Within Context: Marina vs. Your History is Not Our History

by Lynn Maliszewski

Would you blindly climb a mountain, ignorant of terrain and weather patterns? In idealizing a hike outside of these factors they become obstacles, threats to the success of the trip. Such romanticized endeavors fester with prickly inflexibility and potential danger. The framework of an artwork’s production and its context can serve as a valuable source of knowledge like the minutiae of a journey, imparting meaning into seemingly sterile viewing experiences. It adds depth to shallow indicators of academia in exchange for the intricacies of Self. A foundational understanding of art, at its best, can reveal an inescapability of purpose, a concentrated reduction of the most subtle flavor. In Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present at the MoMA and Your History is Not Our History at Haunch of Venison, context tames the deceit of transient viewing.

The Artist Is Present conjures tendrils of consistency amid Abramovic’s chaotic, aggressive thirty year career. She molts fearlessly, inviting corporeal demise in favor of ultimate metaphysical rejuvenation. Her early performances challenge physicality with gross force. The serially numbered ‘Rhythm’ series dominates the first room of the exhibition, revealing brazen confrontations with her epidermal armor. ‘Rhythm 2’ (1974) chemically dissolved the unity of mind and body. An instructional guide and two black and white photographs serve as placeholders at MoMA for the preceding performance. The instructions reveal her intentional ingestion of a catatonic remedy and the subsequent intake of an oppositional drug for schizophrenia. The two photographs relay her initial loss of control quelled by depleted consciousness and existential awareness, a metamorphosis from a tense, deranged caricature to a diluted puppet. The performance ended when the drugs wore off over seven hours after its inception. Abramovic flagrantly oscillates between self-imposed mental and physical absolutes, surrendering to momentum.

Self-imposed hazard succumbs to an audience in ‘Rhythm 0’ (1974). Provided a table of seventy-two objects meant to please or annihilate the artist, the initially timid audience was encouraged to investigate carnal motivations. Equipped with a loaded gun and makeup, chains and a glass of wine, knives and flowers, Abramovic had one singular plea: “I don’t want to die…I want to experience the edge and how much I can take of this edge.” This request is laughable; how much can any one person take of an extreme in either direction without being enveloped in chuckles or antagonism? Embarrassment and vulnerability evaporate in her acceptance of the extreme and its consequences, dislodging the veil of vanity. She strips herself of control yet claims full responsibility for the process. Her earlier work preserves a stoic meditation on the discontinuity of mind and body, ego and soul, in daring masochism.

A selfless emphasis on singularity of task thrived in Abramovic’s creative and romantic partnership with Ulay from 1976 to 1989. They synchronized innumerable endurance exercises both publicly and privately in an attempt to merge their disparate energies into one impetus. Subtleties of the inarticulate body and harmonized mind arise in rigorous repetition. In utilizing “tension v. release, trust v. abandonment, closeness v. isolation, connectedness v. isolation” for thematic inspiration, literal incarnations of these relationships compete with ethereality. This period finds the greatest number of re-performances at MoMA, marrying the radiating energy of Abramovic’s work both past and present. Stripped individuals flank the barest of doorways in ‘Imponderabilia’ (1977/2010). The energy of lust and the inevitability of passage through the lovers in their original performance, situated in the only entrance/exit of the gallery in Kassel that first hosted the performance, is a jarring scenario. The MoMA’s re-do provided a similarly sensual experience, utterly dulled by their inclusion of an alternate entry. The tight squeeze between the bound unmentionables is reminiscent of adolescent attempts to devise meaningful relationships between Barbie dolls, unable to conquer the nuances of intent despite imaginative physical proximity. It was like squeezing into a time-warp, incubated by intent for only a fleeting moment.

Imponderabilia_s
Marina Abramović and Ulay
Imponderabilia. Originally performed in 1977 for 90 min. Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna, Bologna
Still from 16mm film transferred to video (black and white, sound). 52:16 min.
© 2010 Marina Abramović. Courtesy Marina Abramović and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Reperformed continuously in shifts throughout the exhibition Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present at MoMA, March 14-May 31, 2010

Ambramovic’s work with Ulay appeals to the moment an audience must submit to the pure energy of action, of a stare, scream or slap. Passivity and awkwardness are traded for patient mergers with environmental aura. In their often silent endeavors, one must conquer boredom to obtain meditative simultaneity outside of emotional baggage. The agonizing conquest ‘Expansion of Space’ (1977), their first performance in front of a large audience in several months, consists of the couple colliding with respective pillars running along tracks on the gallery’s ceiling. The columns absorb the brunt of the impact, moving from the center to the periphery of the gallery. The grainy black and white tape of the nude performance throbs with grunts and thumps of successive smashes. Each run is neutralized by restarting midway between the two columns, back to back, providing a reset button to muster the energy for the next drive. Marina perseveres through the action longer than Ulay, convinced the column had not yet reached its final destination. Finding a serene, purified energy, she emerges as the tyrant of her corporeal shell in the midst of the full-frontal stings. There is a cheekiness in the simplicity of her work with Ulay, in their attempt to proliferate mental triumphs over physical indecency, confronting assumptions of pain and pleasure, sanity and lunacy.

