It is tricky to do a retrospective of a performance artist. How do you represent art that is situated, relational, temporal and sometimes even immaterial in a representative manner? It is also tricky to write a review of a retrospective of a performance artist. Is it the art or the representation of the art that is being reviewed? There are no given answers to these questions, brought to the fore by the retrospective of the art of Marina Abramović called The Cleaner at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden.
Marina Abramović (1946-) is one of the seminal artists of our time. She was born in the former Yugoslavia to partisan parents, and was partly raised by her deeply religious grandmother. Traces of this upbringing can be found in many of her artworks. Abramović started her artist trajectory as a painter, but soon switched to conceptual art before venturing into performance art. It is within the latter field that Abramović primarily has left her unmistakable mark – she is in fact sometimes described as the “grandmother of performance art”. Typical for Abramović’s work is that she uses her own body as a vehicle. In keeping with that, the bulk of her oeuvre explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.
In art circuits Abramović made a name for herself in 1972 with Rhythm 0, a performance where she stood still for hours next to a table laden with 72 objects – everything from a cake and a book to a gun and a bullet – and left the audience free to do whatever they wanted with her using those objects. She became well known to the general public with The Artist is Present (2010), a performance she created at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where she sat on a chair for the entire duration of the exhibition and invited members of the audience to sit on a chair in front of her, one at a time, and meet her gaze under silence.
Both Rhythm 0 and The Artist is Present are represented at The Cleaner, the latter in the form of multiple videos, and the former in the form of an installation re-creating the table and its objects, in combination with photographs taken during the actual performance projected on the wall. I was quite familiar with both of these works before visiting The Cleaner and learned even more about them from the skilled guide whose tour of the exhibition I joined. Thus many thoughts were triggered and emotions conjured when I looked at the representation of these works. Knowing, for example, that during Rhythm 0 Abramović was cut, sexually assaulted and threatened with a loaded gun to her head, made seeing the table, although not the original one, a very powerful and somewhat uneasy experience. I do however doubt that the experience would have been remotely as cogent if I hadn’t possessed the knowledge of these performances that I did. Other representations of works that I didn’t know anything about beforehand and that the guide only touched upon didn’t come across as particularly interesting or powerful, although the actual works probably were.
In keeping with the things stated above, the art representations that worked best on their own were the ones containing major narrative bits of the actual work. My personal favourite was Balkan Baroque. It was performed by Abramović at the Venice Biennal in 1997. In the original version, Abramović sat on a huge pile of bloody and meaty bones, trying to scrub them clean with the result that her white dress got increasingly stained with blood. There was also a three channel video spatially organized like a triptych. In the middle video, Abramović, dressed in a white lab coat, explained how rats, an intelligent species that normally never would kill their kin, could be manipulated into turning against each other. In the video on the left pictures of her father were shown, and in the video on the right, pictures of her mother.
The representation of Balkan Baroque at Moderna Museet consists of a big pile of smelly bones in front of the three channel video described above. The thing missing is Abramović scrubbing away. Still the work as it is presented there comes across as undoubtedly strong; the story Abramović tells and the way she tells it in the video is both highly disconcerting and thought-provoking, and the bones offer both a smell stimulus and a symbolic reading. In short, this is great art represented in a great way.
In total, The Cleaner features more than 120 works by Abramović from five decades. Many of them are represented performance art, including works done in collaboration with German artist Ulay, Abramović’s partner in art and life between 1976 and 1988. Some of them are paintings, drawings, photographs and sound installations from the beginning of her career. Quite a few of these early pieces have never before been shown to the public. The Cleaner is in other words an ambitious exhibition.
The Cleaner can be seen at Moderna Museet until May 21st. Then it relocates to Louisiana in Humlebæk, Denmark, where it is on display from June 17th to October 22nd. If you have the opportunity, make sure to catch it at either place, but try to read up on Abramović artistry beforehand and/or take a guided tour of the exhibition. That way, you will have the best conditions for appreciating the exhibition and, by extension, the art of Marina Abramović.