Controversial Performance Art Comes to MoMA: Ladies and Gentlemen, “The Artist Is Present”


Performance artist Marina Abramovic poses silently at “The Artist Is Present,” currently on display at MOMA. (Courtesy of Marina Abramovic and Sean Kelly Gallery/artists rights society/MOMA)

Published: May 5, 2010

If there was ever an argument to be made that museums are not boring,  Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” display at MoMA would be it.  Whether it is a topless woman with hair covering her face, beating a skull against her stomach or a naked woman carving a five-pointed star  into her stomach and lying on ice, there is no shortage of memorable  imagery. It is not the kind of thing that I saw as a kid or that I would take my kids to if I had any. But if the purpose of art is to provoke your strongest emotions, this display certainly succeeds in its attempt.

Born in 1946 in Yugoslavia, Abramovic established the idea of live performance as an art form. Beginning at the age of 26, she started her various solo “Rhythm” performances, in which audiences were once presented with 72 objects that they could choose to use on her in any  way they liked. In 1976, she moved to Amsterdam, where she met her partner Ulay. Together they held provocative performances, one in which a performer holding  a bow and the other pulling back, the arrow aimed at the Abramovic’s heart.  In 2005, she performed “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim, where she recreated earlier works, including one in which she pressed her body against a pane of glass repeatedly. Today, she continues to push the limit of what the body can do.

On the second floor of MoMA, she invites participants to sit across from her and  remain as silent and still as possible. It was a treat that the artist was actually present, but long lines prevented me and some others from participating.  One of the highlights is the invitation to walk between a naked man and woman, who form a narrow entrance separating Abramovic’s solo work from her dual work with Ulay.  Of course, there is another entrance if one chooses. One cautious attendant said  “I’ll meet you on the other side.” There has been some controversy over inappropriate touching, but MoMA claims that these incidents are few and far between. While they may be right, it is the kind of work where some of that has to be expected. I noticed some people “accidentally” grazing the naked woman’s breast, but I made sure I was careful of contact in my crossing.

The exhibition is a mixture of live and video performances. The performers are eerily still, including one piece where a naked woman sits on a bicycle with her arms outstretched 10 feet in the air. There tend not be live performances in museums, but these fit because they are static. If the performers were moving, it would create a disconnect from the rest of the museum’s displays. In the videos, however, performers move in unforgettable ways. In one video, several people humped the ground, and in another, rain poured  down on women while they lifted up their skirts. The videos, nevertheless, were still bound by the static nature of the televisions on which they were displayed.

I’m still unsure if the display is good or bad, but I can assuredly say that it is an unforgettable experience. Whether you like it or not, you will be forced to face your insecurities even if you choose not to walk through the entrance. It is this kind of harsh confrontation that  Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali did with their 16-minute short Un  Chien Andalou or, as film critic Walter Chaw claimed, Tom Green did with  “Freddy Got Fingered.” I recommend seeing it at the MoMA, if you’re ready to confront Abramovic’s controversial performances and you’re not squeamish.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
When:  March 14 through May 31
Where: The Museum of Modern Art is located at 11 W. 53rd St.
Price: $20 for adults, $12 for students, free admission on Friday night (4-8 p.m.)
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