Marina Abramovic at the Guggenheim

New Culturebot contributor Joseph Keckler reports on Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim.

If we were to impose the language of showbiz onto visual performance art– which has long problematized, critiqued, interrogated, examined, and broken the conventions of ‘entertainment’– we might say that endurance performance art veteran, Yugoslav-born Marina Abramovic has been headlining PERFORMA, New York’s first performance art biennial, organized by historian Roselee Goldberg.

Over the course of seven days, Abramovic re-did—“covered”—six seminal body art pieces of the sixties and seventies, previously experienced solely through documentary media. In the slyly titled Seven Easy Pieces, Abramovic seems to ask if these works could be approached in the way dramas and musicals and pieces of German lieder are—as repertoire that can be pulled out and performed, with a certain margin of creativity in interpretation. Or perhaps her presence in a museum suggests that her approach to these pieces might be better described as living sculpture. Or living looped video installation? In any event, her project recognizes that performance art, rebelliously nebulous as it is, does have a canon, of sorts.

All performances took place on a white, circular platform positioned in the center of the rotunda. I first attended Tuesday night. Vito Acconci’s Seed Bed. (Performance in which artist lies, with microphone, concealed beneath viewers, masturbating and expressing sexual fantasies about viewers.) It was a big, energetic social event. We all chatted gaily, as Marina’s disembodied moans, purrs, and gasps echoed throughout the rotunda. Viewers could line up to step onto the speakered platform, to be nearer, and listen more intimately to Abramovic narrate her own digital navigation of her “pooh-see”.

Questions of authenticity immediately arose in conversations among the viewers. Was she actually masturbating? Had she really already experienced four orgasms? (“We’re going for Guinness Book tonight,” Abramovic cooed at one point.) Could she be faking it? Was she actually even under the platform? Perhaps the voice was pre-recorded, or maybe Abramovic was broadcasting from another location. “She’s at the Waldorf right now,” said multi-media artist and choreographer Jack Waters.

There were, however, enough catch-breaths between her heavy exhales to convince most that she was, indeed, in the room and masturbating; “I am not touching myself this moment, just lying here,” she confided. “I am going to drink some water and then pee…. Oh, it feels so good to pee. We think of it as dirty, but these fluids coming from your body look like a fountain. It’s actually quite poetical. I had microphone in bucket, but I took out, because I just want to tell you now.”

Some viewers stomped on the platform to communicate with Abramovic, an act that was reportedly prohibited by security early in the evening, but permitted by the time I arrived. This was the most boisterously interactive I saw the performances become. Viewers were generally kept in line by guards, Abramovic’s wandering boyfriend, and their Foucauldian selves.

I was not present Friday, for the cover of Valie Export’s Action Pants, Genital Panic, in which Abramovic sat on the platform, wearing crotchless pants and holding a machine gun. However, monologist and chanteuse Erin Markey, my lesbian girlfriend (in the spirit of reader-as-author I am going to let you decide exactly what that means) attended and watched as Ambramovic remained fairly static on the platform, subtly scanning the audience and intermittently repositioning her body and her gun. Marina fixed her gaze on Erin. Erin returned it. Reportedly, the two’s eyes remained on one another for an entire hour. In this time Abramovic quietly wept and Erin saw various images in the face of Abramovic, her mother and the Virgin Mary among them. Other viewers gradually stepped away from Erin, distancing themselves from her as she, like an Eve Harrington of durational performance, moved from watcher to watched, spectator to performer. Unlike Eve, her trajectory was not from admirer to competitor; “It was not a staring contest,” says Erin. “My vision was changed that night. When have I ever looked at someone that way?”

Erin’s intimate visual acquaintanceship with Abramovic’s image only made Sunday’s Joseph Beuys cover, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare more engaging and emotional for her. Abramovic—her face covered in honey-adhered gold leaf—dragged herself around the stage with a lead plate tied to her left foot, pointing to blank blackboards, while whispering into the limp ears of the dead rabbit she cradled. Erin murmured “I think I am in love with her. I can’t help it. It’s painful for her not be looking at me right now.”

On Monday evening Abramovic revisited her own Lips of Thomas, the piece in which she originally sat naked behind a table, devoured a kilo of honey and a liter of red wine, incised a pentagram onto her stomach, whipped herself numb, and lay on crucifix of ice below a dangling space heater until the audience intervened, removing the ice blocks from beneath her freezing body. Monday, the performance was extended to seven hours, and became less linear and more cyclical. Abramovic repeated all the gestures, but varied their sequence– something like a compact disc player set to ‘random’. Each gesture had a locale, its own station of the cross, so to speak.

