Overweening Generalist

Friday, February 20, 2015

Marina Abramovic's The Artist Is Present (Thoughts on "Performance Art")

Streaming on Netflix as I write this, this documentary about Abramovic's 90 days of sitting in a chair silent at NY's MOMA in 2010. The film also covers parts of her long career as a performance artist. I loved the film.

                          Marina Abramovic: Balkan Baroque: Dozing Consciousness (1997)

Definition of "Performance Art": Dicey at Best
The definition of "performance art" is famously contentious, and when I read the Wiki on it one of the further links is to an article "Classificatory Disputes About Art," and this very nebulousness is one of the things I most like about performance art. Read a few textbook-like articles that explain what performance art "is" and you will very likely run into a sentence or two that could easily apply to why people use psychedelic drugs. Some people really don't like the effects of performance art; it wigs them out. I'll return to this subject below.

(I wish the filmmakers in the Abramovic doc would've gotten responses from some of the people who were caught looking on quizzically and then turning away with a semi-disgusted look as Abramovic sat still and gazed into the eyes of fellow museum-goers, but maybe that's just me.) The eminent art critic Arthur Danto sees Abramovic's sitting a New Thing in the history of art, because it's well-known that most museum-goers spend about 30 seconds in front of the Mona Lisa, while lo!: they sit or stand all day watching Abramovic sit and gaze. Taking in The Artist Is Present makes Waiting For Godot look like a Jet Li flick...or Cirque du Soleil. (Only if you feel like it, no pressure: think about that?)

I found Abramovic's family background edifying vis a vis what she ended up doing with her life. Some writing on her suggests that performance art was a big deal in the Eastern Bloc because of its transitory nature, which makes sense to me.

One thing I think of immediately when someone says "performance art" is "nude bodies?" Indeed, there is a lot of Marina and others nude in the documentary. And in performance art in general. Why? Well, how else to make claims for a relatively new form of art? Shock people. How? Nudity, violence, blood, gross-outs, and outrageous speech acts, for starters. In my personal aesthetics, shock is rock-solid legit in Art. I want more shock from Art. (But is it all tapped out by now? As one young Abramovic-watcher at MOMA says, "Pretty soon you'll see someone shoot someone else in the face and they'll call it art." I paraphrase from memory. Let's hope Art doesn't go there. But: it has come pretty close.)

You Say All Performance Art Is Bullshit?
How close? In an early performance in Belgrade, 1974, Abramovic decks out tables with all sorts of implements, tools, gadgets. 72 items. The audience can do whatever they want with her. The audience can walk up to her and pick anything from the table and apply it to her body. She has her clothes ripped off rather quickly. Among the 72 items: feather duster, olive oil, whatever. Some cut her body with sharp instruments Abramovic has supplied. Someone else drinks some blood from her neck. She just takes it. The kicker: the audience is informed the pistol over there on the table is loaded. Someone puts it to her head but doesn't pull the trigger. Someone else pushed rose thorns into her stomach. There was always the chance some suitably deranged individual could have shot her. But they didn't. Many did do vicious things to her. She was tearful but elated (and laughs!) after the six hour piece because she wasn't shot or mutilated beyond repair, and she got her point across: a group of people can take on a nasty tone and do some fairly heinous acts to someone else's body, just because it seems it they have carte blanche to do so. I know people who think performance art is bullshit, but you have to admit: this seems compelling.

William S. Burroughs, in one of his apocalyptic moods, wrote about Art spilling off the pages, escaping the frames and filling the streets, becoming Writ Large. In a way, certain performance art is a step towards this, but it is still "framed" by the various notices and literature that performance art will take place at a certain venue, a certain time, admission is $16, parking can be found in a number of lots nearby at $20 for three hours and the subway is just around the block, etc.

As I write, Marina Abramovic has just arrived in Australia and is "like the Beatles," as a promoter waxes hyperbolic.