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Marina Abramović
The House with the Ocean View. Performed in 2002 for 12 days at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York
Three-channel video with props (color, sound). Duration variable
Photo: Attilio Maranzano. © 2010 Marina Abramović. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Later work molds the soul, kneads it, with less of an emphasis on aggravation of her temple. She dissects Balkan folklore and gravitates toward the humor in literal translations of traditional pageantry. Blood, bones, and genitalia find favor in her video pieces from the 1990s and 2000s, channeling contradictions between mortal and fantastical allusions.  Her most recent live performances revolve around relative solitude, singularity of scenario and event. In ‘House with the Ocean View’ (2002) she makes haste to “change [her] energy field” in a self-imposed twelve-day famine in which both literal and mental sustenance are denied. Silent conversation with strangers is her singular source of nourishment. She is always alone in her mission and process but not necessarily lonely. Abramovic’s performance on the second floor atrium of the current exhibition, ‘The Artist is Present,’ is a similar exercise with fewer props and more obstacles: no food or water for the open hours of the museum, layered with limited bathroom capabilities. Sitting still in a crowd and constraining all movement as complete strangers sit at arm’s length to peer into your soul is an arduous spectacle. The beauty lies in seeing rather than merely looking, in realizing that a conversation still exists outside of words and ultimately surrendering to that melded energy. Despite the intangibility of her experiment Abramovic is completely engaged, concentrating the disentangled energy into a final statement. The value is in the essence rather than aesthetic worth of her performance.

Artist is Present is a grandiose sigh, an introspective showing that provides more substance to what could have been written off as ‘hippy-shit performance art’ by scared and scarred audiences. Similar relief can be found in Haunch of Venison’s Your History is Not Our History, curated by David Salle and Richard Phillips, in regards to the inspirational yet overplayed subject of the East Village in the 1980s. The show attacks the local scene from a contributor (Salle) and interloper’s (Phillips) point of view to find works of enduring influence that were as memorable and shattering as a first cigarette. The show presents irreducible highlights of the era, breaking from the assumption that every exhibition of work from the 80s has to be a cheesy showing of predictable neon splatters and anti-establishment hoopla.

The experimental vigor found in these works stems from personal extremes fused with relentless freedom of practice. Christopher Wool’s ‘Untitled’ (1988) utilizes industrial material on aluminum, inducing a suede finish to the decadent all-over, wrought iron design. Splotches and areas of faded color incarcerate the artist’s hand despite the droning repetition and attempt at uniformity. The tainted pattern accounts for beautiful disasters in ‘safe’ modes of production while holding any type of blueprint in contempt. Ross Bleckner’s ‘Fence’ (1985) isolates and ensnares the viewer simultaneously in its optical disorientation. Approximately seven-feet tall, the smeared rods against the menacing slate gray, deep cerulean blue, and midnight green sky is befuddling. Realistic pinnacles atop the fence spark severe bewilderment in the scope and depth of the scene. A black rectangle in the center of the image pops the bubble of fantasy as aggressively as the columns lure you in. It’s an optical playground, leaving viewers swinging from the gate, sliding down the poles, and leaping into the murky void.  

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Donald Baechler
Bauer Grunwald, 1989
acrylic and fabric collage on canvas
102 x 115 in. (259.1 x 292.1 cm.)
Courtesy of Cheim & Read Gallery, New York

Emotional extremes, loneliness in particular, facilitate restlessness and reassessments of physicality’s discontents. Donald Baechler’s ‘Bauer Grunwald’ (1989) depicts a sketchy, flat lady with the anonymity of a CIA agent and the frame of an emaciated bell. Her basic features and attire suggest a spoiled femininity. Plump, floating vegetables accompany her on the canvas, reverberating between the second and third dimension. The rendering seems somewhat bitter, placing more life in the uprooted veggies than the tense, splotchy figure. Or this image could be more of a deviation from the pleasures of maturity, reconnecting with childhood memory and the nourishment to be found in nature. It conveys a stage of life before friends, before a real understanding of self outside of a scraggly self-portrait with primitive facial features and limbs.

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Robert Gober
Sleeping Man/Hanging Man, 1989
silkscreen on wallpaper
30 x 178 7/8 in. (76.2 x 454.3 cm.)
Private collection, New York

Robert Gober’s ‘Sleeping Man/Hanging Man’ (1989) similarly extracts an array of interpretations, although a bit more radical. The screen-printed wallpaper consists of only three columns and seven rows. A white man sleeping on his stomach as seen from above alternates with the frontal view of a lynched black man hanging limply from a tree An odd sense of calm exists in quiet slumber interspersed with imposed death, seething amid a baby blue sky and emerald grass. The tension of history contradicts the tranquil interaction on paper, scorning the festering plague of racism and its mutations. The expectant peace equated with both sleep and death amplifies cynical overtones and situates them in the same realm. They become mutually beneficial, indicators of lost time. The seduction of the formal composition overshadows a lonely sphere of reduced components: black and white, sleep and death.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat
Untitled (Crocodile), 1984
oil and paper collage on canvas
21 3/4 x 18 in. (55 x 45.5 cm.)
Collection of Nina Clemente

