From the street it was mayhem: rock concert-worthy crowds at MoMA had to be ushered in by huge security guards.
On way home today from my usual St. Patrick’s Cathedral mass, I popped into the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to check out the long-running and much-touted show of the Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramovic called “The Artist Is Present.”
Even from the street it was mayhem: rock concert-worthy crowds had to be ushered in by huge security guards manning every entrance, each of which could only be reached through a labyrinthine arrangement of velvet ropes. I’ve gotten into Madison Square Garden faster.
“Wow!” I thought to myself. “This must be amazing!”
So I felt quite smug as I strode past the throng flashing my high-powered membership card and quickly reached the edge of the performance space: a massive square delineated by white tape in MoMA’s main atrium. The square is illuminated by huge photographer’s lamps to aid the nonstop webcam that simulcasts the show on the MoMA website.
The show consists of a table with two chairs; the artist sits sculpturally still in one (today she’s dressed in a heavy red dress reminiscent of 19th-century portraits), while a member of the audience sits in the other chair and does the same staring back at Abramovic, a woman with more guards looking after her than Mick Jagger.
“No photos, please!” “Only one person at a time, and you can only approach through the designated entrance,” — a gap in the surrounding white tape.
The minimalism is meant to be part of the fun: the interactive tension is meant to crackle in the space between the two silent immobile participants and be “unpredictable,” as the rather overblown MoMA explanation put it.
But I stuck around to watch two members of the audience participate and even walked around them, examining them from every angle as you should do with any sculpture, and I found it nothing but boring.
Striving for some amusement, I turned to a young woman and her boyfriend standing beside me and suggested one of them should enter, sit and proceed to break the rules by speaking to Abramovic, perhaps even shout obscenities.
“I think we’ll go read the blurb,” said the girl, deeply suspicious of my motives, knowing it would’ve meant her or her boyfriend being dragged out by the guards. Now that would’ve been fun to watch.
A close French artist friend (racked with all the ennui both “French” and “artist” imply) had warned me it was a waste of time.
“I will NOT go,” he said. “Sitting zere, stare-ing at Marina Abramovic, it eez not interehsting. Now if she were to commit suicide as her performance, zen perhaps zat would be somesing.”
“A bit harsh, don’t you think?” I answered.
“No, not at all. Death, it can be an art, but sitting zere, zat is not art.”
And what can I say: he’s right.
The problem is, of course, a suicide would only be one performance and present certain ethical issues for MoMA’s webcam. With this arrangement, Abramovic can “perform” for over two months (as is her contract with MoMA) and draw huge crowds that bring in millions to the museum.
And it’s only the crowds I found interesting: swirling around, chatting, sketching, blogging, trying to sneak a photo, they were riveted.
Put a bit of tape, a few guards, some bright lights and a webcam, and apparently anything gets elevated to art — which I understand perfectly is part of the point of the “performance”: how the viewer and her viewing effectively make the viewed object art. I get it. But I still don’t care.
But it made me wonder: do you think I could get the same effect at home if I got the right lights? Do you think I could make a fortune broadcasting myself having my breakfast cereal? Lord knows, there’d be more to watch. The artist may have been present, but I wasn’t: I walked away to another exhibit.