Over 850,000 visitors flooded through the doors of New York’s MoMA during the two and a half months of the Marina Abramović retrospective, The Artist Is Present, in 2010. The first of its kind, the retrospective of a performance artist was a huge gamble for MoMA. Historically, performance art has a reputation for controversy. During the decline of modernism in the 1960s, prominent New York artists turned to the art form which used their own body as a medium and avoided producing ‘objects’ of cultural and economic value. To many, this signalled a fundamental crisis in art during this period. In the 21st century, the immense popularity of The Artist Is Present has proved that the gallery-visiting public are embracing performance art. The visitors arrived, waited, observed and wept in their masses when experiencing the retrospective, in particular, the central piece of the same name, The Artist Is Present, 2010. Developed by Abramović specifically for the exhibition, visitors were invited to sit opposite her, locked eye-to-eye, for an interval of their choosing.
Despite the popularity of the retrospective, Abramović herself is a controversial figure. Widely considered to be one of the pioneers of the performance genre she has nevertheless been slammed by her peers for “killing performance art”. She has, arguably, entangled the practice with mainstream performing arts through her collaborations with pop musicians Jay-Z and Lady Gaga, not to mention her new found relevance in the fashion world, optimised by her appearances on the covers of L’Uomo Vogue and Elle magazine. Abramović, however, is not deterred by such criticisms. She believes that performance art has an important place in today’s culture and argues that her durational works “give back time”; encouraging concentration away from technology and allowing the artist and participant to mindfully engage with themselves and their environments. The public’s overwhelming response to The Artist Is Present indicates that Abramović’s conviction about performance art’s relevance to contemporary society needs to be seriously considered.
From this piece, Abramović, along with the world’s media, observed that people have a strong desire to connect with immaterial and performance-based art. It was from this observation that the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) was born. Taking the form of both online laboratory and physical building (the MAI Hudson is still in under construction but, when completed, will house a number of custom-built performance spaces, library and education programme) MAI is defined as an incubator for collaboration across fields of the arts, humanities, sciences and technology with the common theme being long duration and the immaterial. It also champions the presentation and preservation of already existing works which include contemporary and historical performance art pieces, scientific discoveries and experiments and Abramović’s own performance works.
Participation is a central focus of the institute. Performance art, to Abramović, traditionally invited the viewer to be a voyeur. She claims now to have reversed that positioning by inviting the visiting public to experiment and interact in the performance directly.
Since the late 1970s, Abramović has hosted workshops relating to her notorious ‘The Abramović Method’, designed to prepare artists for the creative act by encouraging mindfulness, better concentration and a greater sense of self. With the MAI, the participation in such seminars and events is extended to the wider public. MAI hosts live performances, installations, lectures and workshops in partner venues across the world and encourages the public to engage in the work of the institute. Counting the Rice at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Switzerland, in early May this year invited the public to participate in a collective performance originally designed for Cleaning the House, The Abramović Method training retreat for artists. Participants were asked to sit at a table for six hours and continuously separate and count two different grains of rice. This is a seemingly simple task, but one that becomes an exercise in endurance, self-control and willpower over a long period of time.
By taking part directly in the work, the audience member experiences a form of self-discovery. They realise for themselves, through practice, that it is the stretching of their mental and physical limits that is the important concern of the task, not the counting of the rice itself. It is this immediate personal experience that the public responds so strongly to when encountering Abramović and her institute. The works demand something more of the audience. They require full engagement of body and mind.
Because MAI currently acts as a “flying institute” without a permanent physical space of its own until MAI Hudson opens, the digital platform IMMATERIAL provides an important opportunity for MAI to achieve its aims of encouraging participation, collaboration and education. The online journal, for example, contains free educational content, mostly discussions between established and emerging artists, and provides a stage for sharing the ideas behind MAI projects. The website also acts as an extension of the performance. It hosts supporting materials for the performance works of MAI, such as the MAI Chronicles, short pieces of text written by participants which reflect on and extend the performance into the digital sphere; and more recently, a playable version of Counting the Rice, the first in a series of games created by video games designer Pippin Barr for The Abramović Method. With the potential to reach thousands more, the website is a crucial aspect of the institute’s functionality.
The same can be said for MAI’s presence on social media websites. MAI utilises social media as another platform for encouraging thought and discussion on immateriality and long durational works. For example, recent Facebook posts share facts about the lifespan of trees and corals while Tumblr is used as a visual think-tank with collaborators curating the webpage and adopting themes such as repetition, (im)material, bodily interactions, duration and natural materials. It is interesting to note that the focus of MAI’s online operations is not dissimilar to the original concerns of the artists of Abramović’s generation in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In fact, such themes are well established in the historical fabric of performance art. By translating performance to an online platform and making use of popular social media sites, the work of MAI explores these themes in ways which are more relevant to contemporary society.
In The Artist Is Present, Abramović discovered the true power of offering the public the opportunity to experience an intense human connection, something that is evidently lacking in today’s world where talking through screens has become so ingrained in communicative practices. MAI allows Abramović and her collaborators to explore this experience further. Through the employment of current trends in online communication it is possible to develop performance works by providing a platform for an online community to engage in them. MAI has also enabled performance art to expand beyond the discipline through collaboration across various fields. The Artist Is Present has since been adapted by Abramović and neuroscientists to create an experiment that visualises the alignment of brain activity between participants. The nature of performance art means that it has great potential as a tool for exploring social interaction. Introducing scientific technology that measures and visualises this interaction builds on this potential, making the implications of Abramović’s practice more significant.
MAI is ensuring that performance art is developing as a discipline whilst still retaining the essential focus of the art form. Abramović has admitted that MAI will represent her legacy in the future but is clearly determined to keep pushing the boundaries of the genre herself. Her new performance piece, 512 Hours, which opened at the Serpentine Gallery in London this June, is building on the work of The Artist Is Present. In this piece, Abramović will occupy the gallery for a total of 512 hours, interacting with the visiting public in a space that is focused on ‘nothingness’, aiming to minimalise the separation between artist and participant more than ever. Abramović has eliminated the table and chair of The Artist Is Present and is not dressing in a specially designed uniform like she did at MoMA. Abramović is also expanding the online aspect of the performance by making and uploading video diaries at the end of each day as well as posting the participants’ chronicles on a unique Tumblr page and assigning the posts their own hashtag (#512Hours). Abramović’s first performance piece in the UK and hosted by an internationally recognised art gallery, 512 Hours is unsurprisingly drawing in a lot of media attention. There have been reports of queues stretching across Kensington Gardens of people waiting to enter the gallery to participate in the new piece. It appears that Abramović continues to be a force to be reckoned with, making waves in the art world and beyond and ensuring performance art has an irremovable place in today’s society
Marina Abramović: 512 Hours is at the Serpentine Gallery, London until 25 August 2014.