Zen Shit
But let's not be cynical. I love her work. But I also laugh at almost all of it, because she's able to carry it off. Someone once said that "Art is what you can get away with," and I have to agree. Abramovic also seems genuine to me. She's 68 as of last November and in the documentary, in an interview at age 63 she states her age and - yes, she's in makeup for the interview - but she's astonishingly gorgeous at 63. Now here's some cynicism on my part: would she have attracted as many followers if she didn't look like a Slavic Goddess archetype? (Maybe...)

Abramovic has done a few pieces in which nothing happens; she just sits there. One of the main reasons for doing this is to test the limits of her body. Indeed, much of it seems brutal, grueling. But she also hints there's a political component to these pieces: in the West, it's anathema to Do Nothing. Just sit there; it's provocative!

To prepare for these works, she does "zen shit." There's a sequence in the documentary where she takes thirty or so young artist-recruits to her house in upstate NewYork, where they prepare mentally and physically to perform some of Abramovic's past pieces at MOMA, along with performance pieces by other artists. It all looks like very zen-retreat-ish with a dash of surrealism to me. (Yea, maybe you wanna see the film.)

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson
Not long ago I read this novel and let me just say that if you're a performance art junkie who also likes to read novels, you might want to look into this one, which addresses serious items about the possible damages parents may cause their children, if the parent-artists take this sort of art too seriously. And I found it quite hilarious and entertaining too.

One of the ideas highlighted in this book is this: if you live with these sorts of artists - or actively seek out that which constantly challenges your ideas about what's "real" and who or what to trust, etc - often the most mundane situations you find yourself in can be fraught with High Weirdness. 'Cuz now you're on your toes, more than most people. About the whoopee cushions of "reality."

Toward a Taxonomy of Performance Art
Is a Marilyn Manson show "performance art"? I leave it to you. What about Christo's various monumental environmental installations? What about pranks? Guerrilla ontology? Hoaxes? Art "Actions"? Flash mobs? Fluxus performances? Interventions? Happenings? Neo-Dada? "Manouevres"? Circus freak shows? Yes, I take your point that hoaxes seem to be done for gain, and that generally the hope is that no one will catch on. And all of these things might fall under "guerrilla ontology" in that they hope to make the audience re-think what they thought was "real." Must the Work have an intended agenda or message? When, if ever, is a well-thought-out prank not performance art? (There are certain performance art aficionados who will not allow pranks in their club.) Sometimes those who take part don't know they're part of the Thing. To what degree is the audience necessary or complicit in the art-form? "Happenings" in the sense of Allan Kaprow's works seem to begin with a few parameters and then, like a scientific experiment, wonder how it will all turn out. In this sense they remind me of magickal workings. Does ceremonial magick belong somewhere in this taxonomy? Must there always be disruption? The possibility of danger? An overtly (or semi- ) political statement? Nudity? Profanity? (One would hope so for those last two...) One of the most pervasive ingredients in these things seem to be Indeterminacy, which has me buying it if only for that, because, ya know, life's too short.

Some of this stuff seems mostly to want to delight or entertain certain types of cognoscenti, and to piss off the philistines, which is all good to me. I've yet to see a very convincing taxonomy. Anyone got one?

In an ideal world, children and other innocents would be spared exposure to violent ruptures in "reality" but we all know a few hearty kids who thrive on this material from the get-go. Clearly there were children entranced by Abramovic just sitting there. There were adults who looked outraged that this was A Thing. At some point in our lives, we can go on enjoying the shock or the surrealities of these things; others shut down. It's genes plus environment plus memory and experience plus a few other things I can't remember just now. Which brings me to...

