Well, it’s happened. I nearly sat on the notorious chair (or its doppelgänger) used by the artist Marina Abramović in her durational performance “The Artist Is Present,” which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, when an alarmed gallery attendant intervened. In my defense, there are three other chairs in Performative, Abramović’s ninth solo show at Sean Kelly Gallery, that we are encouraged to try out. The fact that Abramović regards the others as discardable, fulfilling their function once they provide an experience, makes me mistrust the throne-like self-importance of the off-limits chair. My (accidental) sacrilege, and mortification in presuming her invitation to interact with it — daring to put ourselves in her place — wasn’t as grave, I guess, as that of the artist and filmmaker Josephine Decker, who stripped in front of Abramović at MoMA, in a heartfelt homage, and was escorted out by security guards. (Let’s just say I lack Decker’s gumption.) But the act of barring off this seat encapsulates the central paradox of Abramović’s art: Since emerging on the art scene in Yugoslavia (now Serbia) in the 1960s, the Belgrade-born Abramović has courted danger, interference, and bodily harm, while increasingly masterminding, even micromanaging the show, draining its improvisational voltage.
In the late 1970s, Abramović and her then-life partner and collaborator Ulay traveled around Europe in a beat-up Citroën van, staging happenings. Improvisation informed “Naked Doorway” (1977), in which visitors had to squeeze between the two naked performers who flanked an entranceway. Their “Great Wall Walk” (1988), in which they walked for three months from opposite ends of the wall to meet in the middle, was more orchestrated. (Ironically, it marked their parting as lovers. In her 2016 memoir, Abramović wrote that Ulay ruined the finale when he got to the middle first, and spontaneously sat down to rest and enjoy the view, presumably robbing the whole of its requisite theatricality.) By extension, the pair’s reunion at “The Artist Is Present” was devoid of any spontaneity — the video of the two holding hands across a table looks like it was spawned as a publicity op.
What’s changed, of course, is how we experience performance art. When any action can be instantly captured on iPhones and reproduced on the internet, virality is built into the act. These days, spectators might expect performance artists to have a more self-critical attitude toward qualities like charisma. Abramović’s instinct, however, lies elsewhere. She’s always been new-agey (to her credit, before new age was a trend). Charlatan and healer, she prophesies spiritual incandescence for all who withstand physical and psychic pain. In the documentation of her 1973 performance “Rhythm 10,” displayed here in the back gallery, the pithy typed “screenplay” on the wall details the preparation (e.g., “I place twenty knives of different dimensions and forms on the [white] paper”) and the performance (“Every time I cut myself, I change the knife”). The dark genius of Abramović’s masochistic precision, and maddening fallibility, is heightened by the fact that she records the rhythmic stabbing of her own hands, replays it, and repeats the sequence, to hear the knives’ double staccato (a speaker in the gallery projects the sound). The doubling is ghastly, particularly since Abramović “perfects” the “game” by nicking the same spots the second time around. A panel of black-and-white photographs follows the three-act structure; the aftermath is an image of a blood-stained sheet. The original performance might have been macabre, but in the images and sound, the pain is submerged by the rigorous seriality of the performance and its soundtrack, like the hypnotic beat of a metronome.
Her performances must have been a shock in Communist Yugoslavia. Amid propaganda giddy with production quotas and hero-workers, Abramović’s seemingly mechanized, lucidly delirious corpus was a body in revolt — or a revolting mess — a warning that desire, dirt, illogic, and death cannot be expunged. Today, it reminds us of the vibrant, still under-recognized performance art scene in the former Soviet Bloc. Invisible on the official art circuits, Abramović and Ulay, as well as Sanja Iveković, Vlasta Delimar, and Tomislav Gotovac, to name a few contemporaries, were working to dismantle the bureaucratic apparatus, one fleeting gesture at a time. Though that’s too simple a summary; after all, Abramović’s art also embodies a darker, personal truth: one overcomes punishment through self-sacrifice, denial, turning the hurt into a weapon of liberation, at times literally bought in blood. This acknowledgment — and the complicated politics behind it — made Abramović a key figure in the history of feminist art, as evidenced in the 2012-13 exhibition Elles, organized by the Centre Pompidou, which featured her Art Must Be Beautiful Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975), in which she violently brushes her hair, alongside Ana Mendieta’s Chicken Movie Piece (1972), Valie Export’s Touch Cinema (1968), and Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975).
The show at Sean Kelly, however, also bears out the extent to which Abramović has come to rely on apparatuses (monitors) and film craft (e.g., production design, montage) in ways that feel counterproductive to her performance principles. The re-staging of “The Artist Is Present” is scheduled for April 16; what I saw at the gallery instead was the chair with a small contraption and drawer (presumably for the artist to pee during the 700 hours she remained seated) and two rows of video monitors replaying closeups of the artist’s and sitters’ faces. I’m intrigued by the extent to which, in the videos, the “present” artist isn’t quite there — her gaze appears abstracted, suggesting that, beyond the simple “reading” of others, to receive she must empty herself out. Here, the many monitors promise a spectacle but fail to convey the charged lull I felt at MoMA that made me think that each participant creates the performance for herself, with Abramović as a poltergeist.
Abramović’s one-hour video work “Seven deaths (2021), which plays at select times in the gallery’s screening room, is a complicated affair. Along with the Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe, who’s known for more risqué collaborations with the Wooster Group and film auteurs such as Abel Ferrara, Abramović stages seven vignettes, each a death scene, to arias by Maria Callas. I won’t lie — some of it is bizarrely kitschy. Abramović languishes in soft silks, a woeful Dafoe by her side; she strikes a haughty, Carmen-esque stance before a fatal stab, leaps from heights in a flowy nightgown, and breathes her last breath in post-apocalyptic deserts, in slow motion. Interludes of dramatically lit skies accompany the voiceover, in which she spews banalities (e.g., “love becomes hate, hate becomes death, and death becomes the ultimate release”). It’s all convincingly agonistic, but in the meantime, performance becomes bad cinema. Only an occasional wild-card, such as a horridly bloated snake on her neck as she revamps Desdemona (was the animal doped — who knows?), delivers a beat that might still veer off script. In an inversion of Kafka’s hunger artist, Abramović backs herself into a corner by craving more — more spectacle, more effects — to feel, or make us feel, anything at all.
Marina Abramović: Performative continues at Sean Kelly Gallery (475 Tenth Avenue, Midtown West, Manhattan) through April 16. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.