Outside museums, in noisy public squares, people look at people. Inside museums, we leave that realm and enter what might be called the group-mind, getting quiet to look at art. For the past two months, Marina Abramovic’s large-scale 40-year retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, "The Artist Is Present" -- featuring Abramovic herself, seated in queenly fashion in the museum’s atrium, nude performers re-creating her past work, and lots of audience participation -- has turned the usually introspective institutional sphere into an existential circus of bizarre self-help.
Since March 14, the 63-year old Yugoslavian-born performance artist has engaged in prolonged staring contests with museumgoers. She’s been there nearly every moment MoMA has been open, as she will be until the exhibit closes next week, on May 31. Widespread art-world rumors have abounded of her plastic surgery, of her catheterization for purposes of urination (about which, see here). All day, people have queued up to take turns sitting opposite Abramovic, staring at her for as long as they wish. A few wear wacky costumes; some cry; others stay all day, causing no end of complaining in line.
Meanwhile, visitors on the sixth floor have been avoiding, brushing up against, or ogling Imponderabilia, a work in which two naked people face each other in a narrow doorway. Viewers can choose to pass between them. I did, and had a close encounter with a penis that grazed my thigh. Farther into the galleries, stand-ins for the artist occupy various poses, including one in which a naked performer perches spread-eagled on a bicycle seat mounted high on a wall, in imitation of Leonardo’s universal man. Abramovic herself, either alone or with her onetime partner Ulay, has road-tested all of these borderline-masochistic activities, among many others.
I’m of two minds about this show. It’s narcissistic, exhibitionistic work, and it has brought out the crowds’ own narcissism and exhibitionism, in a self-fulfilling feedback loop. It can seem like a set of conceptual jokes: Fear Factor meets Lost, by way of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? This is, in fact, the season of performance art in local museums. Abramovic’s show was preceded by Tino Sehgal’s work at the Guggenheim, and Pawel Althamer’s live reenactment of a crucifixion is now at the New Museum. Maybe museums have merged with the age of reality TV, where everyone’s life is art. Perhaps participatory sculpture extends celebrity to everyone. Maybe it’s just institutions fighting for market share.
But it’s also very compelling. People have engaged with this work in ways that are as intense and profound as their interactions with paintings and sculpture. It is especially thrilling that no Mayor Giuliani equivalent showed up to close the institution because it offended us or him. That Abramovic’s show is a hit proves that art is bigger than moralism, and that the audience is more open and more mature than ever. As hokey and self-centered as "The Artist Is Present" sometimes is, it also tells us that when sensationalism takes center stage, it doesn’t have to be flashy, tacky, shocking and silly. Well, maybe just a little bit silly.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.