Drugs and Performance Art
Abramovic is against drug use, and claims to have smoked a cigarette in the 1970s, because it was supposed to be cool. I think her work is about zen, the body, endurance, and facing fear and overcoming it. (Much of her earlier work with her lover Ulay seemed to be about incommensurability between men and women, too.) I see her work as having a drug-like effect. It works this way for me; it may not for you. What I want from any altered state is a novel perspective on some phenomena. I look at all art as a chance to enter into what the phenomenological sociologist Peter Berger calls a "finite province of meaning." I exercise a lot and enter a non-ordinary state. I meditate, smoke cannabis, read Finnegans Wake, listen to Bach/Stockhausen/Coltrane/Sun Ra/Vilayat Khan/Balinese Monkey Music/Pink Floyd, have sex, do math or logic puzzles, eat very spicy foods, sit in a hot bath in the dark with earplugs and eyeshades on, engage with sophisticated technology, watch films: voila!: non-ordinary states. I think this came with the Instruction Manual for the owner of a Mind. Many seem to have displaced their manual. Personally, I model all of these wonderful gimmicks as sorts of things and of a piece with the practice of magick. Your Mileage May Vary. To me, it's all Drugs. Try to stop me from doing my bathtub routine, DEA!

Some people do not like many (or all) of these sorts of things, and they should not be forced to engage with it, much less endure it. As with Timothy Leary's Two Commandments:

1.) Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow men.
2.) Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow men from altering their own consciousness.

With the First Commandment and taking into consideration the somewhat fugitive nature of much of "performance art" in the wider senses of the term, sometimes we cannot help it. It could be the Times we're living in?

Other Perf-or-mances/Other Arty Mental States
A lot of the enjoyment of this - if enjoyed at all - seems idiosyncratic, a matter of taste. I have gotten my rocks off watching sword swallowers and gorgeous mostly-nude babes walking barefoot on a bed of broken glass at freak shows like the CIA in North Hollywood. Then again, I would return again and again to David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology because I was never sure what was a put-on or what was legit, and it was all so incredibly well-done. (And I liked not knowing for sure what was a put-on or fancy; I love the indeterminacy.)

If extremes with the body is the subject, many artists come to mind. Like Bob Flanagan. Or Martha Graham stuff I've seen. Ever heard of Fakir Musafar? His stuff set a mind a-wonderin', aye.

Some of the best altered states I've been in were when I flew to Tokyo or London or Amsterdam or Lisbon or Kathmandu...and jet-lagged, I got out and walked aimlessly around those metropolises. This is not art, but it does seem linked to Abramovic's body-based work. Yet no one else can enjoy it but myself. And then I get back to my hotel room and collapse from sleepiness and the dreams extend that overall weirdness. The worst part of this is the actual flying part, hands down. What, in these scenarios, is the Art? I say to you: the cities and their inhabitants. It's yoga, a connection: my blitzed nervous system and the new city's overwhelming info-density and novelty.

I remember getting high off the hijinks of Andy Kaufman. I could rely on Andy to knock me into the finite province of wonder. There's a funny put-on/performance artist alive today (not saying you're not still alive, Andy!) named "Hennessy Youngman" who cracks me up. He seems like Sacha Baron Cohen ratcheted up a notch, and he makes Modern Art seem a lot more fun than some overly serious staid lecturer at Uni. I've seen lots of video of the robot anarchy from Survival Research Labs that really blew my balls to the far side of Eris. I recall when, around age 20, I read and delved like a madman into John Cage and Lamont Young, and felt a quite visceral thrill when I read that one of Nam June Paik's "serious" music performances consisted of coming out to applause, and, instead of sitting down at the piano, he took an axe and a chainsaw and cut the piano in half. Because...it had yet to be done?

As far as pranks go as a possible subset of performance art, here's one of my all-time favorites:
If you aren't familiar with this prank, please READ HERE. Effing genius.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece, as usual. It made me think of this passage from Burton Pike about Robert Musil: "You the reader are his target; he wants to subtly change your life."

Read more: http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/How-to-Read-a-Hard-Book#ixzz3SJu7REwR

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Kind of sneaky the way you make exercise sound good, Michael.

The other day in an Indian restaurant I had the curried chickpeas, and when the waitress asked how hot on a scale of 10, I said 7. That turned out to be about as hot as I could stand, but I didn't enter an altered state of consciousness. I guest it wasn't "Michael Johnson hot."

michael said...


