On Saturday (May 8) I went to the Marina Abramovic Retrospective on the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibit is laid out in several rooms of increasing intensity. In the first gallery room are video panels - including one which dominates the space and has Marina vigorously (violently) brushing her hair. In the second room are a series of videos of her performances including one, quite painful to watch, of her repeatedly walking into a column at speed. In the third room - her memento mori room - there are images of her cleaning the rotting meat off of cow bones as well as a nude model lying under a skeleton.
One particularly striking piece is a nude model, a woman when I saw it, sitting on bicycle seat suspended on a wall. On PRI’s Studio 360 this piece was described by a male performer named Yosmi (sic?) who explained that his performance would involve tucking his penis under the bicycle seat so that, to paraphrase, he would have ‘woman parts below and man parts above. He mused that that approach could be transgressive: “some people might be very uncomfortable looking at it, say stuff, throw something at me, who knows?”
Throw something, hmm. The New York Times published a story that museum goers were forgetting that today we look but do not touch. This is in sharp contrast to reports of how Parisians behaved in front of the paintings in the Salons (see Ross King’s Judgment of Paris for an account) or the riots which took place at the debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by the Ballet Russe.
I was an intrigued observer of the retrospective and quite sympathetic to the idea that performance art, like theatre or music, should be available to multiple performances and perhaps even interpretations. But there is still a sense of both sterility and institutionalization of, what once must have been shocking (or designed to shock - or at least provoke), when it shows up in an elite institution such as a major museum.