By: Pascha Jirasakwittaya
The latest durational performance by the internationally acclaimed artist Marina Abramović called ‘Private Archaeology’, is currently being exhibited at David Walsh's Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Australia (June-Oct 2015). Abramović selected nine objects from the MONA collection, which she called ‘Power Objects’ – objects from different cultures and ages. As re-exhibited in a new space and time, she challenges visitors to rediscover, rethink and even reinterpret the values and meanings of these objects. In addition, Private Archaeology also includes the artist’s 41 works, both recognisable and lesser-known works across her 40 years of observation and communication upon objects, artist body, the presence of audience and exhibition space.
This performance was researched and exercised in various cities around the world. Before MONA, Abramović’s 512 hours (2014) was exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery, London. I was fortunate enough to participate in a series of her exercises of which some have been brought to explore further in this current exhibition – be still in an exhibition room, walk in slow motion, count the grains of rice and lentils, sleep on a bed.
Since the work of curating bodies has been and remains at the core of my interest, in this blog I will share my personal experience from the exhibition and hopefully, it will promote conversation about the ephemerality of an objected-based and durational setting. Through ethnographical lens, the relationship between body and object will be explored as the content will go around the aspects of tangibility and intangibility.
512 hours presented Abramović’s long-standing aim of exploring the relationship between art and nothingness – the notion of material absence in an object-oriented space. It also represented Abramović’s practice, which is a reduction and crafting of simplicity, employing an artist performing body as subject and object, the public body and a selection of a few props that she called “transitory” – the object can even be eliminated..It is not there forever..they’re objects that provide you with a story. The experience of the person is what matters (Abramović 1998: 9-10).
At the exhibition entrance, visitors were required to leave their belongings and electronic items in the lockers. I was also asked to leave my watch, as its ticking sound was louder than the exhibition rooms. Visitors were handed headphones to put on which only provided the noise of absolute silence. As I walked in, I watched Abramović form her visitors into art materials and place them in the white empty space of the Serpentine Gallery. They were asked to do certain things..shut their eyes, be silent, face the wall or sit on a chair. By complying, they were invited to stay as long as they wished and could choose to leave or walk away into other rooms anytime at will. I gazed at the artist and observed her actions until at some point her eyes caught mine. She approached me, took my hand, guided me to a different corner of the room and placed me there with my back leaning against the wall. In front of me was a group of people, some standing, some sitting on the chairs provided, with their eyes closed. The visitors played the role of both participant and observer. The combination of both the audience and my own presence became the performing body that Abramović constantly improvised within the gallery space.
I sat there for a while with my eyes wide open. I saw things happening and then they immediately disappeared. The view about disappearance in performance art, Peggy Phelan (1993:146), one of the founders of performance studies international and the well-known author of visibility politics, posits that ‘Performance’s life is only in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.’
Later, I found myself walking to the left wing. Unlike the previous room, this exercise had no chairs, nor objects. There was nothing there. Only visitors walking by themselves functioned as both the subject and object of the artwork. In the eerily silent room, it seemed to me like the visitors were participating in a secret ritual. They walked directly back and forth with small steps in very slow tempo. This simple movement was repeated from minutes to hours. A belief in silence, stillness, nothingness and formlessness is the artist’s practice since the early 1980s. Influenced by Zen, Abramović and her former partner Ulay sat still on chairs facing each other at the end of a long table for sixteen days in the work called “Nightsea Crossing” (1981-1986). This method has been actively worked until the present day. As stated by Abramović herself “life is too fast..so art has to be slow. Perhaps fast art is no more nutritious than fast food?” (McDonald's 2015)
The room in the right wing was for the exercise of sleeping and grain counting. There was a row of reclining chairs and a set of folding chairs with tables. These objects functioned not only as the body of art, but the way they were used, which effected the mental, spiritual and physical existence of the public body, were also brought into play to question of corporality, ephemerality and intangibility. The audience could choose to be an observant, a participant or both. Either way, they determined to interact their bodies with the objects according to their interpretation and artistic experience. This method, Abramović (1996: 3) explains “Objectivization – a vehicle that can transport the essence of experience to render it accessible to the viewer, activating him or her by that medium most appropriate to the situation”.
Walking into the gallery and experiencing Abramović’s manifestation, one could think of the relationship between museums and intangible heritage. These objects materialise the art concept, in much the same way as an object of traditional craftsmanship in cultural heritage. These physical objects are indistinguishable from the intangible expression. As masks or musical instruments exhibited at a museum objectify traditional dance, Abramović set up a selection of a few objects in the empty white space to present the process of self-realisation.
Considering this matter critically, this thought would further lead us to the business of cultural politics on the representational visibility. Either contemporary art or traditional/folkloric art, when it comes to the aspect of intangibility (specifically the presentation of body and its practice) share the same issue of ephemerality. It is the moving art that presents nothingness and formlessness with regard to materialism, within a space that historically created, valued and priced the objects. Performing intangibility in an object-based space, with audience participation has challenged the two worlds between the old and the new arts and curatorial practice.