"If my books, or any of them, do as I intend, they should leave the reader feeling that that the universe is capable of doing something totally shocking and unexpected in the next five minutes. The Existentialists, of course, share this sense of uncertainty, but they sound rather desperate about it; I am trying to show that life without certainty can be exhilarating, liberating, a great adventure. I want to create a sense of awe, which is all the religion we need, and all we can honestly hold in this day and age."
-RAW, in _Contemporary Authors_, New Revision Series, vol 52, p.460

michael said...


Do you have Mrs. Renfro's Ghost Pepper salsa in a jar near Cleveland? It's got the jolokia pepper (AKA "ghost pepper") in it; if I'm in a rush I pick up some and it delivers. One article says it's at around 1 million Scoville Units.

Beyond that, in Berkeley there's a specialty shop for spicy foods with hot sauce that's insanely hot. Some guy is going to do some genetic hybrid and hit 20 million Scoville Units, and I'd think it could do damage to internal organs.

Check out this site. I've never ordered from them, but Blair's 16 Million Reserve? Talk about "some like it hot!": insanity!


The main reason I exercise is to get into an altered state; everything else is gravy. (Preferably very spicy gravy...)

phodecidus said...

I'm all about the Caroliner Reaper thanks to your blog.

I put it in a smoothie with a sploosh of Sriracha, a teaspoon of cayenne, a few cloves of garlic, celery, cherry tomatoes, quarter of a red pepper and carrot juice. First your face goes aflame, then it goes numb, finally, the effect travels through your whole nervous system.


I'm not sure.

michael said...

@ phodecidus-

You unmitigated madman!

At this time, I'm still wary...errr..hesistant to try...I'm somewhat circumspect vis a vis...oh fuckit: I'm outright AFRAID of Carolina Reaper. I hope you have health insurance, is all I'm gonna say!

My way of testing these sorts of things: I put a tiny dab of it on a plate. I apply that dab to my lower lip. The scary stuff takes about 2 secs to make that area of my lip go numb, like novacaine. IF the numbness spreads...Yikes! (Also: I start sweating down the back of my neck, but YMMV)

Bobby Campbell said...

Great article!

I’m reminded of Mcluhan’s fascination w/ the “electronic envelope” that the earth resides within as a result of the planet being surrounded (enveloped) by satellites. McLuhan theorized that this mediasphere comprised a planetary proscenium arch, and consequentially “all the world’s a stage.” Literally!

I find that my mind goes silent at questions of “what is or is not art?” Almost like it were a computer given an invalid entry. What is the meaning of life? What is the purple of 10 divided by apples?

“I create no art. I do everything as well as I can”

In Grant Morrison’s Invisibles there’s a scene about a hypothetical 2012 singularity (written in the late 90’s), and there’s a commentary on the nature of a surveillance culture turning everyone into de facto performance artists.

“Every man and every woman is a star”

Social media and digital devices have turned everyone into poets, and photographers, and filmmakers, and much more besides.

I still think the underlying biases of our electronic media is more liberating than most people suspect, (esp. those that intend them as a means of control) and are our sense ratios are very subtly shifting towards something entirely new. :)

michael said...


Lots to chew on here: thanks for the choice riffs. Your lines on "what is art" reminded me of RAW saying there's what you're tuned in to and what you're not tuned in to.

Maybe every day, at odd moments, I try to see that which almost everyone would claim as mundane? I try to see it as a work of art, human artifice. And it is! The tiny slips of paper we use to make grocery lists: someone - probably a group of people - got that paper going, making it, printing the little filigree I hadn't even noticed until just now. I imagine some thought, "What have I done with my life! Now I'm making and shipping little boxes of paper around!" But then they tried to Make It the best they could with what they had, consumer-goods, and it's all soooo...human. Do they imagine the idiot doodles a clown like me would be making on their little paper squares in the Bay Area? Maybe. Probably not.