Saturday, April 17, 2010

Don't complain, don't explain

I have been reading about Marina Abramović and her performance based retrospective The Artist is Present, at MoMA. Watch a live feed here of a new original piece she performs now until May 31.

© 2010 Marina Abramović
Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo by Scott Rudd

And I was reminded of Lernert and Sander's video How To Explain It To My Parents, 90.

Participating artist Arno Coenen.

Not implying that How To Explain It To My Parents, 90 is necessarily a strong comparison to The Artist is Present, but the aesthetic is strikingly similar and the camera plays a strange yet somewhat secondary role in both. As well, both pieces consider the need to define or resolve one's work, in contrast to remaining tight lipped. For myself this is a an ever present question, especially while tackling the double roles of artist/curator (re- me). As artist I want my work to speak volumes, but as curator I am creating a show, maybe needing a narative of sorts. Alligning both desires is the hard part.

Perhaps Abramović's silent perch underscores the simple need for contemplation in a gallery space. Or, that before begging for answers about performance based art, a deliberate internal moment might reveal explanation enough. While her performances are generally silent in nature and unfocused on persona, for this one in particular she readily places herself in the Artist role. She leaves an opening (with the literal seat) for the viewer in order to cultivate a relationship, and uses a normative table setting as the stage.
But it is with the video component, where the live feed creates a second slightly separate layer, that I am intrigued. The documentation process becomes the channel for viewership, so while it is real time, the viewer is often in fact not present at all. The relationship now has three perspectives, artist, viewer and gaze. The silence between all parties allows for attention to be paid on the body and the emotional presence, or lack of, of the artist. Is it narcissistic? Somewhat. But Abramović's haunting stare is unapologetic (and one would imagine strangely exhausting).

But with silence comes questions. And to me the heart of most conceptual art is the need for a discussion to be born of the piece. Statements and explanations become necessary, and people expect to know inspirations and musings. It seems that Lernert and Sander simply exploit the offshoot dialogue of Arno Coenen's original Eurotrash Brewery Project. I see the conversation as something of an aftershock effect from the initial work, and the film series comes across purely documentary in nature. None the less intimate and engaging, Lernert and Sander provide a controlled environment for thoughtful interaction to occur. How To Explain It To My Parents, 90 seems more stagnant though, as the art being discussed has past, and I the viewer have limited access to it other than what is being spoken of. This is the fundamental issue of performance gone past.

As Abramović's retrospective tackles this question she re-stages personal past works with stand-in performers, mirroring her own re-staging of other artist works (Seven Easy Pieces, November 2005). In interviews she states that re-staging is worth the danger of mixing personalities, as without it there are only photographs and film, which are dead. Abramović believes that perhaps the best documentation for her work is just the memory of the audience. It seems that the memories and the experience of the viewer provides enough explanation for her work.

Someone once gave me the advice, don't complain, don't explain. As artist, to explain one's art seems less valuable than to activate one's art, but dialogue does not necessarily need to be excluded. And as viewer, sure, have beef with art you don't understand, but to hold claim on an explanation is another thing altogether.

Dear Marina,
You seem to have caught the ephemeral. I like it.


  1. Something close - but completely different -would be metafiction. Same perspectives, same narcissism, but no discussion and it requires the ephemeral to solidify and become the athenaeal.

    Would a framed and hung picture of the live event not become the same?

  2. but to solidify the ephemeral, would that not go against its very meaning?

    framed and hung provides documentaion, which can be important in itself. still i like to question this desire to record, to keep, to hold. and to play with modes of documentaion, to shift from visual and textual and explore other realms of memory.

  3. the difference between living day to day and living week to week or month to month.