For seven hours a day for seven days in November 2005, an artfag’s wet dream unfolded in the vast Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Belgrade-born performance art goddess Marina Abramovic reinterpreted six canonical performances from the golden age of performance art in the mid-1960s to the mid-’70s. Stomping across gender and national lines, not to mention sensibilities, her pantheon consisted of Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys and herself — all resurrected with varying degrees of creative licence. The week was capped off by a grand finale Abramovic created specifically for the event.
Thankfully Babette Mangolte and her crew were there. Their definitive record of the event opens the 20th anniversary of the Images Festival. Seven Easy Pieces By Marina Abramovic, produced by the artist and the Sean Kelly Gallery and dedicated to lez éminence grise Susan Sontag, screens at 9pm on Thu, Apr 5 at the Royal.
It is an old adage of art history that the documentation of a performance can never stand in for the actual event, with the particular tensions and interactions that can only come from a live body confronting an audience. Mangolte, an accomplished experimental filmmaker and performance photographer, knows she cannot transpose every minute of these seven gruelling performances, which each stretched from 5pm until midnight (the passing of the evening is visible through the famed atrium’s skylight). But she successfully captures a sense of each performance’s duration, the endurance required both of the artist and the audience, despite the drastic reduction to 90 minutes from 49 hours. With her images crystal clear and the camera never drawing attention to itself, Mangolte lets you view the proceedings from privileged vantage points that no spectator enjoyed at the live event: The close-up has rarely been put to better use.
Take as an example Abramovic’s first performance — conspicuously simple compared to what will come after — of Nauman’s Body Pressure from 1974. The instructions boil down to: Press as much of your body as possible against a surface. Through the magic of close-up cinematography, we see Abramovic’s face bigger-than-life as it squishes into all sorts of distorted poses against a giant pane of glass — a pig’s snout here, a cheek implant gone wrong there — and the grease marks left by her sweaty hands and face. In Beuys’ cluttered, sublime 1965 How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare, the gold leaf decoratively enclosing her head shimmers like the surface of molten metal, the air setting it aquiver. Laden with props, this is the only piece where her body is not the object; instead it is the poor hare, which gets carried in her mouth by the ears — an oddly disturbing image — when not being cradled and lectured to in a whisper.
Abramovic and the dead hare aren’t the only performers here: The audience receives quite a bit of attention, especially during the more confrontational actions. For her reinvention of Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic from 1969, Mangolte films the opening minutes of the evening, with the biggest crowd we see during the film. With her hair down and her face made-up, Abramovic steadfastly poses with a machine gun — a black-clad revolutionary — her furry pubis fully exposed, leaping out at you through a triangular cut eliminating the crotch of her pants. It is difficult to tell whether the tears she sheds (again in wondrous close-up) were planned or spontaneous. At one point an unseen audience member urges her to “put the gun down or use it.”
In her new, completely gutting performance of her own Lips Of Thomas from 1975, the cutaways to the audience serve to relieve you from the ache of Abramovic’s repetitive, harrowing war dance and the intense emotional exhaustion visible in her face. To the slow tick of a metronome, a naked Abramovic eats from a jar of honey, drinks red wine, incises a star into her stomach with a razor blade and dabs it with a white handkerchief, which soon becomes a flag carried by Abramovic in hat and boots as a soldier, weeping as a melancholy Slavic dirge plays.
She then whips herself into a frenzy and lies on a crucifix made of blocks of ice. Her body is truly the star here, with this piece reminding us of the staggering and perilous limit-tests she has put it through over the years. It is traumatized and shaking at one point while she downs the golden honey, a mountain of maternal flesh on the ice filmed from below, her broad back glowing red after a bout of self-flagellation.
When performing Acconci’s seminal (ha ha) Seedbed from 1973, Abramovic disappears completely, concealed under the floor masturbating and describing her desires and how she is pleasuring herself, her voice carried through speakers to the spectators permitted to take the stage. Though she is speaking to no one and to everyone — the performer fantasizes about the people walking above — we see each participant’s very specific reaction to her declarations like “my fingers are smelling so much of sex.” Thanks to the magic of cinema, the unseen Abramovic’s dirty words seem like the spectators’ inner thoughts. The performer and audience here are mutually dependent in an extreme and erotic way, their presence fuels her fantasies, her fantasies fuel their presence.
Similarly, in the middle of Gina Pane’s The Conditioning from 1973, she requested a knife from the audience to clean off the wax and replenish the tall white candles heating the underside of a metal cot that she lay on. The searing heat is palpable.
Abramovic’s final performance, Entering The Other Side, was quite glorious. Essentially Abramovic stood on a platform raised high above the ground, with an enormous gown swirling out around her like a vortex, a huge circus tent of blue fabric. Perhaps she was burlesquing her own status as royalty in the art world, or how remarkably youthful and glamorous she appears, as striking as she was in the early ’70s. Abramovic simply turns and hums, a giantess trapped by her costume, before she utters her final words and accepts a much-deserved ovation: “Please, just for the moment, all of you, just listen. I am here and now and you are here and now with me. There is no time.”