Night School Offline

The Artist is Present

After an intellectually inspiring lecture at SCAD by Marina Abramovic Aria, Chelsea and had a fruitfull conversation about our concerns and opinions on performance art. Aria did not attend the lecture so it was interesting to try to give her an objective synopsis. Instead of giving a history of her own work, Marina gave a presentation that took us through the history of performance art.  Given that she is frequently referred to as the “mother” of performance art, this approach seemed appropriate.  Now I love a good lecture, always have.  But I have to admit that a very dark room with a screen that is hard to see with out of context clips of performance art for the last 40 years is not for the faint of heart.  There were times when I caught myself yawning and wished I could have downloaded her talk into my brain…

That being said, I have to say that is was a thrill to get to hear her discuss the work. Instead of taking us through the work chronologically she organized the work by its different uses of body parts.  She started with the head and went down to the toes.  I was familiar with a handful of pieces and her work was scattered throughout.  Maybe  it was because I was already somewhat familiar with Marina’s work, or maybe it was because it really is more interesting, but there was no question that carried the most emotional resonance for me.

This point brings me back to the conversation between Aria, Chelsea and myself.  What is about performance art that is so difficult, for lack of a better phrase, to get?  I am always willing to come down on the side of the weird or difficult to understand, but frequently performance art leaves me questioning exactly where I should stand.

My personal working definition of art is anything that is more than the sum of its parts.  That may be too broad for some of you, but for me it leaves room for ideas, experiences and exchanges that leave behind the material object, and excludes ideas and objects that are not generative of ideas or emotions.  Clearly there is room for performance art within my definition and it may be that my abivalance towards performance art is just a matter of personal taste, but I wonder if there is something more.

Marina Abromovic is probably most well known in popular culture for her work at the MOMA.  She recently completed a piece titled The Artist is Present where she sat for a period of three months in silence in a chair in the atrium of the museum while visitors sat in a chair across from her.  The performance was part of a retrospective of her work; an interesting idea in itself.  Much of her work confronts the physical and emotional boundaries of human experience and seeks to illuminate the present moment.  One of the pieces she discussed in her lecture was the Great Wall Walk where she and her partner walked the entire length of the wall and met in the middle.

For a synopsis of the piece click here:

Because the piece took so long to produce, Marina’s intentions changed and he relationship with her partner had disentigrated by the time it was finally completed.  The project became less about exploring the form of the wall with her own body and more about a long painful goodbye with her significant other.  This particular piece was what stumped us the most and I hope my description of the piece was accurate for Aria’s sake.  Part of our problem was that it seemed that the balance between a personal story and a global significance was off.  What was in it for us?

After her talk Marina answered a few questions.  One person stood up and asked her where does the art exist.  He wasn’t questioning if the art existed, but was asking her to put some boundaries around it.  At the time I was annoyed with his question, because I felt like the answer was obvious; it’s in the idea, it’s in the experience, it’s everywhere and any attempt to put boundaries around it misses the point.  But then in relaying the experience of the evening I realized that there might be something to his question.  Maybe a more interesting way to ask the question is where do I engage with the art?

The Minimalists where very clear that art existed in the relationship of the viewer to the piece.  They took this to a Marxist extreme creating steel boxes that attempted to create a universal emotional response.  Clearly is unfair and irrelevant to use their paradigm to judge the roll of the viewer in performance art, but it may explain part of my ambivilance.  I can view a documentation of the work and have an intellectual experience, but the truly emotionally engage do you have to be there?  The potential for this type of engagement makes her most recent work at the MOMA particularly interesting, but once again I wasn’t there.

One could make this argument for any type of art.  In order to truly experience the piece you have to be in its presence, but it seems particularly important for performance art.  I am interested in art that is emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating regardless of the form it takes.  But with performance art it seems that we miss a crucial part of the work.

-Mary Stuart Hall

p.s.  I’m not sure if I’m finished yet but please feel free to go ahead and comment.

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One thought on “Night School Offline

  1. Aria says:

    Well, for me, the MOMA piece doesn’t raise as many questions as the Great Wall Walk…. because I’m not sure the latter is really meant to be engaged with. I like your definition of art as anything greater than the sum of its parts, and I’m not sure that particular piece is more than two ex-lovers performing their break up in public.

    Actually, the thing about art that your definition doesn’t include is that it is always representational, meaning it’s not just a thing, it’s *about* a thing. So, if the Great Wall Walk is about a break-up (or something like that), then OK, but if it just IS a break-up (or whatever), then……?

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