Featured Image from Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present
Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance art piece The Artist Is Present can be concisely defined by the tagline for the accompanying documentary film of the same name: ‘The hardest thing is to do something which is close to nothing’ (Marina Film Project, 2016). Having taken place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City the piece ran for three months between March 14th and May 21st. During this period Abramović sat day-in-day-out ‘at her small table in the museum’s atrium, gazing steadily at the scores upon scores of people who come to take the chair across from her’ (Marina Film Project, 2016). In performance art it can be argued that artists readily offer up their bodies as objects, or as Abramović herself states: ‘The medium is the body’ (Brockes, 2014). Thus, during The Artist is Present (2010) Abramović’s body could be considered an object in the same way as a piece of renaissance art, a postmodern sculpture or the table and chair she sits at is. For it is as Mait asserts, the body as an object refers ‘to anything anyone might be aware of or pay attention to, anything that might appear’ (2002 147). Only when the spectator takes a seat, joining Abramović for just a few seconds, minutes or even hours do they become acutely aware that they are having an intense interaction with another human being. It is in this moment of connectivity that the spectator, as a subject, becomes aware of Abramović as another individual, conscious subject and not just an object whom they should have no ‘trouble distinguishing […] from yourself as a subject’ (Mait, 2002 147).
When discussing the difference between the body as a subject or object Mait states that such terms can be considered in ‘such familiar distinctions as between, for instance, observer and observed, seer and seen, hearer and heard, or thinker and thought , where the role of consciousness is explicit’ (2002 144). Therefore, these pairs exemplify the main distinction between the body as a subject or object, which, when applied to performance art, intricately interconnects with the spectator-artist dynamic. In performance art this dynamic often positions the spectator as a subject because ‘“Subject” is at the core of any concept of “self”’ (Mait, 2002 145), this consequently situates the artist as an object that ‘anyone might be aware of or pay attention to’ (ibid). This almost universal dynamic of subject-object interaction is explored, and challenged, in Abramović’s The Artist is Present (2010) whereby the piece enables the spectator to examine Abramović’s body as object and, interestingly so, as a fellow subject. As a fundamental element of Abramović’s work this could be explained by Richards, where ‘She maintains a fresh interest in learning about and experiencing other ways of living and being. This openness has allowed her to explore the limits of her own understanding of herself and others’ (2010 43). Thus it is in the sheer simplicity of the piece, where the spectator will ‘sit in the empty chair and make silent eye contact, an energy dialogue, with The Artist’ (Brawner, 2013 214) that allows Abramović’s body, as a site, to be deconstructed. In the simple act of taking a seat an ‘energy dialogue’ (ibid) is created because the spectator experiences an intense moment of interaction, one free from distractions, between only them and The Artist. During this interaction the spectator becomes acutely aware that while they are in an art gallery watching, and participating in, art but they are not interacting with an ‘object’ such as a statue or paining at all. They are, in fact, having an interaction with another human being, one whom may have the exact same thoughts and feelings as them; it is this which transforms Abramović’s body from an object to a subject.
In his discussions of early performance art, Howell describes how the form ‘emerged out of the “happenings” of the sixties. Stillness was manifest as a key factor in such early experiments since many of these events were devised by visual artists in New York who took the static, two-dimensional image as their starting point’ (1999 2). This fact may help serve to explain why in The Artist is Present (2010) Abramović’s body is initially positioned as an object in the eyes of the spectator. For throughout the piece her body is frozen in a consistent and enduring stillness, reminiscent of a two-dimensional image her three-dimensional body is situated as statue-like; unmalleable and impenetrable. Cotter’s description of The Artist consolidating this image: ‘Always her skin was an odd pasty white, as if the blood had drained away. Her pose rarely changed: her body slightly bent forward, she stared silently and intently straight ahead’ (2010a). In this way, Abramović’s body is situated in performance in a manner that is almost comparable to classical and renaissance sculptures. It is this statue-like form which inaugurates the spectator’s initial subjective judgements of The Artist, where they decode, deconstruct and analyse her body based on their own socio-political experiences. Or as Howell asserts, ‘We develop our own thoughts also when we look at sculpture. Very often, the emphasis on stillness in a piece of performance art enables this active process to occur in the spectator’ (1999 10). Therefore, Abramović’s sculpture-like body is positioned as an object because the spectator is the conscious entity imposing their interpretations onto her body. It is in the intense moment shared between Abramović and her spectator that the spectator realizes that this still, statue-like object is in fact a living, breathing human being. The spectator is suddenly aware that they have created and enforced an interpretation onto another person, one with thoughts and feelings just like them. In this moment Abramović is reoriented from object to subject, which causes great emotional upheaval and realisation for the spectator who is still engaged in this exchange between themselves and The Artist. Thus, this would explain the great emotional reactions of those who came to sit across from Abramović, or as she states: ‘The huge number of people who wept […] was brought on by this staged situation in which “there is nowhere to go expect in yourself. It was shocking. But how simple it was”’ (Brockes, 2014).
