It starts like this:
One snowy night last month, as New Yorkers rushed home in advance of a coming blizzard, more than a hundred artists, scholars and curators crowded into the boardroom of the Museum of Modern Art to talk about performance art and how it can be preserved and exhibited.
And somewhere close to the end we find this, in reference to Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005:
Ms. Abramovic saw that show, she said in a recent interview, as a way “to take charge of the history of performance.” In the 1990s, as younger artists became interested in work of the ’60s and ’70s, she said she noticed that some were restaging historical works themselves, often without consulting or even crediting the originator. “I realized this is happening because performance is nobody’s territory,” she said. “It’s never been mainstream art and there’s no rules.” Finding this unjust, she decided to set them herself, by recreating the works in consultation with the relevant artists and estates. Better she should do it now, she said, because “they will do it anyway when you’re dead behind your back.”
And so Carol Kino reports for the New York Times on March 10 in an article entitled “A Rebel Form Gains Favor. Fights Ensue” on the Museum of Modern Art‘s private “Performance Workshops.” She brings attention to the issues raised by these “Workshops” in the field of the conservation and presentation of performance art and the involvement of museums in this project.
I decided to take those two bits of writing out of the piece to bring attention to a fact that has seemed self-evident to me from the moment I first saw Abramovic’s work, but has become completely evident after a flurry of articles and profiles on her have appeared in many publications lately: Marina Abramovic is a total stone-cold diva. Now don’t get me wrong, this is certainly not meant as a negative value judgment. It’s a fact that makes me love her more, and with the same part of my brain that loves incredible women like Kate Bush, or Tyra Banks. I could see it, from the first interlaced fields of her brushing her hair in 1975’s Art Must Be Beautiful to the time she got in people’s way in 1977’s Imponderabilia, to her most recent alpha female diva moment, The Artist Is Present, in which she stares you down in public.
In short, “doing” Marina Abramovic would be an amazing drag performance. In an alternative universe in my head, this is a very common occurrence. In my head, drag queens LOOOOOOVE “doing” La Marina with almost the same zeal they they usually reserve for “doing” Ana Mendieta or Maya Deren. Jennie Livingston‘s Paris Is Burning has a whole section on Guerrilla Girl Realness with a Twist and Chrissie Iles is a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. But camp fantasies aside, what these extracts from Kino’s piece show is that Abramovic is tough as nails and — for better or for worse — has decided to grab the performance art bull by the horns and try to change its course in her favor. I’m ambivalent about this exertion of will on Abramovic’s part. On the one hand, who else is going to do it? She’s charismatic, people like to see her and listen to her, and she certainly has the street/ivory tower cred to do so. On the other hand, I question her intentions. Is Abramovic pulling a Rhonda Rulebook because she basically doesn’t want people touching her stuff?
Abramovic’s practical idea of reperformances/restagings/recreations/re-enactments (I know, the terminology is a problem…) as a way to preserve and present performance works feels more akin to translation. It makes me think of natural history museums, or of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum — mannequins (albeit live ones) wearing the outifts and going through the motions. It reminds me of animatronics, of Halls of Presidents, of Colonial Williamsburg. The difference between Abramovic’s move and performance art drag is a difference of inflection and venue. Stage it anywhere other than a museum, add a wink, a little glitter, thicker makeup, and subtract some of that dourness, and you’ve got yourself an extravaganza.
The plot thickens, though. Another diva chimes in during the report. Joan Jonas throws some shade at Abramovic, implying that her investment in creating these rules is tied to a personal failure to document her own work, to keep it alive and relevant despite the ephemeral qualities of performance. Again, the issue of translation comes up. Jonas prefers to translate her work into videos or installations, noting: “There’s never a way that you could repeat the original thing; it just can’t be done…so you have to think, ‘How am I going to deal with it if I’m going to show something of that moment?’”
What I found most interesting about this article, outside of my fascination with Abramovic’s persona, is the tensions between what could be referred to as “the old guard” and “the upstarts,” represented most illustriously by critical darling Tino Sehgal:
“Can you tell me how you did this?” Ms. Abramovic asked in her heavily accented English, seeming genuinely interested. “Is really something I want to know.” Others, however, made it clear that they were less thrilled by his entrepreneurialism: “When I began in the late ’60s, I didn’t think about selling my work,” one artist yelled. “It just wasn’t something that you thought about.”
I see this division somewhat paralleled in a field I am much more versed in, film and video. “The upstarts” — think Ryan Trecartin, Nathalie Djurberg, Omer Fast — are creating fantastic careers for themselves, selling editions left and right and successfully navigating the treacherous institutional and market waters we’re swimming in these days, whereas “the old guard” — think Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, the Vasulkas — have had to work really hard to improvise a living, be their own archivists, invent it as they go along. Some, like Mekas and the Vasulkas, have been better at it than others; the pantheon of film and video artists is full of figures who died penniless, in obscurity, unable to pay medical bills, hopped up on diet pills, writing angry letters to indifferent curators at the MoMA…
Is this an endemic problem when one is dealing with institutions? What kind of approach is (shall we say…) wiser for artists to take in their own work? Are you more of a Marina or a Joan? A Mekas or a Viola?