Despite the curator’s attachment to the images, they supersede generalities in that they are “critical weapons to contest meaning,” irreducible punctuation that insists upon fresh linkages. Glances through the entry portals of each gallery and their outskirts, also holding several pieces, evoke fluid conversation, tantalizing angles, and new groupings. In Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Untitled (Crocodile)’ (1984), for example, a harsh, black, indistinguishable face floats ominously above a scraggly, blue crocodile head. The piece is situated in the second gallery near a doorway among pieces by Francesco Clemente and Nan Goldin. A diagonal glance through the arch spears Baechler’s ‘Bauer Grunwald’ in one of the furthest galleries. Both pieces utilize collage to augment texture, with Baechler using terry cloth dish towels and Basquiat butcher paper. Basquiat’s aggressive purgatory rivals Baechler’s morose channeling of the regressive psyche and reveals two disparate realities elucidated by relations to Self. Basquiat’s character is camouflaged but refuses to hide from the imposing reptile below it. Scribbled jargon accompanies the carnivore, notably an emboldened passage listing ‘CARBON’ several times, rousing pollution concerns and thoughts of chemicals reeking animalistic havoc on the environment. The mug echoes like the Cheshire cat, unassumingly entitled and sullenly confident despite a cloaked vulnerability. Baechler’s piece, in comparison, depicts a removed existence. Floating in blissful emptiness, Baechler’s figure is graced with the bodily necessities of life yet no mention of it otherwise. Vibrant fruits and vegetables bob within her grasp but she can do no more than stare alarmingly at the audience. The voice of the image blossoms from the tension between the figure and its inability to coalesce with the nature at such a close proximity. They exist on two disparate planets, deliriously isolated despite their confrontation. Jeff Koons’ ‘Aqualung’ (1985), an airtank completely void of function despite being true to form, finds itself in the same thread of view in the furthest gallery. He treats the object as an individual, unique in craftsmanship and purpose. Separating the aesthetics of the object from the assumed textures and sensational attachments, Koons obscures the character of the original object and births a peculiar double-negative newborn. The bronze ‘lung’ could not be further from what it is despite its literal compatibility.

The layout of the exhibition presents a humbled remembrance of thematic principles and presentation rather than notoriety, allowing the imagery to recover its original tenacity.32678

Barbara Kruger
Untitled, 1987
photographic silkscreen on vinyl
109 x 210 in. (276.9 x 533.4 cm.)
Courtesy of The Fisher Landau Center For Art, New York

Barbara Kruger’s ‘Untitled’ (1987) is one such example. At over seventeen feet long and about nine feet tall, the silkscreen on vinyl makes the deadpan statement “we don’t need another hero” in bold white text across a red strip. Behind the printed band are two children; one flexes ferociously while peering back at her friend, who’s leaning over her shoulder poking the bicep in abhorrence. The piece is situated on a wall in the slender passageway between the first large gallery and the second. Like a latex bodysuit in really any context, it is confrontational, magnetic, and fitted. It reaffirms Kruger’s play on the confrontation and aggression in print media of the 70s and 80s. Her work registers in one superficial scan as a gallant strike against consumerism as it syncs with the tactics of advertisements’ visual simplicity and forceful language in large sizes. The intimacy of the presentation within the exhibition, however, reveals Kruger’s secure technical hand. The graininess of the two children, molds of post-World War II childhood, is reminiscent of a fading memory. The androgyny of the flexing figure adds to the cloudiness of the image, holding the implications of the image in the balance. Is Kruger defacing the entitlement and premature empowerment of women in the 1940’s? Is it meant to emasculate, to depict unwarranted gender envy at an early age? Does it anticipate the monstrosity of youthful competition in the guise of national ambition? Stupendously obscure in its simplicity, the piece allows one to revisit Kruger’s pioneering, confrontational origins.

Dismantling narrow-minded opinions on the 1980s, Your History… benefits from the inimitable context imposed by Salle and Phillips. These works were fertilizer for damp earth teeming with seeds of potential. They are erratic and brazen, able to reaffirm their originality with decided wit while allowing new conclusions as they relate to the present to blossom. The curatorial vision is matchless, concentrated nostalgia, encouraging a reassessment of Salle and Phillips’ current practice in comparison. Similarly, Artist is Present allows the grander picture of Abramovic’s practice to simmer. She lays the foundation for selflessness in performance, utilizing the soul as grounds for testing the body’s physical capacities. Although the pomp of a retrospective seems mildly contradictory, the energy she brings to the museum in her present performance and recollections of performances past is haltingly dynamic. Likewise, Your History…depletes the egos of the East Village for recognition outside of reputation and sows fertile ground for forward thinking. In revisiting what we thought we knew, both shows empty assumptions to spur conversation in light of the present. They take on an independent energy ripe for adolescent appetites and preach to their original worth in the face of reinterpretation. The works are given room to breathe and mature outside of the artists’ aims. The malleable works speak comfortably for themselves, expanding outside of context.