PERFORMING THE PRESENT TENSE
For nearly two weeks last November, Marina Abramovic lived on a kind of stage set at New Yorks Sean Kelly Gallery. The elegantly minimalist structure of drywall and wood, attached to the rear wall of the main space, was like three adjacent balconies of a hotel overlooking the seaside. (The piece was called The House with the Ocean View.) These balconies were partly open on the sides and separated from one another by about 18 inches, so Abramovic could step from one to the next, though it was a slightly long step. The balcony on the viewers left was a bathroom, with a shower, a toilet and a bucket used to flush the toilet--- none of which was curtained off from the audiences gaze. The balcony in the middle was a living room with a table, a chair and a water glass. To the right was a bedroom, including a wooden-box bed with no mattress, over which a water faucet and a basin hung from the wall. A telescope was installed in the gallery to facilitate the audiences intimate inspection of these activities and to underline the fact that Abramovic was hiding nothing. In front of the balcony rooms were ladders leading down to the gallery floor where the viewers stood; but this apparent invitation for Abramovic to descend into the ordinary world was negated by the fact that the rungs of the ladder were large knives with their blade edges upward.
Here Abramovic stayed for 12 days and nights, during which she neither ate, nor spoke, nor performed cognitive transactions such as reading or writing. The passage of time was ticked off, at least one beat a second, by a metronome that she occasionally moved from room to room, as if to keep it in the flow of action.
The piece could be situated in several genres of Conceptual and performance art; perhaps the most obvious linkage is the thematic area that includes the gallery critique and the related art-life project. Both these persistent themes gained ascendancy in the generations of artists who matured after World War II, arising from a feeling not unlike Theodor Adornos when he asserted that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric. It seemed that the esthetic dimension of society had been discredited by the horrors of history, and that art had to somehow move closer to life--- closer to the ethical dimension--- in order to be useful in a world characterized by such traumas.
As the foundations of performance art were established, artists did in fact begin to present themselves as art works, living in galleries or museums or spending ordinary time there in an attempt to narrow or close the breach between art and life. It was usually understood, by those who did it and by those for whose observation it was done, as an ethical statement. The artists wanted to make their point by putting themselves, or their wills, or their bodies, on the line rather than simulating or representing something.
The approach has been described as universal appropriation: the artist asserts that art contains all of life, not just some of it.
Abramovic seemed to be collaborating with her audience in an attempt at seeing and confronting the shared problems of consciousness and time.
In a sense, what was actually on display was a quality of mind or a state of concentration associated with certain types of meditation retreats. Abramovic has undertaken retreats from time to time and has repeatedly incorporated such experiences into her performance work.The House with the Ocean View could be described as a meditation retreat made public. Specifically, it seems to have been based on what in the Pali tradition of Theravadin Buddhism is called a vipassana retreat.
In the Southern Buddhist Mahasatipatthana Sutta, where this oldest known form of meditation is described, the Buddha says that the primary point is to remain carefully aware of four postures: walking, standing, sitting and lying down. Abramovics posted rules for her publicly performed retreat adhered to this formula. Within this framework, the central vipassana practice involves trying to keep your mind constantly focused on the present moment. The moment is defined primarily by sense impressions, conceptual overlays on them being regarded as coming after and thus not a part of the immediacy of experience. So vipassana involves a constant moment-to-moment attention to ones sensory experience, no matter how trivial or ordinary it might be.
The one activity that Abramovic introduced from outside the tradition of these retreats was gazing at the viewers.
Some years ago she said to me that she wanted to do a kind of performance that didnt involve any mediation; there would be no objects, such as art works or props, nor anything else, such as words or ideologies or a scenario, to get between her and her viewers. Instead, the viewers would be invited to enter into an energy relationship with her, which would have no external visual component.
Abramovic is one of those for whom the practice of art would not hold any attraction if it didnt seem to have a moral dimension.
Excerpt from Art in America, April 2003