In recent years, the awareness of body expression that can instil knowledge, create values and power has increased, especially after the consideration of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Additionally, ICOM has also exercised the effort of an enhancement to involve the widest possible participation of communities/groups/individuals in decision-making and preserving intangible heritage within academic institutions and museums. This is resulting in the growth of displays/activities/exhibitions about traditional dance in museums as well as body expression and performance art in contemporary art galleries and dance museums. As body knowledge, practice, and heritage in an object-oriented context has been vastly discussed and at the same time developed, there are some concerns that challenge this belief. In my last blog post (http://un-thai-tled.blogspot.com/) I questioned, to name a few, how does one perceive the abstract significance and visualise the process of work, when the objects are absent from the perception? How does an object- oriented space respond positively to the collection of invisibility – how does a museum record and preserve intangible cultural heritage? How do bodily exhibitions engage with those audience groups, who have conventionally visited galleries/museums and are familiar with displays of objects? In other words how does an object-based space build up an understanding towards the notion of material absence and attract diverse audiences, whilst at the same time being able to involve and work with different communities and individuals, who have different backgrounds and needs?
With 512 hours and Private Archaeology, the public body plays a great role in the works. As visitors are invited to participate, the boundaries between artist and audience, as well as exhibition space/performing space and public space, are broken down. Abramović transforms strangers into a community, while encouraging creativity on maintaining individuality. This has opened so many discussions in my mind. I thought about attempting to bring local community, cultural groups and individuals to be in an “intellectual/cultural institution” regardless of their knowledge, skills or background. Everyone would be welcome to attend, decide, present, collaborate, express feelings and do their personal practice according to their own interpretation, taste and experience. This shared relation to existence is at the core of what UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage works on promoting to safeguard the cultural diversity and avoid discrimination based on socio-economic status.
On top of this, there is also the discourse on the politics of authority. Wandering amongst the crowd in Serpentine, the empty spaces in between my thoughts gave me time to conceptualise what is considered as art. The artist herself? The spectators? The space? The few selective objects in the space? The bodies and the movements? If ‘all’ is the answer, this led to the next question: who is the owner of the work? Of course, this is Abramović’s concept and it is extremely unique. However, visitors and facilitators played an important role and greatly contributed to the work, without them the artist’s idea would be incomplete. Also, this work was created specifically for the physical space of Serpentine Gallery therefore Abramović’s intervention would have been different if exhibited elsewhere. Regarding this matter, Abramović answers my question that this work is ‘teamwork’ which seems to her like a large-scale production team such as theatre. Apart from that, it is a ‘work in progress’ as it took quite a long while to be exhibited. However, she believes that gallery space is inseparable from the public body. It is the public space for everyone to do things freely and equally. “Here it is nothing to do with gallery”, said Abramović. “We can do whatever we want and we can do nothing as you want..I want to make it our space and make this space more respectable”. (Jirasakwittaya, P., personal communication, 9 June 2014)
Albeit, Abramović did perform her body including audience members’ bodies, 512 Hours is not a dance piece in the gallery space. In fact most of her works, if not all, are untheatrical and durational presentations, whereas the majority of performing arts or dance is more related to stage and dramaturgy, as well as a time-based work in general. More importantly, Abramović’s works require physical space of a gallery from room to room, unlike dance that generally has fixed performing space carrying spectators altogether in one place, rather than having them spread out and traverse across. Nevertheless, neither 512 Hours nor her present work Private Archaeology are conventional art exhibitions. Abramović has marked the establishment, development and yet experiment of the body within a gallery space to redefine the meaning and purpose of art and life, challenge the social behaviour regarding artistic expression, provoke visual expectation, sensual experience through presentation of performance art and representation of bodies as materials. The representation of immateriality, although out of sight, carries full and rich meaning. Bodies in performance art and dance, which are an intangible aspect curated in a site-specific and object oriented milieu within museums and contemporary galleries, have opened the gate of innovation and motivation to work/collaborate within complete and complex contexts.
ICOM – The International Council for Museums MONA
The Museum of Old and New Art, Australia. (Australian largest privately funded museum) UNESCO
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
- Abramović, M., 1998, Artist Body: Performances 1969-1998, Charta, Milan
- Peggy, P., 1993, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London
- McDonald, J., 2015, ‘Marina Abramovic in Residence: a miraculous respite from the stresses of life’, Sydney Morning Harald, 26 June, viewed 27 June 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/marina-abramovic-in-residence-a-miraculous-respite-from-the-stresses-of-life-20150624-ghvrlz.html#ixzz3jbwxbR69
- Abramović, M., IIes, C., RoseLee, G., Thomas, M. & David, E., 1995, Marina Abramović: Objects, Performance, Video, Sound Museum of Modern Art, Oxford
I would like to thank Nadia Ilyas – an English teacher, world traveller and blog writer, for proofreading and providing useful advice for this article. I also owe Zoe Harangozo a debt of gratitude, for exchanging a thoughtful afternoon discussion about performance art in Australia and Thailand.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in all posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the association or the MA program.