The Artist is Present – Marina Ambramovic

“When you perform it is a knife and your blood, when you act it is a fake knife and ketchup.”

Tanya and Yolanda suggested I take a look at some women performance artists and Marina Abramovic immediately sprung to mind. I was aware of her work at MoMA “The Artist is Present” but I hadn’t watched the documentary or really delved into her work in general. I was taken by surprise by how impressed and involved I became in the piece. I hadn’t thought of myself as being someone who was interested in performance art, but it’s always a mistake to make these assumptions about yourself or pigeonhole your interests and influences in that way!

Performance art is often thought of, and parodied, as the most pretentious and pointless of artistic practices. I always laugh every time I watch British comedy ‘Spaced’ when the tortured abstract expressionist Brian talks about his performative work done with artistic collaborator Vulva (whose look was inspired by Leigh Bowery). “We did valuable work” he says while a montage of them in absurd scenes is shown. I found ‘The Artist is Present’ to be stripped bare of any pretence.

Abramovic impressed me with her strength, resiliance and uncompromising honesty. I think it’s rare to see someone so fully committed to what they do – how many of us could handle 3 months of unmoving, seated eye contact with a revolving cast of strangers? The artist wasn’t just present in a physical sense, she was fully present in all senses and fully engaged with those who came to sit with her. You could see the power of the piece in the reactions of the sitters; tears, joy, confusion, elation. Abramovic talked about herself as being a mirror to every sitter where they were able to fully see themselves, so their reactions were an overflowing of those feelings coming to the surface.

The quote at the top of this blog entry is something which was said during the documentary that rang very true with me. There is a gulf between ‘performing’ and ‘acting’ that is not always recognised; performing strips away the masks, where acting creates them. I performed for years as a dancer and this is something I have discovered myself. The pieces I did that were the most successful and caused the biggest reactions from the audience (usually emotional reactions like tears) were those where I might have been dressed as a character, but I was performing an aspect of myself, not acting a character. I would need to prepare for the performance beforehand and it would be as if a much more intense aspect of myself came forward to connect with the audience. In that sense I understood a great deal of what Abramovic was doing but on a lesser level, like I had just scratched the surface of what was possible. I also used a lot of theatrics and costuming to influence the viewer, which is something I have witnessed in the work of both Abramovic (her later work mores than her earlier work with Ulay) and Matthew Barney. This has opened up a new avenue of potential practice for me that I had mulled over previously but not delved into. I didn’t have a proper outlet, venue or audience for what I wanted to create so I had to shoehorn it into the avenues that were available meaning that I couldn’t take the performance to the place I wanted it to go. Watching Abramovic has given me some insight into what could be possible.

Abramovic, M. The Artist is Present (2012) Akers, M. Dupre, J. (Directors)

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