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Marina Abramovic performing Joseph Beuys’ <em>How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare</em> at the Guggenheim in 2005, photo by Kathryn Carr
Marina Abramovic performing Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare at the Guggenheim in 2005, photo by Kathryn Carr


May 8, 2012

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Phaidon’s latest art tome, Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Works ($75), brought together eight globe-trotting critics and curators and asked them to select artworks that he or she felt represented each year, from 1986 to 2010. After completing this Herculean task, the writers -- Daniel Birnbaum, Cornelia Butler, Suzanne Cotter, Bice Curiger, Okwui Enwezor, Massimiliano Gioni, Bob Nickas and Hans Ulrich Obrist -- showed up at the Museum of Modern Art for a panel discussion on May 4, 2012.

At first, the event went more or less like you might expect. Gioni presented Alighiero Boetti’s embroidered Map of the World from 1989 because, he said, it symbolized a world on the cusp of the Cold War, moving into “the more relativistic view of the 1990s.” It also evoked the “move away from conceptualism toward a world of exceptions.”

Building on the evening’s theme of nationalism, Enwezor discussed Hans Haacke’s Germania (1993), for which the artist jack-hammered apart the marble floors of the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. To Enwezor, the work signified the era’s “crisis of national space” as the Soviet Union dissolved.

But things got lively when Bob Nickas took the microphone, and devoted 15 minutes to trashing one of the most popular artists of our time, Marina Abramovic. He accused her of capitalizing on other artists’ originality to further her own Performance -- with a capital “P” -- empire.

Nickas took particular issue with Seven Easy Pieces, Abramovic’s 2005 reenactment series of historic performance-art works by Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman and others at the Guggenheim. “Revivals are intimately tied to box office, to making money, and there is no easier way to finding an audience than when they are, in a sense, already assembled,” he said, noting that greatest-hits albums and Broadway revivals are known to sell better than new works.

And Nickas has an idea about why Chris Burden refused Abramovic permission to include his performance Trans-Fixed, in which Burden crucified himself to the back of a Volkswagen in 1974. Abramovic would have spectacularized it, Nickas said, and its “spirit” and essentially temporal nature would have been lost. Plus, perhaps Burden thought it was literally impossible for Abramovic to restage the work since she could never have been Chris Burden, but merely an actor with a script.

As Nickas came to his closing, the wall projector flashed a black-and-white picture of a lone man at sea. “Perhaps if Marina Abramovic had really wanted to make a statement,” he said, “she might have re-performed the final work of Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous.” That provoked a few laughs and raised eyebrows from those who know that Ader mysteriously disappeared on that boat in the 1970s, never to return.

By the time the critics had run through their spiels, there was little time for the Q&A, but one audience member managed to raise the inevitable complaint that they didn’t include enough painting and object-oriented art.

The curators responded that this was largely due to the book’s itemized organization, making it difficult to include artists who think more in series. “Did anyone else think, ‘my god, I need some more painting?’” Cotter asked her fellow panelists. “It’s partly this problem of the single object. You’ve got people like Mary Heilmann -- how do you find that one moment?”

And Cotter closed by reminding us of that scholarly aversion to definitions -- they’d rather complicate questions than answer them. “We were never told the book was going to be called Defining Contemporary Art,” she said. “I think it was supposed to be something like History Begins.”

Or wait, Enwezor jumped in, maybe it was “History Ends.”

We’re not sure what that means, but it does sound more complicated.

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