I've (Still) Never Seen Marina Abramovic in Person . . .
Those of you who read the Times or J's Theater (Hi John!) or just keep up on these things have caught that Marina Abramovic is doing Seven Easy Pieces this week at the Guggenheim in New York. Six are restaged well known performance works by Abramovic and others. One -- "Entering the Other Side" -- is created specifically for this exhibition.
Last Thursday night, we went to see Abramovic's restaging of the Vito Acconci piece Seedbed, which first involved Acconci laying underneath a false floor in a gallery and masturbating, while talking into a microphone to passersby. Acconci responded to the sounds of people walking on this false floor. Errant Bodies attributes the following words to Acconci: "I was part of the floor; a viewer who entered that room stepped into my power field — they came into my house.” Much of the talk I'd heard about Ambramovic's recreation was about the suspicion (maybe even hope) that it would mean something different because she was a woman. I'm not sure that her being a woman made the performance something different as much as her being not-Acconci did. A big part of the difficulty I would have in answering that question has to do with the fact that I was not present at Acconci's performance. I'll take down some notes on the Abramovic's performance, but first, let me say what I think about Abramovic's work in general.
Abramovic's early work, though often discussed in the context of a number of other artists producing high-stakes but seemingly meaningless performances, has always intrigued me. Part of my enjoyment of her work has to do with trying to figure out the mystery in it. Sometimes the mystery in her performance is around what it means; sometimes it's about what makes her want to do it. Often, though, the mystery has been about what I would think were I to experience the work first hand. One of my favorite pieces is the Ulay and Abramovic work Imponderabilia (seen at the right). They describe the project in this way:
In a selected space Naked we stand opposite each other in the museum entrance. The public entering the museum has to turn sideways to move through the limited space between us. Everyone wanting to get past has to choose one of us.In this piece, much like in others of their collaborations, the performance is an opportunity for the performers and others to investigate relations. How do people feel about gender and propriety? If you have to brush up against a man's naked front and a woman's naked front, whom should you face? To whom do you give your own backside? Other works, such as Rhythm O (in which the audience had 72 objects -- including a gun -- that could be used on Abramovic's body) and Rest Energy (in which Ulay and Abramovic created tension between themselves while pointing an arrow at her heart), ask questions about physical vulnerability (or, better stated, danger) and trust. In each of these performances, I understand the question being posed. Or perhaps it's better to say that I understand what is at stake in the live bodies being and doing.
Reading about and looking at images from their work makes me wonder where I stand, what my own relationship to gender and public behavior (and issues of propriety and safety and concern for performing strangers) might be. With Seedbed, I have less of sense that my own presence (as spectator) might matter. What is there to do? Make yourself heard, I suppose, but that is obviously a choice one could easily make or not make. It's not like the choice to face one of the artists or the other in order to enter a doorway. At Abramovic's Guggenheim restaging of Seedbed, the false floor covered only a small part of the gallery floor. Spectators lined up around the circular ramp to try make their way to the ramp. Others could look down onto the ramp from many levels within the museum.
Most of the viewers were youngish student types who (like me) weren't born when Acconci performed the work the first time. Spectators were mostly polite, reverent. Some stomped around on the floor or knocked on the wall. Someone (a museum guard?) went up and asked them not to do so and they stopped for a while. It seemed like a strange way to make oneself known to the artist, who could be heard quietly moaning into a microphone. If you're going to make noise, why not say something seductive or mysterioius to the artist through the floorboards? Abramovic didn't respond to the knocking and stomping as far as I could tell. Who'd want to encourage a bunch of stomping if you'd decided to masturbate for seven hours? Or, if you're uninterested in being polite, aren't there ruder, more spectacular ways to be a spectacle? Interestingly (or is it?), at about the same time that Roselee Goldberg had made it up the ramp and sat on the floor in front of the speaker, Abramovic began to moan loudly. She finally announced that she had come six times, that she was tired, and that she had to pee. A little while later, we heard a flush and she began to speak to us: "I know you're there. I'm so glad you came tonight." etc.
I'm not sure I could have guessed it, but my experience of the reenactment of Seedbed seemed to have been affected more by Marina Abramovic's fame than by anything else. I'm not going to lie: I was interested to know for myself what it would be like. At the same time, I'm not sure I was part of the event. And did something happen? I don't feel that I was brought into the field of a body and I don't think it's just because I didn't wait in line to step on the floor.
After looking at the documentation from Brandon Labelle's project "Learning from Seedbed", I think it may be because Seedbed is (or should be) more about space than about bodies. Or perhaps it would be best to say that Seedbed may have more to do with bodies in space(s) than it has to do with a masturbating artist. "Learning from Seedbed" was exhibited at Standard Gallery in Chicago in 2003. Labelle's installation imagined the ramp as the central figure in Seedbed. There were contact mics on the ramp so that sounds made while walking on it or sound made beneath it would be amplified. The press release reads:
[Rather] than concealing a hidden body (and its desires) the ramp opens out onto the space of the gallery, inviting visitors to enter its interior, as a social space . . . the ramp diagonally cuts across and splits space, marking an uneven ground, a blob or jag on surfaces. Such unevenness - as Acconci suggests - is also the site of the body in its most libidinal and performative position. Thus, the ramp can be understood as architecture’s own moment of masturbation, driven by a desire to embrace those who occupy its spatial potential.
Here, the creation of a space the "audience" could explore was the purpose of the "restaging"and way of learning from Acconci's original performance. This seems to be a better way of bringing audiences to an awareness of their own bodies, the sounds they make, and the ways that their own desires play a part in their social interactions. Alongside Labelle's installation, he invited people to fill the cracks between the building and the street in places around Chicago in the position Acconci took in Seedbed. What is on the left is an image from the way that performance looked at the Art Institute of Chicago. Because I write on acousmatic sound (sound for which the source is unseen), I thought I was going to learn and think new things after seeing Abramovic's restaging, but interestingly, it's Labelle's restaging and its abstracting of the body from the ramp that teaches me about the relations of spaces to sounds. (He is a sound artist, don't forget.) I love the way Labelle's restaging takes the performative elements of the performance out of the performance and brings them out into the open. I also love that the idea of learning is upfront in this 'remix'. Isn't learning something the point of restaging, after all?