Art

Marina Abramovic: The Row About “Nothing”

There has been some controversy, reported in the media during the last few days (see here and here), concerning Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic’s proposal for a new exhibition entitled “512 Hours” at the Serpentine Gallery later this month. The performance involves her doing “nothing”. Abramovic’s most famous recent work is her 2012 performance at MOMA, “The Artist is Present”, a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her.

Part of its notoriety, in the popular media at least, stems from the fact that visitors to the performance included the popstar Lady Gaga. (Abramovic later stated that – “The public who normally don’t go to the museum, who don’t give a crap about performance art or don’t even know what it is, started coming because of Lady Gaga.”) In this performance the presence of the artist’s immobile yet alert body became a medium for staging an affective encounter. Many of those who experienced sitting across the table from Abramovic at MOMA, just for a few minutes, talked of its profound and overwhelming power, and many claimed that something very charged and intimate occurred in that moment. Indeed, a support group for the “sitters”, “Sitting with Marina”, was established on Facebook as was a tumblr page “Marina Abramovic made me cry”.

The performance “512 hours” is titled following a 1972 performance piece, “We Can’t Do It Without a Rose”, by the German artist Jospeh Beuys, an artist that Abramovic has been particularly influenced by. Indeed, she has previously stated that a number of her early performance pieces in the 1970s evolved from seeing Beuys’ piece Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony in Edinburgh in 1970.

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The performance after which her new piece is named involved Beuys sitting at the desk of his ‘Information Office’ at Documenta V, Kassel in 1972. The ‘Information Office’ was run under the auspices of the ‘Organisation for Direct Democracy’, a platform for the propagation of Beuys’ radical ideas, which he had founded the previous year. For 100 days Beuys sat at the desk and tirelessly debated his ideas with visitors to the exhibition. On the last day, he fought a ‘Boxing Match for Direct Democracy’). In terms of Abramovic’s own exploration of visceral endurance, her body’s relationship to environment, time and others, and her remorseless effort to ‘democratise’ art and the creative process, she is very much a self-conscious heir to Beuys; in 2005, when she recreated the pieces of performance art that had most deeply affected her, she chose Beuys’ 1965 action “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.”

Like Beuys, she has been unafraid of opening herself up to charges of being an artistic charlatan, a pretender and seeker of vacuous celebrity in the art world. However, as with Beuys, such charges merely serve to distract us from the work itself and its unique affectivity. We are distracted from actually looking and experiencing the work.

Despite Abramovic clearly acknowledging at least one prominent aspect of this new piece’s artistic genealogy, it has not stopped a row emerging over the lack of acknowledgement regarding its subject matter, namely “nothing”. When approached by the Serpentine Gallery for details of the exhibition/performance, Abramovic described “512 hours” in the following terms – ‘This is what I want to do: nothing…there’s nothing. There’s no work, just me, and the public is my live material, and that’s the most radical, the most pure I can do’.

In comments made to The Guardian newspaper, she said – ‘It’s the public and me and nothing else, I took the objects away. But the encounter … I’ve never done anything as radical as this. This is as immaterial as you can go.’

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The row in the art world centres on a supposed lack of acknowledgement of the exploration of “nothing”, to the point of accusations of plagiarism, in the previous work of conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll, known as MEC. “Nothing” is an ongoing project which features the latter artist addressing the concept of “nothing” through various media, including video and print. MEC’s most radical incarnation of Nothing was presented in 2006, when she walked out of the door of her New York residence with “nothing” but her passport and the clothes on her back to travel for six weeks in a foreign country. A group of concerned contemporary art ‘experts’ have expressed concern that without proper acknowledgment Carroll’s work would be overshadowed by Abramovic’s, and that Carroll would find it difficult to perform “Nothing” in future.

Much of the media commentary on this particular controversy has consisted of an all-too familiar ridiculing of this row over “nothing” in the contemporary art world, expressing disbelief at how far conceptualism in art has proceeded towards an empty and disconnected sophism. In fact, it is presented as if this particular row somehow perfectly encapsulates many ‘ordinary’ people’s feelings regarding the empty hermetic world of high art conceptualism, where art has become totally divorced from any semblance of art involving the struggle with, and expression, of existential struggle, emotion and feeling, beauty, and the human condition. It seems emblematic of work entirely tied up with the rarified conceptualism of the contemporary art world, where artists and experts alike engage in deluded masturbatory discourses about “nothing”.

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Yet, it is entirely possible that the stirrings of this ultra-reactionary response may in fact mask a number of important issues. Not least is the fact that Abramovic’s work, through its performative nature, has long been concerned with issues connected with emptiness, immateriality, inactivity, ascetic contemplation, boredom, and, yes, ‘nothing’. In this regard she has never claimed any particular originality apart from the fact that she chooses to express these concerns through a form of visceral performance-based practice.

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The minimalism of some of her performance work (by no means all of her work) resonates with a number of other artists in the Western tradition during the 20th and early 21st century – including the monochromatic formalism of suprematism, Rauschenburg’s blank canvases, Klein’s ‘The Void’

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Metzger’s auto-destructionist practice, Martin Creed’s Turner Prize winning installation (the light going on and off), Cage’s ‘4, 33”, Warhol’s films (particularly Empire and Sleep)

Turrell’s light pieces, or Newman and Rothko’s monochromatic paintings. Abramovic has never shied away from acknowledging her artistic genealogy in this regard. Indeed, in 2005 she presented Seven Easy Pieces,which involved recreating the performance pieces by other artists that had been first performed during the 1960s and 1970s, including work by Joseph Beuys, Valie Export, Bruce Nauman and Gina Pane.