In Opera: The Art of Dying, Linda and Michael Hutcheon suggest that before 20th century medicine made death somewhat postponable, viewers watched opera to rehearse their demises—and demises of loved ones– to come to terms with death’s inevitability. What do we rehearse in watching Abramovic actually cut herself, whip herself, freeze herself? And are we implicated as sadists for watching?

Abramovic’s performance of pain is deliberate, considered, and divorced from any real narrative context. She shows us blood and pain as matters of fact: wounds open, blood runs, then it dries, the skin begins to heal, and at midnight the audience goes home and you get to put your clothes on. She does not construct a victim role for herself, nor does she play abuser. Of course we are inclined to impose such roles. As Ambramovic picked up the razor blade for the first re-opening of the pentagram, an hour or so after the initial cuts, a young woman standing behind me called, “You don’t have to do it again! You can stop.” Abramovic stared blankly in her direction. “No you can’t!” a male voice shouted from higher in the rotunda. Abramovic took several beats, then calmly drew the blade to her stomach. The young woman tore down the ramp and out the revolving door.

For the final performance, a volcanic structure had been erected. From it, Abramovic emerged. An enormous garment– a rainbow of blue fabrics, varied in texture, hue, and sheen—united her with the structure, making it unclear exactly where her body ended and the attired volcano began. Marina Abramovic was twenty feet tall, in a giant dress. The white platform, the site of all her week’s experiments, became a hoop at the bottom of her enormous gown.

Writer and cat-painter Bryan Heyboer noted the resemblance, in scale, between Marina’s elephantine evening gown and some of the costumes of performance artist Pat Oleszko, who is famous for, among other brilliant acts, creating and wearing gigantic, inflatable apparel. He imagined Oleszko entering in one of her costumes and challenging Marina. A pair of dueling performance art behemoths. “Like Godzilla vs. Mothra,” curator Beck Feibelman elaborated. About five minutes later, Oleszko did enter the Guggenheim, her naturally impressive height extended only several inches by an outlandish target board hat, pierced with several darts.

Abramovic stood larger than life, yet with active eyes, surveying and engaging the audience. She wore make-up and had her hair done. She looked stunning. Periodically, she gracefully extended her arms out to each side, in a focused, Evita-like move. She sometimes twisted her body, slowly to one side, then the other. Simple gestures. I can extend. I can twist.

Some indicated they were relieved that she was not up to her pentagram-carving tricks, interpreting this final performance as a chance for Abramovic to recover, the image of yesterday’s cat-o-nine-tails and Abramovic’s reddened back still vivid in their minds.

Others were disappointed that she didn’t progress in the direction of more pain-endurance. They griped especially about the fact that she seemed to be partially seated at times, perhaps having a two-by-four or even a throw pillow hidden at the top of the structure, under the dress. “She’s Marina friggin’ Abramovic,” someone exclaimed. “I wanna see her endure!” We thought that she might really outdo herself, upping the ante from mere prolonged self-flagellation to, maybe, giving herself a liver transplant on the stage.

In a sense, she answered our expectations, prompting further self reflection on our part: Abramovic’s presence at the Guggenheim signifies the canonization—the “museumification” of performance art as much as does the content of Seven Easy Pieces. Many viewers—I, for one—probably attended the piece not so much for the actions, but to see a symbol—a celebrity—in the flesh. Abramovic’s final performance responded to our expectations in a startling manner; with her occasional grand gestures and general stasis she seemed frozen– not by a crucifix of ice, but by having to answer to a lively but limited collective cultural imagination and gorgonizing historical stare. She was La Marina, an icon, our body-art diva, always very still or in slowly repetitive motion, before us, enduring our gaze.


Joseph Keckler is a New York City-based performance artist, writer, actor, playwright, and chanteur– “the beautiful androgyne who sings the blues” (The Guardian). His work has been presented at HERE Arts Center, The11th Annual Performance Studies International Conference at Brown University, Galapagos Art Space, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and on numerous occasions at Dixon Place Theater. He is also co-founder of the performance group The Men That Got Away. An active opera singer, he frequently sings principal bass baritone roles at The Amato Opera Theater.

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