When looking at The Artist is Present (2010) as a fairly modern piece of performance art it could be suggested that Abramović is situated as an object because the spectator is so very used to interacting with objects, instead of with other human beings. It can be generally agreed that the twenty-first century is a technologically explosive time, where smartphone use as an individual technology has grown by more than 5000 percent since 2004 (Vitelli, 2013). Thus the postmodern individual not only makes use of smartphones to communicate but computers, laptops, Macs, tablets and smartwatches. It is continued access to this wealth of communicative technology, these social objects, that has a consequential effect on the postmodern individual where their social interactions no longer occur in a face-to-face manner but through a screen. This very recent development in the way we communicate has had an evidently stressful effect upon individuals, where the use of smartphones and tablets places the individual in a non-stop social environment, even when they are by themselves. For it was found that a ‘dependence on cell phones and other methods of communicating often leads to a “double-blind” with users feeling stressed over needing to be available at all times as well as feeling disorientated when that contact is no longer available’ (Vitelli, 2013). As a social discourse this might explain many of the great emotional reactions from spectators who came to sit across from Abramović. For, it is as Brockes notes, ‘to sit for three months, inviting connection with strangers is something that, in the context of the harried and distracted lives we live, makes perfect sense. No wonder people cried’ (2014). For the postmodern individual an intense moment of social connectivity with another human being, such as in The Artist is Present (2010), is a stressful and uncommon occurrence. Therefore, the spectator immediately situates Abramović as an object because ‘it is not that object which is aware and paying attention, but you’ (Mait, 2002 147). The realisation that Abramović is a, in fact, fellow subject inaugurates a catharsis of emotion in the spectator because they are confused and must question why they ever positioned her as an object in the first place. As the spectator begins to question their motives Abramović’s body is consequentially transformed into a socio-political site, a locality that forces the spectator to think of their postmodern situation. For performance art, when defined by Jones, is ‘motivated by a “redemptive belief in the capacity of art to transform human life,” as a vehicle for social change, and as a radical merging of life and art’ (1998 13).
There is another element of the modern technological age we live in which had an effect on the spectators positioning of Abramović in The Artist is Present (2010), that being the ability to livestream performance. It is this ability to livestream that ‘Thanks to the Internet many people saw all of this without being there. A daily live feed in MoMA’s Web site, moma.org, […] had close to 800,000 hits’ (Cotter, 2010a). As has been aforementioned, the postmodern individual exists in a social situation where they are now more used to interacting with screens rather than with other human beings. Therefore, an online spectator, for they are still a spectator of the performance, obverses Abramović and positions her body as an object because through a screen the belief that she is another human being can be suspended. In essence, through the use of livestreaming the spectator can suspend any belief that The Artist is a subject and so Abramović becomes objectified, much in the same manner as the actors of film and television and the viral stars of YouTube and Vine are. These actors and stars are not seen as human subjects because through a screen they are transformed into objects of entertainment for the spectator, offering their bodies up in a performative manner to be viewed on laptops, tablets and smartphones. It is this objectification of the body which when using the Oxford Dictionary of English’s definition of being able to ‘degrade to the status of a mere object’ (Stevenson, 2010 1224), can be applied heavily to The Artist is Present (2010). For, an online spectator would witness Abramović sitting in her seat in the Museum’s atrium, unmoving like a sculpture, as visitors pass in-and-out of the seat opposite her; the exact same thing spectator in the atrium would be witnessing. However, the key difference being that an online spectator will never have the opportunity to sit opposite The Artist, to look upon her and see that she is as much a subject as they are. The fact being, one must make use of the presence of The Artist during The Artist is Present (2010) in order to experience the challenging nature of the piece. Something Cotter articulately notes where ‘my guess is that her presence will have a demonstrable effect on visitors to the museum; that it will slow them down, get them out of drive-by looking mode’ (2010b).
In conclusion, Abramović’s The Artist is Present (2010) is a performance art piece which challenges the assumptions that spectators make about artist’s bodies in performance. The piece allows for a silent dialogue to take place between performer and spectator, forcing them to question their initial impression of The Artist and then question where and why this impression arose. For the spectators often more than not situate Abramović’s body as an object, an entity for them to look upon, one for their entertainment and enjoyment. However, this is not so true because at some point during the intense, connected moment that The Artist and spectator share the spectator comes to realize that Abramović is, in fact, a subject too. The Artist is Present (2010) thus allows for the transformation and reorientation of The Artist in performance, a facet of her work in which she states: ‘All my work, right from the start, has centered on the idea of crossing borders in a physical and metaphysical sense’ (Abramović and Belloni, 1998 19).
WORD COUNT: 2040
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Brawner, Lydia. (2013) ‘The Artist is Present: performing the icon’, Women & Performance – A Journal of Feminist Theory, 23(2), pp. 212-225.
Brockes, Emma. (2014) Performance artist Marina Abramović: ‘I was ready to die’. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/12/marina-abramovic-ready-to-die-serpentine-gallery-512-hours (Accessed: 6th April 2016).
Cotter, Holand. (2010a) 700-Hour Silent Opera Reaches Finale at MoMA. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/31/arts/design/31diva.html?r=0 (Accessed: 4th March 2016).
Cotter, Holand. (2010b) Performance Art Preserved, in the Flesh. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/12/arts/design/12abromovic.html?_r=0 (Accessed: 5th March 2016).
Howell, Anthony. (1999) The Analysis of Performance Art. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.
Jones, Amelia. (1998) Body Art/Performing the Subject. London: University of Minnesota Press.
Mait, Edey. (2002) ‘Subject and Object’, ANTIMATTERS, 3(1), pp. 143-156.
Marina Film Project (2016) Home. Available at: http://marinafilm.com/ (Accessed: 1st March 2016).
Richards, Mary. (2010) Marina Abramović. Abingdon: Routledge.
Stevenson, Angus. (2010) Oxford Dictionary of English. 3rd edn. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
The Artist is Present by Marina Abramović (2010) [Museum of Modern Art, New York. March 14th – May 21st].
Vitelli, Romeo. (2013) Stress, Texting and Being Social. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201312/stress-texting-and-being-social (Accessed: 5th March 2016).