disciples, is extraordinary. This is powerful stuff, most of it: genuinely moving, remarkably courageous, and all conceptually pretty brilliant.   


Some of our favorite classics on exhibit include "Rest Energy", which Marina Abramovic has her long-time partner Ulay holding a taught, loaded bow, arrow pointing at her chest, precariously counterbalanced solely by her own weight. Has there ever been a better visualization for trusting someone with your heart? Old clips of Marina Abramovic's performance art, "Rhythm 0" piece, during which the artist laid out 72 instruments of both pleasure and pain–razor blades, lotion, a candle, a rope, a rose, a gun–and asked her audience to apply them to her naked body in whatever way they wanted, over the course of a six hour performance, are given new power and immediacy by the accompanying "live" display of all the original props. New to us was "Balkan Baroque", performed in Vienna in 1997, Marina Abramovic's statement on the war which was ravaging her former homeland of Serbia at the time, for which she spent four hot days in an airless basement, scrubbing blood and flesh from a massive pile of cow bones, singing the folksongs of her childhood. An unsubtle piece, to say the least, but it'll hit you right in the gut.      


There is plenty more here, including the much-publicized recreations of some of Marina Abramovic early work in which the performers are nude, including the 1977 "Imponderabilia", when she and Ulay stood naked, facing each other in a narrow doorway, forcing their audience to brush by them in order to enter the gallery. You will have to do the same here at the MoMA, though the student re-enactors of the Marina Abramovic performance art are not quite as close to each other as were the couple in classic work. We thought it refreshing and energizing that such a these-days mainstream cultural institution like the MoMA was willing to go the full monty, so to speak, but if naked bodies in public spaces make you uncomfortable, it'd be better to avoid the sixth floor altogether.   


Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, at the MoMA Details

Marina Abramovic's performance art, The Artist Is Present, is running from now until May 31. The Museum of Modern Art is located on 53rd Street between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, and open Monday, Wednesday Thursday, Staurday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and on Friday until 8:00 p.m., when admission is free after 4:00 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. For lots more information, please the MoMA's website.   

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