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These recreations of performance work dealing with issues of physical risk and endurance demonstrate Abramovic’s awareness of her own debt towards earlier work by other performance artists, together with her concern about the development of a contemporary syntax of performance, and the extent to which her work, and the work of others, participates in a complex historical context and artistic discourse. She has also established the Marina Abramovic Institute, which is dedicated to preserving the work of other duration-based performance artists, and exploring ways of documenting, preserving and displaying this important work. It would seem that Carroll’s own work is, in part, no less indebted to this long trajectory exploring immateriality, emptiness and nothingness. This renders the recent row about her lack of acknowledgement of Carroll’s performance work about “nothing”, as if it were some pretence at an unacknowledged and wholly original epiphany on Abramovic’s part, somewhat strange and suspicious. It reeks of internal art world politics and game-playing.

Then there is the issue of Abramovic’s consistent engagement with religious and mystic ascetic practice since the 1970s, and her previous statements regarding the purpose and direction of her entire life’s work as a performance artist – which are nicely paraphrased in Mary Richards 2010 study of her work:

‘In the noisy, demanding, image and media saturated Western world to choose to be completely alone is, in itself, remarkable. In solitude and silence, the mechanisms and structures that act to divorce us from boredom and self reflection are removed, leaving us exposed and vulnerable. Under such conditions the only resource is ourselves: a discomforting prospect for those who cannot imagine coping with such a stimulus-free environment. The challenge then is to leave conceptions of individual ego and its distracted and distracting ‘mind’ behind in favour of selflessness…According to Abramovic, disconnection has led people to ignore their environment and to live selfishly in way that fail to meet the real needs of individuals or society. Everyone is too busy; caught up in the cycles of contemporary existence that reads inactivity as boredom or laziness. by contrast, Abramovic is keen to advocate the importance of being free to do nothing in a society that seems to be repulsed by this idea. Abramovic embraces ‘boredom’ as a necessary stage through which you must pass in order to become creative. In ‘doing nothing’ or ‘emptying the boat’ you can allow sufficient space and time for something to happen.’

In fact, Abramovic has been concerned for many years with the exploration of ‘nothingness’ in performance. The new Serpentine performance should in fact be seen as a culmination of many years of her practice and reflection, rather than a sudden unacknowledged epiphany.

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Finally, there is the issue of whether or not the hyper-minimalist art of ‘nothing’, in both the form it takes in Abramovic’s intimate and empty performances or any number of other artistic (non) manifestations, is actually the most pertinent and appropriate response possible to the ongoing existential crisis of Western postmodernity. For me, it is at least possible that there is an ongoing monstrous quantitative and machinic sublimation of all our desire going on under late capitalism. A denial of finitude and death exists through the noisy extremes of production and consumption, ecological emergency and catastrophe, and the hyperbolic speed of the flow of information in the digital age (increasingly, in the quantum age of computing). In the current climate it would seem that doing nothing is the hardest thing of all, perhaps because doing nothing forces us to first address ourselves in ways we are fatally unprepared for in contemporary society. Secondly, by forcing us to stop engaging in any activity whatsoever it forces us to confront just how remorselessly appalling the current state of things actually is, and thirdly, it is perhaps the most radical way imaginable for allowing just the very smallest possibility of something different to happen to us, both in thought, perception, and action. The void is the very thing we are all desperately trying to avoid. The overwhelming slew of distraction in the contemporary world, much of it now bound up with the online world of social media, takes us even further from not only the contemplative ascetic states deliberately and systematically pursued by transformative practices (both religious and mystic), but also from any awareness whatsoever that such a direction is a legitimate and necessary path for human beings. The relentless flurry and noise of the current world threatens to subsume any quiet pursuit of intimate encounter, whether that be with the self, others, environment, and the outside.

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We are conditioned to expect things to be happening all of the time, as if we are all engaged in nothing more than a relentlessly grandiose exercise of mass-entertainment. Whenever we are confronted with the implicit challenge of nothingness the questions emerge again and again – ‘what is happening?’, ‘when does it start?’ The unbearable nature of nothing happening provokes an intolerable boredom, anger, frustration and discomfort. Like over-indulged children we’ve become constituted by capitalism to believe and to expect that we have a right to ever-new experience, happenings, constant entertainment, and consumption. I need things to be happening to me right now, all of the time, to keep the emptiness at bay, to keep me filled, indulged and comfortable. God forbid that we should do nothing, that we should be bored, that we should enforce a regime of denial, absence and inaction.

By allowing this recent row about the art of ‘nothing’ to descend into yet another pitiful round of pillorying the masturbatory extremes of contemporary art risks masking the genuine radicality of Abramovic’s work, and that is just sad. Instead of berating and ridiculing those artists who are prepared to confront us with the void that we so lack, with the empty table at the relentless banquet of capitalism, we should be cherishing the rare opportunity to be bored, inactive, frustrated, and discomforted.

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