Saturday, 5 April 2014

You Again

Marina Abramović is back in the news.  She is the ne plus ultra of performance art, the test case, working at the borderline where narcissism, obsession, insanity, sheer daftness, and that nebulous thing called "art" ebb and flow.  She is the self-styled "grandmother of performance art", with the stories and the scars to prove it.

I'm not much interested in her work, as such, but the story of her relationship with fellow nutter-cum-artist Ulay is deeply fascinating to me.  They met in 1976, and formed an intense folie à deux that found expression in some (now) famous performance pieces:  breathing mouth-to-mouth until they both pass out from lack of oxygen, alternately slapping each other in the face until one or other is unable to continue, bellowing incoherently at each other for hours -- just the usual stuff of any intense relationship, no?  We've all been there, though not generally before a public audience...

In 1988, after several years of tense relations, Abramović and Ulay decided to make a spiritual journey which would end their relationship. Each of them walked the Great Wall of China, starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. As Abramović described it: “That walk became a complete personal drama. Ulay started from the Gobi Desert and I from the Yellow Sea. After each of us walked 2500 km, we met in the middle and said good-bye". Abramović conceived this walk in a dream, and it provided what she thought was an appropriate, romantic ending to a relationship full of mysticism, energy, and attraction. She later described the process: “We needed a certain form of ending, after this huge distance walking towards each other. It is very human. It is in a way more dramatic, more like a film ending … Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do.”
(from Wikipedia's Abramovic article)
The thing is, having decided to end their relationship as a grandiose piece of performance art, they never met again.

In 2010, Abramović gave her most famous performance, "The Artist is Present", at New York's MOMA, in which she shared a period of silence with each of an endless queue of visitors to the gallery, sat opposite each other at a small table.  After their 22 year separation, Ulay simply turned up.  You can witness what happened here on YouTube.

Despite the fact that some of those present clearly knew what was happening, suggesting it was not quite as spontaneous as it might seem, it is nevertheless a very moving moment, and in a spirit quite different from the studied, stony-faced mask of the performance.  It's an undeniable moment of humanity, interrupting -- and, surely, undermining -- an art-form which can seem little more than sterile narcissism, onto which we are free to project whatever we care to or need to.  Which may, of course, have been the point all along.

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